Haute Coauteur

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis… and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

Clark can’t figure out why Lois, not usually given to writing gossip articles, has just come up with this fluff piece about a couple of villains at a nightclub.


Since Clark was driving, Lois answered the call and put it on speaker. This particular ‘Unknown Number’ they always answered, in preference to the ‘Unknown number’ that occasionally got past their spam blockers, and the voice that immediately sounded over the line was terse and offered no greeting.

“Poison Ivy’s at the house.”

Clark and Lois threw each other raised-eyebrow looks.

With a smile and a shake of head Clark said, “Haven’t I asked you to keep your villains out of my city?”

“I’d be happy just to keep them out of your home,” Batman grumbled.

I’d be interested in knowing how you know Poison Ivy’s in our home,” Lois put in.

An explosion sounded in the background just then, and Batman used this extremely plausible excuse to evade the question. “I’m in the middle of something. Clark, can you deal with her?”

“Ivy, or me?” Lois wondered.

“Ha ha.” On this sarcastic note, Batman disconnected.

Clark chuckled and pulled the car over into a maintenance side-tunnel, ill-lit and soon blocked off but sufficient for their purposes, off the main tunnel they were traversing. “We’re going to have to have a talk with him about what kind of secret security measures we’ve been living with all this time,” he remarked as he undid his seat belt and opened his door.

“After he promised it was a normal house,” said Lois with a lop-sided smile, emerging as well.

Clark, buttons already completely undone, met her with a quick kiss as she came over to the driver’s side. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t let her kiss you,” she advised, throwing his tie into the car behind her to join the rest of his civilian clothing his much quicker hands had sent ahead of it. Then she watched him fly off, hugging the tunnel’s ceiling so as not to be seen, before getting back into the car and resuming her progress toward the job she would now be doing alone.

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis. Of course she worried about Batman and his explosions… and there was always the off chance Poison Ivy might have some devious plot that would temporarily get the better of Superman… and the fact that such a villain had shown up at their house at all was a little worrisome… but mostly Lois was able to concentrate on the story she and Clark had been sent to follow up on, and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

***

They not infrequently teased Bruce that he did have a superpower: convincingly pretending he wasn’t exhausted when every other indicator said he was. This morning, however, Lois, who’d had the same hour and a half of sleep and had only risen now to see him and Clark off, was drooping too hazily toward her omelet to come up with anything facetious to say.

In fact she was so near sleeping in a sitting position that she hadn’t even noticed Clark with his tablet out, something he only did when breakfast conversation lagged. She perked up just a little, though, when he presently remarked, “Now I see where you two went last night.”

Lois, relieved she’d made the deadline for the morning edition — it helped she’d written much of her story before the fact — remarked with a yawn, “I didn’t know you read the society page.”

He grinned at her. “I read pretty fast.”

“We both read all your articles no matter which section they appear in,” Bruce murmured into his coffee.

Lois smiled and turned a little more attention toward her breakfast.

“There’s some of this I don’t understand, though…” Clark’s grin slowly turned upside-down as he scrolled back to what was apparently a difficult part. “Dr. Isley wore Elie Saab…” His frown grew. “…a clingy knit frock spliced with lace…” His brows lowered. “…ruffles in turquoise broderie anglaise…” He lifted a bewildered face toward Lois. “Is this part in English?”

Bruce chuckled quietly.

***

Lois’s inurement notwithstanding, when both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn intercepted her on her way back to the Planet after an interview, she remembered all too well that one of them had been spooked off her property by Superman earlier this week.

There’s my star reporter!” Quinn, though dressed like a normal person and in fact looking fashionable and bubbly-cute, still managed to stand out like a beacon as she took Lois’s left arm.

Ivy, conversely, had a more restrained, elegant beauty to her appearance that fit her better to an everyday big city street; Lois wondered what she wore under that tasteful dark green coat, and whether she’d worn the same or something flashier when she’d been prowling the house.

“Good afternoon, Miss Lane,” she said, taking the other arm, and what Lois wondered next in some surprise was whether her voice was always this smooth and sultry. “Let us walk you back to work, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Lois threw each of them a suspicious look. “I love taking a stroll with supervillains.”

“D’you hear that, Red?” Quinn was grinning widely. “I’ve been upgraded!”

Lois was a little surprised at the fond smile that crossed Ivy’s painted lips before the woman spoke again. “We’re not in town for any supervillainism, Miss Lane, I promise. We just happen to need a reporter’s services, and Harley tells me you’re reliable.”

Lois raised her brows at the aforementioned Harley, who had, when they’d last met, tied her up in a giant bow and suspended her from factory equipment on a Lexcorp lab ceiling as bait for Superman. Quinn giggled sheepishly, obviously clear on the meaning of the look. “I meant it,” she said. “You’re a good kid.” And she gave Lois a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Am I,” Lois said dryly, slowing her pace a touch. The high-rising globe of the Planet building ahead was easily visible; she had no worries for her personal safety, but was overwhelmed not only with skepticism but also curiosity at this conversation.

“Harley and I are planning a day of fun and a night of drinks and dancing tomorrow,” Ivy explained, businesslike, “and we want to make sure it makes the papers.”

Now Lois’s raised brows were directed at her. “Legal fun? Legal drinks? Legal dancing?”

Ivy nodded.

“And you want me to report on it.”

Ivy nodded.

Lois tried to decide which of the numerous problems she perceived in this setup to mention first. Her desire to be in possession of all the facts before throwing out ideas eventually prompted a simple, “Why?”

“We want to make it clear as an engagement diamond that we’re together.” Quinn raised her free hand and crossed her fingers significantly. “A big, public day out as a couple, ya know?”

Lois blinked. That explained Ivy’s fond smile, she supposed, at the idea of Quinn’s having been promoted from ‘villain’ to ‘supervillain.’ It also clicked together some gears that began to spin, one turning the other and the next and the next, until the machinery in her head provided an unexpected output. “So you want to send a message to the Joker that he’s good and truly out of the picture, without actually telling him directly.”

“See?” Quinn wondered gleefully. “Didn’t I tell you she was sharp as a pencil?”

“The Joker doesn’t take bad news well,” Ivy said regretfully. “Indirectly seemed the best way to break it to him.”

“Normally I’d say dumping someone by newspaper in another city is about the tackiest way I can think of to end a relationship, but in this case I approve.” Lois stopped walking entirely. “And you want me, specifically, because I’m Superman’s friend and you think the Joker won’t try to retaliate against me for writing the story.”

“Superman’s ‘friend‘?” Quinn let go of her arm and made an exaggerated gesture of disbelief. “Come on, toots, you don’t have to pretend with us.”

Ivy smirked. She truly had an exquisitely beautiful face, that one.

With a sigh, Lois disengaged from their arms and moved toward a nearby bench. She balled up the old newspaper caught between its slats and tossed it into the trash can next door, then sat down on the cold metal. “I’m forever having to clear this up.” Forever perfecting this particular dramatic role was more like it. “I’m not dating Superman; we really are just friends. I’m in a closed relationship with two non-superheroes.”

The other women took the places to either side of her, both showing an almost professional interest. “You shouldn’t let supervillains know you’re not actually with Superman, you know,” Ivy chided, amusement in her tone. “It’ll make us all think you’re an easier target.”

“I couldn’t be targeted much more than I already am,” replied Lois flatly. “You must have noticed I have a supervillain alert at my house.”

“Was that what it was? I wondered how Superman showed up so quickly… I just assumed, as everyone else does, that you two are dating.”

“I mean,” Quinn put in, “there’s nothing wrong with letting people think that! It could just as easily be an open relationship you’re in, right? That’s me and Red here.”

“Just not with the Joker as an option anymore,” Lois mused.

“Exactly! He and I’re like pickles and strawberry jam.” Quinn kicked her legs out from under the bench, then held them perpendicular and reached to touch her toes. Lois noticed that Ivy watched her with barely concealed concern, as if she feared Quinn wasn’t yet entirely convinced of what she said and needed constant care to prevent a relapse. And just this made Lois determined to do what she could for them, off-duty supervillains though they might be. She’d spent far more time with the Joker than she’d ever wanted to, and if this was what it took to get someone out of his clutches, she was ready to play her part.

***

“Read us the description of Quinn’s outfit,” Bruce prompted at a deadpan.

Squinting at the screen in a very human gesture, Clark said helplessly, “I think some of that was Quinn’s outfit…”

Lois grinned. “None of my cell phone pictures do justice to those dresses.”

“They also don’t help me understand a word of this.”

“It’s only a few paragraphs.”

“A few paragraphs,” Clark declared, “more opaque than one of Luthor’s lead-lined walls.”

Lois and Bruce both laughed at him.

“But moving on…” He scrolled away from the highly confusing section. “I don’t quite understand whether this club is indoors or outdoors. People were using the pool in these temperatures?”

“I made it purposely obscure,” Lois replied, yawning again, “so it wouldn’t sound like it was my first time there. It’d be a rookie mistake to gush about the force field.”

“Even in the privacy of your own home?”

“It is an interesting technology.” Bruce had risen to pour himself another cup of coffee, and raised the pot to question whether his boyfriend needed a refill as well. Clark quickly blew the interior of his mug dry, then tossed it across the kitchen into Bruce’s waiting hand. “It allows for an open terrace all around the building, but keeps the winter out. The owner greeted me personally — one rich playboy to another — so I was able to make a rookie mistake and ask him all sorts of questions…” And as he returned to the table with two full cups, he began talking technical details about the low-power, light-bending force field.

At the first available pause, “I don’t like seeing technology like that used purely for the petty entertainment of the rich,” Clark said with a shake of his head.

Bruce shrugged. “Wayne Enterprises might be interested…”

“And the fake fireworks show was pretty cool,” Lois put in. “But that’s all the gushing you’ll get out of me.”

***

“Right,” Lois said in as businesslike a tone as Ivy had used a minute before. “What are your exact plans for tomorrow?”

“We’ll start with lunch at Bienvenue.”

The reporter winced. “That’s great for visibility, but is it going to get more or less expensive after that? Because it’ll be hard to convince people you’re not up to supervillainism when you start that high.”

Ivy’s smile was secretive. “Don’t worry about where the money comes from. Just be ready to write the story.” Obviously she’d caught on to Lois’s interest and willingness.

“All right,” Lois replied dubiously.

Quinn took up the elaboration on their plan with a gleeful glint in her eye. “Next we’re going to the zoo!”

“Less extravagant,” Lois allowed, “but isn’t it a little cold for that?”

“Metropolis Zoo has one of the best savanna animal habitats in the country! We’d be baboons to miss it just ’cause of some nippy weather!”

Again Ivy was giving Quinn that unexpectedly soft smile. “Besides,” she said, “the Metropolis Botanical Gardens are next door, so we can warm up in the greenhouses after that.”

“And you’re sure you’re not planning something illegal.”

“Absolutely.” Ivy’s gaze was very serious as it slid from Lois’s face to Quinn’s as if to say, “Can’t you tell I’m doing this all for her?” and Lois determined not to ask again.

“Then we’ll have dinner at the Calico Club, and–”

“The Calico Club?!” Lois could feel her eyes bugging out of her head at Ivy’s mention of this extremely exclusive restaurant and nightclub belonging to one of Metropolis’ richest, classiest socialites. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she added in a jealous whisper.

Smugly Ivy said, “Well, now’s your chance.”

“But… but… it’s not just money you need to get in… you have to be on a list…”

“Well, you’re ‘friends’ with Superman, aren’t you?” Quinn winked at her. “It should be easy as pie for you!”

“Hmm…” It occurred to Lois that she probably did know someone that could get her into the Calico Club… but it wasn’t Superman. Finally she nodded. “OK, so you start the afternoon expensive, and you finish the night astronomical. Drinks and dancing after dinner, and then you sparkle off in the same car to the same hotel. Do I have that right?”

“You got it, LoLa! Think you can handle all that?”

Not sure how she rated in having been granted a nickname by Harley Quinn, Lois said restrainingly, “Now, the next thing we have to think about is this: I can’t follow you around to so many different places. I’m not paparazzi, and with you two busy with perfectly innocent activities all day, it’ll make me look more and more desperate for a story the longer I tail you.”

“It’s a good point,” Ivy conceded. “And I suppose a story about our entire day might feel a little contrived in any case.”

Lois nodded. “So I suggest you choose just one of the places you’ll be at tomorrow, and I’ll find you there.”

“The zoo!” Quinn said, while at the same moment Ivy declared, as Lois had feared she would, “The nightclub.”

“Harl,” Ivy said gently, “if she writes about us at the club, she can mention that we were seen at the zoo earlier.”

“And mention the savanna animals habitat?”

“I… might be able to work that in…” said Lois tactfully, extracting her cell phone from her pants pocket.

“The Calico Club it is, then,” Ivy nodded as Lois composed a text message. “We’ll be there for dinner at around 6:30, and should be out to wander the rest of the club and do some dancing after about an hour and a half.”

Quinn laid her hands each on the opposite knee and said proudly, “I’ve been practicing the Charleston.”

Ivy’s fond smile was wide enough to be called a grin this time.

“OK,” Lois nodded. “Next point. I’m not a society reporter. I’m going to frame this story like I was there with–” she glanced down at her phone, pleased with the immediate response– “my own date, and just happened to–”

“What date?” Quinn had been crossing her hands back and forth on her flapping knees, but now jumped up onto those knees on the bench and peered eagerly at the reporter.

“Bruce Wayne,” Lois laughed, pushing away Quinn’s too-close face.

“I thought you dumped him like a load of rubble! It was all over the tabloids in Gotham!”

“We got back together. He and my other boyfriend too. Hasn’t that been all over the tabloids?”

Quinn shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you’re in Arkham and don’t hear the gossip.”

“Wayne’s a decent guy,” Ivy nodded reminiscently. “I once planned to make him into a tree when his company was part of a deforestation project, but it turned out he hadn’t authorized the project and called it off immediately.”

Lois gave a pained grin. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that.”

“He was nice to me too, that one time when I stole his car,” Quinn mused.

“And that,” groaned Lois.

“Our point is that your taste isn’t terrible,” Ivy soothed, “for someone who fancies men. What were you saying about being there with him?”

“Bruce and I will be there doing our own drinking and dancing, so it will look like pure coincidence that you two are there at the same time. Of course a good reporter wouldn’t pass up the chance to write about seeing a couple like you at a place like that, so it’ll look completely natural when I hand in a story about you to my editor as soon as I can.”

The supervillains nodded their understanding.

“The problem is, like I said, I’m not a society reporter. For a story like this, I’ll need to describe what you’re wearing and all that jazz, and I’m hopeless at things like that. I grew up wearing hand-me-down combat boots, and Bruce literally buys all my evening wear for me.”

Quinn collapsed in giggles against the back of the bench. Even Ivy, when Lois turned a glance on her, had one gloved hand in front of her face as if to hide a chuckle. Lois screwed up her mouth in an expression of sardonic and only a quarter serious resentment.

“Maybe you should have Brucie take notes for you, then,” Ivy remarked innocently.

Quinn’s advice, still laughing, was, “You just look at our killer outfits at the club, and it won’t matter what kind of boots you wore growing up! The words’ll just flowwww.” And she made a flowing gesture with her arms as if dancing the hula. “Fashion appreciation is buried deep inside all of us… it’s a girl thing!”

Lois wasn’t so sure about that. But what she was sure of as a girl thing was helping another girl away from an abusive relationship. So she braced herself, at the same time opening the recording app on her phone. “Call me a tomboy, then.” And she tapped the red button. “I assume you already have these killer outfits. Describe them to me in detail — and use all the fashion terms you girls can come up with.”

***

Clark could drink freshly brewed coffee (or any beverage, throat-scorching or otherwise) faster than Lois believed the laws of physics should allow. And in between nearly invisible sips he read out the final paragraph of the article. “As they finished the last dance Dr. Quinzel insisted they stay for — an energetic Charleston bringing a blast from the past to the ultra-modern setting — they also finished their night in the public eye with a passionate kiss. Rumors throughout the building suggest they held hands all the way down to where a Lamborghini the exact color of Dr. Isley’s rose-red hair waited to whisk them off to their hotel a very happy couple.

“The biggest thing I don’t understand–” Clark’s dash to put his newly empty mug in the sink and his tablet on its charger formed barely a break in his statement– “is why you did this at all. You’re not a society reporter, and I’m willing to bet those lead-lined paragraphs earlier didn’t actually come from you. And let’s not forget that you — and you–” throwing Bruce a somewhat accusatory look– “spent the evening spying on supervillains.”

“You say that as if it’s unusual.” Bruce was enjoying his own coffee, and Clark’s confusion, at a more leisurely pace.

“It is when she writes a gossipy society article about it.” Clark looked at Lois pensively. “What could possibly have convinced you to do something like that?”

“Does it bother you?” wondered Lois. By now she’d eaten half the omelet he’d made for her, but yawned widely before her next bite.

“Not at all! ‘Dr. Isley’ and ‘Dr. Quinzel?’ You know I love to see villains reform, and you writing about them so kindly and respectfully can only promote that. But I can’t help feeling like something strange is going on here. Were you under duress?”

Bruce threw a piece of toast at him. “Use your superhuman brain, Clark,” he admonished. “If she were under duress, would I have gone along with it? They are, as you reminded me a few days ago, my villains anyway, not yours.”

Clark caught the toast jelly-side-up and ate what remained of it in two bites.

“They’re my villains now,” Lois contended, “so hands off. I don’t know if they’re really reforming, but they promised they wouldn’t break any laws yesterday.”

“So why did you follow them around the Calico Club and write that vapid story about them?”

“It was vapid, wasn’t it,” Lois chuckled.

Clark just looked at her expectantly.

She hesitated. She didn’t want to say, “You wouldn’t understand,” because he absolutely would, with that heart of his, when she told him… but she didn’t plan to explain until after she’d spent half her day off sleeping and he’d returned from work. So finally she merely smiled and offered somewhat wistfully, “It’s a girl thing.”


This is set in the same world as A Lois Date, but since I haven’t come up with a name for the series yet, it isn’t labeled as such.

The brief descriptive phrases of dresses in this story are bastardized versions of lines from an article written by Amy Verner on the official Elie Saab website. I didn’t wear combat boots growing up, but close enough.

For a few more notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Marinette would never even know… Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute.

Staying in her ‘cousin’ Marinette’s room, Cedulie from Pontrieux learns a tragic secret.

Cedulie turned the ornate yet compact wooden box over and over and over in her hands, studying its shape and inlay for perhaps the sixth time before setting it back down and opening it yet again. She’d stumbled across its hiding place behind a loose baseboard by purest accident, and could only guess at the reason for its being so secretively tucked away… but surely ‘cousin’ Marinette wouldn’t mind her wearing these earrings while she was here?

