Forgivably Wrong

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly that voice rose in a much louder, jovial remark to whomever was at the front of the line, followed by a hearty laugh, which rendered its sound much clearer… and more recognizable. Saitou went absolutely still against the e-reader display, abruptly listening significantly harder to the next statement, sinking back down to a more normal conversational volume though it was. He knew those tones. He knew that laugh.

Because he wasn’t here to meet Sagara or particularly curious what he looked like — the dust jackets and websites were remarkably devoid of photos — Saitou hadn’t attempted to get a glimpse of him through the milling bodies; and every time he had happened to glance in that direction, nothing at the author’s table had been visible. But now he not only turned and craned his neck, he pretty quickly began pushing his way through the crowd without any excuse or explanation this time. The outcry his passage caused did little to drown out the sound of the voice he’d locked onto, nor make him any less horrifically suspicious. He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

It was possible, and there was a way. Saitou broke free of the crowd and barely stopped himself from ramming his thighs into the table, on which he laid his hands for support in his sudden, utter shock and disbelief.

*

Knocking on doors was tedious but necessary, an endless repetition of the same questions and answers that, after a while, blended together so he had to struggle to remember which floor he was on and who’d told him what. Of course he would assess any unusual demeanor for anything beyond run-of-the-mill discomfort with talking to the police, and he would make a note of any useful or even just interesting information… but that was assuming anyone had an unusual demeanor or any useful or even just interesting information. Obviously they did often enough to make this a productive way to spend his time… but it was never often enough to make this a fun way to spend his time.

Perhaps this was why he noticed that someone seemed to be watching him even sooner than he otherwise might have: it offered some potential for engagement that this part of his investigation otherwise painfully lacked.

Of course there were not infrequently gawkers at any active police work (even when ‘active’ was a dismaying misnomer), and most of the time they offered far more sources of annoyance and interference than of fascination… but Saitou was pretty good at interpreting the feeling of eyes on him, and the current set seemed to carry something subtly different than the usual gormless curiosity or deep mistrust with which he was usually watched while on duty.

Then, the hallway walls in this particular apartment building were relentlessly white and plain — and it wasn’t even an off-white, but an unfinished pure lack of color except wherever it was dirty — and the carpeting a utilitarian grey that did nothing for overall appeal. The bland brown of the doors was equally neutral, so the whole place had a drab, dull feeling that made Saitou wonder how anyone ever agreed to live here. Crisp colors stood out against all of this just as obtrusively as a seemingly intrigued contemplation stood out against the insipidity of this part of his investigation, caught his notice with just as much promise.

The watcher was a young man half visible around the corridor’s far corner, casually observing Saitou approach slowly, one door at a time, toward his end of the hall. His red hoodie, unfaded black jeans, hair of a brown much less lackluster than that of the doors Saitou was knocking on — even the bright green of the apple he was eating — rendered him distinctive initially, but when Saitou fixed him with a pointed and assessing look, his face and figure had that effect perhaps doubly so.

During the run of any investigation, Saitou, naturally, saw a lot of people, and throughout his career as a whole encountered a pretty decent cross-section of the city: citizens of every race, economic level, type of self-presentation, and apparent degree of sanity. He was required to assess them, to pinpoint any aspect of personality or behavior that might be indicative of something he wanted to know, so of course he concentrated minutely on many of their personal attributes. Despite this, however, rarely did any of them really grab his attention. They were all vastly different, but in a way they were all the same: they did nothing for him; they were all numbers to crunch, essentially, puzzle pieces to fit into appropriate spots and then leave there.

So when someone did stand out to him, did catch his attention as something other than a number to be crunched, the very fact that they did so made them even more obtrusive. And as such, this young man seemed to shine like a beacon at the end of the hallway, simultaneously difficult to look away from and perhaps a little blinding. Saitou paused in his work, motionless before the next door he needed to knock on, and simply stared, wordless.

The most pertinent point had to be the young man’s excessively good looks, as well as a sort of overall contradictoriness that gave an immediate and perhaps unfair impression of perverseness of character. His face appeared young and fresh, with a touch of the feminine to its prettiness, but bore a scattering of stubble and a broadness of jaw that helped him retain a look of masculinity despite this. His hair had obviously had gel applied in order to be styled into that wild set of spikes, but, despite this deliberate effort, the overall effect was one of carelessness, of indifference to physical appearance and purely accidental handsomeness as a result. And though the baggy sweat-shirt hid upper body details, the jeans fit closely enough to indicate the excellent shape of groin and legs. He was more than just eye-catching; he was enticing, appetizing.

And there was also his race. Of course the city’s Japanese population was such that Saitou felt no surprise at finding them wherever he happened to be, but Japanese heredity yet made for an automatic source of greater interest. To run into someone this attractive that also happened to have the same descent as Saitou’s — and who seemed to be looking at him with some kind of unusual fixedness — was far more rare.

When the young man observed Saitou’s riveted gaze, he abandoned his position at the hallway’s corner and came ambling down toward him, still eating his apple in careless motions that implied he wasn’t worried at all about what this cop in his apartment building might think of him hanging around watching — and also demonstrated a flexibility of lips that Saitou’s hedonistic side (not nearly as smothered as it usually was, for some reason) took special notice of. He came to stand casually near Saitou, finishing his snack and looking the detective up and down without compunction.

“Can I help you?” The officer’s words came out dry as paper not only because he wondered what the kid was up to, but because he was dissatisfied with himself for how pleased he was to see him at close range.

The young man shrugged. “I heard there was a cop in the building, so I figured I’d come down and see.”

“Is there a problem with me being in the building?” In response to that carelessness, Saitou’s tone was even drier than before.

“Nah. I like cops.” He gave Saitou a grin that was both cheeky and damnably attractive, then went on to say something rather shocking: “We just don’t usually get the sexy ones around here.” He eyed Saitou again without a trace of hesitancy — indeed, with a cockiness and self-assurance that seemed to suggest the perfect naturality of flirting with someone without checking on their orientation first. His grin took on a satisfied edge as he finished his second once-over, but then he shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like I should move somewhere with higher rent… maybe then I’d meet more hot cops. You know… richer neighborhoods getting more police attention and all that.”

This statement troubled Saitou largely because it was probably true. The young man might be gorgeous, but in practically leading with a jab like that he was simultaneously frustrating. So, rather than trying to decide whether or not to respond to the flirtation — which, under some circumstances, he might have done — Saitou replied in a tone now more disdainful than dry, “Could you afford higher rent?”

The stranger scowled. “Why would you assume I couldn’t? I probably make more money than you do. I’m just…” He was either embarrassed to admit this or (which seemed more likely) scrambling for an excuse. “…stuck in a long lease I shouldn’t have renewed.”

Saitou glanced around — at the disgusting carpet, the scuffed walls, the terminally bland colors — intending the message, “If you make so much money, you’re an idiot to stay in a place like this.” Evidently he’d gotten his point across, since when his eyes returned to the handsome youth, he noticed clenched fists. (Where the apple core had gone he didn’t know.) What he said aloud was, “I’m Detective Saitou, RCPD. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Here?” the young man wondered.

Saitou raised a brow. “Unless you’d prefer I arrest you for obstruction of duty and then question you…”

“That sounds like fun. But, nah, I got work to do. No time for an arrest today. What I meant was, here, in this hallway? You don’t want to come upstairs to my apartment? It’d be way more… private in there.”

“I do not require privacy to ask everyone in the building the same set of questions.” Again Saitou might have responded to the flirtation instead of making such a businesslike and acerbic statement, but he really did need answers.

“Huh,” said the young man, sounding disappointed. “Hot, but not a lot of fun. OK, so what are your questions?”

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

“No, idiot, I just need to know who you are in case I decide to arrest you later for annoying me.”

The young man relented with good grace. “Well, I’m Sanosuke Higashidani.”

“It must be fun navigating American life with a name like that,” Saitou murmured as he noted it down in his phone.

Sanosuke sounded rueful, with a touch of actual exasperation, as he replied, “Yeah, well, we can’t all have sleek, snappy names like ‘Saitou.’ Unless we use pseudonyms.”

Saitou smirked. “And which apartment do you live in?”

“4305.” Sanosuke jerked a thumb upward to indicate the third floor above them. “Wanna see it?”

Making a show of ignoring the second half of that answer, Saitou quickly ran over the building’s layout in his head. “So the windows of your apartment must be on the east side, looking out over the side parking lot.”

Sanosuke considered for a moment. It was sometimes surprising how little oriented people were within their own personal spaces. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a pretty boring view, now I think about it.”

“I can’t imagine there are many interesting views from the windows of this apartment complex.”

Sanosuke seem to recognize that the officer was again prodding him subtly on his choice of living accommodations, for he frowned. Somewhat defiantly he said, “Well, if you’re wondering whether I’ve seen anything interesting out my windows lately, the answer is no.”

“I wonder if you would recognize something of interest even if you saw it.”

The frown deepened into a scowl. “What, you think I’m too stupid to know something suspicious when I see it? This is about those burglaries, right? You probably think it was an inside job, and want to know if anybody who lives around here’s been acting weird or coming and going at weird times.”

“‘Inside job?’ Somebody’s been watching too many police dramas.”

“No such thing as watching too many police dramas,” Sanosuke replied immediately. No wonder he claimed to like cops. “And the answer’s still no: I haven’t seen anybody suspicious around here lately.”

“What times of day are you usually at home and awake?”

“Wondering about my sleeping habits, huh?” He tried to say it suggestively, but it sounded more stupid than flirtatious. And when Saitou only looked at him, he answered the question. “My schedule’s really random. I’m just as likely to be up all night on the computer and sleep all the next day as the other way ’round. Except sometimes I take my laptop to a restaurant or something and work on shit there for a while. So I’m in and out a lot too.”

People took a bizarre amount of pleasure, Saitou had noticed, in talking about the mundane minutiae of their personal lives. They might be a little uncomfortable answering police questions, but once they got started about their boring schedules, many were willing to go on at tedious length. Sanosuke had actually been more concise than most — probably because he didn’t really have much of a schedule, as he admitted himself — and the unpredictable nature of his activities spanning all twenty-four hours of the day made him almost an ideal potential witness, except…

“If you’re working at your computer most of that time–” Saitou believed himself very generous with the term ‘working’ here– “you probably don’t see all that much out your windows even when you are home.”

“No,” Sanosuke said regretfully, “I don’t. And my computer desk faces away from the patio door.”

Saitou nodded, and moved on. “Since you’ve lived here, how often have apartment complex employees or maintenance people come into your apartment?”

Sanosuke tilted his head, simultaneously cheerful and pensive. “You do think it was an inside job.”

