Naked Rooftops

He was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

After (what should have been) a pretty simple assignment takes an unexpected turn, an ambiguous couple in an unusual situation must work out how they got here and what to do next.


Saitou hadn’t expected Zanza to have such ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin. Marked though it was, here and there, with scars of various sizes (and apparent levels of direness of the original wound), even these were unexpectedly smooth and more or less begged to have a tongue run languidly over them, one by one, for the rest of the evening. Saitou definitely hadn’t been expecting that urge. But honestly, Saitou hadn’t expected a fair number of things about this day.

Zanza, whose ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin had barely started to cool from the intense heat of a few minutes before, also hadn’t yet fully stilled, squirming against Saitou as if determined not to allow the sensations to fade. He’d thrown a leg across Saitou’s, hugging him with the lower half of his body if not quite as insistently as earlier, pretty tenaciously yet. It wasn’t a terribly convenient arrangement of limbs, but Saitou was disinclined to move — and he hadn’t expected that either. He wasn’t sure how he felt about all of this.

Well, he was absolutely certain how his body felt about all of this. It had been a while since he’d had sex, and a much longer while since he’d had sex that enjoyable, and every millimeter of his frame — from a scalp that still tingled faintly where Zanza’s fingertips had threaded through his hair against it, to lips throbbing and swollen after the pressure of unrestrained kisses, to the groin with its residual pulsations of the pleasure it had recently experienced, to the bare toes that hadn’t stopped curling luxuriously in the warm air — every last part of him gloried in the memory and aftereffects of the activities just concluded.

But as for his mind… In the more logical thoughts — the ones not caught up with how excellently Zanza’s well muscled yet delightfully limber body had accepted Saitou’s own and how close to perfect that experience had been — he was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

He had recognized kenkaya Zanza almost immediately when that young man, with his obtrusive kanji-marked attire and absurd hair, had made his way over to where Saitou sat very unobtrusively, ostensibly minding his own business and reading the news, at a small table with a good view of the inn’s dining room and bar, but he hadn’t had any idea what the young man might want. At first, of course, he’d considered the possibility that his cover was blown and someone had sent this darling of the violent Tokyo underworld after him — not that it would do them much good — but he’d dismissed the suggestion quickly as a little too random and unlikely. That was ironic in hindsight when what had actually transpired had turned out to be a good deal more random and unlikely.

The mercenary’s eyes had been bright with drink, and he’d smelled not unpleasantly of sake as well. He’d moved with the faintly exaggerated swagger of a person whose confidence is in no way impaired for all his abilities might be, and, though he’d looked like an idiot, he’d looked like an affable and very visually appealing idiot. For this reason Saitou had not objected to his taking the opposite seat uninvited — and also because objecting might have drawn attention to him (which Zanza, of course, with his mere presence, had already been threatening to do).

“Hey.” As drunken greetings went, Saitou supposed, Zanza’s could have been a lot less articulate, though not much more trite. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”

Naturally Saitou had been in Polite Mode at the time, and therefore only smiled and lowered his newspaper. “Oh? Are you here often enough to know the difference?”

“Enough to know what-all hot older guys hang around the place.” The grin Zanza had flashed him was disarming, flirtatious, and intoxicated all at once.

Saitou had laughed — out loud but not loudly — at the idea that he was a ‘hot older guy.’ Given that Zanza definitely qualified as a hot younger guy, however, he’d had to admit to himself some sense of the flattery in the statement. “This is an inn,” he’d said with low-key sarcasm. “There are reasons other than ‘hanging around the place’ drinking yourself stupid for someone to be here.”

Zanza’s grin had turned sneaky. “You away from home on business, then? Away from the wife for a while?”

“That’s right.” Saitou had been amused at both the suggestiveness in the question and the truth beyond what Zanza could know in the answer.

“Well, business is always better with sake, so lemme buy you a drink. I mean, put you a drink on my tab.”

Unable to keep from chuckling at this blatant admission of impecunity, Saitou had also been unable to come up with any reason to give for refusing — and, again, not wanting to do something that might cause Zanza to direct the room’s attention toward them, he’d gone ahead and accepted the offer. Besides, his target (a secretary suspected of making a quiet trade in classified information and with probably no upstanding reason to be spending so many long weekends at this inn away from his boss in the Ministry of Finance) hadn’t yet appeared on this particular evening in the dining room to be observed; Saitou had figured that being engaged in drinks and conversation with someone at his own table — someone over whose shoulder he could still easily watch the entire gathering, even if that someone was an absurdly dressed mercenary — might be a decent way to avoid suspicion.

The arrangement had turned out to be less than optimal, which perhaps he should have expected. Zanza hadn’t exactly been quiet to begin with, and each drink had seemed to drain from him further ability to be so. And every time he’d laughed — which had happened with increasing frequency as their surprisingly entertaining if equally stupid conversation had unfolded — it had been louder than the previous instance. Additionally, the ridiculous flirtation hadn’t stopped, and the drunker Zanza had become, the more suggestive his remarks — and the more suggestive his remarks (especially with his volume increasing), the more they’d attracted the attention of people at nearby tables. The fear that Zanza might make an even louder fuss if Saitou attempted to chastise or dismiss him had remained firmly in place, however.

At least the secretary had not yet shown up at that point. Saitou had considered his options, and the idea of taking Zanza upstairs to the room he’d rented — something Zanza had been hinting at all along and eventually had switched to openly demanding in increasingly graphic terms — had at the time seemed like the best plan. Now, in hindsight, Saitou wasn’t so certain he’d truly lacked a better option, and wondered if he hadn’t been — and wasn’t still, perhaps — a bit muddled by alcohol. He’d discarded, whenever the mercenary had looked away for even a moment, most of what Zanza had insisted on having brought to the table, but some of it had, by necessity, gone down his throat.

And he’d really felt that taking Zanza upstairs would be the best solution to his problem. Of course nearby diners, who’d been aware whether they’d liked it or not of the kenkaya’s desires, would probably laugh behind their hands at Saitou for giving in — but wouldn’t that just make him look less like someone here to spy on someone else? No, it had certainly made sense at the time.

He’d fully intended to knock Zanza out immediately they got up here. He wouldn’t have been able to go back down to the dining room right away, of course, but he hadn’t planned on putting up with a drunk and amorous — and, overall, very loud mercenary for very long, whatever he’d chosen to do thereafter.

And then…

He wasn’t honestly sure what had happened then. No matter how many times he traced the actual events, there was a disconnect in there somewhere that made it impossible to find a logical path from ‘intending to knock him out’ to ‘very enthusiastically fucking him.’

No matter how closely the police kept tabs on people like kenkaya Zanza (and that closeness already varied depending on how dangerous to public order the person in question really seemed), there would always be plenty of areas left uninvestigated. Naturally, therefore, Saitou was ignorant of personal details such as Zanza’s sexual habits and what he did between fights. Even not knowing, however, the officer had assumed without question that the flirtation at the table had been nothing serious. There was simply no way someone as attractive and flamboyant as this kid was really interested in an unhandsome older man that, as far as Zanza could believe at this point, held no compelling position and had no noteworthy experiences or abilities.

So perhaps it had had something to do with surprise at the apparent sincerity and definite eagerness with which the kenkaya had kissed him the moment they’d reached the upstairs room that Saitou hadn’t pushed him away as he’d planned. He hadn’t previously believed himself so susceptible to that kind of enthusiasm.

And here he was naked, very satisfied physically, annoyed mentally but unsure to what degree, with a very attractive young man cuddling up to him as if ready for a highly contented nap against his bare skin. There wasn’t time for that, of course; Saitou should get up, get dressed, and go back downstairs, since, as pleasant (in some ways) as he couldn’t deny this interlude had been, he did have actual work to return to. But was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave in any subtle fashion? Hell, was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave at all? He wouldn’t be surprised if, the moment he alluded to this evening’s next step, the young man started insisting they go for a second round. And after what had already happened, he might not be terribly surprised if he wasn’t able to decline the suggestion.

So in a continued mixture of bodily comfort and psychological dissonance, he tried to decide exactly what words to use to get himself out of this situation, and in what frame of mind he needed to be well entrenched to avoid further temptation.

*

Everything was going not only precisely according to plan but also far and away better than Zanza had expected. When had he last experienced this fantastic level of afterglow? When had he last been this happy about cuddling some guy he’d just met for more than twenty seconds after sex ended? When had he last been this pleased, in general, about the outcome of an encounter?

In the world he inhabited, sex was something you did the same way you used the latrine — every bit as clean, elegant, and fun to think about afterward. You had to do it, had to get it out of the way, and sometimes, if you were lucky enough to arrange circumstances optimally, it was even enjoyable (or at least satisfying) in the moment… but when it was over, you moved on until you found yourself really needing that release some other time. And he’d thought today’s instance would run exactly along those lines.

In fact he had expected even worse. He’d been certain the guy he’d been sent to seduce would turn out to be ugly as hell and thoroughly unpleasant. Then he would have been forced to decide whether or not to go through with it. Threats to his life didn’t scare him all that much, but it would have been risky, he believed, to decline this job. At the same time, he hadn’t been eager to try to seduce some ugly old man. So he hadn’t really wanted to be pushed into that decision.

But then Fujita had turned out to be… well, ‘just fine’ had been the kenkaya’s initial thought: in exactly the right age category (ten to twenty years older than Zanza) and with a striking face that was, if not necessarily gorgeous, unexpectedly fascinating. Zanza hadn’t been able to make out details of his figure at first in the decorously low-lit dining room, except that clearly the man was as lean as he’d been told, but on the whole he’d decided he didn’t at all mind. So he’d approached… and then, to his further surprise, during the course of their conversation, ‘just fine’ had gradually improved to ‘very fine’ as Fujita’s features and what Zanza could now see of his body grew on him — until eventually the mercenary was ready to label his target quite, if unconventionally, handsome. Instead of the grueling task he’d been half expecting, it had been remarkably easy to get into his role of drunk, bored, and horny.

And then the sex had been amazing. That was another thing about sex in the underworld: it was solely a means to an end — orgasm, mostly — not a pursuit in itself, and as such required a minimal amount of talent. For all Zanza might pride himself on his flexibility and stamina, being good at sex was a secondary if not tertiary skill set in his sphere. But, damn, this guy…! Or had it been more a combination than an individual thing? A very happy meeting of bodies, preferences, and abilities that came together remarkably well?

In any case, Zanza was considering very seriously whether, after not too much longer, he might not suggest they go for a second round. In fact, something in the back of his head that was getting louder by the moment was considering, with an increasing level of seriousness, whether or not he really wanted to collect payment for this job — thereby, most probably, destroying all chances of ever meeting this guy Fujita again on amicable terms — or whether, regardless of the promised amount, it wouldn’t be a better long-term plan to abandon it and instead try to find out whether said Fujita guy might not be amenable to some sort of arrangement having to do with future encounters like today’s on a regular basis.

He believed, after all, that Fujita had enjoyed this every bit as much as he had — and everyone needed a break from work now and then, right? (Or maybe slightly more often than ‘now and then.’) For his own sake, Zanza, of course, was always happy with anything distracting, anything that could get his thoughts off of what he lived to forget. He doubted this Fujita had such traumatic motivations, but that didn’t make the sex less fun on its own… Could they go somewhere with this?

At that moment, beneath Zanza’s still-searching hands and against his still-squirming body, Fujita stiffened abruptly. He pushed himself upward into a seated position so quickly his suddenly rising shoulder almost knocked the kenkaya even sillier than the rest of his body had rendered him by different methods. Zanza was sent sprawling to the side, off the edge of the futon onto the much cooler floor, as Fujita struggled to his feet. And then the door to their right burst from its tracks and into two or three pieces under the blow of a large hammer-like weapon carried by one of the several men — too many to count just now — that poured into the room before the door’s clattering pieces had even hit the floor.

Though it did take half an instant for Zanza to get his bearings, still an ambush like this was nothing unusual in his life or even something he particularly disliked. Indeed, the unexpected nature of such an attack added a piquancy to the resulting skirmish that he usually rather relished, even if he was a little angry simultaneously at his enemies’ underhanded methods. He would have been glad to fling himself, lack of clothing notwithstanding, against the swordsmen now arrayed before him and that guy with the interesting mallet thing — except they weren’t alone. As gunshots sounded deafeningly closely to Zanza’s ears, he reflected first that firearms were a really tacky way to change the dynamic of a battle and he didn’t like them much, and second that, while, yes, it would have been fun to rumble with the more traditionally armed enemies in the room, Fujita had the right idea in scrambling for its only other exit.

There wasn’t time to grab anything; there wasn’t time to consider anything except escape from the pistols suddenly aimed at them. So when Fujita crashed through the light wood and rice paper of the closed window to land precariously on the narrow strip of third-floor roof separating the wall from a drop to the street twenty-some feet below, and Zanza followed closely at his heels, it was unarmed, almost completely unattired, and with bullets whizzing past their heads and even, at times, grazing their skin.

Zanza thought his mostly bare feet had a better grip on the tiles of the slanted roof than his shoes would have, but that was small consolation. As he followed Fujita at a run away from the window they’d just burst through, he was uncomfortably conscious of the flapping of his only-recently-flaccid penis with every jarring step, as well as of the fact that their attackers hadn’t given up: further gunshots accompanied swearing and straining and then clattering footsteps behind them, and it was a downright miracle neither of them had been hit yet; he attributed it to the unexpected chase across unusual terrain and the deceptive light and shadow of dusk.

But now the sound of gunfire came from somewhere beneath him and to his right as well. Risking a very quick glance in that direction, Zanza thought he saw running figures down on the ground tracking their progress across the roof and sending up the occasional shot. Of course whoever these people were would have backup outside the inn as well, just in case their quarry escaped somehow — and of course that backup had been on the alert.

To his dismay (and also perhaps a bit to his excitement; peril always made a day more interesting), Zanza saw ahead of them an open space: Fujita, running in front, was approaching the edge of the rooftop, which, instead of turning the building’s corner, just ended with the wall and left that side of the inn a flat expanse from street to summit. They couldn’t go much farther in that direction. Except Fujita wasn’t slowing. In fact his feet, even barer than Zanza’s, pounded with greater speed and intensity as he neared the brink. The area below was relatively narrow — particularly with the walls of this business and the next closing in to make it little more than an alley — but still it had to be at least fifteen feet between this roof and the slightly lower one across from it. Was the guy completely crazy?

Well, to be honest, Zanza kinda liked completely crazy. So when Fujita did indeed push off the last inch of the inn’s third-floor roof and go flying, with no great grace but impressive speed and accuracy, across the gap, Zanza could do nothing but admire and imitate. And maybe his jump was even less graceful, and not quite as efficient, as that of his companion, but he doubted he would even have tried it in the first place if Fujita’s movements hadn’t conveyed so much confidence in its success.

Their destination roof was the highest point of the opposite building, the latter being only three storeys tall, and tiled with wooden shingles rather than ceramic. Fujita, to curb his momentum, had dropped into a splay-legged crouch, and Zanza was forced to do the same rather earlier than he would have liked to keep from running smack into the other man. A number of splinters pierced his skin simultaneously in various places, and this combined with the fading shockwave of having made contact with a hard surface after such a long jump without shoes made him grunt aloud. But he couldn’t pause to assess his many minor injuries: Fujita was already rising, and so must he — the gunshots from behind had not ceased.

Erratically along this new roof they ran, Zanza at least feeling very exposed without a fourth storey wall to hug for some minor protection or illusion thereof, to the sound of chaos and the continual awareness of bullets breezing past. There were, however, no more footsteps on their level — on the ground far below, yes, but not up here — indicating that the completely crazy fifteen-foot airborne street-crossing had been beyond the courage or perceived abilities of their pursuers. And when their zig-zagging path took them up over the decorative ridgepole into a half-run-half-slide down the other side, the gunfire from behind them on the third-floor level ceased entirely, indicating they’d passed from line of sight.

When Fujita, still in the lead, approached the lower end of this side of the roof, however, gunshots erupted toward him yet again, and he jerked away so hard and suddenly that he fell into a sitting position on the shingles, then scrambled further upward so he ran into Zanza, knocking him onto his ass as well. “Get back,” he commanded, rather unnecessarily, as more bullets flew from the street below. Together they fumbled their way up the roof some distance into the shadow of a sort of turret offset the middle of the building, an octagonal structure just wide enough for them both to hide behind. Fujita, from his crouch, craned his neck to scan the area, while Zanza merely sat down with his feet against the turret and let out a long breath. The sake in his belly had been churned into a slightly ill sensation as he ran, but at least he also felt, with so much adrenaline onboard, relatively sober.

“If they’re not on all sides of the building already,” Fujita muttered, gazing meticulously around with a scowl, “they will be too soon for us to get anywhere.” The nearest end of the roof appeared to overlook a yard of some description — it was difficult to tell from this angle — and didn’t seem to offer any avenue for escape; the opposite end or up over the ridgepole again was the direction from which they’d come, where gunmen waited; the low end, the side they’d just approached, was obviously out of the question.

Bending to pick a splinter out of the flesh of his left calf, Zanza wondered, “So what do we do, then?”

“We wait.” Fujita abandoned his half-standing position for a seated one similar to Zanza’s. “With this kind of commotion in the streets, the police won’t take too long to show up; our would-be assassins will run off or get themselves arrested, and we should be safe to find a way down.”

Zanza stared at him. “Seriously, that’s your plan?”

Fujita was still gazing around critically at nearby buildings. “There aren’t a lot of places they could fire at us from, and that’s assuming they can access any of them quickly enough in the first place. If they aren’t sure exactly where we’ve gone, they might not even try.” He tapped the wooden siding his foot was resting against. “We’re lucky this turret doesn’t have windows, or they’d already be halfway up here by now.”

“But, seriously, you want to just wait here to get rescued?” Zanza wondered with increasing skepticism. “By the police?”

Fujita turned narrow, irritated eyes on him. “I don’t want to, no. If you have a better idea…?”

Zanza’s mouth, which had popped open immediately and unthinkingly for a retort, closed gradually. He didn’t have a better idea. If it had been anything but guns

Fujita nodded in a fairly annoying That’s what I thought type of gesture, and they both fell silent.

So this was interesting. Why it was happening was a great big mystery at this point, as was the identity of their pursuers and even which of them was the intended target. The only absolutely certain thing must be the purpose of those attackers: murder, plain and simple. Zanza had been on the receiving end of that purpose plenty of times, regardless of how well it worked out for the instigators, but he couldn’t think of a single entity — individual or group — that was both upset enough with him to wish for his death and well enough staffed and armed to have attempted it in this manner. And who exactly was this Fujita guy, after all, if he was the target of this well staffed and well armed attack? Did it have something to do with whatever he’d been working on at that inn that Zanza had interrupted in order to seduce him?

This thought — of that inn room and what had taken place there — reminded Zanza of something he hadn’t considered until now, and his mood rapidly changed from one of interest and energy (and admittedly some aggravation) to one of extreme frustration and even more aggravation. Finally, as the transition completed, he made an irate noise and slammed a fist into the roof beneath his buttocks. “Dammit! Fucking dammit!”

“Quiet down,” Fujita commanded harshly, startled. “What is wrong with you?”

“My clothes!” Unable to express his sudden anger any other way, Zanza pounded on the roof again. “They’re gonna get destroyed or stolen or something!”

“That’s hardly worth drawing attention to our position for.”

“But I don’t have any other clothes! And you know how expensive that gi was to get made? I’ll have to go back for a-fucking-nother one now!”

Fujita took him by the arm and shook him roughly. “Listen to me, you idiot,” he said in a low tone, close enough to Zanza’s ear for his breath to be somewhat distracting. “I don’t care if you live or die out here, but for the sake of my survival, I would appreciate it if you’d shut the hell up.”