Cedulie wasn’t actually supposed to know the real reason they were doing this temporary house and business swap, but by eavesdropping on her parents completely by accident, she’d heard about the nervous breakdown of the daughter of her père’s old friend from culinary school, and the Dupain-Chengs’ desire to get the girl out of Paris for a while. Though they were about the same age, Cedulie and Marinette had never met, so the reasons for the breakdown must be hazy… yet it had happened, Cedulie understood, almost six months ago, which would correspond with the disappearance in disgrace of the Parisian superhero Ladybug… and here was a hidden pair of earrings that looked, unless she was very much mistaken, just like the ones that came with Ladybug costumes (though how to get the spots to appear she couldn’t tell yet).

From what she’d heard, Marinette wouldn’t be the first to suffer some manner of PTSD in the wake of whatever disaster — Cedulie didn’t know the details — had driven the polka-dotted heroine from the esteem and environs of the capital. Five and a half months seemed perhaps excessive, but it did allow Cedulie to spend an as-yet-undetermined length of time in a pretty cool loft bedroom with a view of Notre Dame and a chance for her dads below to try their hands at more specialized baking than they did at their cafe back in Pontrieux.

And of course she hoped her own bedroom, with its flower-strewn window ledges and panels of colored glass, would help Marinette recover.

And for the moment…

Marinette would never even know…

Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute. She closed the box and headed to the mirror, only a little guiltily, to admire her ears.

That night, after a day busy with settling in and helping to get the bakery ready for reopening under guest management tomorrow, she dreamed in black and red.

Beyond the slashes and blotches of color, it was nothing more than a mess of terrifying emotions: shattered determination, terrible failure, horror, fear, guilt, shock, heartbreak, loss, self-blame, despair… She’d never had such vivid nightmare feelings without a scenario to go along with them, and she’d certainly never thought merely sleeping in an unfamiliar space could waken such trauma inside her. After bolting up in a panic and then walking the floor of Marinette’s room for a few minutes to calm her racing pulse, she got a drink of water and went back to bed. And then it happened again.

She’d never had such a miserable night. Horror, guilt, heartbreak; failure, loss, despair — could it only be that she’d left her home and school and friends possibly for months and come to a big city she hadn’t visited before? Because she personally had never felt these emotions so intensely, so how could any circumstance be prompting them like this?

Glad she was that they’d come at the beginning of a school holiday, because that meant she could mope around the bakery and the neighborhood yawning all the next day. Her dads assumed she’d stayed up all night excitedly talking to friends about her new surroundings, and they threw each other grins over the baked goods every time she slouched through with her tired eyes. The prospect of bed that night was a significant relief.

Unfortunately, bed that night was as bad as bed the previous night had been.

It was the same sequence over and over: failure, horror, guilt, shock, heartbreak, despair… When Cedulie woke again in a cold sweat, tears running down her face, her gradual return to coherent thought was also a growing awareness that what she dreamed did make some kind of sense. Not any kind she could puzzle through, and it didn’t change the fact that she needed sleep, but, yes, there seemed to be a train of logic to the alien emotions.

By the third night, beyond exhausted, she’d grown enough accustomed to the nightmare that it didn’t wake her up quite so frequently — and, beyond that, she was starting to be able to read it a little better. Determination toward a long-sought victory, failure in that endeavor, ongoing horror at the outcome, fear for further terrible consequences, guilt at the poor decision that had led to this disaster, shock at an unexpected revelation and the means by which it had been made, heartbreak at the loss of someone important, awareness that none of this would have happened with a different choice, utter despair at ever being able to make any of it right… But what did it all mean? Cedulie was reliving the emotions associated with someone’s experience of some sort, but getting no details of that experience to explain them.

And that someone pretty much had to be Marinette, didn’t it? Whatever had caused her breakdown was haunting her room, her bed, so that Cedulie picked up on it while sleeping in here. And the feelings were so strong and unpleasant, Cedulie no longer considered five and a half months a long time for Marinette not to be over this. Whatever it was.

On the fourth day, less worn out as she’d begun to master this but now with a burning desire for answers, Cedulie, helping out in the bakery, fielded a visit and set of questions from a group of Marinette’s classmates. Evidently Marinette hadn’t given them the address in Pontrieux where she would be spending time trying to recover, and had long since ceased answering texts and calls, and these girls were trying to winkle her location out of the exchange family so as to send letters and care packages and who knew what else. Cedulie, having felt what she presumed Marinette had felt to sour her home in the first place, hesitated to betray the ‘cousin’ she had never met, but her papa gave out the address before she even knew he’d heard the request, so that was that.

The positive side to the girls’ visit, besides the fact that they all wanted to try the unfamiliar baking of the Arseneault-Chagnon family and spent a decent amount of money for hopefully a decent amount of word-of-mouth, was that Cedulie was able to grille them on everything they knew about Marinette and her problems of late.

It seemed Marinette had completely dropped out of school fifty-some days ago after three and a half months of increasingly poor performance and obvious depression and anxiety following some disaster none of the classmates wanted to talk about. There was a sense of mutual standoffishness or wariness between Cedulie and the group, in fact, since neither wanted to reveal all the information available. Cedulie thought she might have worked on a pale, ditzy-seeming girl that cried actual tears when Marinette’s troubles came up, but another with purple-tipped hair seemed to act as her protector and perhaps even girlfriend, and undoubtedly wouldn’t allow it. Once they’d bought their pastries and learned all they could, they filed out, most of them throwing covert glances at Cedulie as they went.

The last girl in the procession, though, paused in the doorway, ostensibly to allow another customer to enter past her but clearly in reality to look back at Cedulie more pointedly than the others had done. Despite her lack of overt weeping, she somehow seemed more torn up than any of the others about Marinette’s uncertain condition; behind her glasses, her drooping eyes showed signs of as much insomnia as Cedulie had suffered lately, and her face had paled during the preceding conversation to a significantly lighter tan than that of her arms (already two or three shades lighter than Cedulie’s skin). Perhaps she too sensed she wasn’t being told everything, and thought she could get something out of Cedulie alone. The latter couldn’t imagine sharing the strange emotional nightmares she’d been having with a stranger, though.

The girl came back a few steps into the store to where Cedulie was finishing up her task of arranging macarons in a swirl of colors on a large elevated platter for one of the displays. She stared at Cedulie wearily for a moment, and finally raised her hands. One held a state-of-the-art cell phone, and the other hung poised above it. “What’s your number?” she asked flatly.

Cedulie hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason not to give it. The stranger entered it, then stared down at her phone for a moment with a frown. Finally she pocketed it, looked back up at Cedulie, and said, “I’ll send you something. It explains… some things.” And without waiting for an answer, she turned and left.

Wondering exactly what that had been about, Cedulie went pensively back to her macarons. A few minutes later, however, when a tone sounded from her own pocket, she hastily added the last of the cookies to the tray, pushed it into place, and spun. “Père! Papa! Can I take a break?”

Père was busy with the new customer, but papa came over and inspected Cedulie’s work. “Looks great, love. Go have fun for a while.”

She’d barely thanked him before she was through the back and up the stairs to Marinette’s loft. There, she threw herself onto the bed, drew her knees up, and pulled out her phone.

They repressed this footage, said the unfamiliar number, but this is what happened to two of our other classmates. It’s really disturbing.

The video file had already fully downloaded — cell signal seemed to be really good here — so with a deep breath and bracing herself for what she assumed she would see, Cedulie hit Play.

The view was that of a patio filled with stone tables outside a restaurant, and the recording, probably from a cell phone, held remarkably steady, as if whoever had captured this had a lot of experience getting disaster footage.

And the subject was Ladybug.

Agitated and curious though she was, Cedulie had to pause the video for a moment to hiss, “I knew it!” Marinette’s breakdown did have something to do with Ladybug.

But wait… the local news in Pontrieux hadn’t ever shown what had happened to the superhero in the end (not that their coverage of Ladybug had ever been more than patchy in the first place), and the message here said this footage was being repressed and that it was disturbing… Could this somehow be a video of Ladybug’s last stand? How would that girl have gotten hold of it?

Starting it again in even greater agitation, Cedulie watched on.

The akumatized victim appeared to have taken the shape of an enormous pair of spiked boots with only the faintest hint of a figure wearing them, and was busy chasing a blonde girl Cedulie vaguely recognized from past news reports as having been rescued by Ladybug and Chat Noir on at least a couple of other occasions. From the mostly transparent body above the boots came a tirade about how the blonde girl always walked all over everyone but now it was her turn to be trampled on.

Ladybug and Chat Noir struggled with the two ends of what appeared to be a black-spotted red rubber diving suit, stretching it out to tie to the umbrella poles of two adjacent tables. But whether the intention had been to call to the blonde girl to lead the pursuing villain toward the springy potential trap was unclear, for Ladybug suddenly gasped, “Papillon!” and pointed. “Here, help me with this!”

Cedulie thought she remembered, from months back, that the news had mentioned a greater incidence, there at the end, of the major villain appearing in person, evidently having become frustrated at the continual failure of his efforts conducted from afar. And, indeed, the camera swerved from its closeup on Ladybug and Chat Noir to show a tall, narrow figure in grey atop the wall bordering the patio on one side. Then the view returned with almost a sense of breathless haste to Ladybug, who was trying to wrestle a fallen table umbrella into a perpendicular position against the stretched diving suit so as to use the latter as a giant slingshot and the former as an oversized arrow aimed at Le Papillon.

“But Chloé…” Chat Noir protested.

Ladybug was firm in her purpose. “We have time! This may be our only chance!”

Though Chat Noir looked uncertain, he obeyed, and with four hands it did indeed only take a second longer to load up the umbrella, direct it, and let it fly. The camera followed the missile, whose aim was true: the surprised Papillon, with a cry, took the makeshift dart right in the chest and was knocked from his perch on the wall. There was a shout of triumph from Ladybug, but the second half of the enthusiastic syllable was overridden by a pandemonium from all sides, both from Ladybug’s direction as well as from near the camera: screams of dismay and horror, the triumphant laughter of the akumatized villain, and Chat Noir suddenly shouting desperately, “Chloé! Chloé!”

And when the camera returned quickly in that direction, it displayed the form of the blonde girl — Chloé — now visible where the enormous boots had just stamped, flattened into an unnatural position on the flagstones, oozing blood, and very, very still. Ladybug had been wrong; they hadn’t had time.

She had already run several steps in the direction of the fallen Papillon, but now stood stock-still staring at the lethal result of her poor decision. She faced away from the camera, which had begun to shake slightly in whatever hand held it, but Cedulie knew what she felt. She’d experienced herself the sudden sense of failure, the awful sick feeling at Chloé’s death that would suffuse the rest of the scene, the guilt and shock. And she knew another shock was coming. Though her heart seemed to be pounding in her throat, she also couldn’t quite bring herself to breathe as she watched on.

The screams had died down into an eerie quiet broken only by the chortling of the lesser enemy, while everyone stared in astonished dismay at the body on the ground. As the camera wandered away almost absently as if the hands holding it had forgotten their task, Cedulie was able to see that even Papillon, where he’d emerged around the wall off of which he’d tumbled, appeared startled, perhaps even shaken by the event.

“She’ll never step all over anyone again!” the villain was gloating. “And you, who defended her, are next!” And the view suddenly snapped back to the action, still a bit shaky but evidently determined to record everything that went on here today.

The giant boots rushed at Chat Noir, taking him by surprise in his continual surprise and horror despite the announced intention, and kicked him to the ground with a single hit. One shoe came to rest on his chest, the other on his right arm. The nearly invisible figure wearing the boots bent low with a triumphant laugh.

Ladybug, for one moment too long, could not tear her traumatized gaze from Chloé’s corpse. But the sound of bone snapping and her partner’s anguished cry dragged her attention in that direction — too late. For the villain stood straight again, bounding off the prostrate, broken-armed figure of the fallen hero, hefting his captured Miraculous high for all to see. “Papillon!” came the disembodied voice from above the boots. “I’ve done it!”

But everyone’s eyes were on Chat Noir. A gasp seemed to issue from every nearby throat as the black cat suit melted away and the true form of the mysterious superhero appeared. He couldn’t even drag an arm across his face to hide it, for one clutched convulsively at the other as he rolled in agony onto his side, visage in full view of the onlookers. And even Cedulie found it familiar, though the name didn’t come to mind until the group behind the camera — whatever crowd had gathered for this gruesome display — started whispering it in intense surprise: “Adrien Agreste!”

Ladybug fell to her knees, utterly powerless on the pavement.

Half a moment later, the general outcry changed and increased, and the unexpected form of Le Papillon dashed into view, scooped the fallen model off the ground, and sprinted away. The camera didn’t follow him; in fact it drooped from Ladybug’s defeated figure and lingered, unfocused, on the flagstones and a pair of shoes before the video abruptly ended.

The tears streaming down Cedulie’s cheeks were genuinely her own this time, and she bent over the phone with eyes squeezed tight shut for a moment. Chloé and Adrien must have been the other classmates the girl in the bakery had mentioned, and Marinette…

“Marinette was Ladybug,” she whispered, her voice choked and weak. Marinette had been Ladybug, and she’d not only gotten her classmate killed and her partner de-powered and injured, she’d lost him to her greatest enemy, whom she’d failed to defeat. And if the heartbreak Cedulie had sensed in her nightmares was any indication, there might even have been more to the emotional tangle of the scene than that.

“Now you know the truth,” came a tiny voice from nearby, and the sorrow and weariness it held was so in keeping with how Cedulie felt and what she’d just witnessed that it didn’t even startle her despite its total unfamiliarity.

She looked down, and found at her side, lying on the mattress and appearing to have used up all its energy getting only that far, a strange little red creature whose black spots left no doubt in Cedulie’s mind that it had something to do with Ladybug. Not daring to speak above a whisper, fearing too heavy a breath would blow the sad and worn-out thing away, Cedulie said, “But what happened after? Where is Chat Noir now? Does everyone blame Ladybug for that?”

“Ladybug escaped before she transformed back,” the tiny person replied listlessly, “but she was never the same again.”

Cedulie nodded.

“No one’s seen Adrien since. Marinette was in love with him, you know.” Minuscule tears slid down the creature’s face, and Cedulie, heart aching, impetuously scooped the thing up and cradled it in her hands. The tiny body expanded with a deep breath that came out as a miserable sigh, and then the high-pitched voice finished, “And nobody every blamed her as much as she blamed herself.”

For a minute or so Cedulie simply sat and cried along with the unknown being in her hands. She didn’t fully understand yet, but the creature seemed to need this. If it was a part of the Ladybug business, after all, everything had fallen apart for it five and a half months ago just as it had for Marinette.

Finally, though, Cedulie stirred and looked down again at the red and black stranger. Still in a whisper she ventured, “So what now?”

Soulful, exhausted eyes looked up at her, and the creature seemed to gather its strength to speak again. “You’re wearing the Ladybug Miraculous. That’s why I’m here.”

Cedulie’s right hand flew to her ear. She’d almost completely forgotten about the earrings she’d thoughtlessly borrowed. Surely that was the reason for the nightmares! She’d been connecting to Ladybug through Ladybug’s own conduit of power!

“But the experience was too much for her,” the creature went on, “and the earrings are tainted. She renounced me… she said it was only for a while, but…” It was evident from tone and expression that Marinette had been more than merely a superhero partner to this being. It let out another long sigh, and Cedulie thought for several moments it had finished speaking. But at last it continued, “But Ladybug is still needed… Adrien is still out there somewhere… and Le Papillon… and… and Marinette…” It shifted as if in pain. “I just… I can’t transform anyone until the earrings are purified. There’s someone who could help, if only Marinette had gone to him…” And then the creature really did fall silent, and closed its eyes as if too tired and unhappy to go on.

Failure, horror, shock, heartbreak… Ladybug was still needed and Adrien was still out there somewhere… and poor cousin Marinette, suffering under a weight of guilt and despair that had broken her spirit… not to mention this little thing in Cedulie’s hand…

Abruptly she stood, tears still running down her face but a new determination in her heart. “Tell me where to go.”

For November Quick Fics 2018, MangoFox prompted, “Ladybug and Chat Noir have been permanently defeated, and everyone knows it. Another girl finds the Ladybug earrings and takes it upon herself to become the new Ladybug. However, she has to face an unexpected problem: the earrings are still haunted by memories of the emotional issues that caused the Miraculous team to fail in the first place.” Why he wanted such a freaking sad story I have no idea XD But it worked out pretty well, and I give it a

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.


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).


Substantiated


In response to the cheerful knock, Katsu’s voice called down, “Up here, Sano!” The latter therefore, making use of some old crates against the wall that were probably a fire hazard but had been there as long as he could remember, clambered onto the roof where Katsu had a habit of camping when he didn’t want to destroy the delicate balance of too many recently inked papers laid out to dry inside. It seemed late in a rather cold day for sprawling on the roof, but to Katsu a little chill was no great price to pay to keep inadvertent elbows out of his fresh prints.

Katsu never really looked right relaxing, being simply too intense for it. No matter how casually he glanced over at Sano, no matter how lethargic he appeared, it always seemed more as if he was waiting in enforced and somewhat frustrated idleness to return to what mattered than actually getting any real rest. It made Sano grin as he stretched out across the cracked roof tiles beside his friend.

From his recumbent position Katsu raised himself onto an arm and reached over to flick the edge of Sano’s gi aside. Lifting a brow as his eyes moved from one of the bruises on Sano’s chest to the next and the next, he finally fixed his friend with a hard look. “I’m going to have to draw the line at this kind of abuse, Sano.”

Sano laughed. “It’s nothing like that. We just get kinda… rough… sometimes.”

“I’d be interested in seeing how many bruises he has after you guys ‘get kinda rough sometimes.'”

“Nah, that’d make me jealous,” Sano replied, pulling his gi tight shut to keep out the evening air, then pillowing his head on his raised arms (which motion reopened his upper garment almost completely, but it wasn’t worth worrying about).

In the variegated sky, stars were beginning to peek out from between the sparse clouds, and Sano watched contentedly as they became more and more visible. He’d come to see if Katsu wanted to go drink somewhere, but knew well his friend’s unwillingness to leave drying sheets unattended. Not that they were technically attended right now; there seemed to be an acceptable radius of proximity. So Sano would talk to him here for a while and then go drink on his own somewhere. Or maybe go to the police station and harass Saitou about staying at work so damn late.

Almost as if reading his thoughts — though in reality, of course, just belatedly continuing the conversation, “Why do you like that guy, anyway?” Katsu asked.

“Why do you like Megumi?” Sano retorted. He’d long since tired of interrogation about his relationship with Saitou, and had begun asking prying questions of his own in return — taking advantage of the fact that Katsu had been developing a serious interest in the lady doctor and that his condition became discernibly (to Sano) worse each time he happened to meet her.