He was right, but Saitou wasn’t about to admit it. Apartments like this were very difficult to break into, and that several of them had been lately suggested someone somewhere had access to keys. “How often?” he repeated.

Still appearing somewhat triumphant at his supposedly correct analysis, Sanosuke replied, “A bunch of times. For a while, every time I took a shower — naked, in case you’re interested — it leaked into the bathroom of the person downstairs. Took ’em forever to figure out what was wrong, so some maintenance guy was in and out of here probably five times, and one of the apartment managers came to look at it once too.”

“Can you describe them for me?”

“Maintenance guy was about my height,” Sanosuke said promptly, almost professionally; “narrow build, kinda like yours, but with a little more fat on him; Caucasian, at least mostly, and at that point he had a fading sunburn; long face, bit of a double chin, thin nose, acne scars, labret piercing; ears stuck out pretty far, and he had one of them pierced too; brown hair, not as dark as mine, with–”

“All right.” Saitou raised a hand to stop him. He didn’t actually need all these details, just enough to pinpoint which maintenance guy it had been — and what Sanosuke had already said tallied with what he’d heard from other apartment-dwellers about the one named Jeff. He was, however, more than a little impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and conciseness of description, though he didn’t plan on saying so. “How about the apartment manager?”

“Her name’s Vivian Something. She doesn’t work here anymore; I think she moved. But she’s a Black woman with–”

“Since you know her name, I don’t need the description.” Saitou had heard about Vivian Something (it was Stetson, in fact, at least up until her recent marriage) from other residents as well.

“OK,” Sano shrugged. “Where’s your partner, by the way?”

Saitou raised his eyes from where he’d been making another note, and raised a brow at the young man. “Asking stupid people boring questions is hardly a task that requires two officers. She’s busy with a different aspect of this case.”

In response to this, Sanosuke seemed to go very rapidly through three distinct emotional states, and the one he ended on surprised Saitou a little. “I’m not— you know, this could be way less boring if you– so your partner’s a woman?”

“Is that a problem?” Not entirely sure why Sanosuke had asked, Saitou gave this response very coldly indeed.

“No, it’s great!” The enthusiasm in Sanosuke’s tone was another surprise. “She wouldn’t happen to be Japanese too, would she?”

Saitou hesitated, but since he saw no reason not to give this information he admitted, “As a matter of fact she is.”

“And I bet you two got partnered up because you’re the only Japanese cops in the precinct.”

Not only did Saitou feel disinclined to comment on this probably true assumption, they were getting off track. Why did he feel as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one being interrogated? “And what about your vehicle? Or do you take the bus everywhere?” He really had nothing against public transportation; the disdain with which he spoke the word ‘bus’ merely aimed at prodding Sanosuke away from his untoward queries.

It worked. It seemed pretty easy to bait this young man, and Saitou definitely felt he had the upper hand while they discussed comings and goings in the parking lots and what cars and trucks Sanosuke recognized as regulars around here. But Sanosuke recovered himself enough to resume his previous demeanor of simultaneous obnoxiousness and far-too-tempting flirtatiousness during the next topic. All in all, Saitou felt like they came out of the questioning approximately even — and that was both unprecedented and irksome.

He didn’t suspect the young man of anything except extreme nosiness, and perhaps an unexpected interest in Saitou, and it was the latter suspicion combined with Sanosuke’s undeniable allure that kept Saitou from telling him off. But he wouldn’t go so far in the other direction as to leave a business card with the guy; alluring or not, Sanosuke was also pretty aggravating. When they eventually parted — Sanosuke, presumably satisfied about the presence of a cop in his building, back to whatever apple-eating idling he’d been doing before some gossipy neighbor had informed him of the circumstance and sent him down here; Saitou to continue door-knockings destined to be even more tedious and uninteresting than ever now — he watched the handsome figure disappear around the hallway’s corner with ambivalent feelings, wondering whether he would encounter him again during the course of this case, or perhaps in some context besides criminal investigation. If he did, it would be through no fault of his own.

*

“What the hell…?” No great shock, honestly, that he’d somehow gotten past the officers in the dining area; they’d only just barely gone out there to keep an eye open for customers trying to enter. “Well, no wonder a guy can’t get any pizza, with all these cops running around the place.”

It wasn’t necessarily startlement that kept Saitou silent for a moment or two longer than he normally would have been, though there was some of that too; it was more the combination of surprise at seeing this person again so unexpectedly with the abrupt reminder of how ridiculously attractive he was. And since Saitou was thus momentarily speechless, Tokio answered:

“Got the wrong stereotype there, don’t you?”

Trying to fight off a grin in order to maintain the facetious expression of concern he wanted, Sanosuke’s face writhed comically for a moment. Stupidly, this didn’t make him any less handsome. “Oh, crap, don’t tell me Krispy Kreme’s been hit too!”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go check for us?”

Now Sanosuke’s grin conquered the look of false consternation and spread wide. “But I wanted pizza today, not donuts.” Then, seeing Tokio was about to dismiss him in a more official capacity, he added quickly, “Besides, I was an invaluable witness at y’all’s last case; I can probably be useful here too.”

Undoubtedly never having seen Sanosuke before, Tokio turned toward Saitou with elevated brows, and Saitou broke his silence at last with, “He lives in the Hammock apartments. And ‘invaluable’ is a gross exaggeration.”

Sanosuke appeared annoyed, but rallied quickly and said, “Hey, just because you turned down certain parts of the offer doesn’t change its overall value.” His grin, which had darkened somewhat in his irritation, now brightened as he added in a more jovial tone, “But seriously. How you doing, Detective Saitou, RCPD? Single? You never did call me.”

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou asked the question flatly, feeling he did fairly well at hiding how amusing he found this kid.

“Well, I wanted pizza. Looks like I got a crime scene instead.” And it couldn’t be more evident that Sanosuke considered this an excellent trade. He did a little dance of childish excitement and anticipation as he looked around the chaotic kitchen, causing the laptop bag slung over one shoulder to bounce alarmingly against his hip, and punched one fist into his other palm, smiling broadly and lopsidedly the entire time. “I mean, check it out: there’s fresh bullet-holes in the walls and everything!” And his grin only widened as he noted this fact that many another person might comment on with fear or dismay. He paused, though, as he turned to gaze delightedly at the signs of the few shots that had been fired not long before and added, “Except that one above the grill; that one looks older.”

Of course the eyes of the two cops snapped immediately to the spot in question, then to each other. Then Tokio started searching for something to stand on. They hadn’t even really begun examining this room yet; the questionable employees had only been escorted out minutes before. But it was possible — Saitou didn’t like to admit it, but it was possible — the evident age of one of several bullet-holes decorating the kitchen walls might have escaped them where this apparently sharp-eyed idiot had been able to point it out immediately. And it might even provide useful facts, depending on which bullet matched which gun.

As he watched Tokio go about her examination, Sanosuke’s expression of pleasure intensified; he obviously reveled in having stumbled upon an interesting crime scene as well as in what he’d cleverly noticed there. But Saitou wasn’t going to put up with his nonsense this time. “You need to leave,” he said sternly.

Before Sanosuke could even begin to protest, as Saitou was certain he would have done, Tokio said in a mischievous tone, “Oh, I don’t see why he can’t stick around. He is an invaluable witness, after all… and this bullet-hole is definitely old.” She’d dragged a greasy chair from just outside the restaurant’s small office over to the grill and begun examining the place carefully without touching it. Now she held out a mute hand requesting implements, which Saitou hastened to provide.

Into the ensuing silence Sanosuke remarked easily, “So you must be the partner. Saitou mentioned you last time.”

“Only because you brought her up,” Saitou reminded him.

The aforementioned partner, though she didn’t look away from her task, gave every indication of great amusement and a strong likelihood of going into Tokio Mode. Now she said, in as casual a tone as Sanosuke had used, “Yes, I’m the partner. Someone has to keep this crooked cop in line.”

The responding expression of glee Sanosuke turned toward Saitou did not bode well, but at least he seemed to recognize this particular statement as a teasing remark rather than taking it at face value. “So maybe you can tell me, since he never bothered to: is he single?”

Saitou braced himself for Tokio’s answer, and therefore was prepared when she said, “Of course he is.” Out of the side of her mouth, as if he weren’t standing immediately to her left, she added in a stage whisper, “He’s a virgin.”

Sanosuke looked Saitou up and down, then let out a patently disbelieving chuckle. And Saitou had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, despite how stupid the conversation already was, when the young man’s next question, still directed at the more cooperative Tokio, was, “And what about you?”

She adored talking about herself, especially in Tokio Mode, so she answered with no trace of hesitation. “Single, or virginal?”

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

“Neither. I have nine children; I’ve been married for ten years.” In fact the closest she came to being a mother was forcing Saitou to look at funny pictures of her nieces and nephews sent by her brother in Montana; and, though she’d been married throughout most of her twenties, had divorced her husband three years ago.

Nine?” the young man echoed, startled out of his casual flirtatious demeanor. Though he’d recognized her earlier statement as untrue, evidently she’d taken him in with this one. “How old are you?”

“You should know it’s rude to ask a woman that,” she chided. “But I’m twenty-six.” In fact she was thirty-two.

“You’ve been married since you were sixteen?”

She redirected the course of the questioning. “I notice you don’t ask how old Saitou is.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

Finished prying the bullet from the wall and sealing it in an evidence bag, Tokio jumped down from the chair. “Well, he’s only forty-two,” she assured Sanosuke. In fact Saitou was thirty-six. “That’s not too old for you, is it?”

“No,” Sanosuke said thoughtfully, apparently adjusting his perspective but not necessarily disappointed. “No, it’s not. But you — you make enough money as a police detective to support nine kids?”

This unexpected question was evidently a welcome challenge, and Tokio, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat as she replied, “My husband won the lottery a few years back, so we have more money than we know what to do with.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “He bought an entire stable outside town last year so he could get a pony for every single one of our children, including the baby.”

Now Sanosuke looked as if he finally began to suspect the veracity of Tokio’s words, and didn’t know quite what to do about it. Accusing a police officer of straightforwardly lying to your face was always a tricky business, after all; that was part of why Tokio Mode worked so well in the first place.

But Tokio had a dual purpose in this instance, and didn’t allow Sanosuke time to reply to the pony comment. “But maybe it wasn’t so much my income you wanted to know about?” She threw Saitou another sidelong glance. “I ain’t sayin’ you a gold-digger, but why did you want to know?”

Sanosuke laughed. It was unfair what a nice laugh he had. “Well, I really was curious, but, you know, it is useful — like if you want to go out to dinner with somebody or something — it’s kinda nice to know what they’re used to. Like whether you can get away with cheap-ass pizza places that apparently have secret crime going on in the back room at the same time–” He pronounced the word ‘crime’ with satisfaction verging on delight as he gestured around at the kitchen in which they stood– “or whether, like, a Red Robin is a better price range, or if I need to spring for some fancy-ass steak place where it’s forty dollars a plate.”