“You didn’t care so little if I was alive or not when you were fucking me,” Zanza spat back.

“Yes, but I only fucked you in the first place to get you to shut the hell up.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I only had sex with you ’cause I was going to get paid for it, because otherwise I’d be pretty pissed you said that.” Actually Zanza was stung by the remark, but not about to admit it.

And at his words Fujita looked a little surprised, perhaps even a little annoyed. “When did kenkaya Zanza turn whore?” he wondered, and Zanza realized belatedly that he might believe the statement to have meant the mercenary expected to be paid by him — which would carry some unfortunate implications Zanza had certainly not meant to make.

Still, it was quickest and easiest to quote, “‘Everyone is a whore for the right price,'” and leave it at that.

“That sounds just like something my wife would say,” Fujita muttered, now clearly more irked than ever.

The words hit Zanza like a cannonball as all the circumstances of today and yesterday suddenly came together into a startling picture he hadn’t seen perhaps because subconsciously he hadn’t wanted to see it. “Shit…” he whispered as the certainty grew within him that he was right, that he’d been a fool, that he’d been used.

Fujita had glanced again toward the street and back, and when he caught sight of the expression on Zanza’s face his own darkened into one of suspicion and concern. “What is it?” he demanded.

Zanza was going to have to tell him; he couldn’t think of any other way. And Fujita, pinned down naked by surrounding gunmen on a third-floor rooftop, probably deserved the truth in any case. With a deep breath and a hard swallow, he began — in a much quieter tone than he’d previously used — to explain.

*

If the exterior of the house and its landscaping hadn’t indicated just how rich this person was, the furnishing and decoration inside would leave no doubt in any visitor’s mind — and Zanza got the feeling that was their purpose. Surely actual Europeans didn’t stuff every last corner so full of rickety undersized tables and shelves of vacant-eyed figurines and plates and things, or paper all the walls quite so relentlessly in so many ugly patterns, or put up ornate-edged mirrors in every available space? But honestly he didn’t know for sure, and the point was that this person he’d been summoned off the street to talk to had lots of money, the desire to show it off, and presumably a need for a mercenary for some task or other.

The very courteous servant that had originally hailed him and then led him here, a pretty young thing in a dark western-style gown with an apron and white cap, now ushered him through a door into a large, sunlit room just as tackily and profusely decorated and furnished as everything else Zanza had seen here, then bowed herself out. And the kenkaya was left facing the employer the girl had been sent to bring him to.

She was in her mid-to-late thirties and dressed exactly as Zanza would have expected in this setting: in a frilly frock of western design that bared a certain amount of cleavage and anything of her arms not covered by the lacy shawl draped across them. The ruffles of her seemingly excessive skirts, a delicate shade of pink that complemented her skin tone excellently, spilled over the sides of the divan around her. She was handsome, especially with that hair so artfully arranged in a high bun from which black ringlets fell in a shining mass, but nothing stunning, and in fact Zanza rather thought the surrounding show — the carpets and furniture and clothing — was intended to enhance what nature had provided. She certainly made a striking first impression, in one way or another.

“Good afternoon, kenkaya Zanza-san.” She greeted him in a polite, cultured tone with no hint of a foreign accent — however she dressed and decorated, her voice and features proved she was Japanese underneath. “Thank you so much for agreeing to come speak to me.”

“Uh, no problem?” Zanza, moving forward to stand nearer where the woman sat — ‘presided over the room’ might be a better description of what she did — wasn’t really sure what to make of all of this.

“Please have a seat,” she added. The gesture by which she indicated a nearby stiff-looking chair facing her divan was more a mandate with an overlay of elegance than real graciousness, but polite nevertheless. “Wine?”

Zanza sat, as adjured, on the extremely ugly and (it turned out) rather uncomfortable chair, and glanced at the servant whose presence in the room he hadn’t noticed until now: a tall, thin man in a western-style suit standing at a table that held a narrow bottle and two stemmed glasses on a silver tray.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Though his hostess smiled her amusement at his attitude, the servant did not react at all, only poured a generous measure of dark red liquid into each glass with stony indifference. When he handed hers over in a gesture that was half bow, she said something condescending in a language Zanza didn’t speak and couldn’t identify (not that he was an expert). The man murmured something subservient in reply and, after giving Zanza his glass with a fractionally shallower incline of his upper body, silently left the room.

The woman’s eyes followed her servant out the door, then returned, slightly narrowed, to look at Zanza. “Now that we’re alone…” She didn’t finish the statement, just lifted one eyebrow and took a sip of her wine.

Still not certain how to interpret this scene, Zanza lifted his drink and inhaled its scent. He’d never had wine before, and it smelled weak and fruity compared to his usual fare. Still, free alcohol was free alcohol. He mirrored the woman’s sip.

“Good?” She looked up at him coyly from over the rim of her own glass.

For a moment Zanza debated how to answer, which was a little unusual for him. He preferred straightforward dealings, didn’t like this kind of posturing, and the fact that he was considering his words at all arose only from the dual awareness that there was more to this woman than just a lot of money she might be willing to offer him for some potentially interesting gig and that it wasn’t impossible she was flirting with him right now.

So what could he say? That, though it had a flavor a lot classier than anything he’d ever drunk, the wine wasn’t really to his taste since, other than alcoholic concentration, he was largely indifferent to the components of a drink? That, regardless of what scant purpose there was to this indulgence beyond becoming incoherent and forgetful, he had sometimes wished, recently, that he could share drinks with someone that actually mattered to him instead of an endless succession of fellow lowlifes he might be beating up later and the occasional prospective employer — and that the setting in which she had offered this particular beverage only drove home the idea that here was yet another of those he really didn’t care about and never would? That he would prefer she abandon this coy restraint and lay everything out?

He forced himself to be relatively polite, however, and said, “Yeah, it’s all right.” Which wasn’t technically a lie. But he really would demand she get to the point if she put it off much longer.

Her smile widened. “It’s a vintage I’ve always enjoyed — rare, yes, and very expensive to import all the way from Italy, but, you know…” She leaned forward, and her smile and tone turned conspiratorial, though her big brown eyes remained merely calculating. “I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“Uh-huh.” Zanza swallowed the rest of the wine in an undignified gulp just to get it out of the way, then looked around for some place to set down the glass. Finding none within arm’s length, he kept it in his hand, and fidgeted with it as he demanded, “Are you trying to seduce me or something?” Honestly he could think of many far worse reasons to be invited off the street into such a nice house by such a polite servant to meet such an impressive lady, but it seemed strange, and he’d rather get the objective of this conference into the open.

The woman gave a laugh that, like many of her other mannerisms, seemed to be unyielding solidity covered in a layer of friendliness. “Of course not!” she said in an almost merry tone. “I know perfectly well you prefer taking it rough from older men.”

At the incongruous and very surprising sight and sound of those details emerging from that perfectly painted mouth, that ostensibly entirely proper personage, Zanza’s face went hot and red. He had to clear his throat twice before he was able to speak. “Well… yeah… that’s totally true… but, you know, we take what we can get…” Looking at the wainscoting, the ugly wallpaper, the bric-a-brac on the shelves in the corner — anywhere but at her — he went on to admit, “And it’s actually… kinda hot to think about some mysterious older woman spying on my sex life.”

Again she gave that comradely laugh with the steel beneath it. “I was spying on your sex life because I was looking for someone with that specific preference. You have quite a reputation, Zanza-san!”

“I dunno whether that’s a compliment or not,” Zanza muttered.

“I’d like you to seduce someone for me,” she said, finally, bluntly getting down to business.

He returned his gaze to her in order to give her a skeptical look, and found her sipping her wine again with thick lashes downturned. “You, uh, know I’m not a whore, right?”

Still smiling, she replied dismissively, half into her glass, “Everyone is a whore for the right price.”

A trifle annoyed at the sound of superior worldly wisdom in her tone, Zanza wondered somewhat sarcastically, “Izzat right? And what’s the price today?”

Without batting an eye as she met his, she told him.

It was lucky Zanza had drained his drink, since he promptly dropped his glass at this juncture. It thumped onto the thick carpet and rolled under his chair and out of sight; he couldn’t expend much effort searching for it, because he was too busy gaping at the woman. “That’s… that’s a pretty right price,” he conceded at last.

She nodded. “As I said, I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“But why…” Zanza was still so staggered by the quoted sum that his statements continued to have large gaps in the middle. “Why me? Why not… an actual prostitute or something?”

“The target is an exceptionally strong warrior,” she explained, “and very touchy. If you’re not careful, he may become violent. A fragile little prostitute would never do.”

“All right…” Zanza had to admit, his interest was piqued — and not just because of the astonishing promised payoff. “But why do you want this guy seduced at all?” He asked more out of curiosity than a need for information about a prospective job.

With the first frown he’d seen on her face — indeed, it was a rather disconcerting transition between the polite but private look to this dark, almost hateful scowl — she replied in a measured tone that reminded him of calm waters atop a viciously strong undercurrent. “Have you ever met someone, Zanza-san, who considers himself so far above you it’s impossible even to have a conversation with him? Someone who, though he might have been born into the same level of society you were and has done significantly less with what his parents gave him, holds himself superior to you in every way? Who looks down on everything you do, everything you are?”

“Course I have,” replied Zanza immediately, half a grin twitching at his lips while the other side threatened to pull down into a scowl much like hers. “So this guy’s a high-and-mighty ass, is he?”

She nodded, and went on emphatically. “I want to put a dent in his self-righteousness by proving he’s not above a one-night stand with a total stranger of just the type he thinks he’s so much better than.”

Zanza returned her nod, and his version was one of understanding. He did get the feeling, though, despite how sensible he found her explanation, that she had more reasons for seeking his compliance than she’d stated aloud. The reason she had given was enough for him — he was completely onboard with sending that kind of message to some holier-than-thou bastard — but at the same time he wondered what she wasn’t telling him and whether this whole thing was really a good idea. Sometimes just the passion with which someone wanted something done was a decent indication of how foolish the undertaking might be. Zanza didn’t fear danger, of course, but there were other discomforts in the world that he often preferred to avoid, and intrigue could certainly be one of them.

The woman, evidently no slouch in the reading of face and bearing, clearly picked up on the uncertainty in Zanza’s. “Obviously this is very different from the type of work you usually do.” She’d returned to her friendly, professional tone with that timbre of command in its background. “Naturally I understand your reluctance — I don’t want to push you into something that would make you uncomfortable. Please remember that I sought you out because you seemed specifically suited for this job, but if that turns out not to be the case, I would never want to inconvenience you.”

Again Zanza found himself waiting for the point. And when he said nothing, she got to it. “You’re welcome to approach him where he’s currently working — of course I’ll give you all the details you need — and decide then whether you want to go through with it. Come back here afterward, either to collect your payment or let me know I need to find someone else.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Zanza replied slowly. It did, too. It was already his policy to request payment after the service was performed, since he normally didn’t have a fixed rate. In this case it made even more sense. But something still felt off.

“That way you can make up your mind when you have all the information,” she pressed, looking at him earnestly.

And Zanza decided it didn’t matter much what she was hiding or what kind of life she led beneath this veneer of European sophistication. Everyone had their secrets, right? What mattered was this job with the prospect of a high distraction value and a ridiculous amount of compensation that would keep him in sake and under a roof for many months to come.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll at least have a look at the guy.”

*

Saitou wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when Zanza had given that stricken look and started his rambling narrative of the events of yesterday, but it hadn’t been what he’d actually gotten. And he certainly hadn’t been expecting to find himself far more entertained than annoyed by the stupid story, and even less put out with Zanza personally.

One item of special (if peripheral) interest was the fact that Zanza, on seeing him, had decided to go through with the assigned seduction. Of course there had been a large amount of money involved, which might have rendered Saitou more attractive — attractive enough, anyway — in the mercenary’s eyes, but Zanza had obviously had misgivings about the whole thing even with that money in mind, and it interested Saitou to know his allure had tipped the scales.

“So I guess,” Zanza was finishing up bitterly, “the real reason she wanted me to seduce you was so you’d be distracted and easier to kill. And she sure didn’t give a shit whether I died at the same time. She never was planning on paying me, I bet… I should have known… it was stupid to think anybody’d ever offer that much money for that kind of job. I was such a dumbass!” And he rammed a fist downward just as he had when lamenting the loss of his clothes, though this time he stopped short of actually pounding on the roof.

“She manipulated the fuck out of me…” He paused, and his anger seemed to abate slightly as he realized he’d inadvertently made a pun. “Literally,” he added, with half a grin — while the rest of his face still appeared irate — and even reddened a touch as he went on, “and don’t get me wrong — it was damn good sex… but I can’t believe she made such a fool out of me! Are you really married to that nightmare?”

Saitou had to admit, he appreciated that description of their sexual encounter. He wondered a little both at this appreciation and at his reflections regarding Zanza’s assessment of his attractiveness. It was odd that these things seemed to matter to him; had his ego been in need of a boost lately, and then this gorgeous idiot had shown up at precisely the right moment to stroke it? Saitou supposed it wasn’t hugely important, except as far as he should probably give some serious thought to how pliable he was when promising lips demanded they go up to his room.

And, gorgeous or not, Zanza was an idiot. Who walked blindly into an unfamiliar setting at the bidding of a total stranger? Well, someone completely confident in his own abilities, Saitou supposed. It fit with Zanza’s level of strength. But who discussed business with someone whose name he hadn’t even bothered asking? Not that Tokio’s name would have done Zanza much good under the circumstances, but still… who accepted a job completely different from what he usually did at only a few minutes’ notice? Though Zanza had obviously been at least slightly confused and discomfited by the atmosphere in that house, the one Tokio so excelled at cultivating. The whole thing had been stupid… but perhaps not as stupid as it could have been.

And Zanza obviously had some intelligence hidden in there somewhere — or at least some good instincts — that hadn’t been completely blinded by all of Tokio’s posing. He must, to have been able to question the situation even after the offer of that much money. Though the staggering amount itself, as Zanza had even admitted, should have been a tipoff that all was not right, many a mercenary more financially secure than this young man might still have had his head turned by the mere number.

In addition to this, Zanza obviously had a streak of pride, beyond what his class or lifestyle promised, that had been genuinely wounded by Tokio’s machinations. And there was also the excellent sex and the unneeded but not unwelcome ego-boost to consider.

Zanza probably deserved the truth.

Saitou gave a quick look around at the growing darkness, and, when he still spotted none of their enemies in any of the places he’d determined they might seek to occupy in order to get the drop on their targets, began a carefully curated story that would tell the mercenary what he needed to know.

*

The walk home seemed obnoxiously longer than usual this evening, something Saitou attributed mostly to vexation with his current work pursuit. Small fry employed by the criminal organization that had recently come somewhat hazily to light were thick on the ground, which should have been encouraging… but so far they’d proven every bit as useless as they were common and easy to arrest.

The one Saitou had just been interrogating even believed himself a big-shot of some type, arrogantly maintaining his own importance farther into the interview than they generally did… and yet he, like everyone before him, knew nothing about anyone or anything in the organization above a certain level beyond him. This group was not only pretty good at smuggling, hosting rigged games of chance, the occasional assassination, and intimidating business owners into highly suspect and very imbalanced ‘deals,’ it was also frustratingly efficient at sealing off data within certain portions of its faculty — the specific portions Saitou was attempting to access, or at least learn something about.

But he was beginning to doubt he would ever move beyond these meaningless conversations to where he needed to be if he was going to get anywhere against the upstart yakuza. Not one iota of useful information, not one tiny fact about their upper-tier superiors could he extract from these evidently expendable thugs… and, confident in his own interrogation techniques, he believed it was because they truly didn’t know, thanks to the caution of those same superiors, rather than that they were holding out. He was inexpressibly weary of the redundant exchanges, and if he never again in his life had to see one of the simplistic eight-pointed snowflake tattoos they all wore so proudly to indicate their membership in an organization they didn’t know how little they actually knew about, it would be too soon.

As he approached his apartment with thoughts far more fatigued than his body, due to his unproductive evening, he was briefly startled at seeing light through the windows. But it was no surprise whatsoever, upon entering, to find that the source — in her extravagant way she’d lit every lamp — was his wife. After all, though he might be paid a visit by thieves or assassins, they wouldn’t turn the lights on. And it wasn’t as if he had any other friends that might wait for him inside.

Not that Tokio counted as a ‘friend.’

“Your place being fumigated?” he suggested as the sarcastic explanation for why she was here rather than at her far larger, more opulent, and arguably more comfortable house across town.

She’d made herself at home, as she did whenever she exercised her legal right to invade his space, by dragging the chair from his desk into the main room near the stove — she boycotted seiza and yokozuwari, largely due to her couture — and helping herself to one of his spare cigarettes, which she smoked in a long holder. This she took from her lips as she answered, presumably because the coy smile she affected would have been marred by its presence. “Does a woman need an excuse to seek out her handsome husband?”

“Hn.” When Tokio acted like this, not one single word out of her mouth could be believed, so pursuing the matter and trying to find out why she was truly here would be futile and demeaning. Saitou didn’t care much, however, since, whatever she was scheming, he mostly just wanted her gone.

He had to admit, privately, that it would be nice to believe she really had come to spend time with him. Well, not necessarily Tokio herself, but somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of. It would be nice to have somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of that he could trust and connect with; in that case, he would be quite happy to come home to an unexpectedly occupied apartment and flirtatious behavior. But Tokio, who had always been vindictive and underhanded, was probably present because she needed to keep her head down in the wake of some less than entirely ethical business transaction, and her presence, whether she knew it or not — and it wasn’t impossible that she did — served to exacerbate the absence of anyone else’s.

“But you’re just home from work for the night!” she said, giving a good imitation of caring concern — or at least concern with an iron ulterior motive — and jumped up from the chair. “Here, sit down… let me take your jacket.”

Since he did, in fact, want to remove this garment and have a seat, he let her play her little game. Most nights there was no one to hang up his jacket and set his sword on the stand and fetch him his newspaper, so her showing up every once in a while to do these things for him was really just a reminder of what a mutually supportive relationship they’d never had even back when they’d lived together. She was obviously bored.

“Have you eaten?” she wondered with the same false solicitousness as before.

Saitou merely grunted an affirmative, glad this was the case. He wouldn’t have wanted to sit down at floor level for a meal with her standing triumphantly above him. It was bad enough to have her hovering over him in this chair. But as he unfolded the newspaper she’d put in his lap, he made a concerted effort to pay it some actual attention — and her less or none. Eventually she must get tired of annoying him and go find some other place to lie low.

Her next move to get his attention was to reach right into his field of vision and place a cigarette to his lips. He accepted it, and her subsequent lighting of it, without a word. In addition to enhancing, by contrast, the awareness of his usual aloneness, this behavior aggravated him — and she knew it — because he didn’t like being babied; he preferred to perform tasks with his own hands rather than relying on those of others as she was so fond of doing back at her mansion packed with servants.

“Oh, my,” she remarked next, bending across him to read the paper over his shoulder so her long shawl slid half off her back to trail onto his arm. “How dreadful! They planned to burn the palace?” But her tone was far from horrified; rather, it sounded intrigued and maybe even somewhat pleased.

“They deserved the pay they were demanding,” Saitou couldn’t help but reply, especially in response to her gleeful-onlooker tone. “But the method they used–”

He had glanced to his left, irritated, hoping to give her a disapproving glare but finding himself looking down her cleavage instead. Even more irritated, his eyes slipped from the undesirable sight that she, knowing his disinterest in her person, had undoubtedly deliberately placed in his view, and onto her left arm now bare of the shawl that had previously obscured it — and the tattoo on her inside forearm, just south of the elbow: a highly complicated eight-pointed snowflake.