“None of your business.” Katsu always looked somewhat angry when he blushed; it was kinda funny.

“Then neither’s mine.”

“All right,” Katsu conceded with a snort both frustrated and amused. “I’ll tell if you will.”

“But I’ve already told you!” was Sano’s next protest. “You’ve asked me practically every day since him and me first got together!”

“Let’s do a compare and contrast instead, then.”

That sounded a good deal more interesting than the defensive Sano usually found himself put on. “All right, fine. You start.”

“I asked first!”

“Yeah, you’ve asked a million times, and it’s annoying. So you start.”

Katsu made a sort of huffing noise, but then his expression turned gradually contemplative, abstract, as he sought words for his thoughts. “She… she knows exactly what she wants and how she intends to get it. Not only in being a doctor, but in everything she does.”

“Yeah, that does sound like her,” Sano nodded. “She goes right for whatever she wants.” He’d only ever seen her flummoxed about what she hoped to gain from life back when he’d first met her, including the time she’d spent desiring Kenshin but observing his clear preferences elsewhere. Of course Sano was not about to mention this to Katsu, who would only mope over that old attachment and start morbidly looking for signs of its continued existence. Instead he remarked, “Saitou does that too.”

“Yes, I remember,” Katsu said dryly, “how he went right for you when you guys first met.”

“I wish he had! Oh, you mean with a sword.”

Katsu snorted again.

“But that’s still part of the same thing, though… he was trying to make a point, and he just went right for the best way to make it. And, you know, he could have killed me.”

“Oh, yes, I’m convinced. You like him because he didn’t kill you when he had the chance. Good reasoning.”

“It’s more than just that, bakayarou. These things he goes right for, they’re always good things. He always wants what’s best for the country and shit, and he just does whatever he has to to get to those goals. Maybe he’s an asshole about how he does it sometimes, but he always wants what’s right. He’s always got the big picture in his head, and things always turn out better because of what he does, even if it seems like some of the little things along the way make him a jerk.”

“But how can you–”

Sano interrupted him. “No, it’s your turn again, buddy. You suggested this compare and contrast thing, and then you barely said anything about Megumi; don’t try to weasel out of it and just give me shit about Saitou like always.”

“All right… fine…” Katsu sounded annoyed, but also as if he couldn’t refute Sano’s logic. After a moment he started again slowly. “Megumi-san is… well, she’s the opposite of what you just described, really. For her it’s not about the big picture; it’s always the details. She’s concerned with how she can make this particular person feel better right now. She’s not worried about changing the world, or how what she’s doing will affect society overall, just how she can save or improve one life, even a small one.

“But she’s also similar, in that that’s what she believes is right, and she doesn’t let anything — not anyone else or their ideas about a way of life that might be better — stop her from doing exactly what she thinks she should be doing. She’s so dedicated to what she believes is her calling that, whenever I see her doing something else — which is mostly when I see her — she looks as if she’s forcing herself to take a break and would really rather be back at the clinic. She knows the health benefits of pacing herself, but she doesn’t really relax and enjoy anything.”

Once again, Sano was not about to mention to Katsu that, back when Megumi had still thought there might be a chance at winning Kenshin’s heart and therefore that there was a point beyond maintaining her own health to the time she spent at the dojo, she’d seemed to enjoy her periods of rest much more and get a lot more out of them. Which was not to imply Megumi had no feelings of friendship for the dojo inhabitants, but these days Katsu’s assessment of her activities rang true: lacking a secondary purpose to pursue in her moments of relaxation, her primary purpose of helping and healing constantly drew her thoughts back to it when she was supposed to be giving herself a break.

Sano also wasn’t about to laugh out loud at how similar to his own interpretation of Katsu, so avid in researching political issues and writing and distributing his newspaper, was Katsu’s interpretation of Megumi. A new secondary purpose, Sano thought — to wit, a reciprocated romantic interest — would benefit them both, enrich both their lives. If something managed to arise between them, hopefully they could encourage each other in the proposed down-time, relax together and focus for brief periods on something other than their driving goals. Katsu obviously already observed that need in Megumi — surely she, with her medical acumen, would see it just as easily in him.

But Sano didn’t necessarily have words in which to express all these thoughts, and anything even distantly referencing Megumi’s former interest in Kenshin must be absolutely taboo anyway. So what he said was, “Saitou’s kinda like that too. He’s a total workaholic, and sometimes he loses track of things he really should be doing for his own sake when he’s busy trying to dig up dirt on some politician he just knows is crooked or something. It’s good to kinda force him to do fun shit sometimes.” He grinned reminiscently. “But at the same time, you can’t help admiring that kind of drive. It makes me feel like I could be doing better myself at, you know… making things better. He lets me help him with his work sometimes, and that always… makes me feel like a better person too. A little, at least.”

Katsu’s sigh seemed equal parts resigned and confused. “All right, I guess I can see why you enjoy that…” There was no way, after all, he could deny the appeal of helping to improve society, given that his own personal goals and beliefs tended in that direction. “But I still don’t understand how you can bear to stay with him. Because even recognizing good points about him doesn’t change the fact that he’s also harsh and demanding and unfeeling.”

“Yeah… yeah, he definitely is those things,” Sano admitted. “And I never said it was easy or anything. I mean, he does drive me crazy pretty much every damn day… but he’s also got all those good things about him and it kinda… balances out, you know? I’m happy. Plus, there’s also…”

He paused. They’d been discussing this with so much freedom that he’d started this last statement without really meaning to. It wasn’t actually a point he wanted brought up… but he was unsurprised when Katsu didn’t just let it go.

“Also?”

Sano made a dismissive noise.

“Sano, I want to know. What is it about that guy that makes you so adamant to stay with him?” And when Sano remained reluctantly wordless, Katsu pressed, “Is it the fighting? I know you’ve always had an unhealthy obsession with anyone who’s able to beat you up…”

Sano snorted.

“Or the sex? You can’t tell me that’s the deciding factor. Seriously, how does it balance out?”

“All right… fine… all right…” In for a rin, in for a yen, he supposed. “I’ll tell you… if you promise not to tell anyone else.”

“Of course.”

Sano propped himself up on an elbow in order to stare suspiciously at his friend’s face, searching for any hint that Katsu had merely made the promise in order to get answers out of him. Finding only earnestness, concern, and curiosity in Katsu’s demeanor, he lay down again, looking into the sky once more. “I don’t know why…” he began at last. “But I’m sometimes afraid, way deep down under knowing better, that my friends are just putting up with me. That they don’t really like me, and just let me hang around out of the goodness of their hearts, because they’re too nice to tell me what they really think of me… too nice to tell me to get lost.

“I mean, I pretty much forced myself on the dojo back at first, and then everyone just sort of got used to the way things were. What real reason does Kenshin have to be my friend — because I started following him around? Why should the others like me — because Kenshin puts up with me? And the guys around town? I’m convenient to roll dice and get drunk with, but really they could do that with anyone.”

Katsu had been making protesting noises, but Sano overrode any actual statement. “That’s the shit that goes through the back of my head sometimes: that nobody has any real reason to be my friend, and they probably don’t really give a shit about me, but they’re just too nice to say so. I know it’s not true — probably — and it’s not like it bothers me most of the time… but sometimes I can’t help thinking that way.”

“Well…” Katsu remarked slowly after a few moments of silence. “Setting aside how troubling this weird fear of yours is, what does it… have to… do… with…” His words slowed as he made the connection himself. “Saitou’s not the type to put up with anyone he doesn’t really like out of the goodness of his heart.”

“Yeah, exactly. He’s too much of an asshole to politely put up with something, so I know he really does like me. I know it better than I know anyone else does.”

Katsu sat up and stared at his friend with an inscrutable expression. Presently he spoke, and it was difficult for Sano to decide whether the words sounded more like laughter or groaning. “Sano, I’m not certain that’s entirely healthy. You realize you’re essentially saying you like him because he treats you like shit?”

“That’s not why I like him,” Sano sighed. “Well, I mean, that’s not what I like about him.” At Katsu’s look he protested, “I just got done telling you some of the things I like about him, and you even agreed you were kinda starting to see my point. But then there’s this added bonus of knowing he likes me back. Knowing for sure, without having any little stupid doubts about it in the back of my head like I do about some of my friends. Maybe it’s not healthy, but I really like it. There’s this security about the situation that… it’s pretty great.”

Slowly Katsu mimicked Sano’s earlier gesture, lying down again onto the rooftop and returning his gaze to the sky as if not entirely content but aware this was the best he would get. “‘Security…'” he said, testing the word. “So you’re saying you feel… safe… with this guy who once stabbed you in the shoulder.”

“Um, yeah,” Sano confirmed. “It’s weird as shit, I know, but… yeah.”

A long and seemingly rather dissatisfied silence followed, until finally Katsu asked quietly, “Are you afraid I don’t really like you?”

Despite having known his confession might distract Katsu from the obnoxious and seemingly endless subject of all the problems he saw in Sano’s relationship with Saitou, Sano yet hadn’t been entirely eager to make it for fear it would actually be a less comfortable topic than the other. Still, having taken the step and brought it up, he had braced himself for this question and been ready with its answer.

“Nah, not you,” he said fairly easily. “I mean, after I promised to go along with you on your little raid last year and then basically backstabbed you…”

“Punching in the stomach is almost the literal opposite of stabbing in the back,” Katsu put in at a murmur.

Sano cleared his throat. “My point is that, after that, only a real friend would be willing to hang out with me all the time and worry about whether I’m happy with my boyfriend and shit.” He’d had this answer prepared, and thought it came out rather well, but not until he actually said it did he realize how emphatically, how profoundly he meant it.

“It took a real friend to punch me in the stomach just then at all,” was Katsu’s reply, solemn, as if he too felt the touched-upon connection between them. “You were looking out for me then, and I’m trying to look out for you now.”

“I know.” Sano’s tone held equal solemnity as he acknowledged, beyond merely the surface meaning of Katsu’s words, the true nature of Katsu’s friendship and his own awareness of it, to some extent newly deepened.

“And if you’re really happy…” Katsu sighed, and shrugged his shoulders an inch or so up the roof tiles beneath them. “I guess I should stop giving you a hard time about it.”

Sano whooped and punched a victorious fist into the air. Of course it meant a lot that Katsu was so concerned for him, annoying as it had been, but it meant even more that he was willing, even in the face of that concern, to trust Sano and let it go. So when his friend made a derisive sound in response to Sano’s display of triumph, he said cheerfully, “It’ll be way easier for you when you’re distracted by making out with Megumi all the time.”

Again Katsu sighed. He probably blushed too, but Sano wasn’t looking and couldn’t tell. “I’m glad one of us is confident that’s ever going to happen…”

“I know you feel totally awkward talking to women. Well, to anyone you’re interested in,” Sano corrected, given that Katsu’s tastes (if not necessarily his actual pursuits) were even less restrictive than Sano’s. “And it’s kinda hilarious watching you try sometimes…”

“Bakayarou.” Katsu struck out in Sano’s direction with a clenched hand, but Sano rolled slightly out of the blow’s path, laughing.

“Seriously, you’re fucking adorable, man… you get so focused, it’s like a little kid trying to write a formal letter.”

“You mean like you trying to write a formal letter?”

“Shut up. What I was going to say is, it’s a good thing you’ve totally fallen for a lady who’s not likely to wait around for a guy she likes to say something. I mean, we established just a minute ago she goes right for whatever she wants. So it doesn’t matter much whether you’re any good at talking to women!”

Katsu made a very discouraged noise. “That’s really not comforting, Sano, considering she hasn’t gone anywhere in my vicinity.”

“Yeah, but I think she’s starting to notice you; the other night when you were both over at the dojo, I definitely saw her looking at you a few times like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.'”

“Did you? Was she?” Katsu sat up again with an expression of childlike hope that melted quickly into a forlorn disbelief.

“She sure as hell was,” Sano assured him. What he didn’t voice was his new determination to help bring about this desirable match in any way he could — to help an important friend find happiness with another friend far more similar to and compatible with him than Sano had realized until this very conversation.

“She’s so… beautiful…” Katsu sighed, flopping down onto his back once more in dramatic despair.

And at that moment, a voice called out from down below near the front door, “Tsukioka-san? Is that you up there?”

This time, rather than rising in the normal way, Katsu convulsed into a more upright position with a choking sound of startled recognition. The moonlight that was by now the primary source of illumination for the scene didn’t allow for fine color distinctions, but Sano, who also sat up, believed with some certainty that Katsu was blushing harder than he’d ever done in his friend’s presence before. A couple of surprised, chagrined questions were practically hovering in writing above his head, too — “How long has she been there?” and “What might she have heard?”

For his part, with a grin, Sano scrambled down to the edge of the roof and peered at the woman below. “Hey, Kitsune!” he greeted as she met his gaze with a smile. Though Sano had never really thought about it before, Katsu was right; she was beautiful — not Sano’s type, but definitely good-looking. Glancing over his shoulder he called out, “Katsu, come see who’s in your vicinity!” Then, because Megumi was not alone in the street in front of his friend’s door, he flung himself off the roof, crying, “Think fast, cop!”

Saitou demonstrated surprise for only half an instant; then the whites of his eyes showed as he rolled them and stepped swiftly aside. Sano, who’d expected this (this, or possibly a blow as he descended, depending on Saitou’s mood), managed (mostly) to stick his landing. Then he turned, still grinning, and moved to throw an arm around Saitou’s shoulders and address Megumi again:

“I didn’t expect to ever see you hanging out with this bastard!”

Complacently she replied, “The delinquent cop–” gesturing at the officer that had accepted Sano’s familiarity as well as the insulting epithets of both speakers with no trace of reaction– “happened to mention that he planned on looking for you here, so I decided to come along and make sure Tsukioka-san didn’t drink himself sick like you did the other night.”

“I wasn’t sick,” Sano protested. “Or,” he added with a sheepish widening of grin, “I was only sick while I was passed out, so I didn’t notice it.”

Katsu had been descending from the roof using a more traditional method than Sano’s, and now joined the group in front of his door with a somber expression and the polite greeting, “Good evening, Takani-sensei.” Given that he didn’t seem to have entirely stopped blushing yet, it was a significant mark of courage that he’d come down at all; god knew that if they’d been discussing Saitou rather than Megumi just when those two had appeared, Sano might have jumped from the other side of the roof and taken off across town rather than face the possibility that Saitou had heard his thoughts about him and their relationship.

“Good evening, Tsukioka-san,” Megumi returned, but Sano broke in loudly before she could say anything else:

“Looks like we’re going to have to cancel our dinner plans that we made, Katsu. Maybe you better take Megumi instead, so she can lecture you about drinking too much.” He glanced at Saitou. “I have to go get stabbed.”

“Ahou.” Saitou elbowed Sano in the chest so hard that the younger man detached from him, coughing, scrunched over in discomfort, and staggered back. In response, Megumi gave her characteristic laugh and Katsu made a noise of protest.

“Yeah… see…?” Sano gasped, gesturing at Saitou as he attempted to stand straight again. “I got shit to do.”

Katsu shook his head. “All right,” he said. And he shook his head once more, closing his eyes, with a sound that was exasperated but perhaps just a little amused as well.

And Sano took hold of Saitou’s hand and started attempting to drag him away down the street. “Bye, you two! Kitsune, don’t give him too hard of a time!” The officer, with another roll of eyes, shook off Sano’s grip but went with him willingly enough.

When the goodbyes of those they left behind had faded, Sano muttered to Saitou, “You didn’t have to hit me that fucking hard, asshole… I might not have meant anything sexual by ‘get stabbed’ at all, you know!”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Saitou replied. “It was because you’re such an abysmal actor with no sense of subtlety. Anyone could see what you were trying to do from a mile away. Tsukioka’s not likely to consider you his friend for poor attempts like that.”

“Oh, I dunno…” Sano glanced back to where Megumi had drawn closer to Katsu and engaged him in a much more active conversation in their freshly attained privacy. “I think Katsu and me have this friendship thing pretty much down.”


I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes written before the fic was complete, see this Productivity Log.

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


Another Source of Light

He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet.

James may think he no longer needs Pyramid Head, but what if he hasn’t really learned his lesson?


The TV was painfully bright in the dim room, the radio’s moaning static agonizingly loud. As he staggered up from the chair, he saw almost nothing but ghost-images of the snowy rectangle wherever he looked, and heard only echoes of her pain from the noisy device and words of a conversation he almost didn’t remember having, which seemed impossibly distant though it had only just occurred.

“Mary’s gone… she’s… dead…”

He stumbled from the room, leaving both television and radio behind, unaware even of what route he took through the maddening hotel, unconcerned about what he might meet on the way out, wishing only to escape from that place, the returning knowledge, that bright scene…

“I killed her…”

He clutched at his head, squeezed it, clawed at it, ripped out bits of hair, but all to no avail: the memories, now that they had returned, were stark and unrelenting…

…her equivocal requests, the inconstant desires of a woman suffering endlessly, physically and emotionally, that had driven him to the edge…

“She was always waiting for you… why…? why…?”

…his hatred for her, for what his life had become thanks to her, that grew steadily beneath the cover of a love that rotted slowly, love that he yet professed until the bitter end…

“I’m… sorry… The Mary you know… isn’t here.”

…the feeling of the pillow in his hands, of her weak, ineffectual struggles…

“No!” he roared, sinking to the ground. “No…” He came to rest on hands and knees on filthy asphalt as the world around him seemed to darken. Blackness spread in throbbing patches until he could see nothing, nothing but the bright, stabbing memory of what… what he had…

Another cry burst from him, inarticulate and strangled as he ground his face against the street as if somehow he could scrub out the images in his head. There was nothing but darkness and pain and memory, but the former could not overcome the latter that shone so brightly.

“I killed her…” It was like staring into the sun; it beat at him, stabbed into him, unrelenting and unjust brilliance.

And that was when he saw it.

His eyes snapped to it at once: another source of light. Thin and pale and dim by comparison, yet visible in the darkness even in the face of the first light. And any reprieve was welcome. He bent over it hungrily, desperate to bring it into better focus. It kept fading in and out, and after a moment he realized that this was merely because of his own blood dripping onto it and obscuring its glow.

It was a faint, meandering silver line on the ground that ran off into the blackness before him like a quiet and yet compelling guide. Guide to where? It made no difference to him; if he had a choice between the glare of his memories and this pale distraction, there was no question which he would take. Willing his reluctant limbs to move, he crawled after it.

He seemed to hear her voice — the voice that had haunted the crackling radio and that had haunted his dreams and that had haunted his waking life for three years — but in no physical sense; it merely resounded in his head, an inescapable conversation.

“Didn’t you want to see me?” Each word sent a shock of bright light through his consciousness like a strobe. And it was a conversation, simply because it wasn’t a memory of anything she’d ever actually said.