Tokio’s satisfaction too seemed to be on the verge of delight, and Saitou could practically hear the gears grinding in her head as she came up with some elaborate description of what type of dates he enjoyed going on. But there was more a pressing concern at the moment, and Saitou himself spoke up for the first time in a while: “It’s interesting you’re talking like you have money when you’re still dressed like that.” (This wasn’t actually the pressing concern, just something he felt he had to bring up first.)

“Like what?” Sanosuke demanded, looking over his jeans and layered T-shirts before turning challenging eyes under lowered brows on Saitou.

The latter pressed on without elaborating on that particular topic, however: “But what I really want to know is why you think ‘secret crime’ is ‘going on in the back room’ here. Despite the old bullet-hole, a scene like this–” he imitated Sanosuke’s gesture around them of a moment before– “would seem more indicative of an isolated incident, don’t you think?”

Now Tokio also appeared more focused on the interloper, for reasons other than that she loved messing with people. She said nothing, though, waiting for Sanosuke’s answer (and probably still contemplating her fiction about her partner’s ideal date and holding it in reserve for a better moment).

“This place always seemed sketchy,” Sanosuke shrugged. “Especially the guys in back, if you ever saw ’em. They made such good pizza, though,” he added with an unrepentant flash of teeth.

“And you didn’t report this?” Saitou’s words came out darker and more cutting than they needed to be because he was vexed both with Sanosuke’s flippancy and his own amusement at it.

“Oh, yeah,” the young man said with a roll of eyes, “like I’m gonna call you up and say, ‘Hey, this pizza place I do my work at sometimes has a bunch of really twitchy employees, and I think their food license is outdated.'”

“It would be an excuse to call,” Tokio pointed out.

“Huh.” Sanosuke acknowledged this with a thoughtful twist of lips, probably trying to decide whether having an excuse to call would be worth the hell Saitou would undoubtedly give him in response to that idiotic ‘report’ — and whether it wasn’t more likely Saitou would simply hang up on him (about which Saitou himself wasn’t entirely sure).

“Tell us about the twitchy employees,” Saitou commanded, hiding his precise facial expression by digging for his phone and stylus and opening the note-taking app he primarily used.

“OK, well…” Sanosuke launched into a detailed account of what he’d noticed about the pizzeria’s employees and their comings and goings. Though he could only guess — and did, with possibly problematic canniness — at what had been going on around here, his information served to enhance the impression Saitou and Tokio had of this place: that if you knew the right way to order and had the cash, you could get a side of stolen iPad with your breadsticks; and, just as the last time they’d met, Saitou was grudgingly impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and his ability to collate the information he observed.

And it was clear Saitou wasn’t the only one when Tokio, about halfway through Sanosuke’s description, leaned over and said very unsubtly to her partner, “Kid’s got good instincts.”

Saitou restrained himself from nodding, and didn’t look up from his notes even when Sanosuke broke off to retort, “‘Kid?!’ We never talked about how old I am!”

“Old enough for Saitou,” Tokio said airily. “That’s all that’s important.”

As the banter continued and Saitou tried with varying degrees of success to get actual information out of this alternately obstructive and entertaining young man, he also tried with varying degrees of success to push away thoughts of how (he was tempted to say ‘conveniently’) well Sanosuke got along with his partner, how unexpectedly useful his powers of observation and recounting might turn out despite his simultaneously being completely in the way, and how damned attractive he still (in fact now more than ever) was.

*

Saitou had only planned to have one last, quick look around the bloody crime scene for the satisfaction of his own inquisitiveness before leaving it to forensics and heading down to the end of the alley where Tokio was already busy taking statements; but as his eyes had risen from the pocked and stained asphalt surface on which he stood, past the rusty dumpster and collection of plastic trash cans that surrounded it, and up the dirty brick walls of the buildings that loomed over him to either side, he discovered he wasn’t going to be able to walk away just yet.

“What are you doing?” he asked the young man squatting on the lowest level of the decrepit fire escape and peering down through its railings. His tone wasn’t accusatory or demanding or even particularly surprised; somehow he felt he should have expected to find Sanosuke there.

“Ogling your crime scene, of course,” the latter replied easily. “And you, maybe.” Even more so here than when Saitou had originally met him, he seemed to shine brilliantly, ridiculously visually appealing and desirable in contrast with the dilapidation and grime and evidence of murder around him. He was also, and for reasons beyond his mere presence where his absence would have been more appropriate, still annoying. “And before you say I’m not supposed to be here, there’s people watching from up there too–” He jabbed a finger skyward, indicating two figures peering down from the fire escape’s fourth platform– “and you should really start at the top.”

They’re not ogling me, though.”

Though Saitou had said it at a mutter, Sanosuke obviously caught the statement, for he grinned. “They are if they have any brains!”

There was some impulse to return the expression, but Saitou resisted easily. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, grim.

Sanosuke’s eyes shifted from where they’d been wantonly traversing Saitou’s figure to the ground nearby where a splatter of red was drying to copper. And though his tone didn’t sound quite as dead serious as Saitou’s had, he still spoke levelly. “Got a text from a friend saying something was going on — police and stuff.” Next he indicated behind him with a thumb. “The guy in this apartment was nice enough to let me come out here and have a look.”

Of this Saitou could not approve. “In other words,” he said cuttingly, “you’re sitting up there like a vulture waiting to feed off of someone else’s death. Crime dramas aren’t enough for you anymore, so you have to get your fix by dogging the police trying to see the real thing.”

Sanosuke sprang to his feet, barely missing knocking his head against the metal stairs upward behind him. “Don’t act like you know what my motivations are.” Fists clenched and eyes flashing from on high, he appeared more lively and enticing than ever — but Saitou feared he could no longer look at him in the same light. “I admire you, OK? And I don’t just mean your long sexy legs. You cops trying to figure shit out and make sure situations like this get resolved, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — just because I want to watch your procedure and see how it’s done doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting that poor guy who got killed!”

Saitou stared up and Sanosuke stared down for a long moment, and something in the officer gradually relaxed. It was an unexpected relief, actually, to find himself believing the young man’s words. Even if his presence here and irrelevant curiosity was a little tasteless, Sanosuke truly didn’t intend any disrespect. Even if he was still a dumbass. Saitou probably shouldn’t have been so pleased.

Possibly sensing the change in atmosphere despite Saitou’s continued silence, Sanosuke added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about crime dramas like they’re worthless. Nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of crime, since it has to happen anyway. Besides, they make people think, don’t they?”

“I’m not sure they make people think about anything useful.” Saitou’s tone had eased as his attitude had. He wasn’t about to offer an apology for having misjudged, but in a slightly more conciliatory manner he did add, “I do enjoy some crime dramas, though.”

Anger seemingly in full recession, Sanosuke dropped back into the same crouch as before; it allowed him a closer view through the railings of the narrow street beneath him. And his tone too had lightened as he replied, “We should read some together sometime,” with an incongruously suggestive smile.

“‘Read?'” Saitou echoed in surprise. Literature was not the medium he would have expected Sanosuke to propose.

“Yeah, you know, like… Barnes & Noble and chill.”

Saitou laughed. He couldn’t help it. He sobered quickly, though, shaking his head and making the scan he’d come here for in the first place. When he glanced back up at the fire escape, he found Sanosuke watching him intently. “You’re not likely to see a lot of procedure here today. The team’s going to get started soon, and you’re going to be asked to leave.”

Sanosuke merely shrugged. “At least I got to see you.”

“Do you want to join the police?” Saitou wondered, ignoring this latest bit of flirtation. “Is that what this is about?”

“No. What?” Sanosuke seemed inordinately surprised at the question, as if the idea had never occurred to him and he was a little incredulous it had to Saitou. “Actually I’m an–” But he stopped when Saitou’s phone warbled thrice in quick succession.

I see you gossiping over there, Tokio had sent from the alley’s entrance. The second message read, Is that that kid from the pizza place? Followed immediately by, If you’re not going to help me take statements, I hope you’re at least setting up a double date with him and someone for me. She had a remarkable gift for never letting on that she was texting while busy with something else.

I’m taking HIS statement, Saitou replied, and proceeded to do so. “How long have you been out here?” he asked as he returned his eyes to Sanosuke, who he knew had not been stationed on the fire escape for any significant span but who, with that unexpected detail orientation of his, yet might have noticed something useful.

In order to look at his watch, Sanosuke pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. It was the same he’d been wearing the first time Saitou had encountered him, the one whose bright red looked so good with his brown eyes and dark brows. “Twelve minutes,” he answered in the more businesslike tone he used to give solicited information, “and we’ve been talking for three.”

His statement about where we’ll all be going out to dinner tonight? Tokio wondered. I never did get a chance to tell him what your dream date would be like.

“So you didn’t see anything here.” The body would have been gone by the time Sanosuke emerged from the apartment, it seemed.

“Thought you weren’t supposed to frame it as a leading statement like that,” Sanosuke said with a crafty smile. Observing Saitou’s impatient expression he added, “No, sorry, I didn’t see anything here except the neighbors upstairs.”

“We’ll have to talk to them,” Saitou confirmed. He paused for a moment in order to send, If YOU want to go to dinner with him tonight, I’ll give you his number. Then he asked aloud, “Who was the friend who texted you to come here?”

And as Sanosuke described his acquaintance and the circumstances under which the guy had noticed the gathering police — all perfectly, dully innocuous — Tokio replied, So you DO have his number.

May I remind you someone has died here. Saitou wished he could send a stern expression in some manner other than by using emojis, which he found stupid and counterproductive.

“Are you texting your partner at the same time you’re questioning me?” Sanosuke asked with uncanny acumen. “Say hi to her for me.”

“May I remind you someone has died here?” Satisfyingly, Saitou was now able to employ the stern expression.

“I know that.” Sanosuke stood straight again, looking around once more at the taped-off area. His bearing and faint frown indicated he truly was taking this seriously, despite any little indications to the contrary. It was an almost police-like attitude of Life goes on in spite of everything that struck Saitou as odd and more than a little fascinating coming from someone that had expressed surprise at the idea of his wanting to join the force.

Did that kid kill him? was the next text from Tokio, and Saitou stifled a sighing laugh. It wasn’t as if they didn’t pretty typically use gallows humor and fake flippancy in most situations like this, after all. Life went on in spite of everything; Sanosuke couldn’t really be blamed for exhibiting some levity even in the wake of a murder when the cops did the same thing. Actually it stirred up a sense of camaraderie between them that Saitou would rather it didn’t, and made the idea of spending time with him — in some situation besides the somewhat ridiculous ones in which they’d met so far — seem all the more appealing.