He jerked away from her and to his feet, staring at this far more elaborate version of the yakuza design he’d been getting so tired of lately. Just for now, he was so surprised that he could make no further move.

She was surprised too, straightening and staring back briefly in confusion before glancing down to see what had caught his attention. When she found what the disarray of her shawl had revealed, and clearly realized that he had recognized it, she pulled the garment quickly back into place with a movement far less suave than hers usually were. She must not have been aware of his efforts to track down the organization she belonged to — perhaps an inverse of the information moratorium that had been so plaguing him was inadvertently in effect as well — or she would never have left the mark so easily exposed when coming here; this must be as much of a shock to her as it was to her husband.

Abruptly she turned on her stockinged heel and ran for the door.

*

Everything made sense now, though that didn’t change the way Zanza felt about most of it. Having slept with an undercover cop or whatever Fujita was — and having enjoyed it so damn much — did make him faintly uneasy, but he could decide later on the finer points of his attitude toward that revelation.

For the moment, newly disclosed government agent Fujita was coming to the end of his story with, “She managed to cover her escape with a pistol — she seems to have them in no short supply — and kept me far enough behind for her to jump into a cab eventually.”

“Damn,” Zanza said wonderingly. “That’s one hell of a thing to find out about your own wife.”

“It gets worse.” Fujita’s tone was grim. “Eventually I discovered she actually runs the organization.”

Zanza laughed in frustration. “Well, that’s no surprise now…”

By this time their rooftop hideaway was lit only by moon and stars, but these were bright enough to show clearly Fujita’s nod. “I’ve been trying to track her down and dissolve her organization ever since, though I’ve never seen her in person again and she’s changed houses. And she’s sent multiple assassins after me. I hoped to make significant progress while she was in Europe not long ago, but she had things locked up too tight. She’s back now, and back to her old tricks.” A sardonic expression took his face as he added, “This latest attempt at killing me is more elaborate than usual, though, and she may have overreached… We’ll see who gets arrested down there, and what they can tell us.”

“You know…” Zanza looked at the other man pensively. “She obviously, definitely wanted to kill you… and I’m sure she’d have been happy if it worked… but I bet the reason she claimed she wanted me to seduce you was true too. A sort of backup, right? She said you were so high-and-mighty and self-righteous, and she wanted to prove you could be dragged into having sex with some random lowlife. So even if she didn’t manage to kill you, she’d still have that to hold over you.”

Fujita gave him an assessing look and finally said, “You read her well. I think you’re exactly right.” His thin lips twisted into a smirk as he added, “But she chose poorly if she wanted to find someone I would be ashamed of having sex with.”

While specifically pleased at the implication that Fujita didn’t regret having slept with him even under these strange circumstances, Zanza couldn’t help pointing out with a shrug, “I am kindof the dregs, though. I thought she chose pretty well.” For both of them, he did not add aloud.

“Tokio would assume you’re in the criminal class I would automatically look down on.”

“Well, I’m not exactly the most law-abiding citizen,” Zanza admitted uncomfortably, unsure why he was saying it but feeling he had to be open about this. “I fight people for money… sometimes even kill ’em.”

“I know what you do,” said Fujita somewhat dismissively. “And I also know you never attack anyone who can’t fight back, and that your targets are primarily from your same walk of life. You’re a complete waste of talent, and, yes, often on the wrong side of the law, but you’re practically a clean-up service for us. Criminal, perhaps, but nothing like Tokio and her ilk, who wreak havoc on the economy and victimize the community indiscriminately. She thinks your lack of money and class make you someone I’d be ashamed to associate with, but you’re certainly a better person than she is — and I’m married to her.”

Zanza wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get angry or just gape in baffled admiration. This guy, who evidently in one capacity or another worked for the government Zanza loathed above all things, had some seriously solid principles in there. Despite having come to doubt everything that woman had said to him, the mercenary realized he’d still been subconsciously clinging to her description of Fujita — her husband, had he known — as inappropriately condescending. Turned out maybe that wasn’t entirely the case. Still… “So you’re all right with me and what I do?”

“No.” Fujita fixed him with a stern look, gold eyes glinting in the moonlight. “If I met you in another context, where I had certain knowledge you were breaking the law, I might not just arrest you; I might kill you.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Zanza scoffed. He had to admit, though, that look — especially combined with the body he’d come to some extent to know in the last few hours and the skill and determination Fujita had demonstrated during much of that time — was pretty damn convincing, and might have been, to someone less confident in his own abilities than Zanza, frightening.

“In any case, I don’t choose to do things I’ll be embarrassed about afterward, so that aspect of Tokio’s plan was destined to fail regardless of whom she chose to send.”

“Weeelllll…” Zanza grinned ruefully. “You are hiding naked on a rooftop waiting for the police to rescue you. I mean…” He reached over to pull a splinter from where it was marked in the darkness by a tiny trickle of blood on Fujita’s thigh. “I got no problem at all with you being naked up here with me, but I figure it’s gotta be pretty embarrassing for you…”

“It is extremely annoying.” Unexpectedly, Fujita returned the favor, reaching out to grasp between his nails and draw out a large splinter whose tip was the only thing visible in the side of Zanza’s right buttock; it was practically a pinch to the ass. “Some of it.” He looked at the splinter briefly, abstractedly, before flicking it away. “But it’s one of the risks of the job.”

Zanza burst out laughing. “That’s a really weirdly specific thing to have to be prepared for when you get into a job!” And to his surprise, Fujita joined his mirth for a moment. This made it easier, once they’d fallen silent again, for Zanza to break down and admit, “I’m kinda embarrassed. I’m fucking Zanza, man, and here I am on a roof I can’t get down from without getting shot with no fucking clothes on! I’m sure she wasn’t even thinking about embarrassing me or anything, but she sure as hell twisted me right around her stupid finger.” He growled his increasing frustration with the woman and the circumstances.

Fujita sounded both amused and somewhat reassuring when he replied, “This situation doesn’t change anything. I’m not going to stop working against her.” And though the combination of those two tones made him come across as distinctly patronizing, it seemed clear he did understand Zanza’s desire for revenge on his wife.

“Weren’t you on some other job at that inn, though?” Zanza wondered. “You probably need to get back to that first.”

Fujita frowned. “I’m afraid that setup will fall apart after this. If the man I was there to watch believes that inn is a place where people get attacked in their bedrooms, he certainly won’t hang around there much longer. I’ll have to start all over with him. But after that, I’ll be right back on Tokio’s trail.”

“You know…” It was exactly the same pensive look as when he’d said these words before, but this time Zanza couldn’t help a flirtatious touch to it and to his tone, despite the pragmatic nature of the offer he was about to make. “I’m a mercenary… Normally it’s fighting, yeah, but I’m ready to do all sorts of dangerous shit for pay… and I happen to know where at least one place she operates out of is, since I was just there yesterday…”

Though dry, the other man’s voice, Zanza thought, also held a hint of incongruous flirtation as he replied, “After what she offered to pay you, I doubt I could afford your services.”

“Actually I’m available at a newly discounted rate,” declared the grinning Zanza. “The chance to get back at a mob boss who made me look like an idiot and some really good sex is all it’d cost you. Oh, and a new gi.”

With an almost languid movement, Fujita rose partially up again into a crouch, peering around the side of the turret and down as far into the lamplit street as he could from this awkward angle. As he settled back into his seated position beside Zanza he said, “No sign of the police yet.” He turned toward the mercenary, and, though he appeared exasperated with the situation as a whole, there was a faint smirk on his lips. “It seems we have plenty of time to reach some kind of reasonable arrangement.”


This story is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk (WordPress / Ao3), whose enthusiasm was a delight and whose fic on the subject was top-notch back when we used to do this Saitou & Sano thing.

For some author’s notes on this fic written not longer after it was, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it .

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


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on August 12, 2019

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The paper itself was of such high quality that, even when Zanza’s decisive hands had crumpled it into a tight, lopsided little ball, it still felt hefty and undefeated as he tossed it away, and clattered noisily into a dusty corner to crouch, bright in the shadows, under an empty jug that he should really take back to the bar he’d gotten it from one of these days.

Grumbling incoherent profanity, he whirled, putting his back to the offending object, and started moving away from it so precipitously he almost tripped over the long sword that nearly bisected his small room. In growing irritation he hopped over the zanbatou and stalked from the apartment. An unsuspecting neighbor immediately outside, attention procured by the slamming of the door and accompanying swearing, took one look at Zanza’s glower and made a quick, judicious retreat back into his own home.

He had no particular destination in mind other than away from that damned letter, and as such he turned more or less randomly at each intersection of narrow, dirty streets; and every time he did so, something in his head urged him to go back, to pull the thing from the dust, smooth it out, and give it another try. He needed money, after all, and it was stupid to get so angry at an apparent job offer that he couldn’t even finish reading it… but for the writer to have employed what seemed like such extravagantly excessive kanji…

In order to get his message to its destination, the guy must have dug Zanza’s address up from somewhere; couldn’t he guess, based on that, at its recipient’s level of education? Nobody in this neighborhood could read that many or that kind of kanji, and that Zanza perhaps knew a few more than his neighbors was due only to his actual origins lying elsewhere — if any of the people around him here could read at all, it was some kind of miracle. Did the letter’s sender want to rub this in, or was he really just that ignorant of what life was like outside his insular world of fancy paper and cultured handwriting?

“Ohayou, Zanza!” Technically it was afternoon, but Yoita, like most of Zanza’s friends, knew that this time of day approximately counted as morning for him.

Without turning, Zanza snarled out something that might have been a return greeting.

Accustomed to the kenkaya’s moods, Yoita didn’t even flinch at the unpleasant sound as he fell into step beside him. Nevertheless, he insured his own safety before he said another word by extracting from the pocket in which he’d been digging a piece of candy wrapped in brown paper and offering it to the kenkaya. “You look pissed,” he remarked as Zanza accepted the premium with a rough gesture. “Landlord been on your case again?”

The sweetness of the candy and the friendliness of the inquiry were already working, and Zanza merely shook his head instead of exploding.

After watching Zanza brood and suck hard on the candy for half a street, Yoita finally remarked, “I guess you’ll tell us all tonight. You are coming to Sochi’s place, right?”

“Maybe,” was Zanza’s surly answer as he considered grumpily that if the engagement proposed in the letter was for tonight, he might never know it.

“Those same girls from last time said they’d be there,” Yoita cajoled.

Suddenly Zanza turned a thoughtful look on his friend. It seemed like a long shot, but not completely impossible. “Hey, do you own a dictionary?”

“What?” Yoita gave a surprised laugh. “Why would I need a dictionary?”

“You suppose any of the other guys have one?”

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

With an irritated sigh that marked the transition from raging to trying to be productive, Zanza explained. “Some guy sent me this long fucking letter, I think wanting me to fight someone, but I can’t read all his damn kanji. I just spent an hour giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out, but I’m obviously going to need a dictionary.”

Yoita made a noise of understanding. “Well, I doubt you’re going to find one anywhere in our group, but you know there’s a charity school just up the street, right? That guy who runs it’s really nice; he could probably help you.”

“Oh, shit, you’re right.” Zanza stopped abruptly, looking around, orienting himself and considering where the school in question was located. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were mad as hell?” Yoita grinned.

Cheered enough all of a sudden that he was able to return the expression, Zanza gave Yoita’s shoulder a little shake and said, “Thanks, man,” before spinning and setting off at a run back toward his apartment to retrieve the letter.

That it took longer than he’d expected to locate his destination might have been a good thing, because it gave him time to smooth out the abused paper and render it (relatively) legible again. He was even, in his anticipation, considerably less annoyed by the time he reached the big old house with its modest, venerable sign proclaiming its secondary function as an educational establishment, despite the embarrassing circumstance of having gotten lost in what was essentially his own neighborhood.

Thanks to the lack of any formal schooling in his childhood, he entered the place without much thought for time of day, and as a result found himself stared at by at least ten young pairs of eyes bearing expressions ranging from startled and almost frightened to curious to admiring, a few even a bit disdainful. It was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, perhaps creepy, and Zanza was immediately conscious, for some reason, of the state of his clothing and how long it had been since he’d bathed.

“Can I help you?” The voice came from the head of the room, and pulled Zanza’s embarrassed gaze to the man that had evidently paused at the mercenary’s entrance in the dissertation he’d been conducting. He was as Zanza had seen him a few other times in the past: middle-aged, stocky, with an apparent strength subdued by his contemplative calmness.

“Uhh…” Suddenly tongue-tied, Zanza scratched his head. “I need a hand with a… thing… if you’ve got some time when your… class is done?”

Though the instructor raised his brows, there was more friendly inquiry than skepticism in his gaze. “We finish at three, if you want to wait or come back.”

Unexpectedly glad to have a non-living object to transfer his eyes to, Zanza looked at the clock on the wall. “Yeah,” he said. It was just over an hour to the specified time. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He owned no watch, after all, and had no place else in mind to go for the interim.

Though the kenkaya, eyes still fixed on the minute hand, didn’t see the man’s expression, he could hear the irony in the reply, “Make yourself at home.”

In the warm sun and calm air outside, Zanza’s discomfort quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the seated position into which he’d immediately sunk on the front porch transitioned into a reclining one and then a dozing flatness. He didn’t necessarily mean to fall asleep, but he’d expended so much energy on anger that it was the inevitable result of having an hour to wait doing essentially nothing else in nice weather.

It put him in a dangerous position, however. He was rudely, almost terrifyingly awakened, when the countdown ended, by schoolkids pouring out around and even over him, many of them shrieking in delight for no apparent reason other than the glee of a school day’s end. He could do nothing against this unexpected onslaught other than roll onto his side and shield his head and neck from the enthusiastic young feet until the shouting and pattering had proceeded far enough down the street to make him believe they weren’t coming back.

He sat up to find the instructor standing before the closed front door looking down at him with an expression of repressed merriment. When the older man observed Zanza’s gaze, he moved forward to take a seat against the pillar beside the steps, patting the adjacent space with a strong hand. “You’re a mercenary, I believe,” was how he began the conversation. “I’ve seen you a few times around; I think you don’t live too far from here.”

“That’s right.” Zanza picked himself up and took the few paces necessary to drop down again beside the other pillar opposite the instructor. Outside the formality of the classroom setting, it was much easier to face and talk to the guy. “I got a problem…” He fished the folded letter, by now very victimized, from a pocket. “I’m pretty sure this guy wants me to fight someone, but I can’t read the damn thing.” He finished at a bit of a mumble, not happy to admit either his deficiency or the fact that it embarrassed him a little. “I was hoping you could help.”

Wordlessly the instructor accepted what Zanza held out, and unfolded it. Above the eyes he immediately turned on the letter, his brows rose to form once again the expression of amused skepticism he’d worn inside the building an hour before. “I can see why,” he murmured.

Feeling vindicated, Zanza made an annoyed noise as the instructor apparently began to read in earnest, and then several silent moments passed while the kenkaya leaned over to watch in anticipation and the eyebrows of the other man did not descend.

Both the amusement and the skepticism seemed to increase as the man made his way through the entire length of the thing; until finally, shaking his head, he laid it on his lap and turned a sort of I-don’t-know-what-to-say expression toward the eager Zanza. What he did eventually say was, “Well.”

“Yeah?” The man’s demeanor had done nothing to lessen Zanza’s eagerness and curiosity.

The instructor opened his mouth, then closed it again as if commentary absolutely defied him. Finally he seemed to give up, and just said, “I’ll read it aloud.” And with a preparatory stiffening, as if for some conflict much more difficult than the oration of a letter, he began.

To you, esteemed Zanza-san, I extend the salutations of the salubriously mild-aired spring day on which I write, a day I believe to be full of auspice in a spring that can only be an amplification of that excellent promise in a year that has already seen so many momentous changes to our collective way of life that, though not every alteration wrought since January can be viewed as propitious for the advancement of our civilization, the year itself nevertheless must be recognized as an adumbration of no idleness of hand! This communication stands in apologue of such an idea, and therefore of the season and year and era in which we live, since in hailing both from and to hands that have never been idle it seeks to effect change just such as the auspicious 1878 has already observed.

At this point, as the instructor took a deep breath to continue, Zanza raised a trembling hand and solicited weakly, “Could you possibly just summarize the rest? Actually, could you possibly summarize all that shit you just read too?”

The man’s mouth twitched into a smile he obviously couldn’t repress. “Well, as for all that shit I just read, he says hello, misrepresents the weather, and that things have happened this year. He goes on to say…” His eyes became more mobile, more searching, as he turned them back to the letter. “He heard about your fight with a swordsmith in Komatsugawa, and the exceptional strength you demonstrated in that fight… there’s a reference to anvils that I don’t quite…”

Zanza chuckled, recalling clearly and fondly the fight and the anvils in question.

Smile widening at this reaction, the instructor went on. “He says he would have dismissed the story as an entertaining exaggeration if the person telling it… here’s some unnecessary detail about the person telling the story and where they were at the time… ah, yes, if the person telling the story hadn’t gone on to mention your reputation as an outspoken critic of the government.”

Interest somewhat aroused, Zanza waited more or less patiently as the other man reread the next section of the letter in silence. “He has a lot to say about the government,” he said at last, “but what it seems to boil down to is that he puts up with it without liking it much.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Zanza grumbled, reflecting at the same time that someone rich enough to be naive enough to write and send a letter like this to a street fighter might also be in a position to do something more than unhappily put up with, but he didn’t bother saying it.

“Don’t we all,” echoed the teacher at a murmur, still evidently amused. “Anyway, he reiterates that he heard about your feelings regarding the government, and this got him interested, so he started asking around about you… and apparently you’re always looking for challenging fights..? That seemed perfect to him, because he’s had a plan in mind for a while without seeing any way he could carry it out, and you might be exactly what he needs…”

“All right,” Zanza broke in, losing patience, “what exactly does he need? And why the hell does he think I want his life story on the way?”

Now the instructor laughed out loud. “I can’t possibly answer that second question, but the answer to the first is that he wants to hire you to fight Saitou Hajime.”

Despite having asked for it, the point of the message so neatly encapsulated in so few words took Zanza a bit by surprise, and it was a moment before its meaning really sank in. Then he sat up straight in an almost convulsive movement. “What, Shinsengumi Saitou Hajime?”

“That’s the one. He makes it–” the teacher glanced at the letter again with a wry smile– “very clear.”

Now Zanza jumped to his feet. “Well, why didn’t he just fucking say so in the first place?” Despite this complaint, a wide grin had spread across his face. “If he’s heard so much about me, he’s gotta know of course I’d wanna fight Saitou Hajime — that guy was supposedly super strong, right? And he’s still around? What’s he doing these days? How old is he? I mean, is he even stronger than before, or has he gotten all old and weakened up?”

Again the teacher laughed. “Well, let’s see… as to why he didn’t just fucking say so in the first place, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do anything of the sort. And he does seem to be aware that of course you’d want to fight Saitou Hajime — that’s the gist of about half the letter, really. And what is Saitou Hajime doing these days? Working for the police, it appears.”

Excitement suspended for a moment, Zanza wondered if he’d heard that right. “For the police? The police, who’re part of the government? The Meiji government? The same people he was fighting against in the war?”

“That police,” the teacher nodded. “Those same people.”