“Of course I wanted to see you…” It was an immediate reply, one that seemed very much like all those empty professions of love in the last days.

And her reply was also immediate, colder and harder than the plaintive question had been. “That’s not true, is it? You killed me.”

He crawled on, clinging desperately to the sight of the silver trail just as he clung to his answer, the answer he’d been giving silently all along: “I couldn’t stand to see you suffering…”

“Don’t make excuses, James.” Her voice was twisting, becoming something he didn’t recognize, an audio representation of the painful brilliance that was the memory of what he’d done. All the greater then became his focus on the other light, his only distraction, his only salvation. But her words throbbed on in his head. “I know I was a burden on you. You must have hated me. That’s why you got rid of me.”

He told himself not to answer, not to admit the truth, but when the discussion was only in his mind there was no hiding it. “Yes, I hated you! Don’t you realize what your illness did to you? What you became? It wasn’t my fault — how could I help hating you?” And maybe things would be better now that he’d said it, now that he’d acknowledged his real motives and how he’d languished during those years. He didn’t deserve any of this; it hadn’t been his fault.

“That’s not enough.” By her cold, bright, hard tone, Mary didn’t seem to agree. “You killed me, James. You killed me. And now her voice, surreal though it was, rose to a tight shriek in his mind: “James… do you really think I could ever forgive you for what you did?”

He reeled, crashing momentarily to his side on the ground, as echoes of her castigation flashed through his head, his entire body. But the next moment he was crawling again, moving faster, as if he could leave behind the pain and sorrow and bright light if he just found what lay at the end of the little glowing path beneath his eyes. I don’t deserve this, he found himself thinking over and over; he didn’t deserve to suffer like this; it had been more than he could handle; it hadn’t been his fault.

And suddenly the trail ended.

For a long moment he remained entirely motionless, frozen as if time and space no longer progressed, his mind refusing to comprehend the abrupt cessation of all his hopes. Then…

“Didn’t you want to see me?”

Rising up to his knees, he clenched his fists and howled. The memory was stabbing at the back of his eyes, white-hot and merciless. The pain on her face, in her voice… the snowy television… the pillow… For a second time, he clutched at his face, at his head, wanting nothing but to be rid of this bright light, and screamed until his voice gave out. Then he fell forward again onto his hands and then his chest, groveling on the asphalt, helpless, abject.

It was then, when his thoughts seemed to give way and shut down and only the vague sense of his surroundings and that light remained, that he noticed the difference in the air. Before him, within arm’s reach as he stretched out to test what he thought at first might be some sort of delusion, the air was in motion: thin, rising currents, now hot, now chilling, always bearing a filthy, sharp, metallic scent that wrapped around him and pulled at him.

In something resembling a panic he dropped his hand, searching for the ground… and discovered that not a foot in front of him, it ended entirely. Reaching back, he found its jagged edge, and noted that his trail, his light, his guide — it didn’t end, it merely plunged into this unknown abyss. Salvation was yet possible, escape from the brutal memory that even now tore at his mind like a gleaming, serrated blade. He rose again to all fours and threw himself forward.

He seemed to fall for a very long time, but it was the fall of a dream: no gravity pulled at him, and he feared no harmful collision at the bottom — he fell because he meant to fall. Already, knowing that he had another chance at following the silver light to its end, his mind was clearing a little. He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet. By the time he hit the ground, this thought had heartened him to the point where he was ready to move on almost immediately, despite the fact that there actually was a considerable amount of pain associated with the conclusion of his descent.

Dragging himself slowly up, his entire body aching from the impact, he looked around — for he found he could see again, and not merely the blessed silver line that continued on before him into the shadows. It was clear he was lucky not to have been eviscerated during the fall, for he’d entered a confusing tangle of twisted chain-link and barbed wire. It was as if all the fences in the world had been rusted, mangled, deliberately set into an impossible maze, and laid at his feet.

After taking this in with a brief, impassive glance, he dropped again to his knees and continued to follow the light. It was difficult and bloody progress, for the silver trail did not always take the path of least resistance; sometimes the decaying steel around him encroached so close that, no matter how carefully he tried to wriggle past it, it still caught and tore. Soon his clothing was in shreds, and his flesh seemed likely to fare no better. It occurred to him that, rather than a maze, this was more like a vast cobweb of sharp points and hard lines… but whatever spider he might find at its center was irrelevant if the light led to it.

His next pause was not in response to any change in his guide, but in the scene he came upon in following it. It seemed typical of what lay around every corner in this bizarre and horrible world… but somehow more meaningful. More ominous, he might have said if he’d felt even the slightest apprehension. He stood still for some time, having lost track entirely of the silver line, staring, his eyes stinging with the unblinking intensity of his gaze, hardly breathing in his fascination and horror.

The pavement within the little clearing he’d entered was stained with blood in varying shades, from the glaring crimson of freshly-spilt to the decaying near-black of long-dried, and in the midst of this mess lay a half-clothed, headless corpse. Its limbs, the pallid blue-veined flesh like that of a drowned man, bore patches of the same colors that marked the ground, and it was curled up tightly in a fetal position, unrelaxed even after decapitation. He could make out tense ropes of muscle seemingly ready to burst free across the bare back, as if it had died in the throes of some monumental effort and never unclenched. But somehow, despite what he speculated must have been the fate of this unhappy victim of this terrible place, he couldn’t bring himself to feel any pity.

Abruptly the figure shuddered and slowly uncoiled, climbing to its feet, and with a shiver James suddenly recognized the spattered butcher’s apron it wore. Unencumbered by its usual hinderments, it moved with greater speed and agility than he had expected… but he found himself rapt, fixedly studying the blackened edges of the severed neck. It hadn’t been a clean cut, and it seemed to have been scorched besides.

Finally tearing his gaze from that inordinately fascinating sight, James looked around somewhat wildly, and noticed that there, indeed, half-obscured by a tangle of the ubiquitous wire off to his left, lay the triangular helmet or head the creature normally bore; and nearby the impossibly huge knife, its edge glinting dully even in the shadows. And in the moment it took him to take note of these things, the creature was on him.

Though he had good reason already to know the hideous strength of the muscular body, still he was surprised at the force with which he was flung to the ground. At the thought of what that strength might be capable of doing to him, knife or no knife, he began to struggle… but it was too late. The bone-crushing grip of one gloved hand was enough to keep him down while the other tore at his ruined clothing, pulling it off in shreds.

In James’s mind the consideration formed that there was really only one reason the creature would strip him… only one reason… but, like electricity along a broken circuit, the thought couldn’t seem to get any farther than that. Only one reason, only one reason, it told him, but never what that reason was. This state of incomprehension lasted as long as it took for his skin to be bared, and no longer. For at that moment the creature pulled aside the lower half of its apron to reveal a huge, erect, blood-stained penis.

This galvanizing sight made James struggle even harder — and even less effectually, for the creature’s strength seemed to grow the nearer it came to its gruesome goal. With a few iron-hard blows it neutralized his struggles, immobilized him; in fact, the stunning pain might have caused him to collapse onto his face if the creature hadn’t been holding him. He might even have given up and gone limp if he hadn’t known now what his fate was to be.

There was no preparation, physical or mental, that could ready him for this, and none was offered. In one agonizing moment he was penetrated fully, ripped open and violated in a single movement. The swiftness of the motion was no relief, however; the real torment had just begun. The creature’s strength and speed were evident here as well as in wielding its more conventional weapon; as it began its impossibly painful thrusts into him, it held him inexorably where it wanted him with a single steely arm around his chest.

Besides excruciating to the point where James thought he might faint (and wished he could), the irregularity of the driving cock was jarring, and prevented even the remotest possibility of acclimatization. Every time the creature shifted even slightly, the next thrust was at some new unbearable angle, finding some new sensitive spot inside him to torture and tear.

I don’t deserve this… oh, god, I don’t deserve this… Somehow this was for a while his single and overwhelming thought until he was screaming it aloud, and with each repetition of the sentiment the creature pounded into him harder.

And… yet… the pressure was…

It was a completely different type of pressure, but still it reminded him, took him back… in his head, somehow, the weight of the creature bearing him down was the weight of his shoulders as he held a stark pillow down over his wife’s face.

No, he told himself in a sort of mental groan, it’s not the same… that was nothing like this… maybe I deserve something, but not this

At this the creature’s arm and hand seemed to tighten as if hoping to crush him, to crack his ribs and drive them right into his lungs until he drowned in his own blood and slowly expired. Maybe it would prefer to be fucking a corpse, being something of a corpse itself… or maybe this was simply the embrace of one murderer for another.

Though the pain had not lessened, even his screams died as he choked and struggled to breathe. He felt compressed, smothered, and as all the air was squeezed from him he began to see tiny shifting points of light not unlike the condemning sun behind his eyes… and perhaps this was not so inappropriate a punishment after all…

Then the crushing arms slackened, and he gasped in the acrid, sex-scented air and coughed twice as the stars began to recede. The creature still held him, however, keeping him stationary for its continued hammering into his ass. But though James found himself able to scream again, he found himself simultaneously less inclined to protest this treatment, and the only sound that escaped his lips was a low moan of continued pain.

It seemed to go on forever, the tireless headless body violating him with endless, patternless brutality, slowly and methodically beating out of him any desire to deny that he deserved this. As the last of this desire faded, he was overwhelmed by an impression of sudden change. The air seemed abruptly fresher — or, rather, the stench of blood and sweat and filth and desperation seemed somehow less unpleasant than it had — and as he took a deep, shuddering taste of it, he began to feel… aroused.

Yes… yes this was as it should be… this was what was due him after what he’d done… for what he was… Yesssss… He felt his own cock growing hard, painfully hard, as the creature continued its relentless pounding. It drove into him just as he’d driven down on his helpless wife, robbing him of choice just as he’d robbed her. And though this brought him more pain than pleasure, yet the pain, because it was so right, because he deserved it so entirely, brought pleasure. His next moan was distinctly one of enjoyment, even ecstacy; and he squirmed against the iron grip now not in any attempt to escape but in carnal revelry — and also perhaps in some emulation of her futile struggles as he’d killed her.

And then the creature gripped him tightly again, crushing him once more, this time even harder, and its muscular body stiffened as it gave one last, savagely deep thrust and seemed to explode into and around him with the force of its orgasm. Feeling his ribs creak and as if he were being incinerated from the inside out, James roared with an agony that was more heavenly right than anything he’d ever felt, and found blackness blossoming in his eyes. Soon he could see no light but the stabbing brilliance of his guilt, and even that presently began to fade as he toppled hard onto the rough, blood-stained ground.

The throbbing of both his erection and the sharp pain in his bleeding ass and elsewhere eventually awakened him. He dragged his eyes open sluggishly and tried to fight off the sort of haze, glowing with that same horrible light, that filled his vision. Rusty, twisted shapes were all he could make out before him, which was only to be expected, but where was the creature? Slowly he stirred, delighting in the pain every movement occasioned throughout his body, and looked around for his punisher.

It really did seem to have actually exploded, for nothing remained of it but copious amounts of blood, random spatters and gobs of blackened gore, and shattered bits of bone… and the apron, which was draped across James’s back where it must have fallen when the creature dissolved. It slid stiffly off him as he sat up, and he reached out for it. Holding it, he smiled vaguely.

He got slowly to his feet and stretched leisurely. He had gone, and remained, unsatisfied, and his need for release was even greater than before, but he knew that could easily be remedied; he could sense sources of satisfaction everywhere around him.

Within, everything was gone, he noticed. Everything, gone. Everything except the brilliance that was Mary. She was still in his head, but that didn’t matter; he knew what to do. As he pulled the apron strap over and fastened the ties at his back across what remained of his tattered clothing, his smile grew.

The helmet was heavy — very heavy — but, somehow, despite having anticipated no such weight, he lifted it without trouble. It fit easily and well, bringing with it that perfect, perfect darkness. There was only one source of light he needed; he had no need for that bright memory in his head, so it could just —

A wrenching snap like a bear trap’s closing echoed in the space around him, and the memory was — gone. The light, gone. The guilt and the pain and the awareness of any events past… gone. His body twitched, staggered half a step, then straightened. Blood gushed from beneath the metal edges only for a moment before flames roared briefly within the confines of his new world.

He rolled his shoulders, settling the pyramid more comfortably, then cast a slow look around at the flawless darkness. Crouching, his hand went unerringly to the hilt of his knife, and he dragged it up as he straightened. It, too, was heavier than he had expected, and his gait was jerky and slow. Nevertheless, it was with perfect satisfaction that he walked away. The barbed wire snapped, whipped, flailed before him, and the knife, screeching behind him, scraped a meandering line of glowing silver on the pavement in his wake.


This story is dedicated to fe, who originally introduced me to the world of Silent Hill, and to scacao, whose amazing Gundam Wing fic just dripping with Silent Hill inspired me finally to finish writing this.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?



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).


Clinical Treatment


The force with which Saitou threw Sano to the floor of the treatment room at the Oguni clinic sent blood spattering from the gash across his chest to the wood on which he now sprawled. Sano didn’t mind a little rough handing, especially from Saitou, but being practically dragged along the ground all the way from the bar to the doctor was something he didn’t much appreciate.

At their abrupt entry into the room Megumi had started a little, but now she only watched, calm and wordless, as Sano swore incoherently at Saitou. It was neither the first time this had happened nor particularly uncharacteristic.

“I told you I could get here just fine on my own!” was the first thing Sano managed to articulate properly. It was a pointless statement, however, since he had told Saitou that several times on the way over, and Saitou hadn’t listened then any more than he was likely to now.

“I’m not done with you,” the officer answered ominously.

“Shouldn’t you be dealing with the rest of that brawl?” wondered Sano, surly but not honestly wishing Saitou were anywhere but here.

“The men can earn their pay for once.” Saitou was glowering down at Sano as the latter shifted into a kneeling position and glared back. “Do you have any idea who that was I pulled you off of back there?”

“Yeah, I–”

“Sugiyama Shinichiro is an influential tradesman with connections all over the country. He’s one of the richest men in Tokyo and one of the most ruthless. A word from him could have you killed and your body hidden so no one would ever find you, and a second word would make sure nobody even looked.”

“Well, isn’t it your job to take care of guys like that?”

Saitou completely ignored this remark. “Just because his brother is every bit as worthless a deadbeat as you are does not make him a good target for your idiotic weekend games.”

“He wasn’t a ‘target!'” Sano protested with, he thought, a fair imitation of honest outrage. He was outraged, of course, but it was just the usual anger at Saitou’s treatment of him, not because the accusations were untrue. “He just happened to be there when that fight got started, and–”

“Just shut up, ahou. This is the fifth time in the last two months you’ve gotten yourself into this kind of trouble and I’ve had to get you out of it; I’m sick and tired of wasting my influence on you. You can’t just stick to lowlifes like yourself, can you?” Sano had rarely seen Saitou this irritated; it was very picturesque. “No, you have to seek out and start pointless fights with the highest-profile people you can find and get yourself into situations you need a government agent to get you out of alive.”

“It’s not like I go out looking for them,” Sano lied. He had struggled to his feet by this point, but here Saitou stepped forward and shoved him to the floor again.

“Is there some reason you keep doing this?” the officer demanded harshly, towering over Sano with fists clenched. “Some reason that fits into any logical human rationale? Or are you really every bit as brainless as I’ve always thought you?”

It was consistently marvelous to Sano how Saitou could enrage and electrify him at the same time; how Sano could have come to crave emotions he normally would have considered negative simply because they were the best he could expect from that source, desire this rough treatment only because it was closer to what he wanted than anyone else’s gentleness… and yet grow irate when he received it. Although he opened his mouth to answer, he couldn’t be sure what he planned on saying. He certainly wasn’t about to admit the reason he kept doing this, whether or not it would fit Saitou’s idea of ‘logical human rationale.’

But Saitou didn’t give him a chance to say anything at all. “This is the last time I step forward to help you out of a mess like this; do you understand?”

Sano tried not to show just how much of a stab this statement was. “But I thought the commissioner said–”

“I don’t care that you came to Kyoto and I don’t care that you’re Himura’s friend; it’s not my job to clean up after you, so next time you can just get yourself hanged so we can all be free of your idiocy.”

Sano had scrambled back and was moving to stand again, in response to which Saitou took a menacing step toward him, but at last Megumi spoke. Her tone was placid, and the spark in her eyes expressed plainly that the delay in her intervention was no accident. “Now, now, I can’t have you worrying my patient to death.”

“It would save you a considerable amount of trouble,” Saitou replied. He stared down at Sano with burning eyes for a long moment before striding abruptly from the room.

Once it had slammed shut, Sano tore his gaze from the door with an effort and rallied himself not only for the remonstrance he knew Megumi expected him to make but also for the entire conversation that must follow.

“You couldn’t have stepped in before he started ripping me a new one?”

“No,” she replied brusquely, “because then I would have had to do it, and I have enough to do with you tonight as it is.” Her hands were gentler than her tone, however, as she helped him to the patient bed and began examining his injuries. “Besides,” she added with a somewhat evil smile, “he’s so good at it. It would have been a shame to interrupt him.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “Yeah, he’s made an art out of being an asshole.”

“Trouble attracts trouble, I suppose,” she said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

She’d been muttering something of her own at the time — “I’m going to have to stitch this,” he thought — and hadn’t heard him. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“But really,” she went on as she washed her hands in the basin by the door, “have you noticed we only see him when something goes wrong?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

The glance she shot him was more confused than anything else, but there might have been a hint of suspicion to it.

“That I keep having to be helped by him,” Sano explained quickly.

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe you should get a clue and stop getting into this kind of trouble.”

“Yeah…” Sano murmured, glancing again at the door. Then he added more quietly, “Where do you s’pose they took that Sugiyama guy…?”

“It’s probably best not to ask,” Megumi replied. “And lie still.”

There was something a little untrustworthy about her tone, and Sano speculated immediately, “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Megumi laughed musically and, Sano thought, a little uneasily. “Why would someone like that come to this clinic when he undoubtedly has a private doctor back at his estate?”

“Because it’s closest. Ow! shit! warn me before you stick fucking needles into me!”

She made a disdainful noise and continued stitching up his worst injury.

“Anyway,” Sano grunted, “he was only half-conscious when I last saw him, and he didn’t seem to have enough of a brain to get himself to the right place even when he wasn’t drunk off his ass and kinda beat-up… by me…”

There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Megumi said with a roll of eyes, snipping off her thread deftly and concisely wiping the blood away from the newly-sewn-up wound. “And don’t jump to conclusions.”

Contemplatively Sano watched her apply bandages to the fresh stitches and what other of his hurts required them. “If they’d brought him here, he’d probably be in the opposite corner room,” he mused.