“You guys’ll figure it out,” Sanosuke went on in a lighter tone. “By dinner time, maybe? Then you can meet me somewhere. Do you like pizza? We never established that last time.”

Thinking he really should give his partner Sanosuke’s number, since the two of them were so eager to have dinner somewhere tonight, Saitou instead pocketed his phone in some irascibility without responding to Tokio’s latest, which was, In any case, say hi to him for me. And tell him I own this entire city block. In fact she didn’t even own her car. He did not relay the greeting of either one of them.

“Or you could come to my place — you remember where I live, right? — and I’ll cook us dinner. And then breakfast tomorrow,” Sanosuke finished with eyebrows pumping.

Saitou rolled his own eyes at the impudence that could flirt so blatantly while overlooking the tragic and gruesome. Simultaneously, though, it made for another nice contrast. “I have no more questions for you,” he said shortly. “You’d better clear out.”

“OK, fine.” Sanosuke’s tone was one of mingled regret and frustration, with just a touch of defiance thrown in; Saitou, having turned away and started walking, couldn’t see his face, but he believed the obnoxious kid was torn between respecting the crime scene and annoyance with Saitou for not responding to his amorous efforts. He was also probably, based on what Saitou knew of him so far, trying to concoct one last snappy statement, whatever its purport. After all, the chances of their meeting like this ever again — by coincidence while Saitou was working — seemed infinitesimal, so if he wanted to change the nature of their relationship, this was pretty much his last chance.

The only thing he came up with, however, before (if the sound of rough hinges and the closing of a door was any indication) also turning and leaving, was a shouted, “Call me!”

And Saitou didn’t necessarily know that he would. But the temptation was definitely there.

*

He’d been wrong. So very wrong. He imagined a number of shapes lying on a table — perhaps a table like the one at which he now stood — onto which a fist had just slammed down hard — harder than his limp hands had helplessly come to rest on this one — and the shapes jumping into the air and falling again all scrambled into an entirely new pattern. Everything was different now, and a lot of facts bore considering in quick succession.

Zanza Sagara, quite possibly Saitou’s favorite author, had suggested they read together.

Zanza Sagara, Saitou’s favorite author, had asked if Saitou was single.

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

Zanza Sagara, historically so repressive in keeping his personal life separate from his professional, had actually, at one point (Saitou realized now), been on the verge of crossing the line and mentioning to some random guy he was flirting with that he was an author of detective novels. On the verge of letting Saitou in on that secret in order to make him understand why he was so interested in crime scenes.

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

Given that there were seven books in the Yuki Tomoshiro series, that they’d been released over the last decade, and that no preteen had written any of it, Zanza Sagara had to be at least ten years older than that fresh face of his indicated. And he really did live in town… in fact Saitou knew exactly where he lived… He knew where he had, at least up until its closure a few months back, worked on his novels while eating cheap pizza. He knew what color most flattered his eyes, and it wasn’t the sage green of the tie-less button-up he currently wore.

Now the author looked over at the sudden movement through the crowd and abrupt appearance at his signing table, and his jovial face broke into a wide grin. And why was Saitou so damn pleased at that familiar expression? Yes, this was Zanza Sagara, his favorite author, but it was also that dumbass kid he’d never quite been able to bring himself to reprimand properly for being obnoxious and obstructive, because he was so very, very distracting.

The two were merging irrevocably in Saitou’s thoughts, however. His favorite author was taking on the undeniably gorgeous looks and compelling aura of the dumbass kid, and the dumbass kid was revealed to have the intelligence and creativity to write a series of books Saitou hadn’t been able to put down. It frustrated and disconcerted him. He didn’t know what to do.

“Saitou!” Zanza jumped up, knocking his folding chair over with a clatter and appearing overjoyed — which still, aggravatingly, provoked a similar response in the officer. The author’s surprise at seeing him faded quickly as he added what would have been incongruous with that emotion: “You made it!”

The crowd, previously discontented at Saitou’s rude intrusion, seemed to relax and accept his presence much more readily as the person they were all here to see reacted so favorably to it. There was some shifting — these were probably bookstore employees and maybe an agent or publisher’s representative standing near the author, and some looks of slight confusion passed among them as Sanosuke seized Saitou’s arm and dragged him around the end of the table to stand beside him. Saitou, still shell-shocked and not sure how to react, went unresisting.

“Guys, this is Detective Saitou, RCPD!” Sanosuke announced. He draped an arm around Saitou’s shoulders in a manner so far from platonic that Saitou marveled there wasn’t a chorus of titters from the assembly, and fitted himself against Saitou’s just slightly taller form as if he’d been designed for that space. It was obnoxiously comfortable, and Saitou had to actively fight the urge to slip his own arm around Sanosuke’s waist. “He helped me with some accuracy checks in this latest book…”

Perhaps this statement was true in a sense, but it certainly made it sound as if Saitou had provided a lot more directed information and critique than had actually been the case. It also, somewhat to Saitou’s chagrin, gave him a little thrill, as if he really had been involved in the production of the most recent installment of his favorite series. He shouldn’t be feeling so much excitement about this; Sanosuke just wanted to get into his pants, right?

Though was that idea really so bad?

“…and he’s going to be my consultant for all the rest of the series!” Sanosuke finished, and Saitou had to clench his jaw to keep it from dropping open. There was no doubt the sly young author meant what he suggested, but in addition to that a twist to the sound of ‘be my consultant’ implied so much more than just police-picking details in future books (itself a delightful prospect). The arm around Saitou’s shoulders tightened, and the warmth all along his side seemed to squirm just slightly closer. “Right, Saitou?”

“You shameless idiot,” was what Saitou wanted to say. But under the gaze of a hundred expectant fans (among whom he reluctantly had to number himself), with the prospect in mind of getting a glimpse not only at Zanza Sagara’s work in advance but also at his writing process as it took place, and with a very desirable person he hadn’t wanted to admit he would like to get to know better in a couple of different senses pressed covetously up against him, all he could manage was, “Of course.”

That this bargain had been struck only this moment, and perhaps somewhat under the duress of an unexpected public appearance, it seemed a fair amount of the audience recognized, and there was some laughter interspersed among the applause that followed, but nobody seemed to object. Sanosuke gave his possessive arm another squeeze, then looked around for the chair he’d knocked over so as to resume his celebrity activities — but not until after granting Saitou a very private and evocative grin that promised a host of interesting possibilities for the future.

Well, Saitou was thoroughly embroiled now, but he found he didn’t mind so much. Anticipation and curiosity filled in the gap between astonishment and annoyance at today’s unanticipated events, and looking forward through a disbelieving haze that fully obscured what on earth might happen from here — not to mention the necessity of staving off Tokyo’s inevitable curiosity about his inevitable preoccupation — would undoubtedly occupy his work shift to a lesser or greater extent.

He’d been wrong about the diminutive likelihood of ever meeting Sanosuke by coincidence again; he’d been wrong about the minuscule probability of the young man’s getting what he wanted. He’d been wrong about his real level of interest both in Sanosuke Higashidani and Zanza Sagara, and as such could never have imagined the direction this day would go when he’d decided, under the pretense of having nothing better to do and unrelatedly wanting to look at e-readers, to stop by this bookstore to catch a glimpse of his favorite author. He’d been wrong about a fair few things, it seemed.

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


This fic is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing.

I’ll give this fic an author’s rating eventually, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



His Own Humanity: Cross-Cancellation

The current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was.

Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre make good use of the beginning of a short vacation to think extensively about each other.

“You know, you guys don’t all have to go completely silent like that every time I back out of a parking space,” Duo was grumbling as he slowly guided Heero’s car in the manner specified.

“I was already completely silent,” Trowa pointed out.

“OK, Trois, you’re exempt. But you two–” Duo glanced at Heero, who sat in the passenger seat, then into the mirror at Quatre in the back beside Trowa. Ironically, he wasn’t able to tell these two what he thought of their behavior, since the accusatory movement of his eyes toward them in preparation for doing so caused them to break in with almost simultaneous protests that he needed to be watching what he was doing.

Duo was right, though: the car had fallen suspiciously silent the moment he’d started it up and moved to leave the parking space… but Trowa wasn’t certain this had been due entirely to the nervousness of his passengers about his ability to negotiate the lot — at least where Heero was concerned. Because Trowa and Quatre had only just gotten into the car at that point, and it was nothing unusual for Heero’s general volume to drop in direct proportion to the number of people around him.

Instead of whatever facetious rant he’d had in mind, Duo was grumbling, “…just because I still suck at parking lots…” and giving more attention to the latter than the rant probably would have allowed.

“You know, Heero,” Quatre grinned, “I was pleased with myself for getting our time off arranged right this time — the right number of days in advance, vacation pay set up, and everything — but I realize now that what I really should have done was updated my will.”

It was Duo that replied, this time with mock haughtiness. “Well, I wasn’t planning on driving us off a cliff, but now I’m having second thoughts.”

Shaking his head with a regretful sigh, Quatre seemed to lament this inevitable sealing of his fate. “I just hope Goldensea is worth it.”

“If we get there at all,” Heero put in. And because Trowa’s thoughts had drifted in that direction, he specifically marked the tone in which Heero said it. ‘Theatrical,’ he thought, was the best description for it, though that did imply more drama (and perhaps volume from the diaphragm) than he could ever imagine a speech of Heero’s containing. But there was definitely a performing quality to it, a consciousness of audience, and far more calculation than candidness.

Duo now shifted to offended dignity, and almost managed to make his portentous accusation with a straight face. “You two are no true friends.”

In general, however, Duo’s driving was not so bad. Trowa had found he wasn’t terribly fond of being a passenger in any car, but he hadn’t yet actively feared for his life with Duo at the wheel as his companions pretended to do. And despite the tendency of those companions to try to micro-manage lane-changing, acceleration, usage of turn signals, and most especially the distance maintained from other cars on the road, Trowa knew they would both offer reassurances to Duo, in between their teasing, that everything was actually fine.

In fact, he thought Heero was already doing so. Trowa couldn’t quite make out what he was saying in that low tone up there; four adult bodies in the car on a July afternoon required more air conditioning for comfort than would allow any remark not specifically aimed at everyone to be heard by everyone.

Trowa himself had repaired the air conditioner, which apparently hadn’t functioned correctly for many years, with a few spells a few days ago in preparation for this little road trip. Evidently more out of interest than skepticism, Heero had then insisted on examining the vehicle’s internal workings, and had emerged, greasy and fascinated, probably with a better understanding of what the magic had done than Trowa possessed. But even if the air conditioner hadn’t been working, Trowa did not doubt that Heero would have found an opportunity to murmur whatever statement he wanted to make to Duo in privacy great enough that he could deliver it in one-on-one mode.