Snatching the letter back in a rough movement that seemed to startle the other man a little, Zanza snapped it taut in front of his own face and searched, incredulous and angry, for written confirmation of what had just been spoken. Unfortunately, the half-familiar kanji blended together into a headache-inducing mass just as they’d done every other time, and he had no idea what section he and his assistant had progressed into. Resisting with some difficulty the urge to crumple the thing again, he instead let his hand fall angrily to his side, taking the paper fluttering down with it, and stared out into the street.

“Before I… before I actually got involved with shit,” he muttered, reminiscing bitterly, “me and the other kids would play that we were going to Kyoto to fight the Shinsengumi, and we had to take turns playing Kondou. They were fucking legends to us. They represented the old times, and shit staying the way it was… they were the champions of everything the country was that people were fighting about.”

He turned to find the teacher regarding him impassively; this time when Zanza, with an abrupt gesture, threw the letter back down toward his feet, the man didn’t even flinch.

“Not like I started liking the idea of the Shinsengumi any better once I realized what a bunch of backstabbing assholes the Ishin Shishi were… the old days weren’t any better than this bullshit we have today, so I never thought they were heroes or anything… but they were still the champions of the other side! They fought harder against those fuckers than practically anyone, and we all sure as hell saw them as representations of the Bakufu…”

Still offering no attempt at interpretation or judgment, the teacher nodded his comprehension.

“So how could he switch sides like that? Someone who practically was the other side — how could he join up with the fucking Meiji like that??” Zanza’s hands were clenched now into hard fists. He’d never even met this Saitou guy, but a number of unexpected fragments had converged into a very unpleasant picture, and he was angry.

After reaching for the fallen letter, the teacher held it again in his lap without a word, looking down pensively at it and smoothing it out somewhat absently, evidently still listening to Zanza rant. And all the time he maintained a neutrality of expression and bearing that was half encouraging and half irritating. Not that Zanza could possibly be irritated much by anything besides his current fixation.

When his tirade had devolved into little more than apostrophic name-calling that neither helped his mood improve nor advanced the conversation, and his fingers were clenching so tightly in his fists that the knuckles creaked and ached, he forced himself to shut up and calm down. Well, he didn’t calm much, but he did start to focus a little better on his surroundings and situation. He needed more information — a lot more information — and he wouldn’t get it if he didn’t finish the letter. Frankly, he was damned lucky this guy had put up with him for as long as he had; he probably shouldn’t push that luck any further.

So he turned back toward the instructor — he hadn’t even realized he’d been facing the street as if in dramatic soliloquy — took a deep breath, loosened his fists, and said in a sort of enforcedly placid summary (though his teeth were clenched), “So, yeah, I’d really fucking like to fight Saitou Hajime. What do I have to do?”

***

Saitou rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, trying to alleviate the headache that had developed over the course of the day. Massaging his face seemed unlikely to help when the headache had been idiot-induced, but he did it anyway — as if somehow the motion would get rid of every frustrating police underling in the station, every petty drug dealer on the streets, and every stupid thug in every bar and slum in Tokyo. He longed for some proper sleep, something he hadn’t had much of in the last couple of days and something that would probably be a great deal more effective toward the diminution of his headache than was his gloved hand.

The notes he’d been reading hit the desk with a rustling slap as his eyes slid gratefully off the final line of the final page. He’d predicted he would come to the end of this perusal this evening, and might have read the last few entries a little more quickly than he otherwise would have, but it didn’t matter: it was clear now, if it hadn’t already been, that the entirety of the documented evidence they had on their current subject of investigation was sufficient neither to condemn him in court nor to make Saitou feel justified in assassinating him privately quite yet. That he couldn’t pick out a paper trail here neither surprised him nor made him less suspicious of the man in question; the tips they’d received, though in no way constituting proof, had been too definitive and, to his mind, too reliable not to investigate thoroughly.

He might even end up doing some of said investigating personally this time, depending on what kind of information Tokio brought back. That would be a nice change from the tiresomely lengthy paperwork at the end of the previous job and the beginning of this one that he’d skipped sleep lately trying to get finished. If he must be deprived of sleep, he would much rather it be due to a stakeout or a lengthy chase than because he was writing out the details of whatever he’d just finished doing in the driest language he could command and triplicate.

After reorganizing the notes and fastening a descriptive paper obi around the stack, he locked it away in a drawer, whence he would eventually retrieve it as material supplemental to whatever further facts he obtained during the course of the ensuing inquiry. Then he stood, stubbing out the remaining third or so of his latest cigarette in an ash tray overly full from an overly long stint at the office, put out the lamp, and headed for the door.

The station proper, busy even nearing what might for the rest of the city be considered the end of the day, seemed shockingly hot thanks to multiple bodies often under stress or in vigorous movement, despite the open windows and especially to anyone wearing a police uniform with a heavy jacket (which nearly everyone in the room was), so Saitou hastened through to the main entrance and beyond. There was always at least one idle carriage hanging around outside the police station, Tokyo drivers being well aware of how loath many officers were to walk more than a short distance unless, as on patrol, the walking rather than the arrival was the purpose of the trip. And Saitou supposed hiring a cab to and from work might be considered a lazy habit, but there were some days (possibly most days) when he just couldn’t stand to stick around any longer and had to get away as quickly as possible. So today, as not infrequently, he paid the driver and was whisked away toward home.

As he felt he’d had more than enough of this Rokumeikan business over the last little while, he tried not to think about it on the way, tried to relax and look forward to a quiet evening; this was difficult, however, in that no other compelling subject was jumping to replace Rokumeikan in his mind. There just wasn’t a lot going on for him right now besides work… and there, he supposed, was another subject for thought.

Weeding corruption from the government was not only his primary occupation but his primary source of fulfillment. He required and actively sought nothing more from existence than this. But that didn’t mean he objected to more when it was presented, nor failed to feel its absence when it wasn’t. When the standard policework that occupied his time between more meaningful cases consisted of small-time busts and big-time paperwork, minor investigation after unstimulating minor investigation, the almighty pen far oftener than the much more interesting sword… when sleep was wearily dreamless and solitary, night after similar night, and therefore a luxury frequently dispensed with… If it weren’t for the one friendship he maintained, his one source of enrichment, then that core of his existence, meaningful as it was, would be the barest of bones anyone had ever attempted to called a life.

He turned these reflections over like something interesting but largely irrelevant. There might have been a touch of amused self-denigration to them, but no sense of importance. He was, after all, fulfilled even if he wasn’t terribly enriched. This was merely a mild method of entertainment to get him through his carriage ride.

And the carriage was slowing, drawing to a stop. At the hasteless speed they’d been maintaining, Saitou knew they hadn’t yet reached his house, but at the sound of the voice speaking to the driver outside he knew the reason for their halt. A moment later there was a weight on the steps, and the door opened to admit the figure of his wife, who sank onto the seat opposite him with a sigh of relief and weariness.

“Going home so early!” she remarked. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

She made a darkly understanding sound, but answered in an easy tone. “It’s so early, I couldn’t even be sure I had the right cab. I’d have been nicely embarrassed if I didn’t!”

He felt no surprise that she’d deduced his presence in the carriage, but did perhaps feel some that the driver had stopped for her. Tokio sometimes faced difficulties getting people to do as she asked when she was in uniform, and at the moment she wore the relatively unobtrusive kimono-hakama combination she favored when spying; it was some surprise the driver had even noticed her. She didn’t appear entirely respectable, either, and Saitou commented as the carriage got underway again, “I can’t say I like the new style.” He drew a couple of gloved fingers through his own hair to indicate his meaning.

The hand she then ran up to her frazzled bun dislodged the two leaves he’d been specifically referring to, and she laughed faintly. “I’m pretty sure I know the privet shrub on the east side of Rokumeikan’s house much better than his gardener does by now.”

“What did you find out?”

“I was going to wait until tomorrow to file my report.”

“I’m not asking you to file anything, just for a general overview.”

“Oh, fine.” She rolled her black eyes at him. “I was thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home, but I know perfectly well you never notice what you’re eating anyway.” When her husband, rather than rising to the bait, just lifted an impatient brow, she went on in a more businesslike tone, “He has some kind of influence with the Karashigumi. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he is to them, but I think he has some real power there.”

The surprised Saitou, unable quite to recall, asked, “Who’s their leader?”

“A guy named Eisatsu. But it looks like he answers to Rokumeikan on the sly, so…”

“No wonder those accounts weren’t leading anywhere,” Saitou murmured.

Tokio nodded. “If they’re doing all his dirty work…”

“We’ll want to deal with them all at once.”

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

He understood her sarcasm; going up against yakuza was complicated and frustrating, and something they didn’t deliberately undertake unless it specifically related to a pre-existing case. Here, if a politician was using organized crime to raise money and influence, it was wisest to take out both his manpower and the criminal society’s leadership all in one sweep.

This time when the carriage drew to a creaking stop, it had been plenty long enough to get home, so Saitou and Tokio each slid sideways toward the door that presently opened at the hand of the courteous driver. But as Saitou paid the latter, he frowned slowly. Something nearby, the sense of which grew as he focused on it, was angry, aggressive, and directed toward him.

“Must they come to the house?” Tokio murmured, sounding tired and annoyed.

As the cab driver moved to resume his place on the box and depart, Saitou replied, “Better than the station.” And he turned to see who it was, following both Tokio’s gaze and the sense he had of angry ki to where a young man stood in the shadow of the property wall with the air of one waiting with waning patience for the occupants to come home. Or undoubtedly, in this case, just one of the occupants.

Tokio was giving the stranger a calculating look. “Ten minutes, you think?”

Watching with similar calculation the young man beginning to emerge from the shadows, Saitou thought it best to say, “Better make it fifteen.”

“Don’t push it.” Tokio turned toward the house. “I want to go to bed.”

He knew she meant by this, “You probably won’t bother with supper if I don’t force you to, so I won’t go to bed until I’ve seen you eat.” It was a common enough contention between them, so Saitou merely nodded. Then he turned from where she’d begun making her way inside and faced the approaching mercenary.

Zanza, that was the name. Of course the police kept tabs, more or less, as they had time and resources, on the prominent mercenaries in town, but Saitou wouldn’t have remembered what this one called himself if it hadn’t pretty clearly been taken from the sword he reputedly only used when he believed the battle would be worth getting it out for. Evidently he thought this one would be, so at least Saitou Hajime still had some reputation among mercenaries and those that hired them.

The light of the nearest streetlamp brought out details of face and figure as the young man neared, and Saitou’s interest was caught even as he reflected that Tokio might have found it worthwhile to put off starting supper and remain out here, tired though she was. He might not recall everything he’d heard about this kenkaya, but he believed with some surety he would have remembered if anyone had ever given an adequate description of how very attractive he was.

Zanza’s right arm curled up behind his head holding the long, cloth-wrapped sword that lay across his shoulders, and thus his gi was pulled wide away from his smoothly muscled chest. Under the yellowness of the lamp, his skin looked golden-tan and of a superb texture, though even in this imperfect lighting there was some scarring visible; really, that just added piquancy to the view. And the young man’s face was of excellent shape, its features masculine yet beautiful, bearing an active, eager, angry expression that promised something diverting at the very least.

Overall, it was quite a pleasing picture, and Saitou could think of several things he’d rather do with this person than fight. But thugs didn’t hang around Saitou Hajime’s house waiting for him to get home for nearly so satisfying a purpose, so Saitou would have to deal with him as he always did those sent by his enemies (or old comrades that now had the wrong idea).

Ceasing his advance, which was evidently meant to be threatening, at a decent combat distance, Zanza fixed Saitou with a glare the officer could not remember having done anything to earn but which he didn’t particularly mind. The kenkaya’s fighting ki was raw and rough, straightforward and strong, and Saitou found he rather liked this too.

“Former captain of the Shinsengumi’s third unit Saitou Hajime,” Zanza announced clearly, “I’ve come to pick a fight!”

“So I see,” Saitou replied, withdrawing his cigarette case from the breast pocket of his jacket without removing his eyes from Zanza. It was indulgent, yes, but he had to smile as he looked him over again.

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

“You. What makes you think I want to fight you?”

“You will when you hear my message!”

“And what,” Saitou inquired in a bored tone, lighting the cigarette he’d extracted, “does Yonai Fumihiro have to say?” Though not exactly a shot in the dark, this was no more than an educated guess based on the awareness of Yonai’s recent move to Tokyo… but when Zanza’s scowl deepened, Saitou knew he’d been right. He went on before the mercenary could answer. “That I’ve betrayed the principles of the Shinsengumi and the long history of the Bakufu, and I’m not going to get away with it? Probably in not so few words?”

Zanza looked even more annoyed than before, which was saying something. “Well… all right… but that’s just half the message!”

Flicking away the first ash of his fresh cigarette, “If you insist,” Saitou said, “I’ll have the rest of it too. But before you unveil your precious partner, let’s find a better place than the middle of my neighborhood street.”

Now Zanza looked a bit taken aback, perhaps at how much was known about him personally in addition to his errand, and this seemed to make him even angrier; but he followed willingly enough, and gave no indication of being about to attempt a surprise attack, as Saitou turned his back and began leading the way down the road. This neighborhood opened out onto a pleasant wooded area not far off, and a clearing in the beeches was wide and yet private enough for their purposes. As a matter of fact, it was where Saitou had fought the last two mercenaries sent against him. This particular mercenary should consider himself lucky Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion; Zanza’s attractiveness and ready tailing of a complete stranger to a secluded place combined into quite a temptation.

For obvious dramatic purposes, Zanza waited until Saitou had reached the far end of the clearing and turned before grasping at the wrap on his sword and pulling it away in a practiced gesture. Laughable as the blade was — an oversized club disguised as a sword, really — it did seem appropriate to its bearer: strong, conspicuous, and sadly in need of honing. Saitou liked the way Zanza’s muscles bulged and his body shifted as he took its long, thick haft in his hands and swung it off his shoulders into what he probably thought was a stance.

Finishing a last once-over of the beautiful young man, visible now in the light of a rising moon, Saitou placed a languid hand on the hilt of his own sword. He was promising nothing, but Zanza seemed to twitch forward in anticipation; that was interesting. In a level tone, neither mocking nor threatening, Saitou said, “If you come at me, I’m not going to go easy on you.” He always wondered at these arrogant young men that came to attack him for money and generally didn’t depart with their dignity or combat abilities intact even when Saitou left them their lives. He might have been a tad more curious than usual about what drove this one — if he remembered correctly, Zanza had a passion for good fights — but still it seemed so suicidal.

Very much to the confirmation of both of these last thoughts, Zanza now hefted the zanbatou above his head and tensed for action, growling out as he did so, “You’d better fucking not!”

***

Now that Zanza had actually met the guy, what he felt was more than merely anger at a defector that had run to the heartless government for a high-paying position under a false name. He didn’t like the indication given by the house he’d seen in the neighborhood he’d been waiting in as to just how high-paying was the position Saitou had attained. He didn’t like the way this Meiji bastard looked at him, those freaky golden eyes glinting even in the growing darkness, somehow calculating and dismissive at the same time. He didn’t like the jerk’s careless manner of holding that cigarette as if he weren’t about to get his head bashed in by an eighty-pound horse-and-rider-slaying weapon. He didn’t like the casualness with which Saitou had suggested they step into the trees as if for a quiet conversation rather than a battle.

But most of all (and it probably shouldn’t have been most of all, since it had nothing to do with how seriously Saitou was or wasn’t taking him, but he really couldn’t help it), he didn’t like those weird bangs. What was going on at that hairline? Was is deliberate? What was Saitou trying to say with a look like that? Zanza would definitely enjoy kicking this guy’s ass.

No definitive sign indicated the beginning of the battle, but Saitou, in his evident complete lack of concern for what was coming, obviously wasn’t about to make the first move, and Zanza had never been the least concerned with dueling etiquette. He gritted his teeth and charged, putting all his strength into the first swing not because he thought he might be able to end things before they really got started but because he wanted to effect an abrupt and startling change in Saitou’s attitude toward him.

It felt amazing to have his weapon out again. There were so few opponents around these days (or at least so few opponents around these days against whom people wanted to pit him for money) of the caliber to stand up to a zanbatou, and the poor thing had been collecting dust for far too long. The shift of it in his hands with unexpected speed as the blade raced downward; the air rushing by with a hollow-sounding, metallic whistle; the weight and balance that challenged both muscle and stance; the techniques he looked forward to using again after what seemed like forever — these all delighted and invigorated him despite his anger.

It was obvious his blow had missed even before the great sword’s contact with the ground sent a mess of dislodged earth, twigs, and leaves exploding out in all directions from the point of impact. What had been far less obvious was the movement by which Saitou had dodged; he’d been there one instant, absent the next. Zanza wrenched the sword back up, looking for his enemy, his shouldered weapon giving a sound of rushing metal as it spun with him. And there behind him was Saitou, standing still and smoking as before.

“Draw your sword!” Zanza demanded, irate that, even after such a decisive first strike as he’d just made (whether it had connected or not), Saitou could still be so casual about this. He charged the man again, making the swing of his own sword part of his approach in a fluid horizontal attack.

He thought he’d been pretty quick, but as the zanbatou swept at the officer, the latter crouched with surprising speed (though Zanza at least saw the movement this time) beneath the trajectory that, sadly, could not be altered mid-swing, then stood calmly again — still smoking and not even appearing to notice the rain of twigs and small branches that had been occasioned around him.

The sound of Zanza’s teeth grinding as he again shouldered his weapon seemed loud in the quiet clearing. This bastard was just like the damn government he represented: untouchable and annoying as hell. “Draw your fucking sword!” Zanza growled.

“Why?” Saitou replied, blowing smoke in the kenkaya’s direction. “It’s more entertaining watching you.”

What the hell did he mean by that? “I’m not here for your entertainment!” To drive his words home, Zanza struck — horizontally again, just in case Saitou might think he would always alternate — but found once more that Saitou had thwarted him, this time moving swiftly back out of the zanbatou’s reach.

“That doesn’t lessen your entertainment value,” the cop said, finally flicking away his current cigarette and — yes! — laying the now-vacant hand on the hilt of his sword. Yet again, however, he made no move to draw the weapon.

Zanza had to get this guy to fight. First of all, he was going exactly nowhere with the one-sided attacks, and might have better luck if his enemy’s attention was split between defense and reciprocation. Secondly, he’d been hired to fight Saitou Hajime, not charge endlessly at Saitou Hajime and marvel at how adeptly he got out of the way. Thirdly, by now he really wanted to see how strong this smug bastard was; he was beginning to long to see the grip of a sword in that gloved hand and observe some of the techniques he’d been hearing about lately during his inquiries about this man. And lastly, he wouldn’t have any idea how much payment to ask for this if it remained the aforementioned charge-and-miss routine.

So he said the most calculated thing he could in this state of annoyance: “Are all Meiji cops too chickenshit to actually fight, or just the ones who betrayed the Shinsengumi?”

Based on a slight shift in Saitou’s stance, Zanza thought he’d scored the first hit of the evening, and the man’s response seemed even more promising: “Strong words from a teenager.”

The implication was clear: Zanza had no room to speak, having been nothing more than a child back when Saitou had done his betraying (as far, of course, as that betraying could be considered a single-instance action and not an ongoing process that had continued this entire past decade). In any case, Saitou’s words meant he didn’t know quite everything about Zanza, even if he knew who had sent him, what that guy had to say, and even how verbose he’d been about saying it… but this was small comfort to the kenkaya when it was all too painfully common for no one to know the truth about the Sekihoutai.

Not only that, but, despite his apparently being a bit stung by Zanza’s remark, Saitou still didn’t draw, and the next swing of the zanbatou (vertical this time) was as ineffectual as all the previous had been. Zanza wasn’t entirely sure what to say next.