Rolling her eyes yet again, Megumi stood abruptly. Applying pressure to a rather uncomfortable spot on his chest, she forced him to lie down. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” she remarked, and went to wash her hands again.

“Pretty sure you’re not the only one who thinks so,” Sano grinned, putting his arms casually behind his head.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to look in on.”

“Including Sugiyama, right?” Sano abandoned his relaxed pose almost immediately after assuming it, sitting up.

“You need to lie still for a bit,” she admonished, not entirely without the air of one making excuses, as she reached for the door.

“Why should I lie around at all?” demanded Sano, a triumphant grin growing on his face. “You didn’t give me any drugs or nothing. You’re running off to get him out of here before I can get at him, aren’t you?”

She drew herself up with dignity. “As I said, I have other patients to look in on. It has nothing to do with you. And you need to lie down because I’m your doctor and I said so.”

Sano jumped up, fully prepared to follow her wherever she was going and see if his guess was correct. As if to escape him, she opened the door quickly and took a step forward… but then fell back a pace with an inadvertent gasp. Even Sano’s progress was stopped in his surprise.

“I’ll handle this, doctor,” Saitou said, stepping through the door past Megumi, his dark, irritated gaze locked on Sano’s face.

Megumi could recover her presence of mind quicker than anyone Sano knew. “I would appreciate that,” she smiled. “Thank you, officer.” And she was gone.

Saitou closed the door and advanced. He did not look happy.

Sano was torn between pleasure that Saitou had returned (or perhaps never left) and wondering if Saitou might actually deliberately injure him this time and give Megumi more work. But all he said, in a tone of relatively indifferent defiance, was, “What are you doing still here?”

“Making sure you don’t do exactly what you’re trying to do right now.”

“Oh, really? What do you think I’m doing that’s so awful it requires your personal attention?”

Saitou gave a frustrated sigh. “You weren’t angry enough tonight to justify a follow-up visit to that overdressed idiot, so the only reason I can think of for you to be stalking him now is to draw attention to yourself again.”

“Draw attention to myself?” Sano echoed, trying to sound surprised at the accusation and, he feared, failing. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know, ahou; why don’t you tell me? I’ve had the feeling you were getting yourself into trouble on purpose all this time, but even of you I almost couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for you to be that stupid? Or are you suicidal?”

“Something like that,” Sano muttered. When Saitou’s impatient, irritated glare indicated the insufficiency of this answer, it was Sano’s turn to sigh. “You’re the investigator,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the narrowing of Saitou’s eyes at this. There wasn’t, he believed, any way Saitou could really be completely in the dark about his motives… unless he did simply think Sano suicidally stupid. Well, Saitou had said this was the last time he would help him out of a situation like tonight’s, which meant this little game had to end here. So, Sano figured, he might as well finish digging his grave before trying to evade it. He’d known, after all, that this moment had to come eventually; he hadn’t really been prepared for it (if that was even possible), but he’d certainly known.

“I noticed you help me out way more than makes sense unless… And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he really…'” Sano gave a half laugh and shrugged. “The truth is,” he said after a deep breath, “I kinda li–”

The confession, the very syllable was cut off by Saitou’s hand over his mouth as another clamped down on his arm to hold him in place. Sano’s eyes went wide in surprise as he half-choked in the cigarette scent of the glove and stared into Saitou’s face that was suddenly very near his own. This behavior at another time might have angered him, but with Saitou so close, and Sano just having said (or started to say) what he had, all he could feel was the overfast pounding of his heart.

“Ahou,” the wolf admonished in a low, intense tone, “think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.” For a long moment he paused, while Sano waited breathlessly to see where he was going with this. “Because if you invite,” Saitou finally continued, “I’m not going to refuse.” Feeling his eyes widen and his pulse intensify even farther, Sano wondered why on earth Saitou was phrasing this like a warning. “But if you’re looking for something soft and romantic,” the officer finished, “you’re better off with that woman.”

Sano wasn’t quite sure what woman Saitou could possibly be referring to. As a matter of fact, he really only had an amorphous concept of what a woman was at this point, given that the world had narrowed to the hot, expectant space he and Saitou occupied and nothing else seemed to exist.

The hand over his mouth pulled slowly away. As his lips were grazed slightly by Saitou’s fingers in this movement, Sano found his face tilting forward slightly as if to ask them to stay. And now he couldn’t think of anything to say. Saitou’s caution, after all, was valid enough; Sano knew perfectly well that, the moment this moment was over and the strangeness and anticipation had passed, he was certain to be irate at the cop again for something or other.

But, hell, that would be then. This was now.

“I’ve been starting brawls and getting myself stabbed just to get you to show up,” he replied hoarsely, “and you think you’re gonna scare me off with a vague little threat like that?”

The smile that spread slowly across Saitou’s face sent an intense, prickling shudder running through Sano’s entire body. Though not much different on the surface from the man’s usual predatory smirk, yet it somehow suggested he was deeply satisfied with Sano’s answer — as if his warning had been a test and Sano had passed particularly well.

And then Saitou descended on him like some force of nature made flesh, kissing Sano suddenly and fiercely. Rough gloved hands gripped him, pressing painfully against his injuries; possessive arms encircled him, making him feel always just a little off-balance and, for the moment, utterly dependent; and at their uppermost point of connection Saitou seemed to be attempting to devour Sano alive and whole. Sano didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so wonderful.

“I shouldn’t be rewarding you for your stupid ideas,” Saitou murmured after a while against Sano’s lips.

“Admit it,” Sano triumphed (though perhaps that was the wrong word when he could still hardly believe this was happening) — “you couldn’t stand the idea of me getting hanged or whatever, so you kept showing up to help me even when it annoyed the hell out of you.”

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

“That’s an unusual way of handling it,” Megumi commented suddenly from the door.

It was like that old story where the guy got a look at heaven only to find years had passed during the brief glimpse. Surely it hadn’t been long enough for Megumi to deal with some other patient — possibly to the point where he could be discharged — and decide it was safe to come back into a room where Saitou was supposedly raging? And why didn’t she look nearly as surprised as Sano thought she should?

Meanwhile, Saitou had, very unfortunately, released him and turned an amused expression on the doctor. “Nevertheless, the situation is under control,” he said.

“The end always justifies the means with you, doesn’t it?” Whether the disapproval in her voice was real or feigned, or to what exactly it referred, Sano couldn’t quite tell.

“In this case a more accurate idiom would be ‘killing two birds with one stone.'”

Megumi looked as if she had some issue she wasn’t vocalizing, and in any case she didn’t smirk nearly as well as Saitou did — but she still definitely had her own style. “I trust, then, I won’t be seeing him in here again.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow with a brief laugh. “I’m taking him in hand, not miraculously giving him a brain. You still have the pointless fights he’s always getting into, self-inflicted injury, and whatever I do to him to deal with.” At this point Sano protested rather loudly, but they both ignored him as Saitou finished, “Situations like tonight’s, however, you no longer need to worry about.”

“Then I suppose I won’t have to move Sugiyama-san after all.”

“No,” laughed Sano. “Matter of fact, give him my best.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded wryly. “You’ve had all the clinical treatment you need for one night.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sano glanced slyly at Saitou, who seemed unable to restrain a faint smirk at the suggestion. Signs were good that Saitou had been in much the same state of mind Sano had ever since Kyoto, and Sano’s pleasure at the cleverness of his own plan (stupid as it had seemed all along) was overshadowed only by his pleasure at its outcome.

Megumi snorted and rolled her eyes. Then she fixed the latter somewhat severely on Saitou. “I’d better not see him back in here tonight, at least. I have other things to do.”

“Nah…” Sano felt suddenly a bit sheepish about all the trouble he’d given Megumi over the last couple of months in pursuit of an end he’d never really considered very likely. “Got no reason to go looking for fights now.” Especially since he could probably find one with Saitou now any time he wanted, and not even need to go to extreme measures to get the man’s attention.

As if reading his thoughts, Saitou punched him in the arm none too gently. “Ahou. That’s not what she meant.”

“God, asshole, that’s no reason to fucking hit me!” Sano’s hand went from rubbing the spot on his arm to striking out against Saitou, who stepped easily aside. “What the hell did you think she meant?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Saitou smirked. “Come on.” And he started toward the door.

“Where are we going?” Sano jogged after him.

“I’ll explain that too.”

“Hey, see you, kitsune!” Sano whirled, walking backward for a few paces, to wave at Megumi. Stumbling, his back running hard into the doorframe, he was soon forced to resume normal movement; but before he turned he saw her standing still watching them leave, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at him again.

She was smiling, though.


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).


Biting Off (Something Presumably Worse)


It felt a shame to spend any time in jail as a result of such a boring brawl, but he was too central to the affair, physically and in terms of culpability, to dodge the police now; and he’d had enough dull fighting for the night that the idea of knocking any of them down and making his escape wasn’t particularly palatable. So he remained seated on the floor in approximately the middle of the room, with a broken table on one side and an unconscious opponent on the other, and waited for the officers to work their way through the various results of the melee to the guy that had started it all. And even the waiting wasn’t much more boring than the fight had been.

Eventually, after the man to his left had been hauled off and the table dragged out of the way so the police could stop tripping over it, one of the officers laid a heavy hand on Sano’s shoulder and commanded, “On your feet.” The other floor-bound participants had been asked if they were able to stand, but the police knew perfectly well who Zanza was and that he undoubtedly had no debilitating injuries. Sano had never been able to decide, in situations like these, whether such treatment was compliment or insult, but he didn’t much care. At the moment he just looked up placidly, ready to acquiesce.

A familiar voice from the other side of the room, however, disrupted that placidity completely: “Leave that one.”

Sano’s head whipped around toward the door and the officer in command of this raid or whatever it was. Not that he wouldn’t recognize that voice any time and anywhere, but his body didn’t quite obey his mental command not to make the unnecessary effort in looking. He decided, at least, to stay where he was, to forget entirely about getting up and going peacefully.

“Sir?” (It must, Sano reflected, take some guts for a normal cop to question Saitou’s orders, even with a single, polite syllable.)

“Leave him to me,” Saitou said, unmoved and unmoving.

“Sir, this is–” (Guy must be new.)

“I know who he is,” interrupted Saitou. “Just get the rest of them out of here.”

“Yes, sir.”

So Sano was allowed to continue sitting on the floor in perfect tranquility — except for the thought of what Saitou might do to him once the others were gone — while the police hurried around him removing all the rest of the brawlers. More than half of the latter, Sano knew, would be given a dark eye and a talking-to and released immediately; only those with a history of this type of violence would be held for any length of time.

And he would certainly have been among those sleeping on a hard cell cot for the night if Saitou didn’t have something presumably worse planned for him. Briefly he toyed with the idea of trying to escape now the room was starting to clear out, but found he was actually somewhat morbidly curious about Saitou’s intentions. At the very least, it might turn into a fight that would be a hundred times more entertaining than the one that had brought the wolf here in the first place.

Except then Saitou would start going on about defense again, lecturing and making all sorts of points that hit even closer to home than his iron blows… Sano wasn’t sure if the fight was worth it. Saitou got under his skin like nobody else he’d ever met; was it really a good idea to sit here calmly waiting for that? Hell, Saitou might well be keeping him back just to lecture him and would then deliver him to the police station.

Why the hell did Saitou care about Sano’s ability to defend himself anyway? Like it had anything to do with him anymore. Or maybe this was what Saitou did when he got bored: pretended to be a regular policeman just so he could track Sano down — Sano specifically — and lecture him about defense. What a dumb hobby.

At a sound of finality in Saitou’s latest orders, Sano looked up and noticed the last of the other officers, towing a distraught bartender that wanted to remain behind and assess the damage, leaving the room. And as the door, half-broken from someone having been thrown against it at some point, screeched closed behind them, Saitou turned to face Sano. Languidly, tossing away a spent cigarette as he came, he moved across the mayhem-cluttered space to stand before him.

Sano didn’t allow Saitou the first word. “I know what you’re going to say, so just fucking don’t.”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled. “Get lost.”

“After specifically arranging privacy for this conversation,” wondered Saitou, still in that perfectly unperturbed tone, “do you really think I’m going to just ‘get lost?'”

Sano sighed slightly. “All right, fine, get it over with.”

“What is it you think I’m going to say?”

“You know and I know, so why bother?” Stubbornly Sano was staring at the floor between his knees, but he could hear the faint amusement growing in Saitou’s tone, and fancied he could picture the exact arrangement of the man’s mouth.

“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”

“Well, maybe I’m not going to give you the pleasure, asshole.” Sano’s tone, on the other hand, had become almost a snarl.

“Your ineptitude is no pleasure of mine.”

“Coulda fooled me…”

Nearly audible over the long silence that followed was a sort of countdown to the moment Sano gave in.

“Better defense or whatever wouldn’t have helped here anyway,” was his eventual surly mutter.

“Oh?” Saitou seemed only calmly pleased at having dragged it out of him, as if this were simply the natural progression of the conversation and nothing to be particularly enthusiastic about.

“This was just a brawl, not a real fight.”

“Ignoring that staggering lack of logic for the moment, you’re still missing the point.”

Sano looked up in vague curiosity to find Saitou staring down at him with a much more serious expression than he’d anticipated. Though quite aware he would probably regret it, he couldn’t resist: “What do you mean?”

“You didn’t enjoy this.” Saitou gestured to the pervasive destruction around them.

Climbing to his feet and avoiding the gaze of the far too perceptive officer, Sano finally responded, “No.”

“But I understand you started it. Care to explain?”

“Guy pissed me off.”

With a nod Saitou said, “That’s what I thought.”

“So?”

“So, when I say you need better defense, I don’t just mean in battle. You’re too reactive, too open to attack in every area. You allow yourself to be manipulated emotionally because you don’t guard yourself against it.”

Brushing fruitlessly at rumples in his clothing, Sano looked warily over at the other man. This wasn’t the usual lecture, and he didn’t quite see Saitou’s point, but wasn’t eager to say so.

“For example,” Saitou continued, taking two steps. “If I…” And unexpectedly — indeed, it was the last thing in all time and space Sano could have expected — he seized Sano’s jaw in a firm grip, yanked his face forward, bent down slightly, and kissed him hard.

It was as if lightning had struck.

The impossibly enjoyable physical sensation was nothing to the others that came rushing over and around Sano with incredible speed: the shock that kept him still and let Saitou wreak havoc on his mouth; the surprise at his own reactions and belated realizations; the thought of who and what Saitou was and how Sano really felt about that; the longing for Saitou to put his arms around him and not let go, to take him home, to keep him — it all swept up in an instant’s fraction, forming an impenetrably swift whirlwind of sudden comprehension and confusion and desire at whose center Sano was dazed and helpless.

But the most intense part of this rapid, unstoppable cavalcade, the most overwhelming and engrossing thought, was the relentlessly baffled and angry query, How did Saitou know? How did he know when I didn’t even know?

Sano stumbled back and nearly fell when Saitou let go. Everything still flurried through him at speeds that kept him from regaining anything like a sense of composure or balance, and he could do nothing more than stare, open-mouthed, at the other man.

The latter was smoothing out the collar of his jacket where Sano had unconsciously been clutching it. “Not only couldn’t you have stopped that if you’d wanted to,” he said, “but when you realize I only did it to make a point…” He left the statement eloquently unfinished as he stepped abruptly away.

There was a half moment of recognition, which Sano could perhaps have used to brace himself if he’d had the presence of mind, before it hit home. He was conscious of something twisting and perhaps snapping inside him, which was doubtless what caused the twisting change of expression on his face, and then…

As quickly as it had all come, it all vanished. And it left behind merely a sort of chilling vacuum that echoed vaguely of the previous hurricane. This didn’t exactly hurt, he thought abstractedly; it was more like the sensation a child might feel at the sudden removal of a promised treat they’d never anticipated and that had been in the first place a little incredible. He hadn’t even had time to get used to the idea, and now it was withdrawn. And in that remaining void — the eye of the storm? — he found his thoughts unusually clear and moving at a speed similar to that of his emotions just moments before.

Watching Sano’s writhing expression settle, Saitou evidently interpreted it to his satisfaction, for he smirked briefly, then turned and began walking away without so much as a goodbye. He was searching out a new cigarette, and lit it as his measured steps carried him toward the door.

Sano was surprised at the sound of his own voice as he said, “All right, I get it.” Yes, there was a hint of anger, a touch of hurt, but overall it was simply level and serious.

“Good,” Saitou replied without stopping.

“At least, I get the point you were trying to make just now. What I don’t get is why you bother.”

Pausing and turning again, Saitou regarded him, unreadable and wordless.

“You go to so much trouble trying to make sure I get things like that,” Sano continued when it was obvious Saitou didn’t intend to reply. “You track me down just to lecture me, you beat me up, you go out of your way to do all sorts of stupid shit to let me know what’s wrong with me and how you think I should be instead.” He felt somewhat detached — as if he knew this should, eventually would affect him emotionally, but for the moment was riding a current of pure logic to an unknown conclusion. “Why? What’s so important about this, Saitou? Why should it matter to you whether I stay the way I am or turn into whatever you want me to be?”

Finally Saitou spoke. “Who says it does matter?”

You do. Over and over and over again. Every time you show up somewhere and show me some ‘example’ of why the way I am doesn’t work. Obviously it bothers you. Why? Why do you care? Why is this important? I’m not getting in the way of someone you’re trying to send to Kyoto, or involved in some case of yours where you don’t want me to screw up, or even really connected with you in any way at all… so why do you want to change me so bad?”

Saitou said nothing, only looked at him with those inscrutable golden eyes, so Sano was left to ponder the answers to his own questions in silence. What seemed the obvious explanation and would have been his first guess had, with Saitou’s dismissal of a passionate kiss as solely ‘to make a point,’ been denied before the questions even arose… but that, Sano realized, was the exact and only explanation he wanted. He didn’t want some other bullshit excuse for why Saitou felt the need to prod him continually on his skill levels and way of life… though Saitou doubtless had one.

But he wouldn’t make more a fool of himself than he already had. However much he would like to believe Saitou’s concern was a sign of his personal interest in Sano, he couldn’t — not after the sight of the wolf’s cold, unmoved face after a kiss that had changed Sano’s world but had really been intended merely to prove how emotionally assailable he was. And yet what other explanation was there?

Saitou hadn’t said anything. Obviously he had no enlightenment to offer, so why was he still here? He’d made his goddamn point and more, so why didn’t he just go? Or did he plan on forcing Sano to give some admission of edification again? Irritation swelled in Sano at the thought, and he muttered rebelliously, “You’re so fucking sure you can do it, too…”

“You think so?”

“It makes sense, I guess. Arrogant bastard like you probably thinks he can change anything in the world. It explains your job and everything.”

“If I thought I could change anything I wanted to,” Saitou replied evenly, “would I be wasting my time on you?”