Of Heero’s array of interpersonal settings Trowa had pieced together his awareness after a great deal of observation that had never been intended to unearth any such information. Several instances of coming into Heero’s apartment very quietly (ready to retreat immediately if it seemed that something private was going on), and overhearing thus how Heero behaved with Duo, had displayed the fact that this behavior was subtly but markedly different once Trowa joined them. He’d had occasion to observe Heero alone with Quatre once or twice too, and, though of course there was no romance involved, the openness and ease of Heero’s manner at such moments were much the same as with Duo.

At first, very naturally, Trowa had attributed this to the fact that Duo was Heero’s boyfriend and Quatre his longtime best friend, but after a couple of months observing and interacting with Heero he’d realized there was more to it than that. Because Trowa himself had been alone with Heero a few times, trying, at Duo’s urging, to assist Heero with magic. That process hadn’t gone very well, but the experiences had been enough to prove that, though Heero might not have quite the same degree of openness and friendliness toward Trowa that he displayed with Duo or Quatre, those aspects of his behavior yet remained — up until even just one more person came in.

When that happened, Heero seemed deliberately to shift gears. It had taken Trowa a while to realize that what Heero was actually doing at that point was closing off, putting up barriers, since Heero did it so smoothly: he did become quieter, yes, but he also seemed to start more carefully calculating everything he did say so as to cover up the fact that he was so much less inclined to speak at all.

They stopped for gas at a busy station, where Duo flirted shamelessly with the women at the next pump and then clearly startled them a bit when he replied to their teasing remarks about the apparent age and dilapidation of his car that it was actually his boyfriend’s. Said boyfriend and car owner maintained his stony silence and stillness in the passenger seat.

Before they’d left Heero’s apartment complex, when Duo and Heero had been the only ones in the vehicle… well, Trowa had been busy talking to Quatre at that point, but even the briefest glance at the others had been enough to show the greater level of responsiveness and candid animation in Heero’s demeanor, as he and Duo looked over the map to their destination on Heero’s phone, than in a moment like this when surrounded by people and observed by strangers.

And earlier than that, when Trowa and Quatre had come from Trowa’s house, where they’d been changing clothing and retrieving what luggage they meant to bring with them (and Quatre had insisted Trowa pack, on the grounds that teleporting back home in search of needed items defeated the entire point of a vacation), they’d found Heero’s apartment full of the sound of Duo’s excited discussion of the reception they’d all just attended, as well as the wedding that had preceded it — and Heero animatedly agreeing with him on many points. But of course he’d changed his tone when he’d realized Trowa and Quatre had arrived, because it was evidently impossible for him to behave the same with three people as he did with one.

Though it was obviously not just the type of relationship Heero had with those around him, but also a simple matter of arithmetic, Trowa deemed it still made a difference that those three were friends; he had no real idea of how Heero behaved around other types of people. It hardly mattered, though, since the overall point remained the same: subtly, even somewhat unexpectedly, Heero was shy. This was a brief and simplistic description of a complicated set of attributes, and Trowa had been a little surprised when he found he’d boiled Heero’s behavior down to that one word in his head, but there it was… and Trowa worried that it might cause problems one of these days.

Not with him, of course. While he wouldn’t have applied the same description to himself, he had definitely developed certain social anxieties and dislikes, and some extremely withdrawn tendencies, over the many years, which couldn’t leave him anything but sympathetic with anyone else’s desire to avoid social situations. No, he worried it might cause problems one of these days with Duo.

The latter had finished filling the car and said goodbye to his admirers, and was now, to the sound of some fairly idiotic but no less amusing banter, guiding them toward the interstate. There, Trowa knew from prior experience, Heero and Quatre would be a little less inclined to backseat drive, as long as Duo refrained from ‘riding the ass’ of the car in front of them as he was, apparently, wont to do; to Trowa, who was far more agitated by constant non-joking harassment of Duo than he was by any minor traffic law infractions, this would be a relief.

The conversation had turned to Duo’s job prospects and all the money he planned on making. “It’ll be so cool to do my taxes next year,” he was saying.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that,” Quatre replied with a laugh.

Eagerly Duo said, “I’ll do yours for you too!”

“Thank you, Duo.” Quatre’s tone made it very clear that this service, which removed his immediate influence over a part of his finances, was one of which he would never avail himself.

Picking up on this, Duo made a sulky face that Trowa could only partially see from this angle. “I’ll just have to do Heero’s taxes,” he declared.

“Hmm…” Heero’s reluctance was every bit as pronounced as Quatre’s.

“You can do my taxes,” Trowa offered.

“I will do everyone’s taxes!” was Duo’s fierce insistence. And he started listing all the people whose taxes he would do — though it sounded more like just a list of all the people he could think of, starting with his friends, broadening to acquaintances, then people he didn’t really know, then strangers whose names he’d seen on billboards and TV ads and people he wasn’t likely ever to meet. It probably would have continued into historic figures and fictional characters, but before that could happen, George W. Bush joined the roster, and this led to an energetic and very silly tangent.

Describing Duo as ‘outgoing’ was understating the fact. Duo had always been interested in people, which usually translated to his being equally interesting to people, which made friendliness levels rise exponentially when he was in company. If Trowa hadn’t known it perfectly well after growing up alongside Duo’s jovial and usually reciprocated interest in everyone they ever happened to encounter, those brief months of money and upward mobility just before the curse would have proven it. Duo had been politely invited to someone’s party the first time because he was Trowa’s friend; he’d been enthusiastically invited the second time because they’d realized that the gathering simply wouldn’t be complete without him.

As far as Trowa could tell, Duo’s time as a doll, being passed from one person to another for nigh on a century, had only given him a deeper and broader understanding of humanity in general, and done nothing to lessen his interest; if anything, he was more socially inclined now than ever before. He didn’t have a phone yet, since apparently he wanted to start earning his own money before thinking about that kind of monthly bill, but he did have at least one email address, and appeared to have made friends with just about everyone in the apartment complex in addition to several of Heero’s co-workers (somehow).

Trowa didn’t think Duo had started intensively hanging out with his new friends yet, inviting and being invited, but he assumed it was only a matter of time, especially once an income and a phone entered the picture. And what was Heero going to do then? Trowa feared the result of the first wanting to mingle and the second to avoid people would inevitably be constant discomfort and possibly pain on at least one side; surely, even if they managed to meet halfway between Heero’s preference for interacting with as few as possible and Duo’s for as many as he could, those two conflicting desires were going to drive them apart.

On the other hand, Heero had proven himself both adaptable and tenacious thus far… and Duo’s sociability, naturally, included a talent for overcoming interpersonal conflict… they would surely figure something out.

“No, obviously Heero will be my running mate,” Duo was saying, “if JaMarcus Russell says no.”

“Our junction’s coming up,” Heero pointed out. “You’ll want to be in the right lane.”

Since the difficult process of exiting and merging onto a different highway was apparently an engrossing prospect to Heero and Quatre, all conversation that held any immediate interest to Trowa ceased for the moment. Which simply meant he could carry on his contemplations uninterrupted.

Of course his friends’ relationship wasn’t strictly any of his business… but not only had disinclination to see Duo hurt become more or less a way of life for him, his own level of sociability had come into play as he’d been realizing that having friends again meant once again being both entitled and obliged to care about them. And he cared about Heero. They weren’t exactly close, but Trowa thought they liked each other well enough — and that he understood this potential problem, at least to a certain extent, from both sides.

That didn’t mean there was really anything he could do about it… he certainly wasn’t going to bring it up with either of them, especially while it was only hypothetical as yet… He would just have to wait and see how things developed.

*

General conversation had faded into pensive, window-gazing quiet, as it not infrequently did on long drives. Heero was fine with the relative silence, but unsurprised to find that his boyfriend was not; in fact Duo was squirming somewhat alarmingly in his seat, attempting to get something out of the pocket of his jeans with the hand that was required for the gear shift. It turned out to be his iPod, which (rather than allow him to attempt to connect it, while still driving, to the cassette adapter in the stereo) Heero immediately took from him.

“Thanks,” said Duo. Then in a sly tone he added, “If you just let it play from where it was, that’ll be fine.”

Heero rather suspected he knew what he would hear when he obeyed this injunction, and thus was braced for it. The back seat, on the other hand, had no prior warning, and the look on Trowa’s face at the first sudden sound of Baby, baby, baby, no! from the speakers was priceless. Quatre, who wasn’t much of a popular music fan in general, raised such a protest that Heero (nothing loath) had to skip the song and promise to avoid anything else by that particular artist for the rest of the drive.

Duo made a sound of exaggerated disappointment and an absurdly sad face.

“I’ll make it up to you.” Heero hid his smile in favor of the solemnity necessary for this promise.

With a sudden grin Duo said, “Hah! see, just a couple of lines of that song put you in the mood to make it up to me.” And at Heero’s expression he added, “I know, I know, it’s really weird that Justin makes you want me; I totally admit that. But since we’ve discovered that this is a true, proven scientific fact, there’s no reason not to take advantage of it, right?”

Even as Heero echoed skeptically, “‘Justin?'” wondering since what point Duo was on first-name terms with the celebrity in question, he glanced reflexively into the mirror on his sunshade to determine whether or not Quatre and Trowa were listening to this ridiculous exchange. Observing that they had begun a conversation of their own, nothing of which Heero could hear over the music and air conditioner, he deemed himself safe.

The mirror did inform him that he was blushing a little, though; he would have pushed the visor away so as to ignore this fact if they hadn’t been driving straight into the sunset… which just meant he had more opportunity (or perhaps excuse) to watch his friends in the back seat. So, giving one ear to Duo’s continued, excessively silly Justin Bieber talk (talk that eventually transitioned into energetic singing along with whatever was currently playing) and one eye to a surreptitious watch of Quatre and Trowa, Heero sat in silence for a while.

There was often, he had noticed, an almost severe earnestness to Trowa’s demeanor when he conversed privately with Quatre, as if Trowa threw everything he was into these interactions. Under most circumstances, Heero would have considered this a good sign, a proof of devotion and engagement… but with Quatre, he was afraid it was actually something more the opposite.

Duo had once declared that Heero loved fixing things. And while Heero didn’t necessarily think this inaccurate, he felt it might apply to Quatre equally well or perhaps even more than to him. Or, at least, where Heero loved fixing things, Quatre loved fixing people. Certainly Quatre was drawn to people that needed help, the pathetic, people to whom he thought he specifically could be of use… so it amounted to about the same thing.

Heero couldn’t count the number of times he’d received from a yawning, ring-eyed Quatre a report of all-night counseling sessions with the latest disturbed boyfriend — nor the number of times Quatre had mentioned having been called away from something he was doing, up to and including formal family functions, to see to some problem that really shouldn’t have been Quatre’s in the first place.