Finally he stood back, scowling, as if in recognition of an impasse, and tried, “I’m going to have to tell Yonai it’s worse than he even thinks: you didn’t just betray the Shinsengumi; you turned into a complete coward.” And he struck out again, a quick, hard surprise blow. At least he’d thought it was.

“You can tell him whatever bullshit you want and he’s sure to believe it,” Saitou replied from behind him. “Yonai always had more money than sense.” At least now he sounded distinctly annoyed; Zanza was, perhaps, finally getting somewhere.

“I wouldn’t wanna go by your idea of sense,” the kenkaya persisted, whirling, “since you obviously just join up with whoever’s stronger at the time to keep your own ass safe!”

Though it was absolutely the truth, he’d really only said it to anger the man, and at an impatient movement given by the cop he thought he’d succeeded. He leaped forward with another great heave of his sword, hoping this time for a better response. And it was with a darkly gleeful sense of anticipation that he heard at last the rasp of Saitou’s weapon leaving its sheath. It was a purely aural indication that he might finally get what he wanted, as not only did the swinging zanbatou obscure his vision somewhat, Saitou still moved startlingly fast.

Unexpectedly, Zanza felt the clash and slide of sword against sword as his blow was diverted with a screech down an oblique path formed by a diagonally-held blade. Not many people were willing to go head-to-head with a zanbatou using a mere katana, and of those that were, even fewer could actually do it instead of failing miserably at the attempt, so Zanza was already impressed.

He was even more surprised at the next blow, which, despite the strength with which he aimed it, was not only pushed aside but actually entirely thrown off. Losing his balance, he staggered away and nearly tripped, but had regained his footing almost immediately. His heart, he found, was pounding harder than the mere exertion of battle could explain, and the blood throbbing in his ears was all he could hear. Because nobody had ever done that before; nobody had ever met a zanbatou attack so skillfully, so forcefully.

The sight of the treacherous, motionless officer, blurring with the shadows in his dark blue uniform but for the brighter line of his casually-held nihontou, angered Zanza but excited him too. He’d wanted to know what Saitou’s combat abilities might be, and now that he’d had a taste of what seemed to be a fairly remarkable answer to that question, he wanted more. This might prove to be one hell of an awesome fight. Zanza charged again.

Blow after blow fell and was repelled, the air grew thick with earth tossed up from the churning ground and the noise of ringing collisions, and Zanza drew closer and closer to what he sought, what he always sought from battle — beyond making money, a point, or a reputation, beyond even surviving. It looked as if he’d finally found the opponent he needed: someone strong enough to engage every aspect of his skill and activity so as to drag him forcefully away from everything else in his life. He hadn’t entirely anticipated this, but with the prospect of any battle against an apparently skilled opponent, he hoped.

It was like taking in the heavy scent of some exquisitely delicious dish: there was an unmistakable promise of the meal he could almost taste that, even while it teased nearly unbearably, was yet intrinsically enjoyable. Coming close to losing himself completely in battle, though not as fulfilling as that completion, was yet a marvelous experience. Zanza’s hands on the haft of his weapon tingled like the rest of his energized body, and for a few glorious moments, he felt as if he could do anything, could rise above pain and uncertainty and reclaim what he’d lost.

Proof of how much conscious thought had already slipped from Zanza’s movements was that he went for an apparent opening in Saitou’s guard without even considering how little he wanted this battle to end. The huge sword descended, certain to connect this time, and battles had been ended by far less decisive blows of a zanbatou. Well, it was a shame, but he’d still enjoyed himself here more than he had in a very long time; Yonai would be getting a huge discount on this fight.

But for some reason, as a wrenching, steel-shearing sound filled the air, Zanza found himself staggering forward instead of being stopped by the shock of impact or the alternate option of his zanbatou driving into the dirt. He stumbled, and for some reason was unable to right himself as he would normally have done by pressing his weapon into the ground. In the disorientation of falling and seeming to lack a resource he usually counted on, he could not for a moment determine exactly what had just happened.

His eyes widened in shock and he drew in a sudden gasping breath of surprise as the answer embedded itself deeply into the earth before him with a thud. His startled gaze ran down the haft of his weapon to where the blade had been severed near its point of origin so that only about six inches of metal remained at the end of the wooden grip. For a moment, he could do nothing but stand and gape, his body still pulsing with excited energy as if it hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

“And your idea of sense, it seems,” Saitou remarked, resuming the conversation as if it had never been interrupted, “is to engage in meaningless battles for nothing more than the childish pleasure of fighting.”

At the sound of this statement from behind him, whose calm tone almost belied its disdainful purport, Zanza felt that excited energy, which had been buoying him up so delightfully thus far, curdle into a sick sort of rage. He rounded on Saitou with a roar. “My sword! My fucking sword!”

Saitou gave his own weapon a slight swish and no indication that he’d exerted himself at all in the previous skirmish. “You were the one who insisted I draw mine.”

In contrast with the coolness of this sarcasm, the entire world went hot and red in Zanza’s perception. Tossing aside the haft of his beloved and now useless zanbatou, he clenched his fists. “Do you know how hard it is to get ahold of one of those fucking things?”

“Yes, they are rather rare these days, aren’t they?” Saitou replied conversationally. “But it’s an idiot’s weapon to begin with, so I don’t know why anyone would take the trouble.”

Not only had Saitou destroyed a precious possession, he was now mocking it — and through it, mocking its wielder in that easy, disdainful tone of his. It was about the best example of ‘adding insult to injury’ Zanza could think of. He charged.

Even through his anger he was conscious of astonishment and subsequent suspicion as Saitou remained motionless, sword still pointing toward the discomposed earth, and barely even seemed to brace himself before deliberately receiving the punch to his high cheekbone. Even as Zanza sprang back immediately after connecting, anticipating some trick, he noted the officer’s nod that seemed to suggest he’d just had some theory confirmed. And at the total lack of concern in Saitou’s demeanor after a considerably strong blow to the face, Zanza couldn’t help glancing briefly down at his own fist, wondering if something was wrong with him.

In the past he’d defeated enemies with a single hit. He was one of the few people he knew of that could even carry a zanbatou with any degree of ease, let alone use it in battle. But this guy… this Saitou Hajime… first he threw off full-strength blows from the biggest sword in the world, and now he completely ignored an enraged punch from Zanza’s not inconsiderable fist? How could anyone be that strong? Was Zanza in way over his head here?

If that was the case, however, didn’t it mean he could retrieve that glorious battle intensity he’d been so achingly close to just a few minutes ago? He could take it back, pick up where he’d left off, and feel that elusive oblivion at least briefly before this fight ended. With this thought, far from being discouraged by Saitou’s evidently superior strength, he pounded his fists together with a grimace and attacked again.

Saitou, however, after testing Zanza’s punch or whatever he’d been doing, had evidently decided to go back to the constantly-dodging style of responding to the kenkaya’s blows. How did a man about the same size manage to move so much faster than Zanza could? How could he read seemingly all of his opponent’s intended moves?? The strongest blow from the hardest fist imaginable wouldn’t do much good if it never landed!

Eventually, burning with frustration that threatened to build into rage at the promise of the fight he wanted that never came to fulfillment, Zanza fell back a pace and stared at Saitou with angry, unblinking eyes.

“You’re as strong as the rumors say,” the officer remarked. The faint smirk on his face widened as he continued, “But I hope you understand that that’s Meiji-era strength. In Bakumatsu’s Kyoto, these little punches you’re throwing would have been completely meaningless.”

He’d been so close… so close to what he really wanted… How had he gotten Saitou to fight him properly before? Through his rising anger Zanza sought for the right words. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from those days.” He clenched his fists again, preparing for another attack. “Yonai’ll be glad to hear it.”

“There is one thing you can tell him,” replied Saitou as he deftly caught the flying right hand in his own left, knocking away Zanza’s other fist with his opposite elbow, and abruptly driving his sword into the kenkaya’s shoulder. With a quick half roar of pain and a flailing of limbs, Zanza was borne to the ground. There, he was held down by the foot Saitou placed on his chest as he yanked his weapon free. “You can tell Yonai Fumihiro,” he went on, again almost conversationally as he stepped back and sought out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his sword, “that a wolf is always a wolf, Shinsengumi or otherwise, and that in this Meiji era I continue to act as I always have by hunting down evil wherever it is found. There is no better way to do so than as one of the government’s own agents, fighting corruption within the system itself. You’re welcome to tell him all of this,” he reiterated, sheathing his nihontou and turning, “if you can get up.”

The actual words — whether they were surprising or enraging or puzzling or merely incredible — Zanza would have to think about later. His body was full of pain and his head was full of the awareness that he’d been toyed with. This incredibly strong man, who could have given him exactly what he wanted where few others could, had instead refused to take him or his errand seriously, mocked and belittled him, destroyed the object he prized most, and then badly wounded him (just how badly was yet to be seen) without seeming to think anything at all of it. In fact he was now daring to walk away from a fight as if the entire thing didn’t fucking matter.

Zanza wasn’t defeated yet. He would never lose like that, to someone like this. With a grunt, streaming blood, he jumped to his feet, clapped a hand over his wounded shoulder, and faced his enemy’s calm back with fire in his eyes. “Wait one goddamn second, you fucking bastard!” he roared. “I’m not finished with you yet!”

The expression on the face that glanced back over a blue-clad shoulder suited the words, “I’m getting bored with this. You’ve delivered your message, and I’ve given my reply. We have no further business together.”

Clenching his left hand even more tightly over his injured right shoulder so he saw little shining points at the edge of his vision, Zanza threw himself after the retreating figure.

The same indifference with which he’d made many a move this evening marked Saitou’s reaction: he turned easily, blocked Zanza’s punch, and replied with one of his own straight into the wounded shoulder just as the extension of Zanza’s arm caused his left hand to slip from it. A moment later he followed up with a gloved palm to the kenkaya’s brow, hurling him once again to the ground in a violent motion.

Zanza bellowed out his pain and anger as his opponent thus took advantage of the wound already inflicted, but the noise fell to a whimper as he hit the dirt hard — so hard, in fact, that the next moment he found everything fading to black around him. And he swore into the growing darkness that he’d get the bastard for this if it was the last thing he ever did.

***

Tokio glanced at the clock as her husband entered the room. Thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Given the forty-five or so seconds that had passed between his pronouncement of how long would be required and her first instance of looking at the timepiece, that made for around fourteen minutes total.

“Looks like your estimate was about a minute off,” she said.

“I got tired of humoring him,” Hajime replied shortly. He seemed annoyed, and stood in the doorway almost indecisively for a moment as if considering just going straight to bed from here.

To prevent this, Tokio said hastily, “Set the table.”

Hajime’s lips tightened a fraction and his frame stiffened infinitesimally, which was a typical reaction to any direct order from his wife, even after all these years; but it was only a moment before he complied. After placing his sword on the rack and his jacket on the peg, he removed his gloves — Tokio, still watching to make sure he did as he was told, noted that one of them was red across the entirety of what might be called its punching surface — and washed his hands before reaching for dishes. His motions were all fairly quick, and seemed to bear out the impression of annoyance she’d already formed.

Curious about a fight that could have left Hajime in this sort of mood, she asked as she turned back to her cooking, “So who hired this one?”

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

She had to ponder a moment. A good memory for personal details was essential in her line of work, but she didn’t think Hajime had mentioned this name more than a few times before. “Wasn’t he in your division?”

“Yes,” said Hajime, even more shortly than before.

“I suppose it was the usual story, then? Somehow he heard who Fujita Gorou really was, and assumed…”

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

A moment of silence passed during which Hajime was undoubtedly giving her a sarcastic look of some sort — probably, if she knew him, glancing down at his unharmed body as if to say, “How do you think the fight went?” Tokio, however, was familiar with his ways and could often defeat the sarcastic looks by the simple tactic of anticipating them and turning away in time to avoid seeing them. So Hajime was more or less forced to answer aloud if he wanted to convey his scorn: “How do they ever go?”

“Well, I can see you’re unharmed.” With food in her hands ready to set on the table, she turned and gave her husband a pointed look that he was not quite in time to avoid. “And annoyed. What happened, exactly?”

“I destroyed his sword,” Hajime replied succinctly as Tokio set her burdens in their places and took her seat opposite him. “I stabbed him and knocked him out.”

That did sound like the usual story for such a battle. But normally mercenaries sent to fight Hajime didn’t leave him in so grouchy and pensive a mood. And since she got the feeling he wasn’t likely to say any more unless she worked to drag it from him, she set about, as they ate, that very work. Either she would get more information, or she would punish him for being so laconic.

“He must have brought you some message from Yonai that annoyed you,” was her first suggestion.

“It was the same message as always.” Hajime was not, Tokio believed, eating quickly in an attempt to get away from her questions, but that didn’t mean much, since he always ate quickly.

“Then you must have cared for Yonai’s opinion more than I thought.”

Hajime snorted derisively.

“The mercenary can’t have managed to actually insult you somehow?”

Now the sound from Hajime’s nose sounded like a faint laugh. Unfortunately, Tokio had never been able to read him very well, and how to interpret this noise she wasn’t sure.

“Maybe he knows some secret from your past,” she persisted, “that he brought up at just the wrong moment.” When Hajime made no reply she went on, “And you’re trying not to admit how much it bothered you, but…”

“Don’t be stupid,” he finally said, and she knew she’d succeeded in annoying him.

She went on with a grin. “And it was so bad, you really would rather have killed him. You bloodthirsty thing. But the kanji on his silly outfit was an outright lie — a promise he couldn’t keep.”

Hajime set bowl and chopsticks down with a clink and said shortly, “It ought to say ‘souzen’ on his back.”

Perhaps, then, the young man had merely annoyed Hajime with an unusually forcefully presented personality. A lot of people’s personalities annoyed Hajime, and, though it might take some doing to make him show it like this, it didn’t seem impossible.

“So since your enemy wasn’t properly Evil, the great gods of Aku Soku Zan–” she drew out the syllables with portentous drama– “could not justify a killing, and you just had to put up with him for as long as it took to destroy his sword, stab him, and knock him out.”

Hajime, taking a last long drink of his tea, made no answer.

“No wonder you came in here so distracted and annoyed! Having to put up with someone you couldn’t kill for that long…”

The very fact he was ignoring her now, she thought, was a sign that she’d achieved her goal — if not the goal of goading him into speech, at least of getting her revenge. He disliked being prodded about Aku Soku Zan, as if she didn’t know and respect how much it meant to him, every bit as much as she disliked having emotional details kept from her by one of the few people she’d ever met whose feelings she couldn’t pretty easily read most of the time.

Now he rose coolly, setting down his teacup, and made his way to where a folded newspaper waited for him on the kitchen counter. Normally, if he intended to read the paper at all before bed, he would do so where he could discuss interesting news items with her; it seemed she’d punished herself along with him by her nonsense, and as he left the room without a word she reflected in some annoyance of her own that perhaps she should have tried a little harder to ask straightforwardly before resorting to obnoxious conversational tactics. She sometimes made things a little too much of a contest between herself and her husband. She sometimes did that with most men.

She fully expected this to be the end of it. Hajime would not bring it up, so she would never solve the mystery of his mood after that fight; and she was unlikely ever to catch sight of that mercenary ever again. It was irritating, but she resigned herself to disappointment — and also strove to remind herself that it wasn’t really that important.

In fact she’d completely stopped thinking about it by the time she realized it hadn’t ended there, which subsequently came as a bit of a surprise. Several days after the mysterious fight — enough that she didn’t even consider exactly how long it had been — she was on patrol when the matter arose again. This was perhaps her least favorite police duty, and felt like a waste of her talents, but she was doomed to it whenever not actively occupied by some task relevant to their current case. And since Hajime was making use of what agents the police had in place that could obtain any information about the Karashigumi, in order to determine better that group’s connection with Rokumeikan, she would walk a beat today. At least she’d been allowed to choose an area of town that was generally acknowledged to be Karashigumi territory, little as she was likely to pick up about them while wandering the streets in uniform.

The other benefit to this mostly uninteresting pursuit, at least today, was that the leisurely but watchful progression of her patrol took her, without any deliberate detour, right past (or, rather, right to) the stand of an art vendor whose wares she was very happy to have an excuse to look over. She’d been here several times before, and always appreciated this particular vendor’s taste in stock, though she rarely actually purchased anything. Today she tried to make her perusal brief, but almost immediately realized how difficult that was going to be.

New to the shelves since the last time she’d been here were a number of prints by some truly excellent artist she wasn’t familiar with. All his subjects seemed to be war heroes rendered with the accuracy either of personal experience or excellent research, and there was a feeling of intensity or investment to the work that seemed, at least to Tokio, to indicate a personal interest in these subjects beyond merely how best to put them to paper. She wondered if this artist had as great a fascination as she did with war heroes, or with anyone that had fought with all their heart during any of the conflicts that had marked Japan’s recent history.

She was actually holding in her hand a particularly tempting piece depicting Hachirou Iba in battle, marveling at how well the artist had managed to confer beauty on so brutal a scene, when she realized that somebody — someone other than the solicitous and indulgent vendor — was watching her. Being a spy herself, she could generally tell when this was the case, but in this instance he made no attempt at concealing his presence or his attention, so as she turned to look she easily spotted him. That would have been easy anyway: with his predominantly white garments and unruly hair, he did rather stand out. And as he, noting her attention, began to approach, she caught sight of another attention-grabbing feature: the bandages across his chest and shoulder that were visible as his apparently just-washed gi flapped open. They seemed more extensive than a single stab-wound could account for, and she wondered if Hajime had understated the amount of harm he’d done this young man the other night. Though the mercenary did at least appear to be moving without much trouble or discomfort at this point, which in itself was impressive so soon after any wound Hajime had dealt.

“Hey, police lady,” he said as he drew near. For all the currently near-growling tone, he had a pleasant voice that, though deep, sounded simultaneously young.

She looked up into his attractive face and responded with an interest almost too pert to be polite, “What can I do for you?”

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

Smoothly she cut him off before he could say the entire name. “Fujita’s, yes.” And musingly, with a smile, she finished the statement by listing its various possible endings. “Friend? Roommate? Personal chef? I suppose the aspect of our relationship you’re most interested in is ‘partner.'”

The mercenary appeared embarrassed — probably because she was being so personable; he hadn’t expected that, and perhaps regretted his somewhat rude greeting — and simultaneously interested in his turn. “Uh, yeah,” he said, seemingly thrown off course.

“I’m Takagi Tokio,” she told him, her smile broadening. “And you, I believe, are kenkaya Zanza.”

“You’ve heard of me?” he wondered, some pleasure creeping into his tone and onto his face.

“Probably nothing to crow about,” replied Tokio. “I am a member of the police force, however ineffectual.”

His brown eyes gave her a glance up and down that was clearly exaggerated. “Ineffectual? You look like you could knock the pants off of just about anyone.” And she didn’t think the potentially flirtatious nature of this wording was an accident.

“Well…” Her grin turned wry and reluctant without much trouble, since, however facetious their exchange, this comment was entirely straightforward. “I am a woman.”

“Oh, I noticed that,” he assured her. “Anyone’d have to be blind to– oh, wait, you mean people give you shit about that.” And the pleasantly flirtatious atmosphere was abruptly dispelled.

Since this was the case, Tokio moved back toward the point. “But you didn’t come to discuss my troubles…”

The young man’s face darkened right back to its previous morose irritation, and he reached up to scratch under a bandage on his chest as if one of the hurts Hajime had done him suddenly itched in reminder. “No, I didn’t.”

“So what,” she asked again, as bright as before despite the shift in mood, “can I do for you?”

“I want to fight him again,” was Zanza’s dark answer. He added in unnecessary clarification, “Your partner.”