“I don’t know,” was Sano’s frustrated response. “You tell me.”

Saitou smirked.

The brief and inexplicable calm was over. Sano could feel the full force of his emotions returning, filling the void with throbbing, rushing pain, anger, and confusion that swiftly became a storm as rapidly churning as the last had been. “Listen to me, bastard,” he seethed, all his levelheadedness vanishing like the smoke of Saitou’s cigarette into the air. “I’ve worked really fucking hard not to be the kind of person I was turning into because of the shit I went through as a kid and growing up. I finally figured out what I do want to be, and there is no way in fucking hell you are going to change that; you are not going to change me, so you might as well just give up now.”

“So you think you have no room for improvement?” Eyes flashing, Saitou took a step away from the door, toward Sano again. Evidently the younger man’s words had provoked him, but he also looked distinctly surprised. Honestly, Sano was distinctly surprised he’d let slip something so personal.

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Sano snapped, a burning urge (born partially of chagrin) to be yelling right in Saitou’s face pushing him a step forward as well. “But why the hell do you think it’s your business to point that out in the first place?”

“You keep asking me that,” replied Saitou darkly. “Why don’t you figure it out?”

“You think I haven’t?” Sano growled. “You think I asked because I don’t already know?” And then, despite every screaming warning from his better judgment, he really did say it. “You want me, but since I’m not your type and you’re too much of a bastard just to get over it, you’re trying to change me into whatever the hell is your type so you can justify to yourself being interested!”

As he waited for the crushing riposte, the reminder that the kiss hadn’t meant anything he wanted it to, the assertion that being pathetic and desperate didn’t excuse jumping to conclusions, he noticed they were within a pace of each other now, their demeanors combative and tense. Perhaps he only observed this because he refused ot meet Saitou’s eyes. Moments dragged by more and more heavily, and he became increasingly disbelieving he’d actually said all of that. Or any of it.

Finally the blow fell.

“You’re right.”

Another few moments dragged by while Sano wrestled with an entirely different disbelief before he managed to look up into Saitou’s serious and still slightly annoyed face. And he found that the rushing was back, this time removing his latest turmoil and replacing it with another confusing set of thoughts and emotions. He was apprehensive, he was skeptical, he was perplexed, he was hopeful…

“What did you just say?” he managed at last.

“I said you’re right,” Saitou replied bluntly, speaking those unspeakable words again. “You’re on the right track, at least, which for you is close enough: I can’t justify being only statically interested in potential like yours.”

Sano stared at him, the new vortex in his head and chest whirling at even faster rates and, he thought, making his heart pound and his body heat up unnaturally. Because when Saitou put it like that, it almost seemed… flattering. Still… “If my ‘potential’ is the only thing you’re interested in, you can just fuck off.” It came out hoarsely, angrily, and yet somehow invitingly. Or at least Saitou seemed to think so, for, yet with the air of one grudgingly giving in to something he’s long known to be inevitable, he closed the distance between them for the second time during that encounter and pulled Sano into another harsh kiss. And this time arms clutched tightly and forms pressed together and didn’t separate even when their swollen lips did.

“And if you tell me that was just to prove a point,” Sano gasped, “I swear I will smash your fucking head.”

“Though I doubt you’re capable of it, no, it wasn’t.”

“The other one wasn’t either, was it?”

“Yes, it was.”

The furious tension between them, augmented by close proximity, had become pricklingly tangible. It wasn’t sexual (though Sano had a feeling it could be used in much the same way); rather, it more closely resembled anger, building up like electricity at their contact. Typical.

“But there were other ways you coulda made that point,” he persisted; “it didn’t have to be a kiss.”

“Maybe I wanted to see how it would change things.” It was so irritating when Saitou started statements about his own damn motivations with ‘maybe,’ as it always gave Sano a feeling of being toyed with. In this situation, however, the rest of the sentence was more gripping.

“You and your changing things,” he grumbled.

“It’s not going to stop, you realize.”

“Yeah, I think I get that now.” Sano didn’t bother expressing the growing impression, directly in contrast to what he’d thought all along, that Saitou’s desire to improve him was actually somewhat complimentary now he felt Saitou didn’t entirely disapprove of him. “But you realize changing me is way more than you can handle?”

“Or maybe you’re in over your head trying to prevent it,” Saitou snorted.

Or we’re just going to drive each other fucking crazy and when they find our bodies they’ll have to pry our cold dead hands off each other’s throats.”

“I’ve never considered that unlikely,” replied Saitou as he released him. Their separation was like that of two objects charged with static: although the field of violent energy surrounding Sano’s body did technically feel less fierce, there seemed to be a sort of crackling around them both, most chaotic where they were closest, invisible sparks of continued strain.

“How did you know, anyway?” It was embarrassing to admit, but he was painfully curious. “I had no idea until…”

With a raised brow Saitou replied, “You really don’t realize how easy you are to read, do you?” Sano flushed, but before he could retort Saitou went on. “It’s very tempting to tell you this was all just an extension of my original point, and see how you take it.”

Open-mouthed, Sano stared at him. The wolf was lighting yet another cigarette, replacing the one he’d dropped for the second kiss. “You wouldn’t,” Sano said in a low tone that would have been deadly if it were at all possible for Saitou to feel threatened by him.

“Not to you, no,” Saitou agreed.

“What does that mean? You’d do it to someone else?”

“Let’s go. I’m sure the bartender is more than anxious to get back in here and see how much of his property you’ve destroyed.” And Saitou headed again for the exit.

Sano hastened after him, annoyed. “No, seriously, what do you mean ‘not to me?’ You better not mean you go around doing this kind of bullshit all the time — setting people up like you’re interested in starting something and then tell them it was all a fucking act?! Saitou!!”

The expression that turned toward Sano’s passionate demand was sardonically amused. “Vulnerable,” was all Saitou said, in a tone both of irritation and reminder.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano growled. “I really wanna know.”

“At least having you around more often should make beating you into shape a little easier,” Saitou smirked darkly as he gestured Sano to precede him through the open way.

“I already told you…”

Their voices faded as the door screeched shut.


This was done for 30_kisses theme #17 “kHz.” I’ve rated it .

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


Corner of the Eye

It did rather seem typical of Sano to have gotten himself into a relationship that wasn’t ever likely to go smoothly.

Much as Kenshin and Katsu would like to pretend they don’t care about Sano’s breakup with Saitou, something has to be done.

Sano’s behavior today had been entirely inexplicable from beginning to end, and at this latest, Kenshin had to whisper his name in some embarrassment.

“What?” Sano wondered as the girl ran off with a giggle and a wave. “Just saying hello.”

“Since when do you say hello to girls in the street by kissing them?” said Kenshin in the same chagrin.

With bright innocent Sano replied, “Isn’t that the best way to do it?”

“Maybe,” Kenshin allowed. “But you were in such a bad mood before…”

“Kissing makes things better; didn’t you know that?”

“Sano, I have known you for almost two years, and I have never seen you kiss someone — especially not a casual acquaintance in the street — to put yourself in a better mood before.”

“You never saw me kiss anyone at all, huh?” Sano asked curiously; Kenshin believed, despite the jovial tone, the bad mood hadn’t entirely disappeared after all.

“Not that I can remember.”

“Huh. I thought everyone knew.”

“Knew what?”

“Knew… that I hate relationships because all people ever do is fight and then do stupid shit to make each other jealous.” Sano seemed to be struggling for continued lightness of tone with this incongruous remark, and Kenshin was puzzled. “Anyway,” Sano continued, his voice intensifying even further, “let’s get out of here before someone decides to arrest me for public indecency.”

This couldn’t be aimed at anyone other than Saitou; Kenshin had been aware of the officer’s presence unobtrusively observing the street in a recessed doorway close by, but hadn’t thought Sano had noticed. He certainly hadn’t associated the circumstances of the wolf’s proximity and Sano’s strange behavior.

Saitou evidently heard and likewise assumed he was the target of the statement, for he replied immediately, “I can’t arrest you every single time you go out in public, ahou.”

“Not even for making out with girls in the middle of the street, huh?” Sano made no move to depart as he’d just proposed; that and the words spoken were adding up to an almost incredible explanation for all of this.

“If you want me to arrest you,” Saitou sneered, “I’m sure I could come up with a charge — but whatever you were doing just now, I didn’t notice.”

Sano snorted. “Well, that’s good. Wouldn’t want you trying to insult my taste because she was too short or had the wrong color hair or something.”

“It’s true brunettes tend to be idiots,” Saitou sniffed.

“Thought you didn’t see her,” shot back Sano in dark triumph. “How would you know what her hair looked like?” And Kenshin had to admit that for Saitou to make such a slip, just for the sake of insulting Sano’s hair, was rather telling.

Whether the officer agreed or not, all he said was, “Hn.”

“Che… let’s get the hell outta here, Kenshin.” And this time Sano really did turn and stalk away.

Kenshin, after a baffled glance in Saitou’s direction, hastened after his friend. “That did not work very well,” he commented carefully once they were in the next street.

A sidelong glance served as Sano’s acceptance that Kenshin now understood the situation, and the young man replied gruffly, “You didn’t think so?”

“Did it make you feel any better?”

“Fuck,” Sano muttered, and said nothing more for several moments. Finally he grumbled, “I should kiss you next time.”

Kenshin struggled to recover from how much this startled him in time to nip the idea in the bud. “Sano,” he said very seriously, “I am not getting involved in this. I will not let you kiss me to make Saitou jealous.”

Sano seemed a little startled as well at Kenshin’s severity, and after staring at him for a few moments, again said, “Che…” and fell silent.

Kenshin had no desire to kiss his friend, or to take part in any petty jealousy scheme; he had no idea what were the circumstances of Sano’s relationship with Saitou, nor what exactly might be going on between them now; indeed, it was a little difficult to wrap his head around the idea of them being together at all — and all of this provided a formidable barrier to helping Sano as he naturally wanted to. Therefore it took him a while to decide what to say next. Eventually, “Sano,” he ventured delicately, “whatever kind of fight you may have had with him, it is obvious you still care about him.” Even that felt strange: that Sano cared about Saitou

“No shit,” the young man mumbled.

Kenshin smiled wryly. It did rather seem typical of Sano to have gotten himself into a relationship that wasn’t ever likely to go smoothly. Still, even with that in mind… Saitou? But he forced himself to go on. “Have you talked to him since…” He trailed off; he assumed it had been a fight, but couldn’t really be positive.

“Talked to him just now, didn’t I?”

“I mean really talked to him,” said Kenshin sternly.

“I dunno if you’ve noticed, but talking to Saitou doesn’t work very well.”

“It cannot work any worse than what you are trying now. You should not need me to tell you that playing this kind of game is not the right way to heal a relationship.” He didn’t want to accuse Sano outright of being childish and vindictive… no matter how clearly Sano’s reply proved the point:

“I don’t figure I need you to tell me much of anything.” Sano was obviously stung by the reproof. “Why don’t you go heal your relationship with jou-chan?”

While this did not quite hurt or insult, Kenshin didn’t much feel like sticking around for something that might. “That is a very good idea, Sano,” he smiled. “I will see you some other time.” And he broke away from his companion without waiting for a response.

He planned on leaving it at that. Sano had obviously never mentioned the Saitou thing for reasons of his own, and just as obviously didn’t want advice on the subject; Kenshin found it somewhat bizarre and better left uncontemplated at any rate; so there was no reason the issue should come up again.

But Sano’s absence from their circle from that day forward was so prolonged, so marked by lack of any contact from him whatsoever, that Kenshin could not but think things must have gone from bad to worse and Sano didn’t feel he could come to the dojo anymore. And though Kenshin wasn’t sure it was either his place or his inclination to intrude (mostly because Saitou was involved), he did keep an active eye open for Sano — and worried quietly when he still never saw him.

It occupied his mind enough, in fact, that once or twice he actually probed delicately at the distasteful idea of what a relationship of that sort would be like with Saitou, how it could be patched up once broken, and why in the world it would have this kind of effect on someone if it wasn’t. At times he even thought it might have been better to let Sano kiss him than to let him decide there was no support among friends, run off and brood to decide who knew what, and stay away for who knew what reason — not that Kenshin thought he really could have gone through with any charade that involved kissing Sano, and not that the current circumstance might not eventually have resulted in any event.

Then, as if purposely to augment his concern, the artist/bomber/newspaper friend showed up. It was a rare occasion that brought Katsu to the dojo, and previously he’d never been unaccompanied by Sano, so Kenshin’s immediate reaction to the sight of him was a frown of intensified worry.

Katsu came over to where Kenshin was hanging laundry and said without preamble, “I take it you haven’t seen him either, then.”

Kenshin shook his head with a sigh.

Echoing the sound, Katsu appeared more exasperated than worried. This was a good sign, as it suggested he knew something of Sano’s absence — more than Kenshin did, at any rate. Presently he said, “You know what this is about, don’t you? This is another stupid attempt at getting that stupid cop’s attention.”

Accepting the explanation with a nod, Kenshin remarked ruefully, “If he thinks Saitou will go looking for him, it really is stupid.”

“The one consolation to us is that he can’t stay in hiding long and still eat; he has to show up again soon.”

The redhead agreed. “And since we have an explanation for his absence, we do not have to worry about his safety in the meantime.” And they shared a glum look that spoke clearly just how much they weren’t going to worry.

“Well, I’ll send him your way if I see him,” Katsu sighed.

“I will do the same for you,” replied Kenshin.

Despite this very logical speculation about food, however, Sano stayed gone. Katsu became almost as much a regular at the dojo, exchanging news (or lack thereof) with Kenshin, as Sano had ever been; and Saitou, whenever they saw him, scowled more than ever.

The idea of discussing the matter with the officer seemed so impractical that it had never seriously crossed the rurouni’s mind; the fact that Katsu hadn’t suggested it seemed to indicate he felt similarly — on the point of the futility of talking to the wolf, at least, Sano’s friends agreed with him. But the third or fourth time Kenshin, running his usual errands in town, caught sight of Saitou glowering over a bowl of inferior soba at a cheap open-air restaurant, he felt almost compelled. Despite the fact that Saitou seemed every bit as disinclined to have the conversation as Kenshin was, the latter approached and cleared his throat.

“Have you seen Sano lately?”

Saitou’s expression of displeasure strengthened, and he did not look up. “Why would I have seen him?”

“Well, you have been eating at this restaurant a lot, and it is one of his favorites…”

With a snort Saitou remarked, “Given the quality of the food, that’s no surprise.”

“I have been questioning Sano’s taste lately,” Kenshin couldn’t help but admit, trying not to smile.

“He’s an idiot,” muttered Saitou somewhat pointlessly, his scowl and the accompanying lines on his face deepening even further.

It was obvious there was nothing to be gained from this. Saitou had no more idea where Sano was than Kenshin did… which actually made the theory about why Sano was gone less plausible: why go to such lengths to attract somebody’s notice if that somebody couldn’t find you? “I just hope he is all right,” Kenshin murmured, half to himself.

“Why wouldn’t he be?” the officer demanded with a little more attention, glancing up at last.

Kenshin shrugged.

Saitou, apparently recalling the frame of mind he would prefer to convey, went back to his soba with a reiteration of, “He’s an idiot.”

The redhead made a noncommittal noise and turned to leave.

Well, odd as it seemed to think about, Saitou cared too — which made the entire situation even more foolish. Kenshin didn’t have much experience with romantic spats, and it was still Saitou, but it wouldn’t take a relationship genius to figure this one out. How the two stubbornest men in Tokyo — and a pair with that kind of history, no less — had ever managed to start something, Kenshin could not begin to guess.

At that moment, just as he turned the corner away from the restaurant, he found himself joined unexpectedly by Katsu. “I found him,” was the artist’s somewhat breathless announcement; he appeared to have been running.

“Oh? Where is he? Is he in trouble?” Given the reflections Kenshin had just been entertaining about the stupidity of quarreling lovers, his queries would not have been so energetic if he hadn’t been aware of Saitou right around the corner listening.

Katsu seemed similarly aware of this (having run past him), for his reply, “I think he may be; he wouldn’t let me in to see him,” didn’t feel entirely honest. “And now someone’s caught up with him, he may relocate again, so you should come talk to him while I still know where he is.”

The rurouni raised a curious eyebrow as if to ask, Do you really think this will work?

To which the artist replied with a wry smile and a shrug that said, Do you have a better idea? Out loud he just requested, “Come with me.”

Any internal debate Saitou might have had about whether or not to follow them must (by necessity) have been conducted in haste; Kenshin sensed the wolf’s presence behind them barely a street away. Was Saitou aware he was being baited? Possibly. It was no more important than whether or not he cared; all that mattered was that he did follow. This had gone on far too long.

Katsu led them straight to the wretched area of town where Kenshin would have looked first if he’d been actively searching for Sano — which didn’t speak well for their friend’s creativity or, perhaps, sense of hygiene — and into a grimy hotel that barely warranted the title. The attendant in the lobby was asleep or something similar, and if his opium-scented slump was any testimony to his backbone, he probably wouldn’t have stopped them in any case. Kenshin wondered whether Saitou was concerned enough about Sano to look the other way; it would say something about the relationship if he was.

Of course, his mere presence in a place like this looking for the recalcitrant kenkaya at all said something about the relationship.

It seemed the officer was willing, for the moment at least, to overlook the opium in the interest of following them upstairs. In doing so, rather than join them and admit openly what they were aware of anyway (that he’d been there all along and they all three knew it and this whole thing was idiotic), he was forced to employ greater stealth than the perfunctory level of care he’d given to tailing them thus far — to the point where Kenshin’s awareness of him sank to purely ki-based. Katsu glanced around as if wondering whether or not they were still being followed; at Kenshin’s slight gesture, though, he returned to his guide duty.

It was the last room on the second floor — which floor, incidentally, seemed in danger of collapse at any moment — where Katsu stopped. Standing still, glancing around, Kenshin frowned. What kind of unhealthy and poorly formulated decisions might one come to, moping all alone in a place like this?

Katsu knocked emphatically.

“Who the fuck is it now?” was the grumpy-sounding demand from within.

“Sano, exactly how long do you plan on sitting around in there doing nothing?” Katsu replied in nearly the same tone. “And how the hell are you eating, anyway?”

“I already told you–” began Sano severely, apparently moving closer to the door the better to debate with his friend.

Kenshin cut him short. “Sano, a lot of people are worried about you; it is rather rude of you to go into hiding without a word.”

“Oh.” It was a barely audible exclamation as the footsteps within the room stopped abruptly. “Hey, Kenshin.”

Given that the true purpose of this visit had been to deliver Saitou, the rurouni didn’t quite know what to say next. It seemed Sano, even after so long, was still in the mood to be difficult and refuse any assistance… it also seemed a shame, however, to have coaxed Saitou this far and then just leave before at least showing the two of them the path of reconciliation (if not necessarily forcing their feet onto it). But Kenshin assumed the officer wouldn’t step forward and speak up, admit he’d come looking, unless they prodded him into it somehow.