He couldn’t count the number of times Quatre had unburdened himself regarding the personal issues he just couldn’t manage to solve for Eric, Gabe, or Scott — issues that, while perfectly legitimate, were unlikely ever to be solved when Quatre seemed to be the only one working on them.

He could, unfortunately, count the number of times Eric, Gabe, Scott, or any of the rest, had made even the most pathetic attempt at returning the favor, at offering the same level of emotional support they so consistently demanded of Quatre. That he could count on one hand.

Abruptly Duo stopped singing, and remarked with intense complacency, “I am going to run down the beach in slow motion for two days straight.”

Though the sentiment was nothing new — Duo had been listing all the things he was going to do at the beach on and off ever since they’d decided on this little vacation, and the list became more and more elaborate with each repetition — Heero had still been deep enough in his own thoughts to be taken unawares by the statement. Thus he wasn’t in time, before Duo went on, to reply that he hoped this wasn’t all Duo intended to do for the next two days.

“And I’m going to get a towel and a drink with a little umbrella in it and lay in the sun all day.”

“You won’t be happy if you get a sunburn the first day and have to spend the rest of the time inside,” Heero smiled.

Duo returned the expression, but his was more of a somewhat sheepish “Actually, I probably would” smile. He still took an inordinate amount of pleasure in anything that reminded him he was human. Rather than admit this out loud, however, he began to wax enthusiastic about how long it had been since he’d visited an ocean beach (a couple of years), how many times he’d been to a beach in total (fewer than ten), and how many of those instances had taken place while he’d been human (a big fat zero).

The excitement Duo manifested at such moments never failed to make Heero smile… but since, similar to the description of what Duo was going to do at the beach, there was nothing Heero hadn’t heard before in this particular dissertation, he wasn’t required to pay minute attention, and could resume the train of thought regarding Quatre and Trowa he’d been busy with a minute or two ago.

There was a name for the kind of treatment Heero had observed in Quatre’s past boyfriends: abuse. None of them had meant to do it — Heero would give them that much — and in fact he didn’t think any of them had even been aware of the extent to which they were taking advantage of Quatre’s unfailing kindness. But that didn’t change the facts.

And Quatre, with his determination not to give up on someone he cared about, his confidence in his own abilities and good will, and the disciplinary side of his managerial inclinations dampened by the personal nature of the situation, continued to enable the abusive behavior long past when he should have given the effort up as a bad job. Eventually he tended to turn each boyfriend loose in what was probably worse shape than when the guy had caught Quatre’s eye in the first place.

And as for the number of times Heero had attempted to suggest tactfully that perhaps Quatre should be a little more choosy about his partners, and had his friendly advice completely ignored… he didn’t even want to try to count. It had been a source of more or less constant frustration for seven or eight years, but Heero supposed he couldn’t really blame Quatre for a faulty behavior born of an overdeveloped sense of pathos combined with a perseverant desire to improve people’s lives… and perhaps, in this, Heero was every bit as enabling as Quatre was.

“Oh! And I’m going to get drunk,” said Duo complacently.

This was new. “Are you?”

“Yes! I’ve barely ever–” He raised his chin and his voice. “Trowa! Tell Heero how much money we had to spare for alcohol back in the 1910’s.”

Breaking off whatever he was saying to Quatre, Trowa turned with a skeptical expression Heero pretended not to be able to see in his sunshade mirror. “We occasionally had alcohol, but whether we ever once had money to spare for it is a different story.”

“So I’ve never really been drunk,” Duo concluded. “And the Goldensea website said something about a happy hour. Quatre, you got the happy hour thing in the reservation, right?”

“I think it applies to anyone who stays there,” Quatre smiled. “So you can make up for everything you never had money to spare for back then.” And his expression took on a speculative, perhaps even somewhat suggestive interest as he went back to his quieter conversation with Trowa. Trowa, with whom the current problem lay… a problem that would probably not be in any way improved by the application of alcohol, however curious Quatre might be.

After how long Heero had spent irrationally jealous of and unfriendly toward the magician, he hated even to entertain the thought, but it just wouldn’t go away: Trowa, as Heero had specifically feared back when Quatre had first mentioned they’d become lovers, fit the prevailing pattern. As far as Heero could tell, Trowa’s self-esteem was easily as detrimentally low as Eric’s had been… he was about as unhealthily reclusive as Gabe… and he had more tragedy in his past to overcome and put behind him than even Scott had.

And Heero liked Trowa. He was pleasantly tranquil to have around, though he could also be unexpectedly amusingly sarcastic when he wasn’t too busy effacing himself. And the world of magic with which he seemed to be thoroughly, unpretentiously familiar was very interesting. But none of that, nor even the fact that he was Duo’s best friend, mattered in the slightest if he was going to be abusing Quatre.

They appeared happy enough in the back seat right now, but that didn’t really mean much; of course there must always be periods of happiness, or else Quatre wouldn’t be in these relationships in the first place. It was just that the trade-off was usually so painfully imbalanced.

“You know, to be honest, I never really liked the taste of alcohol much.” Duo admitted this as if it were a little embarrassing. “Which might just be because everything we got our hands on back then was so cheap… but still… it might actually be kinda hard to get drunk, if it all turns out to be as gross as I remember.”

With a slight laugh Heero replied, “You know there’s a whole world of experiences out there, right? Getting drunk isn’t strictly necessary when there’s a big percentage of the list you already know you won’t get to in one lifetime anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s true, but getting drunk is way easier than, say, skydiving. Hey! skydiving didn’t even really…” Duo paused thoughtfully. “Well, actually, I guess it did. But it wasn’t so much of a recreational pastime back then, and I definitely never could have done it.”

“We can go skydiving sometime, if you want,” Heero offered. He’d seen advertisements occasionally for someplace relatively local offering that service, and, though it was probably fairly expensive, he didn’t think that would bother him much if it would gratify Duo.

The latter threw him a sidelong grin. “Oh, you’ve already taken me skydiving,” he said, with an emphasis that made his meaning clear.

And Heero blushed faintly again, not necessarily because of the words themselves but because they’d been spoken in such close proximity to others. This, of course, dragged his thoughts once more to the people in the back seat — not that those thoughts had strayed too far even during this last exchange. It didn’t help that just then the song changed to some kind of hip-hop number that seemed to be about both getting drunk and sex, the appropriateness of which absolutely forced Duo to sing/rap along and Quatre to glance up with a wearily skeptical expression so Heero was able to study his face minutely in the rear-view mirror.

Heero had been, Heero was always watching for the signs: Quatre sluggish from lack of sleep, perpetually downcast, and losing weight; Quatre seeking Heero out, looking first for random conversation to distract him and then, breaking down, talking at length about the actual problem; Quatre refusing reasonable invitations (of a type he usually accepted) from his friends because he was too busy dealing with the boyfriend or too emotionally spent to consider other entertainment… but then taking up the type of invitations he usually didn’t accept in order to distract himself even further with more alcohol than he typically indulged in… On a couple of occasions, when things had gotten particularly bad, Quatre’s father had actually emailed Heero looking for insight or at least commiseration.

Quatre had been ignoring his other friends quite a bit lately; Heero knew because he was always eventually contacted by them, when this was the case, so they could find out what was going on. Heero believed at the moment, however, and had assured them, that it was just the first phase of a particularly engrossing relationship causing this behavior, that Quatre would get back to them eventually.

Heero had also noticed a bit of baggy-eyedness in Quatre over the last couple of months… but, again, he believed this was due to nothing more than the enthusiastic nighttime activities of that aforementioned first phase — the same could probably be said of Heero. So, having carefully examined and dismissed the only two possible symptoms (he didn’t consider that little spark of interest in alcoholic experimentation a minute ago a symptom), Heero was cautiously withholding condemnation of Trowa for now.

He hoped he would never have to condemn Trowa. He wanted this one to work out for Quatre. No, ‘for Quatre’ wasn’t expansive enough — Heero hoped this one worked out for everyone’s sake. It would be great to see Trowa, whom he really did like, happy and making good psychological improvement without tearing someone else down in the process. Then, the current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was. And if it didn’t… if Trowa and Quatre didn’t work out… it would hurt more than just the two of them.

Mostly he just didn’t want to see someone mistreating Quatre and Quatre determinedly toughing it out again. Quatre, the beloved friend whose support, understanding, and companionship had always been invaluable to Heero, deserved better, and Heero had always been discontented with his own lack of influence in the thus-far-unpleasant area of Quatre’s love life.

He’d never been able to do anything about Quatre’s awful boyfriends before, but this time he felt he might have to try harder. Which would be even more difficult than in any previous scenario, given that Quatre’s boyfriend was Heero’s boyfriend’s best friend. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have any idea what he thought he would even try, or how he would stave off the awkwardness and pain that might result. So for his own sake as well as everyone else’s, he hoped this worked out.

*

Quatre and Trowa really didn’t seem to notice, but if Heero thought Duo didn’t see him watching them in his sunshade mirror, he underestimated how practiced Duo had become at observing him. By now Duo knew perfectly well that Heero suffered at least a touch of discomfort about the relationship between their friends, and it was not difficult to guess that this was on his mind right now as he kept a surreptitious eye on their interaction in the back seat.

Not wanting to hear Trowa criticized, Duo had never inquired into the particulars of Heero’s discontent; and, unless Heero decided at some point to make his concern public, Duo saw no reason to discuss it at all. It was a topic on which it was only natural that Heero should be biased, given not only the strong devotion of long standing that existed between him and Quatre but the pretty obvious neediness Trowa had going on these days.

Of course Duo knew Trowa well enough — or at least, despite how his friend had changed, Duo had confirmed the continued presence of traits he’d known and loved in the old days even if in altered form — to be aware that the difficulties Quatre must face in being Trowa’s boyfriend were definitely worth the trouble. Heero couldn’t know that yet, and therefore must be forgiven his doubt. Whether or not he recognized the potential issues in the relationship that arose from the other side of things was uncertain, as was to what degree his probable blindness in that quarter should also be forgiven. But Duo saw them.

Earlier he had laughed to himself as he’d watched Heero and Quatre subtly butting heads over the arrangement of luggage in the trunk. It was a silly argument, since they were only staying three nights and didn’t have all that much luggage to begin with. It was an argument they probably weren’t even aware they were having, since they certainly weren’t unpleasant to each other. It was an argument Quatre eventually won (as far as it was winnable) when Heero, with an unusually expressive gesture (“This is not worth this much effort”), walked away from it.