“That’s hardly something you need to tell me. He’s the one in charge.” Though there was a touch of irony to her tone, she managed to restrain herself from making the lengthy sarcastic follow-up comment to which she was tempted about how a woman, after all, was only an acceptable police officer if carefully kept under close male supervision, and even then only because that close male happened to be highly independent and intimidating.

Whatever, if any, of this Zanza picked up on, he did give her another once-over that seemed more aimed at actual assessment this time. “Why the hell would a nice-looking girl like you be partner to an asshole like him, anyway?”

To the attitude willing to call a woman six or seven years his senior a ‘girl’ Tokio chose not to respond. Instead she said, with a decidedly flirtatious grin this time, “So you did come to discuss my troubles.”

There was a faint answering grin on his face even as he spoke again darkly. “I mean, you seem a lot nicer than him… I wanna fight him again, but I don’t wanna have to talk to him again. So I thought maybe you could arrange it for me.”

He was cute, and she decided she liked him: a little less urbane than men she was generally interested in, but funny and very good-looking. She set down at last the print she’d been holding all this time and turned fully to face him. “And what do I get out of this?”

“Um…”

“You really can’t think of anything you could do for me?”

“Well, nothing I’d really wanna say in front of… you know…” He gestured around, and briefly at the art vendor that had listened to this entire exchange with a bemused smile. “People.”

Yes, she reflected as she laughed aloud at this statement, definitely cute. “How about this,” she said: “I set up your fight in exchange for–” here she too glanced at the merchant with a grin– “a night out sometime that would be totally appropriate to mention in front of… people.”

He seemed a bit surprised — possibly that her flirtation had been serious and not merely an idle method of amusing herself somewhat at his expense — and also a bit taken aback as he replied, “You mean, like, I pay for dinner or something?”

“You must not be…” But here Tokio’s words faded and died as she saw the abrupt change in his expression. Something just past her had caught his attention, and his entire demeanor had altered all at once: his brows lowered over suddenly widened eyes and his body tensed. She glanced to the side to see what could possibly have had this effect on him even as he reached for it: one of the prints on display at the stand they were more or less monopolizing with their stationary conversation.

Trying to read him, very curious, she stared at him as he stared at the paper in his hand. Agitation, surprise — astonishment, even — and a growing something like anger but that she believed was really just a tendency toward intense activity were all very evident in his face and bearing. And after not too long that last burst out in the form of a growlingly intense demand directed at the vendor: “Where does he live?”

“I’m–” The merchant had been listening to the conversation with benign puzzlement this whole time, and was very startled to be all of a sudden addressed. “–sorry?”

The kenkaya stepped forward and seized the front of the vendor’s kimono, hauling him up to eye level and almost bellowing, “The artist!” He had released his grip and let the man fall into an unsteady standing position before Tokio could even put out a hand to try to detach him. “The guy who made this print!” He rattled the paper in the merchant’s face. “Where does he live?”

Even as he stammered out, “Th-the Dobu Ita rowhouses,” the vendor was shooting Tokio an appealing look. She could tell, however, that Zanza meant the man no harm — was desperate, not angry — and probably wouldn’t lay hands on him again. “But he never — he never sees anyone — he barely even talks to me — I don’t know if you can–“

“He’ll see me,” Zanza interrupted in a tone of finality, and, whirling, stalked away without another word.

More curious than ever, Tokio watched his swift, purposeful steps until he turned a corner and disappeared. “Well!” she said, and with a somewhat confused smile turned back to the vendor. He hadn’t resumed his seat, but was also looking after the mystifying kenkaya with a helpless expression and a slow but ongoing shaking of the head. “What on earth was that about?” Tokio wondered next as she began searching her pockets for something with which to pay for the print Zanza had just made off with — it was either that or arrest him for theft the next time she saw him, which might ruin their planned date.

Still shaking his head, the merchant set a hand down gently on the stack of remaining prints from which Zanza had taken the one that had gotten him so worked up. “That Bakumatsu group that claimed it was a government-sponsored volunteer army — this is a portrait of the leader.” And they both looked down pensively, as he removed his hand, at the top picture in the stack. “Though now I look closer,” the merchant murmured, “this boy next to him in the picture…”

“…could possibly be a much younger Zanza,” Tokio finished, equally quiet. She began counting out coins.

“Thank you very much,” said the vendor in relief as he accepted the payment and resumed his seat, looking a bit worn out. A small pipe, extracted from a pocket, might help to soothe him once he got it filled and lit, and he focused on that task as he added, “That’s literally the first I’ve ever sold of that one. I don’t know why that artist insists on making them.”

“My guess is I’m soon going to find out.”

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

“And I thought this patrol was going to be boring,” Tokio grinned. Then, with a friendly nod at the merchant, she turned and bent her steps in the same direction Zanza had gone.

***

It was one of those days when people had been in and out of Saitou’s office almost nonstop as long as he’d occupied it; and while some of them were his own agents with reports (though not always particularly productive reports), the rest had been unrelated to his current case. That didn’t mean they weren’t on important business, just that they dragged his thoughts constantly from what he actually wanted to think about. So with some irritation he glanced up when the door opened yet again in the afternoon, but when he saw that the latest visitor was his wife he calmed. She wouldn’t have left her patrol if she didn’t have some important or at least interesting news for him.

Tokio smiled when she saw his expression. “You look like you’re having a lovely day,” was her greeting.

He snorted faintly. “Information on the Karashigumi is coming in at a trickle. We may have to send someone to infiltrate.”

“Or we could just concentrate on Rokumeikan and forget about the yakuza.”.

Since there really wasn’t much to say in response to that bit of mutual wishful thinking, “Why are you here?” Saitou asked.

Her smile grew into a look he recognized as intrigued amusement. “I had a run-in with that bishounen you fought the other day.” Saitou raised his brows at her word choice, but waited silently for her to continue. “He’s dead-set on fighting you again, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of what I found out.”

Saitou wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but this tantalizing beginning had him hooked. What could she have discovered that wasn’t common knowledge? The level of interest he had in learning more about Zanza was unprecedented; though he hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the young man since their battle, the few times Zanza had crossed his mind over the last several days was far more than usual for some mercenary sent by an ex-comrade to fight him.

“You’ve heard of the Sekihoutai?” she went on when he remained silent. He nodded. “Zanza was a member. Well, he must have been nine or ten years old at that point, so ‘member’ is maybe… but he was obviously close to their leader, Sagara, a sort of assistant to him; and it seems like he looked up to him like family.”

Saitou frowned. “Sagara was executed, wasn’t he?”

With a nod she confirmed, “For false promises in the name of the Ishin Shishi to win the loyalty of his volunteers.”

“But would a nine- or ten-year-old have seen it that way?”

“Exactly.” Tokio’s demeanor was a funny mix of pitying and amusedly interested. She loved this kind of emotional drama. “It explains why he’s so determined to fight you again, doesn’t it?”

It at least started to. A child might not have understood what was going on at the time, nor recognized the crimes his captain was committing; to Zanza, it must merely have appeared that the Ishin Shishi, supposedly his allies, had murdered someone he loved and respected like family. And even in the young adult of later years, though he might in hindsight better understand what had happened, the bitterness and hatred born in him earlier in life could be far stronger than any logical recognition of justice. He would have every reason to hate the government the Ishin Shishi had become, and to despise especially someone that had originally fought against it and then joined its ranks.

“How did you discover this?” Saitou asked at length.

She told him about the incident with the print, and how she’d followed Zanza to the artist’s home. “The artist — he’s going by ‘Tsukioka Tsunan,’ but Zanza calls him ‘Katsu’ — he was in the same position as Zanza as a child with the Sekihoutai. He seems just as angry as Zanza, but more focused. They kept referring to ‘Sagara-taichou’s betrayal’ and ‘the betrayal of the Sekihoutai’ — so, as you said, a nine- or ten-year-old…” When Saitou nodded his understanding, she finished, “They were still talking about the past — half nostalgia and half bitterness — when I left. I got the feeling they’re going to be reminiscing all night.”

Saitou sat back in his chair and thoughtfully lit a new cigarette, staring at nothing in particular as he took the first few long, contemplative drags. It seemed a shame to let an undeniably strong young man like Zanza run around without any purpose to his life beyond reminiscing bitterly and picking meaningless fights to scrape out a living that couldn’t possibly be worth (or, sometimes, even pay for treatment of) the damage he occasionally took from opponents like Saitou Hajime. The latter had felt the potential in those blows; some signs of their effectiveness were even visible on his face and the arms hidden by his jacket. With proper training, the kenkaya could be formidable. He wasn’t entirely stupid, either; even through his obvious anger and battle-lust, he’d still managed to throw out attempted insults, in order to achieve his ends, that had been far more effective than Saitou would have expected from him.

“You’re planning something,” Tokio remarked with a curious grin, “and in this context I’m not sure…”

“We need,” replied Saitou slowly, “to determine how best to go up against the Karashigumi.”

Tokio’s brows rose as she picked up on the idea. “Zanza would be pretty well placed for that… Joining them might not work when he’s already so high-profile, but he’s in just the right walk of life to make the right friends and find out useful information…”

“But…?” Saitou caught this unspoken word in his wife’s musing tone.

“But he’s a loose cannon,” she said bluntly, “and he already hates you.”

Saitou smiled wryly. “So we give him the second fight he wants, and then a chance at working against a corrupt agent of the government he hates so much.”

She nodded slowly. “I think it could work. It’s worth a try, at least. Any particular time you’d like to fight him again?” When he shook his head, she straightened from where she’d been propped on one gloved hand against his desk. “All right, then, I’m back to patrol. I’ll see you tonight.”

In her absence, Saitou remained leaning back in his chair, puffing at his cigarette, pondering. What little useful information he’d received so far about the Karashigumi, and what he could make of it, suddenly held no interest for him, and he thought he might take a few minutes’ break to think about this new idea before forcing himself to return to that.

As Tokio had said, recruiting Zanza as a temporary agent was at least worth a try. The mercenary was well placed for the purpose, and strong enough to take care of himself should a certain amount of trouble arise. Just how willing he would be to enter into the project was another story, since, as Tokio had also pointed out, he already seemed to have a disproportionate amount of antipathy toward Saitou; but Saitou had a feeling Zanza’s situation and attitudes could be turned to their advantage.

And it was that feeling that had him a little worried, because he feared he might be allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment. Was he letting his desire to know more of Zanza, to make something of Zanza, and his undeniable sexual attraction to him, lead him to believe the kenkaya could be of more use to him professionally than was actually the case?

He hadn’t had a lover for years, and most of the time this didn’t bother him; or at least he believed it didn’t. But just the other evening he’d been thinking about how stripped-down his life was, how little enrichment he had… and then this incredibly attractive and intriguing young man had appeared as if on cue, as if to fill that void; it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Saitou’s subconscious had taken that timing as a sign and started looking for ways he could involve Zanza in that bare bones of a life of his.

Why, beyond the obvious physical attraction, he should be interested in an uneducated urchin that named himself after a stupid weapon, wore tacky clothing, and engaged in meaningless combat for a living, he couldn’t be sure. Having a history of being picky about his lovers made him listen to his instincts when he did feel an interest in someone… and perhaps those instincts were compromising the others, the ones that now said he could make professional use of the young man as well.

He would simply have to be careful. At the moment there didn’t seem to be any way to divine the truth — whether he honestly believed recruiting Zanza would benefit his case, or whether certain parts of him were finding reasons to do what they hoped would further an entirely different agenda — but he’d already made the suggestion, set the thing in motion. He would fight the stubborn young man again, and he would have a thing or two to say at that time to try to get Zanza’s attitudes into better alignment with his own needs. That was probably something that needed to happen in Zanza’s life in any case, and Saitou might as well be (in fact rather wanted to be) the one to do it.

But before that (and now he wished, just a little, that he had specified time and date for the encounter so as to give himself some working space), he would forewarn himself; he would go to that fight armed with all the information he could find so as to make the best decision he possibly could about what he wanted to happen afterward — personally and in regards to the Karashigumi. That seeking this information might well be yet another thing his unprofessional desire and interest was foisting on his professionalism under the guise of a job-related need he was well aware, and not terribly concerned.

The fact was, he’d been bored half to death today playing the role of coordinating spymaster waiting around for other people to bring him news and receive updated orders; some actual research on his own, even if it involved merely heading over to one of the government offices to dig up what files there might be on this Sekihoutai he only vaguely remembered hearing about in the past, would be a vastly welcome change.

This story is a rewrite of the one I began in 2002, whose first story arc was completely finished and second well underway before I realized it needed more than just touch-ups in all its older sections. For some author’s notes on the segments in this post, please see all these Productivity Log posts.


Substantiated


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then neither’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

“I asked first!”

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu snorted again.

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

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

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

“But how can you–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Also?”

Sano made a dismissive noise.

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

Sano snorted.

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


First Kiss

Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Why did Saitou kiss Sano on their way into Shishio’s fortress? Can Sano figure it out now Saitou is dead?


Two steps earlier and Kenshin would have seen. Two steps later and Yumi would have. Two seconds shorter and Sano wouldn’t have been quite shocked enough to keep quiet; two seconds longer and, again, Yumi would have seen.

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

This wasn’t Sano’s only thought on the matter, but it was one of the more prevalent. The universe seemed to have handed Saitou that moment, that perfect opportunity, to surprise and confuse the hell out of Sano, and Saitou had not been remiss in accepting.

And now he was dead.

How long he’d been awake Sano couldn’t be sure; dream and waking thought tended to blend rather uncomfortably when you were wounded. Had he been dreaming about Saitou and was now consciously thinking about him? Or had he been awake, contemplating, and slipped into a dream that still gripped him? Honestly it didn’t matter much; such metaphysical questions paled in comparison with the greater query, Why had Saitou kissed him?

Sano sighed (a gesture that, he thought, indicated fairly well he was awake). He could recall the exact feeling of Saitou’s lips on his, the racing of his heart, the shock that had suffused his entire body, the taste and the smell… but why? Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Saitou was an asshole. This Sano’s logic told him with alarming frequency while these reflections meandered through his head. Saitou was an asshole, and why he’d done anything he’d done during his lifetime could not be a question worth asking. Nor Saitou, the asshole, worth pursuing, nor the feel of his kiss a sensation worth dwelling on. But Saitou was also intelligent and persistent and honorable. Not to mention attractive as hell, but what did that matter? The guy was dead.

The ability to predict and plan for the moment of his own death was something Sano would not put past Saitou’s impressive skill, so perhaps it had been a sort of goodbye. The concept of a ‘goodbye kiss’ was not unusual, after all… just totally bizarre in this context. Because why a kiss? From Saitou? Though it didn’t seem too out of character for Saitou to have left Sano with an insoluble mystery in an aggravating memory just to drive him crazy after he was dead…

And Sano couldn’t regret it. After all, apology, proposition, or farewell, it was the only one he’d gotten.

He’d felt for some time that Saitou’s disliking of him, strongly expressed though it was, really didn’t exceed Saitou’s disliking of anyone else… that Saitou might, perhaps, not even dislike him much at all. It had been a significantly shorter time since he’d started thinking his disliking of Saitou might not be as intense as he’d all along believed. Was that merely because he felt bad about Saitou’s death? Was he cutting him slack because they’d fought side by side and Saitou had eventually given his life for the cause? Sano couldn’t be certain it was only this and not something more, because he’d never bothered attempting to analyze his feelings before.

That analysis was not proving very successful now. His hands ached, his head ached, his entire body ached, and he was operating in a state of perpetual weariness; the mental fatigue that came with this topic clouded the issue further, until he could barely think straight. And wasn’t it a moot point in any case? With Saitou dead, did it really matter how Sano had felt about him?

As little able as he was to distinguish sleep from waking at any given moment of this contemplation — he knew he’d had some real sleep since coming back from the fortress, and acknowledged vaguely that it was now the next day, but more details than this eluded him — he felt it was about time for another long attempt at some real rest… the kind that didn’t involve surreal memories of Saitou’s hand gripping his jaw, holding him in place for precisely four and a half seconds, and what the hell that meant. Afterward, maybe seeing how everyone else was doing and getting a more coherent version than they’d had on their return of what had happened in their absence would distract him from what he’d been thinking about ever since that return.

Just as he was lying back down, however, from the seated position in which he’d been dully looking around the room he’d been occupying in what remained of the functional chambers of the damaged inn, there came a knock at the door. Most likely, he thought, here was that hyperactive girl trying to find anyone to talk at when everyone was as busy resting as she should be after the ordeals of the last few days, but he retracted this speculation when the knock was not repeated.

Despite its probably being someone else, then, he considered not answering, pretending to be asleep — but only for a moment. He might as well see what whoever it was wanted. Something interesting (distracting) might be going on that would be even better than rest for him at present, since if he actually managed to fall asleep he couldn’t be at all certain what type of dreams he would have (or continue to have). So he called for the unknown to enter.

It was one of the two Oniwaban guys, Kuro or Shiro (visually they were perfectly distinct, but Sano sure as hell couldn’t remember which name went with which man), and all he’d come for, he explained apologetically when he saw Sano lying down, was to bring up a note that had just been delivered to the Aoiya. Thinking he’d been right not to pretend to be asleep, Sano thanked the guy and accepted the folded paper, though he didn’t open it until he was again alone.

Its purport was merely that he should come immediately to a certain room of a certain inn, and the unfamiliar handwriting, strong but neat, had a dictatorial slant to it that matched the style of the language.

What was this? Whom was it from, and what did it mean? The writer had put Sano’s full name on the outside, so it certainly hadn’t been misdelivered, but they sure hadn’t bothered to put their own name at the end of the message. With the conflict over and Shishio dead, what kind of meeting would someone feel the need to summon him to at this point?

None of this mattered much, he reflected as he rose from his futon and looked around for something to wear. Pursuing this mystery would be an engrossing pastime, and in that light the note was little less than a godsend.

Given how imperiously it ordered him to come, Sano thought its writer might at least have provided directions to the area of town where his destination was located. He intended to go, and go immediately as instructed, but there was no guarantee, in this unfamiliar city, he would be there anytime soon. That was fine with him — a relaxing walk with thoughts of this unknown communicator to keep him from what he’d been agonizing about was exactly what he needed — but how the sender of the note would feel about his probable lateness he couldn’t guess.

It had rained significantly sometime while Sano had been unconscious, in pain, deliberating, and analyzing, and the brisk wet air under the silver cover of clouds made Kyoto feel like a different world than the one he’d walked through with Kenshin and Saitou to reach the path to the shrine. Of course, that one of those men was dead had an impact on the scene as well. Every death made the world a different place; Sano wasn’t sure why this one should make so much more of a difference than most. Maybe because it had been preceded by that damned inexplicable kiss.

But he really must stop thinking about that. Whatever secretive and dangerous circumstances he was preparing to put himself in would not be improved by thoughts of the taste of Saitou’s breath through barely parted lips, and wasn’t the entire point of going to force his mind away from that topic? Firmly Sano started running through names of potential senders of the note and potential reasons for their having sent it.

Though he’d come up with a few scenarios whose pieces more or less fit together, though sometimes only roughly, by the time (after having separately asked three people for directions that had turned out to conflict in various aspects) he found the stupid inn he was looking for approximately ten thousand miles away from his starting point, nothing he’d thought of seemed terribly likely. This wasn’t terribly important, since the distraction had been unobjectionable, and now he was finally here he could concentrate on what this situation actually turned out to be rather than his speculations about it.