Hadn’t Kenshin specifically told Sano at one point that he wasn’t getting involved in this?

“I’ll tell you if I decide to leave town,” was the defensive grumble from behind the door. “Not like I’m just gonna disappear.”

“‘Leave town?'” Katsu echoed in disbelief. “My god, Sano, you’re running away?”

There was a long silence before Sano finally replied, “It’s better than what I’ve been doing…”

“What, sitting around sulking?” Katsu sighed in exasperation, but instead of continuing the conversation with Sano turned rather to Kenshin and remarked in a quieter tone (though still loud enough, doubtless, to penetrate the door and permeate the hall), “He’s behaving like a woman.”

“I was going to say a child,” replied Kenshin, wincing at the thought of how the women he knew would react to that statement.

“Hey…” Sano protested from within.

“No wonder Saitou didn’t come looking for him,” added Katsu decisively.

“Hey!”

Kenshin saw where this was going; considering how far Katsu’s last idea had brought them, he decided this one was also worth a try. “I am certain there are other reasons for that,” he suggested calmly. “I doubt Saitou is any more capable than Sano of maintaining a serious relationship; he was probably glad of an excuse not to try.” Which was entirely true (that is to say, he did doubt it), and seemed to cause a sort of invisible twitch down the hall.

Katsu shrugged. “Let’s be honest, though; you can’t blame even a preoccupied bastard like him for having a hard time dealing with Sano.”

“Backing down might actually be the easiest thing for Sano.”

“It isn’t like that asshole would ever pretend to be human and admit he wants Sano back.”

Though uncertain yet whether Saitou was aware of being shamelessly goaded, Kenshin could sense a nearly palpable ill will and disquiet from around the corner. It was matched by what emanated from the room whose door he still faced. “But I am starting to believe Sano may not have any idea what he wants,” he sighed. “He is easily confused.”

“Well, we know what he doesn’t need,” was Katsu’s emphatic declaration.

“And it is therefore fortunate Saitou does not know a good thing when it punches him in the face.” Kenshin had a hard time keeping the smile from his lips after that one.

“They bring out the worst in each other,” concurred Katsu solemnly, the corners of his mouth twitching as well.

Finally the door burst open. Looking disheveled, hollow-eyed, half starved, disturbed, and very annoyed, Sano glared at them. “Anything else you guys want to decide for me?” he demanded.

“We weren’t deciding anything for you, Sano,” the artist nearly drawled, evidently trying to mask how much seeing his friend like this bothered him.

“We were merely reaching our own conclusions,” Kenshin agreed, feeling much the same.

Sano’s expression made a sudden and drastic shift to an indescribable blend of positive and negative emotions, most of them much more serious than the irritation that had prompted him to open the door, and his eyes were focused neither on Kenshin nor on Katsu. The former wondered vaguely how Saitou had come all the way up the hall to stand behind them without either of them noticing.

“These two terrible actors have a few good points,” the officer remarked drily as he pushed his way past said terrible actors.

“You mean like about you being a preoccupied bastard?” Sano growled, looking up into Saitou’s face. The officer did not deign to reply in words, only snorted and dragged Sano back into the room, slamming the door behind them. The sound of their angry voices, which rose immediately into animated argument, receded gradually to the far side of the chamber.

“I believe we have done all we can,” said Kenshin quietly.

Katsu nodded, then added conversationally, “If they ever do this again, I’m bombing both their apartments.”

“I will not stop you,” Kenshin agreed. And to the continued sounds of the reunited couple making up, making love, making new dents in each other’s heads, or whatever they were doing in there, the two men turned and walked away side by side.



This fic, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #1 “Look over here.” It’s also a companion (chronologically latest in the continuity) to Magic and Responsibility.

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


No Reservations

From the moment Saitou had stepped into that dojo knowing more than Shinomori did, a subdued air of competition had reigned between them and marked their every meeting.

Has Aoshi really invited Saitou to a private interview because he has case-related information? Or is this a complicated cover for something else entirely?


It had always been a contest of sorts, ever since they’d first met. Though never any good reason for it, there it was: from the moment Saitou had stepped into that dojo knowing more than Shinomori did, a subdued air of competition had reigned between them and marked their every meeting. And so far, they were about even. Saitou had consistently been better-informed than the Okashira during the Shishio affair, but while trying to deal with Yukishiro in Tokyo, Shinomori had generally been one step ahead.

Which was what made Saitou so wary now.

He paused before knocking on the blue-roofed building’s side door, the staff entrance, as he’d been instructed. He really had no idea what to expect within. This was an odd situation, more even than usual when a possible informant requested a private conversation with an investigator — and that was saying something. The offer was not entirely on the level, and it was a sense of intrigue about that that had drawn Saitou here more than that it might be a useful lead for his case.

“Oh, hello, officer,” said the young woman who answered when he did knock. “Shinomori-san is expecting you.”

He said nothing as she bowed him inside and led him upstairs to one particular room of several on the third floor. There she rapped at the shouji, waited for the quiet welcome from within, and left him.

Saitou entered. Contrary to what he would have expected of the former Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu, it was a bright, comfortable room, at whose other end Shinomori stood looking out a half-open window. Despite this orifice, the air was somewhat heavy with a rather oppressive-smelling incense, but otherwise the scene was not unpleasant. Rather than being relaxing, however, this rendered the wolf all the more cautious.

“Saitou.” Shinomori turned. “Hisashiburi.” He wore a yukata pulled close, which, especially against the daylit window, marked the almost unhealthy-looking slenderness of his figure. With the light to his back, his eyes beneath his long bangs appeared very dark.

“Good morning,” Saitou replied, watching him, and calculating the accuracy of the ninja’s greeting: indeed, they hadn’t really spoken since the end of the Yukishiro incident, though they’d seen each other often enough since Saitou had transferred to Kyoto.

Shinomori moved from the window, walking past the officer to the door and listening at it for a moment before locking it. He then seated himself beside a tea service. “Join me.”

As he complied wordlessly, Saitou’s tension was rising, and he kept a careful watch on the other man without letting it appear that he was doing so.

“Youngest child of a rich family abducted,” Shinomori was saying succinctly as he poured tea for them both, “and a government spy assigned to the case because the only existing clue is a name overheard from one of the kidnappers that matches that of a recently-subdued and supposedly-dissolved revolutionary group.”

Saitou had to appreciate this kind of conciseness; he wished the people he worked with could command half as much. “You seem to have a decent grasp on the issue,” he nodded, accepting the cup from the ninja’s slender hand.

“Better than you do,” Shinomori replied.

“Which is why I’m here.”

A placid nod. “The kidnapper was once a bitter enemy to the Oniwabanshuu.”

That, perhaps, cleared things up a bit, but Saitou still couldn’t believe that the other man was really being anything like candid.

“He is dangerous,” Shinomori continued, “and what’s more, he knows who you are.”

Saitou pretended to sip his tea. It didn’t smell unusual in any sense, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Shinomori wouldn’t bring him here without a specific purpose, and so far the information provided only bordered on useful. “It’s true there are more that do than I’d like, but it usually doesn’t make much difference.”

Still impassive, the ninja went on. “It might. You could defeat him in battle, it’s true. But he knows this. He won’t be straightforward; he won’t come at you fairly.”

“I’m used to that,” Saitou remarked, then added with a slight smirk, “I’m not altogether straightforward or fair myself.”

Shinomori brought his own cup slowly to his finely-formed lips; Saitou didn’t think he actually drank, either, though. “What’s important to understand about this person is that he has an obsessive nature, and absolutely no reservations when it comes to getting what he wants.”

“That’s true of most people on some level or other.” Growing a little tired of the excessive incense in the air, Saitou lit a cigarette. Shinomori must burn the stuff all day and all night, to be inured enough to sit right next to it with the smoke floating up into his face like that.

The Oniwaban didn’t seem to care that the officer was smoking in his private chamber without bothering to ask permission. “This man has not only motive and drive, but ability and resources, to get what he wants.”

So far this felt like either a diluted warning or a very abstract tip; neither was likely to be particularly helpful, nor could Saitou believe that such roundabout information could possibly be Shinomori’s reason for inviting him here. Maybe a more straightforward treatment of the exact nature of this exchange would get better results. That had been Saitou’s main point of curiosity in coming, after all — what Shinomori would demand in return for his communications, whatever they were. And perhaps once that was established they could get down to names and other actual facts… if there were any. Well, depending on what the ninja wanted and how Saitou felt like responding to it. Which latter idea had been another point of curiosity that had brought him here.

“You’re getting impatient,” Shinomori observed calmly. “But what if I tell you that you are this man’s target?”

Well, that did get Saitou’s attention, as it was obviously meant to. Still, “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“But you might not escape this time.”

Saitou noticed the very faint upturning of Shinomori’s lips in the same instant he reflected that his cigarette tasted odd — the flavor of the tobacco combining with the incense creating an unusual sensation in his throat — and that his limbs felt strangely and increasingly sluggish.

The tea had been a distraction; that idea had crossed his mind, but as a distraction from what, he had not been able to discern. He hadn’t considered the incense a threat, given that Shinomori was closer to it than he was. And he rarely gave his own cigarettes a second thought, which, of course, Shinomori had counted on. But all this reflection was too late now.

“And his name I believe I can guess,” he said quietly, finding every word more difficult as what resembled a great weariness began to spread inexorably through his body.

“By now I hope you can,” Shinomori replied, reaching out and catching the cigarette as it fell from Saitou’s lips. It was the last thing the officer saw.

Any doubts he’d had about the intentions with which he’d been summoned here were erased when he began to regain consciousness.

He didn’t think he’d been out long, for he could not yet move, could not even open his eyes. His breathing was shallow, and he felt somewhat dizzy even lying still. His senses were vaguely in tact, however, so he was aware of lying stretched out on his back on a soft surface — a futon, if he was not mistaken — of Shinomori beside him — right up against him, actually, with a hand on his chest — of a significant lack of clothing — yes, both of them seemed to be naked — and of certain things that had been done to him while he was unconscious — namely, he seemed to have been… washed. Since he didn’t think Shinomori had a general cleanliness fetish that went quite as far as drugging people in order to clean them up, the intent here must be sex.

No reservations indeed.

The ninja, apparently noting Saitou’s return to awareness, sat up; though still in darkness, Saitou could feel the movement and sense its direction. Shinomori did not speak, which came as no surprise, only grazed his palms over Saitou’s chest. A slow, soft caress, it awoke in Saitou instant frustration that he could not move, and gradually changed to a more pointed touch as the Oniwaban’s fingers began languidly to explore the contours of the officer’s stomach and chest. A few of Saitou’s muscles twitched slightly under this treatment, and a shiver ran through him as the dragging fingertips circled almost carelessly one of his taut nipples.

He was momentarily preoccupied with the gentleness, the apparent fragility, of Shinomori’s hands. They were long and warm and seemed more like those of an artist than someone who practiced heavy kenpo. But there was not much time for such thoughts, as their actions at the present moment must be infinitely more engrossing than their shape. For, moving slowly farther and farther down his body to brush and probe and lag along his hips and thighs, their almost delicate application became more teasing, more maddening, with each passing moment.

Abruptly the touch ceased entirely, and Saitou shivered again as echoes of the tantalizing sensation crept over him like remembered pain from an age-old wound. Then breath moved across his face and Shinomori’s lips, unexpectedly soft but decidedly purposeful, descended onto his.

Saitou couldn’t respond to the kiss, and wasn’t entirely sure he would have if he’d been capable — to show willingness in this situation would be unbecoming — but Shinomori’s talent at it left little to be desired, considering the motionlessness of Saitou’s own lips. He was quite impressed, actually, that a kiss so necessarily one-sided could be so enjoyable. And with the action heightening the responsiveness of his own body and thereby, perhaps, hastening his recovery from the drug, he finally managed to open his eyes. He found himself staring into bright blue, and was amused (and not particularly surprised) at the little jolt of sensation that went through him at the sight.

The ninja drew back slightly, trailing his tongue over Saitou’s lips as he did so and maintaining the lock between their eyes. He stayed away only long enough to remark, “I would prefer you more responsive, but that isn’t an option,” before, closing the distance once more, he ran one of those exceptionally fine hands down Saitou’s body and gave him something he might have wanted to respond to. Whatever his chemical state was, Saitou had no trouble becoming very erect at the touch.

The ninja worked his hardening length slowly and methodically from base to tip as he began unhurriedly traversing Saitou’s jaw and neck with his agile mouth. The officer’s breathing, previously the deep consistence of a sleeper’s, rapidly shortened to a quick and audible cadence, a marked contrast to Shinomori’s deliberate, measured movements.

As the kisses moved down Saitou’s chest and the ninja’s skilled grip made him harder and harder, the older man also began to wish he could be a little more responsive, regardless of whether it would be appropriate voluntarily to give a positive response. He was glad of his inability to show surprise the next moment, however, when, without warning, oiled fingers pressed slowly inside him. Why this should be a surprise he wasn’t sure; it made perfect sense, given the situation. It was just that he’d never been penetrated before, and had become so accustomed to being on top that he had perhaps started to take for granted the way things worked.

And suddenly Shinomori’s tongue was gliding along Saitou’s erection, meticulously-rubbing fingers close in its slick wake. He never actually took him fully in his mouth, and Saitou was certain that this, along with the unnecessarily leisurely process of preparation, was just another deliberate torment and reiteration of the ninja’s complete control. Yes, the former Okashira played this getting-what-he-wanted game very well. So well that, torment notwithstanding, Saitou was not wasting any effort at the moment considering what he was going to do when this was over.

Shinomori added another finger. The sensation was odd, but elating, and increased the pleasure of his attentions elsewhere in a way Saitou would not have guessed. Should have guessed, given that he’d been on that end of this sort of exchange often enough, but still could not entirely have fathomed without experiencing. The other caresses were slowing, however; Shinomori evidently didn’t want him to come yet, and must be aware that Saitou could have less control of it in his current state.

For all he was enjoying this, lying still did not make for the most satisfying sex. Saitou’s body, whether aided by his will or not, was exhausting itself straining to work through the chemical influence and regain control, while Shinomori, with the utmost patience, systematically continued his arousing preparations. Saitou heard himself moan inarticulately, and thought that was probably a good sign. Shinomori apparently thought that was the signal for the main event.

As the ninja drove slowly into him, Saitou could hear his own voice again, wordless but unmistakably approving. His lips had managed to move somewhat this time, and when Shinomori’s again closed over them the kiss was much closer to mutual than the previous had been. Though unable to reciprocate when his mouth was worked open and thoroughly overrun by Shinomori’s tongue, he could feel thus the muffled groan from the Oniwaban’s throat that indicated just how good it was to be inside him.

He could never have guessed from the symptoms exhibited by his partners in the past how this would feel. The clinical awareness that it was tight and uncomfortable as well as almost overwhelmingly thrilling and stimulating could never encompass his present sensations. He wondered what it would be like when he had control over his body; for the moment, however, he dismissed this thought, as well as the subsequent query as to whether he was planning on finding out.

Shinomori was stroking him again, and Saitou’s clarity of mind was deteriorating; it was a short-lived reflection that his inability to move and imperfectly-parted legs couldn’t make for a very convenient position, that it was lucky the younger man was so flexible. The rhythm into which Shinomori had smoothly guided them, the building tension and pleasure, was overcoming logical thought.

Twitching fingers longed to clutch at and test the texture of the skin above him, but Saitou’s arms were still too heavy and unresponsive. Authority over his muscles was returning, however, gradually but certainly; how much time passed before he was able to reach up sluggishly and grip the ninja’s rocking body he did not know, but as his climax approached he was aware that his nails were digging into the scarred flesh of Shinomori’s sides.

Evoking a low cry that did not sound even slightly drugged, the white-hot rush of orgasm spread through him. He could feel himself tightening almost painfully around Shinomori, who groaned and quickened his pace with hands bracing against the futon. Not long after, even before the clenching sensation throughout Saitou’s body had fully dissipated, Shinomori let out a long, unsteady sigh that ended in a slight moan, and grew still. He dropped his form back onto Saitou’s and lay panting against the officer’s shoulder for some time.

Well, this had certainly been an entertaining and unique experience, and now that its intenser moments had passed Saitou had opportunity to contemplate its ramifications. He wasn’t really sure what he planned on doing; this was so much more than anything he’d expected in coming here… though at the same time not entirely surprising. But if Shinomori thought he was going to take it lying down (in the figurative sense, of course), he was very much mistaken.

The ninja raised his head and kissed Saitou languidly as he slowly drew out. Here was another unfamiliar sensation that the wolf found rather pleasurable than otherwise, the constriction and return to normal configuration of that particular opening; but, though he returned the kiss to the greatest extent of his current ability, he did not otherwise react. Shinomori’s eyes, staring into his, were equally devoid of communication; they were exceptionally bright, though, and the flush on the former Okashira’s face was particularly attractive.

Finally Shinomori sat back with a soft, contented sigh, and, leaning away, busied himself with something Saitou did not care to make the effort to look at. After a few moments the officer felt something cool and wet touch his chest, and shivered inadvertently. As Shinomori continued to sponge him off fastidiously and almost, he might have thought if he’d been given to such fancies, affectionately, Saitou reflected that this fixation with cleanliness seemed eminently typical of the younger man. It was amusing and perhaps somewhat charming.

Once they were both cleansed to the Oniwaban’s satisfaction, Shinomori took the water basin away somewhere and, returning, pulled Saitou up with both hands. Saitou found that the drug had worn off so far as to allow him to sit unswaying with little trouble, but he was still dizzy. Of course Shinomori, placid and apparently emotionless, was aware of this, and, logically, had no fear of retaliation at this point.

He had produced a neatly stacked and folded set of clothing — Saitou’s uniform — and was shaking the articles out in preparation for helping the officer into them. Saitou did not refuse the assistance, nor, when he was fully dressed, did he object to Shinomori giving him a hand up. As the ninja donned his yukata again in continued silence, Saitou concentrated first on maintaining his equilibrium in this precarious standing position, then on fastening his upper garment.

But fine motor function was still beyond him, it seemed, and after a moment Shinomori pushed his hands away and buttoned the jacket for him. As he did so he finally spoke, quietly: “The boy will be returned to his parents this evening; they will find him unhurt and probably the better for our hospitality.”

Saitou made a noise of acknowledgement; then, as the ninja’s deft fingers finished their task and the imperturbable gaze rose to meet the officer’s, he decided to try for something with a few more syllables. “You do realize…” But as even this short phrase left his reluctant tongue in more of a slur than he would prefer anyone to hear from him at any time, he broke off there.