After that, though Duo had been too busy looking over their route on Heero’s cool phone to pay close attention, yet he hadn’t missed the debate between Quatre and Trowa before those two got into the car. Evidently Quatre was insisting Trowa wear sunscreen, and Trowa protesting on the grounds that it smelled bad. Several shades paler than it had been eighty-seven years before, Trowa’s skin had already demonstrated a tendency to burn since the onset of summer and a new lifestyle that included the occasional outdoor activity, so this seemed reasonable. But Quatre eventually lost that argument (as far, again, as it had been winnable in the first place) when Trowa cast a protective spell instead.

So Quatre had been one and one when he’d entered the car, but his tally of wins and losses didn’t really matter. It all went as further evidence of a fact to which Heero had once alerted Duo and that Duo, since then, had never doubted: that Quatre was every bit as controlling as he was kind.

Of course Duo had always thought this exactly what Trowa needed. Trowa had long been in emergency mode, with all functions not absolutely necessary shut down, all power channeled into a primary purpose to which he was honed sharp and hard — and a way of life that had lasted the better part of a century was a difficult habit to break. He’d needed a skilled organizer to help him rearrange his priorities and reallot his energy, remind him that, with that primary purpose fulfilled, it was all right to relax and diffuse at least a little. He’d needed someone with the will to insist, the determination to persist, and the kindness to try it all in the first place — and Quatre had fit the bill in every respect so precisely it was as if some force of destiny had been involved in bringing them together.

But as Duo watched a second little scuffle over the luggage in the trunk upon their arrival at their destination, he had to admit he could see how Quatre’s nature could eventually become somewhat… annoying… to his boyfriend, at least under certain circumstances.

This scuffle took place solely between Quatre and his own sense. Duo, hearing the sound of the ocean as he disembarked and full of a glee that had been growing ever since the highway had brought them close enough to catch the occasional glimpse of it, would have run off eagerly toward the building in whose parking lot they now found themselves, but had been restrained by Quatre’s authoritative reminder that they had things to carry inside.

Then Quatre had wondered whether it wouldn’t actually be more practical to go check in first and bring the luggage afterward, since there would probably be another entrance more convenient to their rooms that would save them an unnecessarily circuitous walk. And if that might be the case, whether three of them hadn’t better wait out here until the fourth had gone inside and come back with keys and more certain information. The others, none of them having any opinion worth voicing, remained silent as Quatre rhetorically debated this and cast calculating eyes between the trunk of the car and the entry to the building.

Moving into an appropriate position in front of Quatre, Duo placed a half-clenched hand near his mouth and said, “This is Duo Maxwell of KTVU, coming to you live from the parking lot of a fabulous beach place where world leader Quatre Winner is pondering the fate of the nation. In just a few moments — or maybe, like, twenty minutes, since something this important requires a lot of thought, apparently — Mr. Winner will reveal his plan to end world hunger, stop all wars, and force them to make more seasons of 24. Mr. Winner! Do you have any comments for our viewers?”

Into the invisible microphone, Quatre laughed. “I never watched 24.” He seemed to have taken the point, though, as he added, “Heero, can you open the trunk?”

Shaking his head, Heero moved to comply.

“‘Never watched 24,'” Duo muttered, turning away in disgust. “You and Trowa deserve each other.”

Of course when you were sick you wanted a doctor around… but the last thing anyone wanted was to have a doctor looking over their shoulder when they were well, berating them on every little thing they were doing unhealthily. Trowa’s conditions might take a lot of doctoring, but what then? Once he was convalescent, how would he respond to Quatre’s well-intentioned decisions about what was best for everyone he was concerned with?

As they crossed the parking lot, luggage and all, Duo’s attention was split between observing Trowa and Quatre in much the same manner Heero did (though undoubtedly with rather different thoughts) and looking around excitedly. Lines of hugely tall palm trees marched along between the rows of cars, reminding visitors that this was a venue where a luxurious ocean-front atmosphere was to be had. Though palm trees were not particularly rare at home, these ones seemed to have a particularly special vacationy atmosphere about them, and Duo grinned up at their ragged heads in great pleasure and anticipation.

Inside the first building — Duo didn’t know what it was called, but it seemed to be the main check-in area and other administrative bits of the resort — they made their way past an array of potted plants, some of which looked fake but all of which looked nice, and a lounge-like collection of furniture that was probably very comfortable but that Duo didn’t really see much use for. Who was going to be hanging around here in front when there was a beach in back?

As they approached a tall driftwood reception counter in the center rear of the room, the guy behind it greeted them with scripted cheer, “Welcome to Goldensea Resort! Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes, it’s Winner, Quatre,” the latter said.

“OK, let me get you…” The desk guy trailed off as he began working the computer in front of him. After a few moments he asked, “OK, how’s that spelled?”

“Last name’s Winner,” Quatre reiterated. He added with a smile, “I wouldn’t ask you to try to spell my first name.”

The guy chuckled a little, though it didn’t seem he’d actually found what he was looking for in the computer yet and therefore couldn’t yet know how Quatre’s first name was spelled. Then several long moments passed in silence. “OK…” he said again finally. “It’s Winner, like, you won?”

“That’s right. You can probably guess what people who wanted to make fun of me called me as a kid.”

Again the employee chuckled, and, though it seemed more genuine this time (in response to a joke he actually understood), it also seemed more nervous as he continued to work at a computer that evidently wasn’t giving up the information he wanted. “Well,” he said, obviously trying to cover his difficulties, “you all are going to love– how long are you staying?” When Quatre informed him that they would be leaving on Tuesday after lunch, the guy completed his statement. “Well, you’re going to love it here; the Sugared Rim bar out on the walk just got renovated, and it’s really great. If I could just find your…”

“Don’t you love these unintuitive programs?” Quatre commiserated. “The people who design them are never the people who actually use them.”

Heero made a low noise of agreement.

Appearing much comforted by these kind sentiments, the desk guy nevertheless continued to type and click in vain — but at least his growing panic had been quelled.

Finally Quatre leaned over the counter to peer around at the monitor. Given the manner in which this presented his posterior for everyone’s admiration, Duo looked immediately to see whether Trowa was duly appreciative. Observing that he was, Duo turned back with an approving nod in time to see Quatre pointing at something on the computer. “Where it says ‘Seasonal’ there — is that your problem?”

“Oh, yeah,” the guy said in a tone of enlightenment. “I’m in the… OK, I see… yeah. Thanks.”

Quatre, having resumed his natural stance on the floor, just smiled.

“Yes, OK, here we go. Winner, Quatre.” He pronounced it wrong despite prior indications, but sounded relieved as he added, “Everything looks fine. Yes. OK, two rooms; let’s see…”

The guy was quite visibly relieved when they at last walked away with key cards, directions, and pamphlets, and Quatre’s reassuring smiles definitely had something to do with that. Which was why it was almost a shock when, upon entering a long glassed-over outdoor hallway between this building and the next where their rooms were, Quatre remarked in a low, amused tone, “I give that guy a month.”

Duo’s laugh sounded his surprise at this cold assessment. “After you went out of your way to make him feel better and everything?”

“Everyone has a talent,” Quatre shrugged. “And receiving isn’t his.”

It would have been nice to look forward to Quatre being a little less blunt about Duo when he eventually started working at Winner Plastics, but Duo couldn’t really entertain any such hope. This mixture of criticism and sympathy was Quatre’s nature; though he might go a little easier on people he cared about, it was neither likely, nor would it feel at all right, for him to exaggerate even the kindness that was so integral to that nature.

And as Duo considered the matter further, he came to the reassuring conclusion that it would be equally unlikely for Quatre to exaggerate his dictatorial side. He was overall, Duo thought, a well balanced person. In his compassion he might feel like taking control of everything around him to an improper degree so as to make sure things got done optimally, but that same compassion would probably temper the desire and produce only rational behavior. Duo had seen this type of personality before in others, and thought it was a safe assumption that it would follow the pattern of his prior experience.

Heero, apparently, was finished with today’s (or at least this moment’s) contemplation of the relationship between Quatre and Trowa, for he was giving his attention more completely to his surroundings. He seemed interested and anticipatory about what he saw, Duo was pleased to note; it was about time Duo followed suit and wrapped up his own thoughts about their friends.

This was easy enough to do. The long and short of it was that, though he could see the potential for problems, he had no real fear of their developing to any worrisome extent. He trusted his best friend, trusted the best friend of his lover and the lover of his best friend, and believed they were a good enough match both to be of mutual benefit to each other now and to adjust their interaction appropriate to any personal changes made by either of them in the future.

Over the years Duo had learned at lot about optimism. For one thing, he’d learned that when he wasn’t legitimately feeling it, he wasn’t very good at faking it. But he’d also learned to draw it from a number of seemingly mundane sources. These days, when he was surrounded by, inundated with such sources — things that, to others, while they might provide pleasure, could never mean as much as they did to Duo — it was impossible to remain pessimistic about anything for very long.

It didn’t matter that he was starting to have nightmares on a regular basis about his time as a doll; it didn’t matter that he still worried about his level of independence and to what extent he qualified as a real person; and it didn’t matter that he could see potential complications in a romance between people he loved. In the end, the optimism came welling back up in response to anything and nothing — the taste of the sea air, the feel of cool glass against his trailing hand. In the end, he had to be happy.

Trowa and Quatre would be fine. More than fine; they would surely be every bit as happy as Duo was, if probably for different reasons. They were all very happy at the moment, if not perfectly so; everything was pretty great. The only imperfection Duo could even acknowledge right now was that Heero was not as confident of this as Duo was. But even that would come with time. Everything was going to be fine.

*

Duo had been entertaining Quatre’s peripheral attention all day with his constantly increasing excitement and glee, but now all of a sudden he seemed to have had an exponential jump of sorts. Quatre had seen this in him before, and, while it was almost alarming in its intensity and abruptness, it was also a pleasure to watch for more reasons than one. Beyond just the simple joy of seeing a friend so satisfied and the amusement that arose in response to Duo’s apparent ability to manufacture severe happiness out of no immediately evident material, there was also the effect it must always have on Trowa to consider.

Duo’s contentment was still one of Trowa’s highest priorities, and Quatre might have thought Duo sometimes, with this in mind, showed more than he actually felt… if this intensity of emotion — any emotion — didn’t seem to be pretty standard for Duo and therefore totally unnecessary to fake. And the reminder and reassurance it represented for Trowa — that the curse was broken and Duo was more than all right — was not just pleasant; it was invaluable.

“Aha!” Duo said in a triumphant tone, as if their rooms had been deliberately eluding them and the effort it had taken to catch them in the act had required a great deal more cleverness and heroic endeavor than a mere walk of hallways. But as he drew level with the door to his and Heero’s, he put a pensive hand to his face. “You know I’m not sure if this room is going to work?”

Worried, Quatre wondered why.