The place looked normal enough, Sano considered as his gaze swept across the second-floor windows, all of them in perfectly natural and innocuous positions, where the room he needed must be located. Of course an enemy could be waiting up there to attempt to kill him silently, or possibly the entire inn was in on the ambush or whatever it was… Sano couldn’t think what enemy it was likely or even possible to be, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, he didn’t really mind walking into ambushes; one against many was his specialty. He would have preferred to be less tired and incapacitated, but everyone needed a handicap now and then, right?

When the employee inside, upon hearing of Sano’s errand (just that he was supposed to meet someone, not that he anticipated an attack), merely directed him politely as if this was expected, Sano’s suspicions intensified. He saw no one all the way up the stairs, and the second-floor corridor was empty, but he listened hard at every step for anybody that might burst out of one of these rooms or try to sneak up behind him. And when he reached the door he needed, after double-checking the note he then thrust into his pocket so as to have his hands completely free, he tensed for action before knocking. He couldn’t help hoping there might be a really fun fight waiting for him in here, and he could lose himself in those good old emotions and forget about everything else for a while.

The door opened, and Sano found himself staring up into narrow golden eyes.

“I sent that message over two hours ago. What could possibly have taken you that long?”

Sano could have told him to fuck off, that Saitou was not entitled to his presence in a timely or even an untimely fashion, that Saitou should feel damn lucky Sano had bothered to respond at all to an anonymous note mysteriously ordering him around, that he might have been in the middle of something and had taken his sweet time responding. He might even have told the truth, admitted he was unfamiliar with the layout of Kyoto and had made one or two wrong turns on the lengthy trip over. But he actually said nothing, at least at first.

For the world seemed to go simultaneously unnaturally sharp at all edges and blurred in the middle, while the saturation of every color fluctuated wildly. A sudden pressure in his head combined with an erratic jumping of his heart made him feel as if he was suspended by the latter in a haze of surprise and other, less definable emotions above an unknown abyss.

The first he knew he was swaying was when Saitou caught him. The feel of the man’s hands on his arms, hot and alive, jolted him out of his momentary syncope. And when the officer said with unexpectedly warm sarcasm, “That happy to see me, are you?” it worked further to bring reality back.

“You asshole,” Sano gasped, and, neither content to leave it at that nor able, just yet, to articulate anything more meaningful, repeated himself in a stronger tone. Finally, after what seemed at least an entire minute during which Saitou had drawn him into the room, guided him to a seated position on the mat, and dropped down beside him, he felt up to continuing. “You survived. You fucking survived, and let me think you died.”

To this there was no response, and Sano needed none to know the rebuke was unjust. Everything around him signified this was almost the earliest possible moment he could have been called here: near the futon not far off were indications of a doctor’s having been in attendance until recently; a thoroughly consumed meal’s empty dishes, though neatly stacked, had not yet been removed; and a packet of what looked like official paperwork had not yet been untied or attended to… indeed, that Saitou was here at an inn at all, rather than already back at a police station plugging away again, seemed meaningful.

And the very instant Sano’s brain had finished up these thoughts, he was overcome once again with the abrupt memory of Saitou turning suddenly toward him, gripping his chin, and kissing him firmly for four and a half seconds. From the cold and light-headed whiteness it had undoubtedly attained during his brief weakness, Sano’s face transitioned instantly to a burning heat that was probably brilliant red. Was that why Saitou had brought him here? To explain his strange behavior? And what would Sano say when he did? He never had figured out how he felt about it.

He opened his mouth to demand to know why Saitou had kissed him, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself (indeed, didn’t even really know how) to tread such vastly alien territory. What emerged instead was, “So how did you get out of there? Seemed like there wasn’t even much ‘there’ to get out of when we were leaving.” The words sounded surprisingly rational, considering how different they were from what he really wanted to say, what he really meant.

“There was a second exit on the other side of the canyon,” Saitou replied, “though it did take some work to get to.”

“Shit! Did you have to climb burning wreckage and stuff?” Though Sano was legitimately alarmed by the mental image of that escape, what he meant by the question was, ‘Why the hell did you kiss me?’

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

Impressed rather in spite of himself, the younger man gave the older a more thorough visual examination than before. Like Sano, Saitou had abandoned for the moment the ensemble, now rather the worse for blood and battle damage, he generally favored; he wore a more traditional kimono and hakama from under which bandages peeked in bright contrast to the outfit’s dark grey and black. And like Sano, Saitou had about him the kind of passive pained weariness that comes after the first long rest following injury and exhaustion. But in general, remarkably, “You don’t even look all that much more hurt than you were when we left.”

Saitou’s lips lifted at one corner as if he could tell this near-praise was delivered almost against Sano’s will, but he probably couldn’t tell that what Sano would rather say was, ‘So why’d you kiss me?’ At any rate, his reply was, “It looks like you managed to stumble back without hurting yourself too much more as well.”

“Excuse me, dickface,” Sano retorted, instead of asking why Saitou had kissed him, “I am capable of walking across town without fucking dying.”

“But apparently not without taking two hours.” It was irritating how attractive those thin lips could be even when arranged in such a mocking expression.

“You know, you’re lucky I came at all. An unsigned note telling me to come to some strange place for some reason it didn’t bother to mention?” Sano was pleased to make one of the points he hadn’t been able to when he’d first arrived, even if the point behind that point was, “And now you’re going to tell me why you kissed me, right?”

“Certainly nobody with an iota of sense would have come in response to a note like that,” Saitou agreed with mock solemnity. “I was counting on that.”

“Bite me,” Sano growled. “Or at least goddamn explain why you kissed me yesterday.” Yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday? He felt like he’d been dwelling on it for a lifetime. With an effort he forced himself to ask, “Why the hell did you even call me here, anyway?”

“I thought you might want to know I was still alive.”

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

Rather than point out that, just minutes before, Sano had grown faint at the revelation and then profanely reprimanded Saitou for not telling him sooner, the officer merely said, “I thought it might at least be interesting to you.”

“You know you could have said that in the note, though, right?” Annoyed that he had reacted so dramatically, whether or not Saitou had called him on the discrepancy, Sano sounded more surly than he actually felt. “I didn’t have to come all the way across town when you could have just written, Hey, I’m still alive, and actually signed it.”

“But I couldn’t kiss you from all the way across town.”

Having gone so long without bringing it up and then made inroads away from the topic, then giving this statement so blandly, Saitou took Sano completely and shockingly by surprise, and he’d leaned in and almost connected with Sano’s lips before the stunned young man could react to the words or the gesture. As in the previous instance, Saitou’s nearness and intoxicating smell overwhelmed him, and Sano was for an instant entirely paralyzed.

And then, jumping as if stung, he jerked back and raised a hand to block access to his mouth. “Fucking–” he gasped. “No, just– stop that!”

Though the time that passed between this broken admonishment and Sano’s subsequent words was the span of a breath and no longer, it was enough to observe, interpret, react, and feel a great deal. For Sano thought he read in Saitou’s slight straightening movement toward his previous position some disappointment and resignation, and just that was enough to provide a few answers or at least conjectures to similar effect.

Saitou had summoned him here not merely to let Sano know he was still alive, but to reiterate the overture he’d made at the gates of the fortress… and in that brief moment before Sano explained himself, Saitou interpreted Sano’s impetuous reactive words as a rejection, and was disheartened by it. This was simultaneously, even in that fraction of a second, empowering, pathetic, and irritating to Sano.

He could never have predicted that, having (or perhaps being) something Saitou wanted, he would be able to hold over Saitou’s head his ability to deny him that desire. The lightning-fast realization that he didn’t want to deny Saitou that desire didn’t change the fact that, with this unexpected influence in mind, they were on much more equal footing than they’d ever been before. Much more equal footing was much more solid footing, and Sano felt abruptly much more sure of what to say, much more able to deal with this scenario.

And even that merest hint of disappointment he thought he saw in Saitou made him feel bad for the man. Who hadn’t, after all, experienced fear of rejection, fear of losing or even entirely failing to gain a desired prize? Saitou had too much pride to display anything beyond just that faint hint that couldn’t be hidden, but just that faint hint had been enough to make Sano pity him and feel more disposed toward his cause.

And this was annoying. A normal person, someone not intolerably arrogant and overconfident in their own powers, would perhaps say words to the effect of, ‘I like you; let’s have a romance.’ There might be presents involved, or at least pleasant conversation or other signs of friendship preceding the declaration. But not Saitou Hajime. Saitou would kiss a guy out of the blue, unsolicited, unwarned-for, unexplained, then allow his victim to suffer agonies of indecision and confusion, then try to repeat the performance without ever giving any other overt signs of interest or even good will… and then make a grippingly pathetic display of his manfully repressed sorrow at the apparent failure of his scheme. What a marvelous jerk.

And yet Sano didn’t want to say no, and did feel something in response to Saitou’s disappointment.

He might have tried to play with that power he suddenly felt he had over the other man, but couldn’t quite bring himself to evoke a possibly even stronger dismayed reaction in Saitou. Though Saitou would certainly deserve that, it might get Sano thrown out on his ass before he could admit he was just messing around, making the whole situation much more difficult and uncomfortable. Also, he maybe wanted to hasten, as best he could, the moment when Saitou would kiss him again.

So he lowered his hand, leaving his lips unguarded, and said loftily, “We need some First Kiss rules before you can do that.”

Saitou’s lean toward Sano disappeared completely as he sat straight again, eyebrow raised. “And the previous kiss doesn’t count why?”

Sano’s glare was one of righteous indignation. “Because you didn’t explain anything — like why the hell you did it — and then you went off and died.”

Any and all signs of unhappiness had vanished from Saitou’s demeanor, and the skeptical expression on his face took on a touch of amusement. “Setting aside the fact that neither of those things makes this our first kiss, are those the rules you want? ‘Tell you why I’m kissing you,’ and ‘don’t die afterwards?'”

Pensively Sano replied, “Also you have to promise you’re not just fucking with my head — because you’ve pretty much been nothing but a complete bastard all along to me, so it’s hard to believe you kissed me except to mess with me.”

“Is that all?” Saitou asked with an exaggerated air of patience.

“Um, no, also–”

“These are a lot of rules for something that’s only going to happen once.”

“Well, yeah, but a First Kiss is important!” Sano too was impatient to get on with this thing, but he meant what he said. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot — it sort of sets up how everything’s going to go from then on!”

“All right.”

“So when you beat me up outside Katsu’s place, you were saying…”

Saitou’s brows both rose as Sano proceeded to elaborate the fourth rule. Presently, with a slight sound of frustration that might have been his forbearance snapping, he leaned forward again and cut Sano’s words off entirely by kissing him.

As Sano’s lips worked slowly against Saitou’s, opening gradually at the advancement of a tongue that tasted more of soba and green tea and less of cigarettes than he would have expected, every nerve in his body seemed to intensify in its receptiveness so his injuries throbbed like his heart. He felt sensitized and dizzy and overwhelmed, and he clutched at Saitou with painful hands as the man pushed him slightly backward with the fervor of their connection.

This was Saitou being an tyrannical asshole again, but Sano could not have complained even if he’d had breath and opportunity to do so. As a First Kiss it was acceptable, even superior, and as a representation of the rest of their relationship, whatever that turned out to be, Saitou muscling past any preexisting animosity to startle and incapacitate Sano with something new and shockingly wonderful seemed neither inaccurate nor undesirable.

When after some time they divided like a chemical bond breaking, forming two entities from what had previously been one, Sano was panting heavily and almost painfully and watching little darting, sparkling dots at the edges of his vision. He was definitely in no physical condition, at the moment, for kisses that passionate; if he had been, he would probably have flung himself on top of Saitou at this point and demanded more… never mind that Saitou’s physical condition seemed even worse than his.

“I did that,” Saitou said somewhat breathlessly, “because I like you. And I have no intention of dying any time soon. And if this weren’t such a bad time for it, I would drag you onto that futon over there and prove that I’m not just fucking with your head.”

The rush of hot blood mobilizing through Sano’s body at these words and at the look in Saitou’s eyes, making him feel all over again as if he might faint, only served to reiterate what he’d just been thinking and Saitou had essentially just said: that, despite how much both of them would love to continue this experiment, this was not a good moment for it. All the interesting possibilities that had arisen between them must be put off until another time.

“I might drag myself onto that futon over there and take a nap,” Sano muttered.

“No. I have paperwork to do, and I can’t have that temptation lying there the whole time.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at what was essentially a compliment no matter how coolly Saitou had delivered it, but he was concurrently annoyed. “You want me to walk all the way back across town again?”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to.” Saitou threw a look half regretful and half irritated at the bundle of papers.

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

Saitou’s gaze returned to him, the quirk of his lips and the narrowness of his eyes now clearly teasing. “Think you can manage it in less than two hours this time?”

“Probably not. I know the way better, but I’m in worse shape now — which is your fault, by the way.”

Without responding to the accusation, Saitou just said, “You’d better get going as soon as possible, then.”

“Fine!” Only Saitou would start something like this and then dismiss his partner like that. Sano climbed laboriously to his feet, somehow managing not to reel once fully upright, and stuck out his tongue at the smirking policeman. Then he turned toward the door. When he’d opened it, before actually leaving the room, he glanced back briefly, perhaps to offer a goodbye, though whether it would be friendly or belligerent he couldn’t be quite sure.

His breath caught, however, and he found himself incapable of speech of any kind when he observed Saitou smiling at him as Sano had never seen him smile before — with a look of fondness, of genuine pleasure, of satisfaction untouched by mockery. In the face of this interesting unknown he’d somehow unlocked, Sano clutched at the doorframe in an unexpected repeat of his earlier imbalance as he blushed madly… but he did manage a return smile before departing.

He made his way back to the Aoiya in continued dizziness and a mixture of buoyancy and discomfort. His injuries hurt more severely than before, and he was far more exhausted than he should have been after a mere two leisurely walks (even with an earth-shattering kiss between them), but his fluttering heart seemed to keep him half-hovering off the ground, and his emotions, though not significantly more coherent than they had been earlier, were now such a pleasant tangle as to give a vigor he could not otherwise have expected to his steps.

By the time he’d reached the blue roofs, some of them even more damaged than he was, and let himself in and found his way back up to his room as quietly as possible, he was happily, fuzzily contemplating both the general future with its bizarrely unexpected pleasures and the very immediate prospect of some thorough rest and recuperation almost this very moment. Though famished and still curious about what his friends were and had been up to, he must consider sleep his absolute first priority; with one contact of lips, Saitou had managed to enforce that.

Sano thought he understood, now, the meaning of the original kiss that had so baffled him at the time. It had been neither apology nor goodbye, as he’d speculated (though there had probably been in it some smugness at the thought of how much it would puzzle and annoy Sano until it could be explained); it had been no declaration of deepest affection, nor yet a meaningless whim; in fact it had been nothing more nor less than a suggestion of something they might try and see how they liked it. Which meant Sano didn’t need to figure out how he felt about Saitou, since the experiment was not over; actually it had just begun.

Currently he felt pretty damn positive about him, despite how much Saitou had annoyed him even during the pleasant parts of their conversation. Currently he felt pretty damn positive about everything. Getting some proper sleep was going to be a lot easier now.

For a second time, however, just as he was lying down and preparing to rest, in this instance far less worried about (indeed, rather looking forward to!) the type of dreams he might have when he did, there was a knock at the door. Also for a second time he speculated it was probably Misao, and also for a second time was proven wrong.

It was the other of the two Oniwaban guys, Shiro or Kuro, and the déjà vu of debating over appellations augmented that of seeing the note just delivered to the Aoiya. That it had arrived directly on Sano’s heels reiterated one of yesterday’s startling points: what an uncannily good sense of timing Saitou had. And Sano’s full name on the outside of the folded paper was so identical to the first, he had to pull the other out for comparison before he could believe there actually were two notes. Then, once again having waited until he was alone, he opened the message.

I thought about it, and that one may not have qualified either. We had better discuss your other rules and try again tomorrow. Come by at around lunch time.

Sano lay back down in triumph and weariness, hugging the refolded note to his chest. That was right; that was exactly right. Saitou recognized his First Kiss requirements, that they hadn’t all been elaborated upon, and that another attempt must be made at meeting them. And if he and Sano didn’t manage it tomorrow, they could easily give it another shot the next day. Eventually, when wounds had started to heal and bodies had regained some stamina (and perhaps when paperwork had diminished a trifle), they could try more than once in a day. His standards were fairly high on this point, after all; the number of attempts it might require could not really be fathomed at this juncture.

He plunged toward sleep happily anticipating something he would not previously have considered a matter of question, something he would have taken entirely for granted before yesterday: the probability that he would never have a proper First Kiss with Saitou.


This fic is dedicated to liveonanon and W. Solstice for the explosion of joy they had recently caused in my life at time of writing.

I’ve rated this story . The part where Sano reacts to Saitou reacting to Sano blocking his attempted kiss is my absolute favorite. The rest of the fic is pretty good, but that part is genius, if I do say so myself. Too bad I can’t say the same about the illustration XD

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


His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera


The amount of work available to an exorcist at any given time was completely unpredictable. Hajime could — and sometimes did — go weeks without hearing from anyone, and feel grateful that he had another source of income a little less fickle. And then, because that was the way the world moved, he would get multiple requests for help in a single day, and send a fifth call to voicemail because it came in the middle of the fourth. This was satisfying, and, as he connected to listen to the message the last caller had left, his mood was complacent as he looked forward to an upcoming week of work.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou. This is Bridgestone Gains at U.S.Seido.”

Hajime stiffened. It had been an ongoing relief not to hear anything from Seido for the last five months, but just under that relief lay always the awareness that it wasn’t impossible that he might. He’d been keeping his ears open for any news about the yakuza that might concern him, such as any hint of haunting of premises or possession of persons — since, after the service he and Sano had rendered them back in March, any subsequent necrovisual problems were sure to prompt Seido to contact no one but him — but as yet hadn’t heard anything to worry him. He’d carefully kept himself from anticipating never having to deal with them again, and was glad now that he hadn’t allowed hopes to arise that would have been dashed today.

“It has come to my attention,” Gains went on, “that the police want to question you.”

Hajime’s frown deepened. This was news to him, and hadn’t been one of the reasons he’d conceptualized for Gains to be calling him.

“They can be so inconvenient…” The old man’s voice was easy and fairly cheerful, so very different from how he’d sounded when Hajime had interacted with him before. “Especially when there are important parts of your life they just wouldn’t comprehend.” Gains chuckled. “It’s like a drama class exercise just talking to them! I very well understand the position you’re in: even if you had nothing to do with the young man’s disappearance, there are a lot of questions you’d rather not answer. I have certainly been there.”

Disappearance? Hajime made a sudden gesture of understanding.

“So I thought you might appreciate a place to stay for a while. I can offer you somewhere to relax and be sure nobody will bother you until a more convenient time… after all this business with your missing client has been sorted out, for example. It’s an extremely comfortable suite with everything you could need, and there’s more than room for two, if you wanted to bring your partner.”

Now Hajime smiled grimly. Apparently ‘this kind of queer bullshit’ wasn’t so much a problem in this context. He’d known at the time that the homophobic sentiment had been a subconscious one brought out by Gains’s shade-induced anger, something he wouldn’t have verbalized under normal circumstances, but it was still darkly amusing to hear him now offering Hajime a sort of luxury vacation or retreat with his presumed gay lover.

“So call me back and let me know whether or not this would help you out. The offer stands as long as you need it.” Gains left his personal cell number, something Hajime assumed not a lot of people were allowed — his initial call had come in from ‘Restricted’ — and said a friendly goodbye.

Pensively Hajime saved the message, hung up, and pocketed his phone. He had a lot to think about all of a sudden.

So Gains was keeping an eye on him, was he? Looking out for him, apparently, and minutely enough that he knew about things like related police agendas before Hajime himself did. What a lovely thought. Who didn’t want a mob secretary peering silently over his shoulder?