Shinomori’s eyes narrowed slightly, and the corners of his mouth twisted upward by a fraction; it was obvious he didn’t need the I’m not just going to let this go spoken aloud. “Of course.” Leaning up, he touched a brief kiss to Saitou’s lips. “It’s your turn.”

After a moment, Saitou returned the pseudo-smile and nodded slightly. Then, very slowly at first so as to accustom himself both to the foreign ache in his lower half and the precautions necessary for walking in his still-slightly-blurry state, he turned and headed for the door. He was fairly sure that before he would run into anyone, he had the entire length of the hallway beyond and a staircase to make sure his movements would not betray the events that had just transpired. He did not throw so much as a glance behind him as he left the room.

So his case was closed. The dangerous, roundabout, obsessive former enemy of the Oniwabanshuu had had his way, and the only question remaining now was what Saitou was going to do about it. The officer’s emotions were mixed, to say the least.

By the time he’d reached the street below, he had resumed, if not his usual brisk stride, a natural enough gait. This disturbing dizziness would certainly pass; the bemusement was sure to take more time, the animated scheming that had already gripped his brain even longer.

Though he wanted a cigarette, he didn’t consider himself up to the task of extracting and lighting one just yet. He glanced back at the third-floor windows of the Aoiya, but, though a little disoriented, didn’t think Shinomori’s room was on this side of the building. Noting that his enunciation was still somewhat inhibited he murmured, “My turn…”

The possibilities were endless.



I’ve rated this story .



Head Injury


It was cold. Very cold, for October. He wouldn’t be surprised if the morning’s frost was more like snow. He looked forward to home and tea and bed. Of course, he always looked forward to those after a particularly long day’s work, but on a night like this any remotely sensible person would be hurrying home. Which was why it wasn’t much of a surprise to find Sagara Sanosuke loafing around in the street appearing not to care that his nose was turning blue. He also looked somewhat drunk.

Saitou debated whether to say something or just walk by. Harassing a drunk was a little too easy, but shots at Sagara were always cheap and he didn’t enjoy them any less. And it had been so long since he’d last had the chance. It was cold out, and he did want to get home… but he couldn’t resist. Maybe it was a little sorry, but Sagara’s seeming helplessness (as always) was just too enticing.

“Apparently you’ve realized how pathetic your life is and decided on a slow suicide.”

This relatively good line seemed to have been a waste of breath, however, as Sagara only turned slowly to fix bleary eyes on Saitou. It seemed he was actually more than merely ‘somewhat’ drunk. Saitou frowned; in this cold, that was dangerous. Typical that the boy could get himself into a life-threatening situation without anyone’s help…

“Saitou?” Sagara was wondering, stepping slowly toward him. “Izzat you?”

Saitou rolled his eyes. “Yes.”

“How much did I…” His face took on a deeply pensive expression. “Since when’re you alive?”

Oh. How irritating. “I talked to Battousai just last week, and it wasn’t the first time since Kyoto… how can you have still been under the impression that I wasn’t alive?”

Sagara seemed confused by the question. “What kinda game’re you playing? The whole place blew up!”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Saitou replied easily, “but I don’t play games.”

Sanosuke staggered a step closer. “Maybe I’m just drunker’n I thought.”

“You probably are, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not dead.”

The roosterhead conceded unexpectedly. “Right. Good to know. What’d’jou want?” Although this answer was (relatively) coherent, it didn’t seem he was keeping very good track of the conversation.

“What I don’t want is to trip over your body on the way to work tomorrow, so I suggest you go home before you freeze to death. I would add that you should also learn some temperance in the future, but I know a hopeless cause when I see one.”

“Go home?” Sanosuke echoed vaguely, seeming not to have caught the rest. “Yeah, I think I live ’round here.”

“No, you don’t.” Saitou sighed as he saw how this was going to turn out. He hadn’t particularly wanted a detour through this kind of weather, but leaving the idiot to wander in this condition would be akin to killing him. Which might be interesting, yes, but then he’d have to come up with a legal excuse for it more watertight than that, as he hadn’t wanted to arrest him because the police station was too long a walk from here, it had just been easier. “Come on.”

It was better proof of Sano’s state than anything yet offered that he followed dutifully, if not at all steadily. “Where we going?” he asked.

“Home,” Saitou replied shortly.

“Why’re you coming home with me?”

Gold eyes rolled again skyward. “Because you’ll never get there on your own.”

“Oh. All right.” Sano had barely made this acquiescence when he retracted it with, “What?! Yes, I will! ‘Mnot that drunk!”

“Yes, you are,” Saitou assured him. “Keep up!”

And though Sano quickened his pace to walk at Saitou’s side, he was still protesting. “Like I need you to show me how to get home.” And at that moment he tripped violently and would have fallen on his face if Saitou had not caught him. “Shit!” Suddenly he sounded more amused than angry as he admitted he’d been wrong: “Guess I really am that drunk.” And if his words weren’t evidence enough, the officer thought, his uncharacteristic mood swings must be.

“You’n let go,” Sano said petulantly. “I can walk without your help.”

Upon Saitou’s compliance, Sano promptly lost his balance and fell. The wolf did not hesitate to laugh as he hauled the idiot to his feet and pulled one arm of Sano’s around his shoulders.

This action appeared to confuse Sano quite a bit; Saitou was beginning to think that, in addition to ordinary drunkenness, Sano had also perhaps taken a blow to the head — simply because the wolf didn’t think anyone could hold the amount of alcohol it would take to confuse him this badly and still be standing, let alone walking. Of course, if anyone could, it would be Sagara Sanosuke.

He wasn’t even entirely sure how or why he knew where Sano lived, but his memory of the location evidently had not failed him; as soon as Sano caught sight of the place, he started groping through his pockets for something — a key, it turned out, which naturally he dropped the moment he extracted. Saitou retrieved it, nearly losing hold of Sano before he got the door unlocked and the young man inside.

There, Sano looked around for a moment in continued confusion before a triumphant expression took his face and he said, “See, toldja I could get here just fine!”

“Yes, you did tell me that,” Saitou agreed. “Now, sit down.”

Sano, still with that bizarre (injured?) air of patient compliance, did as he was told, stumbling over to a worn futon of dubious sanitation and indistinguishable original color and taking a seat thereon.

Saitou looked around for a light source. The sooner he could test his head-injury hypothesis and deal with the situation accordingly, the sooner he could get home. Finding a small and dilapidated lamp, he lit it with his own matches and turned to find Sano watching him (predictably) with confusion in his gaze. He went over to him and knelt down. “Hold still,” he commanded, removing his gloves.

“What’re you doing?” Sano wondered as Saitou reached around to the back of his head and began to search for anything unusual.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou asked, “Do you remember fighting anyone tonight?”

“Uh…” Sano looked puzzled for a moment, as if it took him that long to comprehend the question, then contemplative. Finally he answered, “No.”

Having found no signs the young man was hurt, Saitou nevertheless persisted, “Do you remember falling?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied slowly. “Yeah…”

Saitou’s theory was right, then. He resumed his cautious examination of the thick skull until Sano added, “And then you laughed at me.”

Oh. Saitou scowled. What now? He was no doctor, of course, but he couldn’t think of anything besides certain types of head injuries that would so flummox someone without visible signs such as blood loss or severe pain. Maybe Sano really was just superhumanly drunk. Saitou wasn’t quite satisfied with this explanation, though, and, nudging one edge of Sano’s gi aside, slowly probed his chest looking for other wounds that might not be immediately apparent.

“Shit…” Sano gasped.

Thinking he must have found the problem, inexplicable as that was when Sano’s chest seemed perfectly fine, Saitou looked up into the young man’s face — and Sano leaned forward and kissed him.

Oh. What he’d just been doing could be construed that way, couldn’t it? Especially by someone superhumanly drunk. It opened up a whole new set of unexpected possibilities for the night’s heretofore minimal entertainment, and what with the can of worms that was the ensuing ethical dilemma, Saitou was distracted for several moments and did not bring the kiss to an end.

The decision he came to in those moments was, he thought, impressively unbiased for someone that was avidly (if clumsily) being groped by a hot and willing teenager too drunk, most likely, to remember any of this in the morning. That is, assuming he was ready to go with the drunkenness explanation after all. But, again, Saitou was no doctor, and not qualified to diagnose anything more than drunkenness.

Kissing Sano harder, he pushed him down onto his back on the futon.

***

It was late. Much later than he usually woke up after such an experience. But since this was the mutated mother of all hangovers, that made sense.

But Sano didn’t so much wake up as come to the realization that, despite a host of convincing signs to the contrary, he had not, in fact, died and gone to hell. As greater lucidity filtered in, much like the nearby hellfire light and just as painful, he started vaguely to wonder whether whatever he’d done last night had been worth this. It was quite some time before he had the energy to make even the least persistent attempt at figuring out what that had been. And nothing was coming back to him.

That he was still desperately tired after such a long sleep didn’t seem quite logical, or that his entire body was aching so very much… though, for the second, perhaps he would find a justifying fight in his memory once he recovered it. Eventually, aided by the in-rolling of some clouds to dim the evil sun outside, he started slowly to gather his wits. He found in them no explanation for the unusual amount of exhaustion and soreness, however. There were holes in the story of the night, to be sure, but none of them were large enough to fit a battle and its aftermath into… In fact, he was beginning to be able to piece together which bars he’d been to and after which one he’d headed home. Maybe this was just going to end up as one of those unsolved mysteries of the universe.

He didn’t know how long it took him to get his eyelids up for more than five seconds, but once he managed that, he figured he might as well try to sit up too. And even as he did so, he froze, eyes going wide. Had he…?

Yanking the blanket off in a motion that hurt his vision only because it was so abrupt, he gazed down at himself and the futon and the unmistakable signs, then around the room at his scattered clothing. Yes, it looked like he had.

But… he didn’t recollect leaving with anyone… or even meeting anyone interesting… maybe he’d run into someone on the way home? He couldn’t remember. Whoever it had been, he’d worn Sano completely out. Which made it not only unfair but also a little creepy that he couldn’t place him.

God, did he need a bath…! But there was no way he was getting up just yet. He turned over and buried his face in soft cloth, still trying to recall the details of the encounter. The worst part of not being able to was, what if it had been somebody embarrassing? He’d done his share of sniggering at his friends when they’d gotten too drunk to realize their one-night-stand was the crazy fish-vendor or someone with no eyebrows and buck teeth; now was the shoe on the other foot?

Although, again, he didn’t remember leaving that last bar with anyone. Had there been another bar he couldn’t recall? Otherwise, nobody would know. He hoped. But he wanted to know. How could he show his face around town if he wasn’t sure he hadn’t slept with fish-merchant Dochou-jiisan? Or somebody worse? He gave a muffled groan. No way would he be this tired after a night with crazy Dochou, so at least he didn’t have to worry about that, but he definitely needed to figure out who it had been. Maybe if he thought really hard…

Feelings… the typical ones associated, or… maybe rather better… well, that was promising… of course, he might have been imagining the guy was a good lay because he was too drunk to tell for sure, or it could just be wishful thinking now… He had to remember. He got the impression he’d been more pleased than usual about the arrangement — why? Well, the conviction it had been really good sex was not diminishing, so that would explain that, he supposed…

Saitou?

“Oh, god,” he moaned. “Please tell me I didn’t…”

No such luck. The more he thought about it, the more his weary head was filled with images that would not disperse of Saitou Hajime touching him in ways he never could have imagined.

So. He’d gotten desperately drunk at a friend’s birthday party, hooked up with some random guy on the way home, had wild, fatiguing sex, and pretended very enthusiastically all along it was his dead rival and erstwhile crush. Greeaaat. It didn’t get much more embarrassing than that.

Unless he’d managed to pick up a police officer.

Yeah, that actually would be more embarrassing than just some random guy. And given how convinced his brain seemed to be that it really had been Saitou, he thought it more than likely.

He was never going outside again.

He’d known he liked the unlikeable wolf, but had put it down to the maddening stress of Kyoto, and (he thought) gotten over it when it obviously wasn’t going to go anywhere (due to said wolf’s untimely dissolution). Well, it must have been worse than he’d thought. It figured Saitou could embarrass him even after death.

And how might he have behaved in the company of his anonymous fuck-buddy? What kind of telling things might he have said, or, better yet, cried out at the worst possible moment? And would he hear about it the next time he spent a weekend in jail for brawling? Well, if the stranger had been as drunk as Sano had (proportionally speaking, of course, as few people could actually get as drunk as Sano could), he might never hear about it. But there were just too many possibilities here. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to make any effort at deciding what to do with them until his head hurt a little less.

Until then, it couldn’t do any harm just to lie here with his face in the futon imagining what it might have been like if it had been Saitou.

***

It was not what he’d been expecting. Whatever that had been. True, he had remarked to himself that Sano was unlikely to remember, the next day, what they’d done, but he hadn’t actually thought that would happen. And what other explanation was there for hearing nothing from him in the week that had passed since that night? Sano wasn’t the type to sit back patiently and let things play out; surely if he were fully aware of what had occurred, whatever his reaction, he would have found some way to confront Saitou about it by now. Obviously he didn’t remember.

That would be a little irritating if not for the pleasing recollection that Sano had started it. Even if he didn’t remember, he must still want Saitou, and would inevitably react the same way to a similar situation. Saitou had very easily determined that he wanted Sano again… In fact, it was safe to say he wanted him again every night until further notice. So he planned to go see him as soon as the case he’d just opened was finished and his evenings were a little more free; and then it would be like the first time all over again.

But for a second time, things did not go quite as he’d expected.

As there was obviously nobody home when he found his way to Sano’s apartment, he decided to let himself in and wait. The room was as he remembered it, and he couldn’t help smiling as he removed his shoes and went inside, looking around for the best place to sit to startle the returning Sano.

His attention was caught by a folded sheet of paper laid conspicuously on the table, and he paused to examine it. Slowly a frown grew on his face as he read what was written inside:

Hey, Katsu-

If you’re reading this, means you broke into my place like I figured you would looking for me. I’m all right… got into a bad situation the other night when I was drunk, though, so I’m gonna hang out in Kyoto for a while. If any cops come asking about me, you don’t even know me, all right?

Saitou refolded and replaced the note with frown still in place. Had he misinterpreted so badly? He’d been certain Sano had wanted him, but, looking back, was it so certain Sano had even really recognized him at that point? Just because he had earlier meant nothing. It wasn’t inconceivable the roosterhead had awakened the next day, then remembered and completely understood, and been less pleased in full awareness than he had been the night before.

Of course there was the possibility Sano meant something entirely different by ‘bad situation the other night when I was drunk,’ and the reference to cops was ambiguous as well… but each was also too coincidental for Saitou to ignore.

It seemed, then, he’d gone too far. And what must have been the effect on Sano if, instead of blazing out to kill Saitou for what he’d done, he’d decided to leave town? Saitou could only assume he’d hurt him, which rendered a situation he’d thought simple and pleasant complicated and unfortunate. He wasn’t even sure what to do about it, although he didn’t need to decide just yet as in any event he didn’t have time for a trip to Kyoto until next week.

With a sigh he left the apartment and headed for home.

But, following the trend, things didn’t go quite as he’d expected, for just as he was leaving the neighborhood, whom should he run into but Sano himself.

There was no time to choose words or actions; he turned the corner and there was Sano walking toward him with a travel bag over his shoulder and not the world’s happiest expression on his face. He looked up as Saitou came around the bend, and stopped dead.

“S-Saitou?!” Well, that was odd… Sano didn’t seem angry, but was blushing. Why would he blush if he didn’t remember, but why if he remembered and wasn’t angry had he not approached Saitou about it? “I… thought you were dead…” Sano continued, his tone not much more collected than before.

Now Saitou was very confused.

“If you were alive, you sure as hell coulda said something about it, you know that?”

But if Sano had believed him dead, he obviously couldn’t remember — so, again, why the blush?

“I was just going outta town, but I forgot something at home.” It seemed Sano was not used to, nor comfortable with, Saitou having nothing to say in response to his statements, for he was speaking with the nervous air of one trying to fill an awkward silence. Which was not something Saitou had ever seen him do before, and made this all the more confusing.

“It’s just like you to be dead and not say a fucking word to any of us and then show up at random like this and…”

Saitou was still trying to figure this out.

“…and you’re still not saying a word.” Sano’s face took on a worried look. “Hey, are you all right? You’re not sick, are you? This is a weird neighborhood for you to be in anyway, and usually you’d’ve insulted me by now… Djyou hit your head or something?”

For this there could be no response but laughter.

Sano’s expression was now very concerned, and he stepped forward a little nervously. Raising a hand, moving slowly as if Saitou were a skittish animal, he pressed the back of it to the older man’s forehead, testing against the temperature of his own. “You don’t feel sick,” Sano murmured, moving even closer and sliding the hand around Saitou’s head, presumably searching for injuries.

Well, just because this seemed too good to be true didn’t mean it wasn’t actually happening, so Saitou leaned forward and kissed Sano decisively.

It seemed Sano was as surprised by this as Saitou had been similarly the other night, but the twitch he gave was not violent enough to break the contact. And after a moment, his arms crept around Saitou’s chest and clasped him tightly.

It was a long kiss. Very long and passionate, heating up the frigid night and indicative of what things were going to be like from now on. A nice thought, that. And at last Sano drew away, gasping, a delighted sort of shock on his face. “God damn!” he panted. “You really musta hit your head or something.”

Saitou smirked. “Maybe I did.”

“And that was you the other night, wasn’t it?”

The smirk grew. “Maybe it was.”

“Asshole,” Sano grinned, and kissed him again.

When he had use of his tongue once more, at great length, Saitou asked, “So, going out of town, are you?” He still didn’t quite understand what had been going through Sano’s mind, but he had time now to figure it out.

“Oh, hell, no,” Sano answered. “And leave you acting all weird? You obviously have a serious head injury; I gotta take you home and make sure you’re all right!”

“Well, I’m glad I’m in such capable hands,” Saitou said with friendly dryness.

Sano’s grin expanded. “Come on, then,” he ordered, pulling Saitou by the wrist. “Keep up!”


OH MY GOSH SAITOU REALLY

Ahem. Drunkenness does not equal consent. I’m glad Saitou at least recognizes the possibility of having behaved very inappropriately, but he still doesn’t seem to take it very seriously; and since things worked out in the end, he probably won’t even give it any thought after this. What a rapey story I have written.

Anyway. This was first posted on my twenty-fifth birthday, and, corresponding with that, the story was originally set in September. I eventually recalled, however, that not everyone lives where I live where snow in September isn’t terribly unusual. Even October is pushing it, for Tokyo, but that’s at least a little better.

Also, I had really wanted to have Saitou trip over Sano’s sleeping form on his way out the next morning, but POV and arrangement didn’t allow for it.

I’ve rated this story .

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