Instead of actually explaining why, Duo threw Heero a sly look. “Yeah, I definitely think it’s going to need to be pretty thoroughly inspected first thing. Before we do anything else. You know… to make sure it’s OK.”

“Oh, I see,” said Quatre wisely as Heero rolled his eyes with a slight grin.

Duo turned an expression of deep concern on Quatre. “You guys should check your room out too. Right away. I mean, you can’t be too careful.”

“I think you’re right.” Quatre struggled to school his features. “I should probably have Trowa do some magic, even, to make sure everything’s OK.”

“Oh, yes.” Duo nodded vigorously, lips twitching wildly. “Magic is a very good idea.”

“And then we can go check out the bar or something. Let’s say we meet back out here at–” Having no free hand to pull out his phone to see the time, Quatre moved to set down his bag, but Heero gave a slight vetoing wave.

“I’m not going to commit to any specific length of time,” he said levelly.

“Oho, aren’t you?!” Duo chortled, turning on him.

Heero just gave him a look and held out his hand toward Quatre for the key to their room. And Quatre relinquished it, mind busy with something that had been rising from his subconscious probably over the course of the entire day but that had only just emerged into his real awareness during the last ten minutes or so.

Could noticing something because it was ceasing to exist be called an epiphany? In any case Quatre didn’t really have another word for it. He supposed that was what it must have been, and also that everyone probably had moments like this: a moment in which it occurs to you suddenly that you’ve been believing a certain thing or thinking a certain way a while, for years and years in some cases, possibly for your whole life, without ever noticing it or recognizing the folly of your own attitude; and the abrupt, startling realization is so overwhelming that for quite some time it’s all you can think about.

It had occurred to him suddenly that he’d been subconsciously feeling a little threatened by Duo all along. Jealousy he’d been aware of, at one point, but never until now this more widespread sense of threat — pertaining, he saw, not merely to Duo’s relationship with Trowa, but also with Heero. What caused him to realize this was the consciousness of a weight he hadn’t even recognized being removed from his mind as that sense of threat gradually eased: he was noticing it suddenly only because it was fading.

His initial reaction was to look back at all his interaction with Duo, ever since the first day he’d seen him in plastic form on Heero’s kitchen counter, in great apprehension lest he’d ever been rude to him. He didn’t think he had; he didn’t think he’d ever shown it. If he had, he probably would have recognized the attitude sooner.

This was a relief, since Quatre was very much attached to Duo and would have deeply regretted ever having mistreated him. But he knew he was going to be looking at Duo in a different light for the rest of the weekend, if not for the rest of their acquaintance, now that he’d come to this startling conclusion.

Heero had been the origin of the problem, Quatre felt, because Quatre loved Heero very dearly. Heero’s friendship was much more profound than that of any of Quatre’s other friends; Heero understood him on a much deeper level than anyone that wasn’t a blood relation (and many that were), and was endlessly tolerant and supportive despite knowing all of Quatre’s worst characteristics. In response, Quatre had always taken an almost proprietary interest in Heero’s life, and any difficulties therein, and been a bit frustrated at how little a difference he’d apparently been able to make.

To impose order and keep control over a world that intimidated him a bit, Heero liked to compartmentalize things, liked rigidity in many areas of his life. This was a fabulous trait when it came to organizing just about anything — sales data, for example — and therefore a trait Quatre, who deeply appreciated organization, could never complain about. But it often caused Heero to compartmentalize himself right off from things that might have done him good.

To Heero, there was some behavior that was appropriate in one setting but not in another, or between people in one type of relationship but not between those in another — and this was part of the reason he’d never been able to flirt successfully. His inability to break down certain walls made him come across as cold and withdrawn to many people, which therefore also formed part of the reason he’d dated so little and had (whether he realized it or not) been so consistently lonely.

Obviously Duo hadn’t encouraged Heero to date more — except as far as jumping right into a live-in relationship with Duo himself counted as dating more — but he certainly encouraged him to flirt more. He’d slipped in and solved a number of problems relating to Heero’s walls that Quatre had been working on for years. It was no surprise at all that this performance should present a subconscious threat to Quatre, especially since, in some areas, Quatre still wasn’t even sure how Duo had managed it.

And as for Duo’s relationship with Trowa… of course it was only natural to feel a little threatened by someone your boyfriend had frankly admitted he’d once been in love with. But there was more to it even than that.

Earlier, as they’d pulled out of the gas station after a rather lengthy process of tank-filling, Quatre had remarked very innocently, “I could have sworn you just exchanged phone numbers with those girls, Duo.”

“Email addresses,” Duo corrected. Seeing that he was trying simultaneously to drive and look down at the scrap of paper he now held, to the possible detriment of everyone’s safety, Heero snatched the object from his hand and read out the first halves of the two addresses it contained:

“‘hottkitten91…’ and… ‘tattooed Jen,’ I think — ‘tattoo-3-d-j-3-n’. They sound like just your type.”

“We’re going to discuss hair care,” Duo said righteously. “There are so many products these days!”

“Quatre uses enough of that stuff to tell you everything you need to know.” Heero’s jealousy over Duo’s flirtation with strangers right in front of him probably held a touch of perfect sincerity, but still he made it clear that he was teasing; in any case, Duo seemed gratified by it.

“That’s right,” said Quatre, rolling his eyes. “Unlike Heero, apparently, Quatre is extremely gay; he can give Duo hair-care tutorials better than any girl.”

“Ooh, Quatre’s offering to give Duo private lessons,” said Duo in that over-the-top licentious tone of his that never failed to make Quatre laugh.

“No,” Trowa contradicted levelly. “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

“Oh, well,” Duo sighed. “Poor Duo. At least Quatre has good taste.”

“Heero is wondering,” said Heero, “why everyone is suddenly referring to himself in third person.”

Duo groaned at the use of what he perceived as a grammatical term, and the conversation shifted (as it often did, since Duo wasn’t over it yet) to the G.E.D. he’d recently passed. But one statement from the silly prior exchange stuck in Quatre’s head — “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed this: Trowa had reached a point where he could tease Duo more or less easily, but Quatre doubted he would ever be able to threaten him, even in the context of such a playful, meaningless conversation. If Heero — an utterly absurd thought, but for the sake of argument — if Heero had been the one to make that suggestion directed at Quatre, Trowa would have put a threatening tone into his reply at the very least, possibly even made an entirely different, overtly threatening remark. But to Duo…

It wasn’t unlikely that even joking threats between friends were better eschewed in any case, but the point was still that there were certain relatively innocent lines Trowa could not cross with Duo… and this gave Duo a sort of unconscious power over Trowa. Duo could probably say anything in the world to Trowa without fear of even mental recrimination; he could probably treat him however he wanted, and Trowa would accept it without question, be that acceptance as detrimental to his development as it might. So in a way, Duo had a disproportionate amount of control over Trowa’s mental recovery. And to someone concerned with the latter, that would of course feel threatening.

The gradual diminution of this sense of threat had only just progressed to a noticeable level, which drew attention both to itself and to the condition to which it was a response. Because Duo was nothing but careful and kind in his behavior toward Trowa, to the extent that it seemed almost as systematic and instinctual as Trowa’s treatment of him; Duo was obviously devoted to Trowa’s good, and, though he might not be consciously aware of the power he had over his friend, it seemed just as unlikely that he would ever take advantage of it.

The memory of the gentle tone in which Duo had jokingly lamented the failure of his flirtation with Quatre must be Quatre’s surety… that and his trust of Duo himself. And that had been solidified by Duo’s treatment of Quatre.

Duo gave no signs of truly disliking anyone — he seemed to have a talent for finding something to like about even the most unlikable people, for speaking with jovial fondness about even those that specifically annoyed him — but Quatre had heard his intense disapproval expressed about circumstances and concepts; and the conclusion he’d reached was that if Duo really didn’t like someone or something, he probably wouldn’t be either inclined toward or capable of concealment. If Duo disliked or disapproved of Quatre, Quatre would undoubtedly know it.

Even the exchange in the parking lot just now, wherein Duo had pretty specifically pointed out that Quatre made more of mundane circumstances than perhaps he should in an attempt to control situations that perhaps didn’t actually need controlling, had been nothing but friendly teasing. And pointing out someone’s flaws with no hurt intended nor edge to the words seemed rather a sign of affection, of real friendship, than antipathy or falseness.

In this Quatre was reminded of middle school and its frantic pubescent worries whether or not his friends really liked him. Maybe it was juvenile, but it seemed just as important now as it ever had to his twelve-year-old self. And he was convinced not only that Duo did like him, but that there was no rivalry between them. Quatre’s relationships with Duo’s boyfriend and friend did not appear to be any sort of threat to Duo, and — out of respect for Duo as much as any other consideration — Quatre could do no less than to consider the inverse true as well. Or at least working toward becoming true.

Quatre was not the type to allow distraction to mar his ability to deal with the world around him, so, though his head had been abruptly flooded with these thoughts, he’d had no problem finishing up the banter that was apparently required before anyone could leave the hallway. And now he had entered the room he would be sharing with Trowa, and was exiting his whirlwind reflections at almost the same time. He’d pretty much reached a satisfactory conclusion to them, even if the ramifications of his realizations might last a while; and the room, with its huge tinted window overlooking the boardwalk and the beach beyond, demanded undistracted examination.

Trowa seemed to have noticed that Quatre had something on his mind. He probably wouldn’t ask — which, though less than a perfectly desirable behavior in general, was for the best in this instance where Quatre felt no need to share — but Quatre liked to have Trowa’s attention in any case. As he moved slowly into the room and looked around at its pleasant furnishing and decoration, aware of Trowa’s eyes following him, he started to set his small suitcase down on the bed, but thought better of this placement and put it on the floor nearby instead. Unzipping it there, he bent at the waist all the way over to start rummaging through it. He wasn’t actually looking for anything, though. At least, not anything in the suitcase.

“Duo is probably right, you know,” said Trowa from much closer behind Quatre than he’d been only moments before.

Yes, Duo was probably right — right to be happy and optimistic, planning all sorts of pleasant activities at this resort, looking forward to times thereafter that would provide further and greater pleasure, without, apparently, worrying too much about what might go wrong.

“Duo’s a smart guy,” Quatre replied in satisfied agreement, not straightening up just yet. “We should probably do what he suggests.”

Trowa did not answer in words, and gave Quatre no chance for any further coherent conversation either. Very soon the suitcase lay forgotten as the two of them followed their wise friend’s advice (and undoubtedly example) in making a thorough examination or test run of the room the first step to enjoying their vacation.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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

How accurate are all the assessments made by these guys as they think about themselves and each other? Sometimes any assessment, accurate or otherwise, tells more about the assessor than the assessed. I’ll leave you to interpret.

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

This story is included in the His Own Humanity: Through July ebook.