That was all Hajime had time for before his phone vibrated again. If this was Gains with a second try, he was just going to have to leave another message, because Hajime definitely hadn’t decided on a response yet. It was with some reluctance that he withdrew his phone once more and looked at it, but then he answered quickly when he saw the caller’s name.

“Someone is leaking police information to U.S.Seido,” was how he greeted his friend.

“What?” demanded the startled Chou. “How do you know?”

“Because I just got a call from Seido about the police wanting to question me.”

“Shit. Even I just heard about that.”

“I assume this is about Quatre Winner?”

“That’s right.” Chou sounded distracted now; he was probably running through various co-workers in his head, trying to decide who he thought was passing information to the local yakuza. “Yeah, Winner senior reported Winner junior missing, and you talked to the son the last day he was around, I guess? The guys on this just want to ask you some questions — you’re not a suspect or anything — but I figured you’d still want a heads-up before they showed up at your door.”

Hajime thanked him with genuine gratitude. And when Chou said nothing in response, Hajime added a little impatiently, “You do remember I can read minds? If you want to know who’s spying on the police, we can come up with a way to find out.”

“Yeah…” said Chou slowly. “I’m not sure I do want to know. You know we don’t touch Seido unless we absolutely have to.”

“You’d probably be better off knowing anyway.”

“Yeah…” Chou said again. “Yeah. I’ll let you know if I want to set something up.”

“And let me know if you hear anything else about me.”

“Right. Or if that Winner guy turns up.”

“I’ll probably hear about that before you will.”

“What, from Seido?”

“God forbid.”

Chou laughed darkly. “Well, try not to get yourself killed by the mob, OK? I’m already working on a shit-ton of paperwork.”

“I’ll make it as complicated as possible just to keep you late.”

“Yeah, you have a nice day too.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Hajime re-pocketed his phone and cast a calculating glance around. He barely noticed, though, such details of the room as Tokio asleep on the couch or the DVD’s of the series he and Sano were currently watching strewn across the coffee table. He had a decision to make, and it needed to be made quickly.

Of course there was the option of just letting the police talk to him. He wasn’t a criminal, after all, and had no reason to fear the law. But the possibility that the specific officers that came to talk to him would happen to be aware of magic and would understand what was going on did not strike him as great — and otherwise, explaining that, carrying a sword, he’d talked to Winner junior the last day he was around because he’d been hoping to exorcize angry supernatural energy from him might provide a reason to fear the law.

If his last few months’ independent study of communication magic had progressed in that direction, brainwashing the police into believing that the completely unsuspicious Hajime Saitou had nothing useful to tell them would have been quick and convenient… but that had never been a technique that interested him much, so he hadn’t looked into it.

Conceivably he could make something up the normal way, invent some other, less magical reason to have visited that Winner Plastics office last week — but if he was going to mislead them, why bother having the conversation at all? They had a job to do, and the missing young man needed to be found in any case (not least so he could be exorcized); rather than complicate things (and probably get himself in trouble later for obstructive behavior), it seemed better to avoid the questions entirely, to fade out of sight until the matter had been resolved.

But did that mean taking Gains up on his offer? In some ways it was tempting — it would certainly be a very neat solution to the problem, and Hajime had to admit to some curiosity about the kind of accommodations Seido would provide — but in others it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine accepting what was essentially a friendly favor from a mob secretary. And yet how would it look to Gains if he refused? U.S.Seido was an organization that needed to be dealt with carefully, and he certainly didn’t want to stir resentment by appearing antagonistic toward them.

What inoffensive excuse, though, could he offer Gains for not accepting? Where else could he go? Of his three friends, one lived across the country, one was the cop he’d just talked to, and one was likely to be visited at home by police looking for Hajime should Hajime not be immediately locatable; he couldn’t stay with any of them. And a hotel would probably not satisfy Gains — why pay for an impersonal room when Gains was offering one much more convenient and luxurious for free? And if Seido people continued watching him, engaging a hotel room and then claiming he was doing something else seemed unwise.

This was irritating. Just when Hajime had been anticipating a happily busy week, something like this had to come up. Now, no matter where he stayed, he would probably have to put off the appointments he’d made, leave people hanging that really did need his help, and probably lose business because of it. Quatre Winner had chosen an inconvenient time to disappear.

It undoubtedly hadn’t been his fault, though: his was a particularly severe case, and the young man couldn’t really be blamed for rash actions under the influence of that anger. Furthermore, the artifact possession added an interest to the situation that made it impossible for Hajime to be annoyed with Quatre personally, despite any inconvenience he might have caused.

And these thoughts had given Hajime an idea. He scrolled through his contacts to the B’s. Then he couldn’t help gazing, motionless, at the name for a moment with an echo of the wonder he’d felt at their first meeting; it seemed impossible that he should really have this person’s number. He remembered hearing him described in college as ‘an immortal magical superhero who can do pretty much anything’ — and now he was about to casually call him. Suggesting to such a person such an imposition as he now had in mind displeased him, but alternatives were scarce.

“Hello?” came the tired voice from the other end.

“It’s Hajime. I understand that boyfriend of yours is missing.”



Sano stared down at the message again in puzzlement and perhaps a bit of annoyance. Can you feed the cats? it said without a word of explanation. And though he’d written back, Sure, why? a good thirty minutes ago, word of explanation was still lacking. At least Hajime had said ‘can you,’ and ended the text with a question mark, rather than making it an order.

Tokio and Misao wouldn’t be expecting their dinner for another hour or so, which gave Sano some time to make plans before he headed over there. Not that his plans took terribly long: he wanted to know what was going on, why Hajime had texted him such an unexpected request and then started ignoring him, and that meant camping until the exorcist came home and explained himself. Sano would only be working on homework (and then probably video games) for the rest of the evening; he might as well do that at Hajime’s house. He was pretty sure he’d left his physics textbook over there the last time he’d used it anyway.

So he packed up what books he did have as well as his 360. This, of course, meant taking his own car, since he wasn’t going to haul around an X-Box on the bus, but he tried not to grumble too much when the circumstance couldn’t be avoided. At least tomorrow’s bus ride to school from Hajime’s house wasn’t a bad route, and quicker than from his apartment.

Misao jumped up his leg and climbed to his shoulder the moment he was inside the door. She always seemed aware, somehow, when someone was approaching the house, and Sano wondered a little whether she had some kind of divinatory ability Hajime knew nothing about. Though with Hajime, it was more likely that he knew perfectly well and just hadn’t mentioned it. He had, after all, gone almost half a year without deigning to tell Sano that he believed him capable of subconsciously using every different branch of magic. Sano still wasn’t quite over that yet.

“Hi, Misao,” he greeted the little cat as she sniffed at his face. “You hungry?”

She replied that she was, and that he should definitely give her a lot of the wet food she liked so much.

Sano laughed, and didn’t bother responding except by heading into the kitchen. Walking with Misao on his shoulder was always something of a challenge — especially because, even in the few months he’d known her, she’d increased in size, and eventually probably wasn’t going to be able to ride up there anymore. At the moment, she splayed out and dug claws into Sano’s flesh. He’d gotten used to this by now, and resigned himself to its effects on his shirts.

As he entered the kitchen, Tokio gave him an indifferent-sounding greeting from where she stood beside her food bowl. Sano bent to retrieve her water dish, at which point Misao jumped down. As he then moved to grab the other one and rinse them both out, he asked, “Do you guys know where Hajime is?” He might have said something like, “Where’s the uncommunicative bastard who normally feeds you?” but had learned that the cats didn’t do very well with sarcasm. In any case, they didn’t know where Hajime was, so it mattered very little how Sano referred to him.

He went through the somewhat complicated process of doling out a specific amount of dry food alongside a specific amount of wet food for each of the animals, then stood back against a counter while they ate. His eyes were turned toward Tokio’s almost manically quick gulping motions, but he wasn’t really watching; he was puzzling, somewhat annoyed, about Hajime.

It wasn’t as if Sano wasn’t a regular fixture of this house these days, well known to the cats and well versed in their care. It wasn’t as if he minded. He would do much more than just feed the familiars for his friend and sometimes professional partner, provided Hajime asked at least relatively nicely… but where was Hajime? Normally a request for Sano to feed the cats came when Sano already knew what Hajime was about. Though admittedly, now that he thought back on previous instances, this had always been because Sano had known beforehand where Hajime would be rather than because Hajime had actually told him at the time of the request.

Assuming that standing around being frustrated and curious would get him nowhere, he wandered into the den and set up his X-Box. To assuage his annoyance, he would play some Madden for a bit before starting his homework. Hajime, though he sometimes watched a game with a compelling atmosphere, could work up no interest in Madden, so it was better to play it when he wasn’t around in any case.

Then a couple of hours passed without Sano realizing, and the next thing he knew, it was 9:30 and he hadn’t actually started his homework and Hajime had never appeared. Swearing for multiple reasons, Sano pulled out his lovely phone and texted, Seriously where the hell are you? making sure to spell all the words out properly so Hajime would not completely disregard the message. Of course he might — today’s precedent suggested he would — completely disregard the message anyway.

Then, reluctant but aware he needed to hurry, Sano turned his attention toward his books.

The next morning, at what felt like a hugely early hour on a day when he didn’t have to work at oh-dark-hundred, he was partially roused by Misao attacking his feet. It took several instances of him shifting so she fell off the couch, her jumping back up, and him grumbling at her to stop before he reached a greater state of consciousness and realized that it must be breakfast time for the cats. Which meant Hajime must never have come home, since he would have fed them by now.

He dragged himself up and into the kitchen, where Tokio was waiting looking reproachful. Waking sluggishly as he moved, Sano set out food and water and gave slow thought to his day. He needed to check his phone for any response to yesterday’s texts, then get ready for school. Maybe Hajime would answer him or come home while Sano was nicely distracted in class. Assuming class was able to distract him at all.

As he was heading back to the den, however, to look at his phone, the doorbell rang, so he turned again in the opposite direction.

To his surprise, it was two police officers. And if the unexpected advent of badges and uniforms at such an early hour hadn’t startled him, “We’re looking for Hajime Saitou” certainly would have.

“What?!” After this outburst and the jump that accompanied it, Sano shook himself. These guys didn’t appear stern or combative — in fact they seemed fairly friendly — but, well, cops were cops. And the fact that they’d shown up here right after Hajime’s already aggravatingly mysterious disappearance was worrisome. He apologized for his reaction, then added, “Hajime better not have stabbed someone.” Though not a joke the officers would fully understand, this might at least make him appear a little less wary.

“I don’t think so,” one of them smiled. “We just needed to ask him some questions; he’s not in trouble.”

This was probably all the information they would relinquish about what they were here for, so Sano would have to deal with the situation based on only that. If Hajime wanted him to relay some specific story or something, he should have left better instructions than, Can you feed the cats?

Sano stepped aside and said, “He’s not actually here right now, but you guys can come in if you want.”

At that moment Misao, from beside Sano’s leg, yowled up at the officers, greeting and demanding attention.

One of them smiled and stepped inside, crouching to the cat’s level to pet her as Sano moved back to allow him to do so. “Well, hey, there,” the cop said. “What a pretty baby!”

Misao remarked that, while she often wondered what non-communicative humans were saying to her, she was well aware that it probably wasn’t anything she would really care about. Sano thought he might tell her sometime and see what she thought about being a ‘pretty baby.’

“So Mr. Saitou isn’t home,” the second cop, less interested in meeting the cat, remarked. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“No idea.” Sano looked around for the inevitable appearance of Tokio, and followed her movement toward them as soon as he saw where she was. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts.” This was true, but, without mentioning the original Can you feed the cats?, didn’t give any indication that he was aware Hajime was up to something odd. He shrugged. “He never tells me where he’s going, but he usually doesn’t stay out all that long.”

Now the cat-friendly officer had transferred his attention to Tokio, and said from his crouched position, “So you think he might be back here later?”

“I really don’t know,” Sano answered. “I’m heading off to class pretty soon here, so I won’t be around, but you guys could come back and check.”

The officer nodded as he rose, and at the same moment Sano darted to catch Misao around the ribcage before she could bolt out the front door — something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but apparently couldn’t resist trying. “Nope,” he told her. She protested, squirming, in his arms.

“Are you his roommate?”

“Nah, just a friend.” Sano tried not to sound bitter; no reason to indicate to the police that he wished he were, in fact, a very specific type of roommate, more than just a friend. “Sano Sagara.”

The first cop nodded, while the cat-friendly officer smiled and said, “Well, we’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Sano was wrestling with Misao, trying to encourage her up onto his shoulder rather than any other direction, and didn’t look at the face of either policeman.

“Have a good day,” the first said as the two men turned and walked down the front steps.

Sano closed the door behind them, ceasing his struggle with Misao, who batted vengefully at his ear and then started to slide down his arm so she could jump to the floor from a slightly lower altitude. Sano turned to face the house with a frown, looking slowly back and forth between the two cats and feeling the frown grow into a scowl.

“What the hell do the police want with Hajime?” he wondered aloud.

Neither cat entirely understood him, but they picked up on the fact that he was simultaneously angry and concerned, and that both emotions were, to some extent, aimed at Hajime. Misao, losing track of her annoyance about being prevented from leaving the house, wondered whether Hajime was all right; while Tokio, in her superior way, asserted that Hajime was a very effective and powerful being that probably didn’t need anyone to worry about him.

He could hear the alarm he’d set on his phone going off in the next room; he didn’t really have time to pursue this issue right now if he wanted to get to class on time. He made a frustrated noise, which startled Misao, and headed for the den.

Well, if he put off showering until tomorrow, he would have a few spare minutes right now. He decided right away to take this route, and thumbed through the contacts in his phone looking for a specific one.

Though he’d spent some time with Chou and did have his phone number, Sano couldn’t remember ever having called him before. So far they’d gotten along in that way people did where it wasn’t obvious whether or not they actually liked each other, and in fact it could easily be inferred that they didn’t; Sano wasn’t sure what the case actually was, nor how Chou would react to a call from him, but he wasn’t about to refrain when Chou might have some answers.

“Well, this is new,” was how the cop greeted him. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Yeah…” Sano wouldn’t have minded some banter with Chou — the guy was kinda fun to mess around —
but it was more important to seek information. “Have you heard from Hajime? Do you know where he is? And why are your buddies coming around bugging about him?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Chou sounded amused.

Sano made a frustrated sound.

Chou laughed openly. “You guys are a trip.”

“So do you know where he is?” wondered Sano impatiently.

“Nope.”

“But obviously you knew he was going somewhere,” Sano insisted, very impatient. “And what do the cops want from him?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that kind of thing.” Chou’s languid tone was clearly calculated to annoy. “I’m not really supposed to, you know?”

Sano tried very hard to keep from rising to the bait, because the more calmly he could deal with Chou, the sooner he could find out what he wanted to know. “Probably not,” he agreed, sounding annoyed despite his efforts. “But it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Might lose me my job, though.”

Sano took a deep breath. “Come on, you know it won’t. I don’t know where he is, and some cops showed up at his door looking for him and didn’t tell me why.”

“Well, he runs around doing weird shit,” Chou replied lazily, “so that’s no surprise.”

“Seriously,” Sano growled. “If you know where he is, tell me.”

“I already told you I don’t know.”

“What do you cops want with him?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Obviously he didn’t tell you anything.”

With a loud sound of irritation Sano said, “Fuck you!” and hung up. He probably shouldn’t have done that, but he felt like Chou had been deliberately giving him crap and wouldn’t have provided any answers even if he happened to have them. So he went to get ready for school.

On every break during and between the two classes he had that day, he texted Hajime continually. Finally, as he prepared for work, he called. Hajime had never once broken his promise to answer whenever Sano called, and in return, in a sort of unspoken covenant, Sano had refrained from abusing that promise: instead of bothering Hajime whenever he felt like hearing the guy’s voice, he only called when he had a legitimate reason to.

And it was not because he felt his current worry about Hajime’s whereabouts and safety wasn’t a legitimate reason that he had not yet called in this scenario, but because he dreaded initiating the first phone call that would not be answered, dreaded pushing Hajime to break that promise. It felt as if they were progressing toward some sort of crisis… perhaps one that had been long in coming. And now, as his call went directly to voicemail for the first time he could remember, there was a palpable painful clenching of his heart. Agitated, he shoved his phone back into his pocket and headed for the Panda.

He couldn’t bear to try again that day — try calling, anyway; he kept texting at every available opportunity. When he returned to Hajime’s house that night, he tried not to rush inside in the hopes that Hajime might be there, but was still disappointed when he wasn’t. So he just apologized to the cats for the lateness of their dinner and went to bed on the couch in the den again.

Tuesday was much the same, except that he gave up texting about halfway through the day. But by the time he was done with school and work, he was so desperate for answers that he cast about for anything else he might do to get some. He scrolled, aimless and agitated, through his phone contacts again, trying to think who might know anything about what was going on, and stopped at the name of a new friend. It was a long shot, he supposed, but by now he would try anything.

Duo had informed Sano that the number he’d given him was actually his boyfriend’s, since he didn’t currently have a phone of his own, so it was no surprise that it took several rings to get an answer — the taciturn Heero had probably seen the caller name and handed the phone over. And when Duo’s cheerful voice finally answered, Sano got right to the point:

“Hey, this is going to sound weird, but have you heard from Hajime? I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, and weird shit’s happening.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Duo wondered, sounding immensely curious.

“So you know where he is.” Sano’s irritation at the déjà vu the conversation thus far impelled didn’t allow Duo a chance to reply, as he then burst out with, “No, why should he tell me where he’s going? I’m just the friend who can feed the cats when he’s got something else to do, and talk to the police for him, and go fucking insane worrying about him! Why should he tell me anything?”

“As far as I know, he’s perfectly fine.” Duo’s tone of reassurance sounded no less curious and interested than before. “He’s staying at Trowa’s new house.”

“What?” Sano was so surprised that he’d already followed this up with, “Why?” before the very obvious answer — to keep away from the police — occurred to him. That they’d even met one of the biggest celebrities in the magical world was already hard to believe; that Hajime was staying at his house was next to impossible.

“The security guard at the office last week got his name when he came in,” Duo was answering, “and then when it turned out Quatre had disappeared, she remembered Hajime was there the last day anyone saw him, so then when Mr. Winner called the police, Hajime’s name came up.”

“Oh.” So Quatre failing to show on Friday had been upgraded to a disappearance, had it? And the police wanted to question Hajime about it, and Hajime didn’t want to have to explain that he’d been visiting Winner Plastics to perform an exorcism — yes, officer, I’m perfectly serious; no, sir, they’re just normal cigarettes. It all made sense, even if the involvement of Trowa Barton — the real Trowa Barton — still seemed improbable. But, “Why the hell couldn’t he have told me that?” Sano demanded of no one.

“He wanted you to be able to convince the police that you really didn’t know where he was?” Duo suggested.

“You know,” Sano replied sourly, “I might think that might have been his reason if it wasn’t so totally normal for him not to tell me things. You don’t happen to have Trowa’s address, do you?”

“Going to go give Hajime a piece of your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I wish I could see that,” lamented Duo. “Hang on.”

Once he had the address and an admonition to ‘break a leg’ that Duo might or might not have known he would be at least a little tempted to take literally, Sano set out with grim purpose. Now he was glad he’d driven to Hajime’s house, since it meant he could (assuming his car would start) head straight to his next destination without working out an unfamiliar bus route and nursing his impatient irritation for however long that would take.

His curiosity about Trowa Barton was mostly referred, but that didn’t mean what he did feel was weak or transient. He was very interested in seeing this new house, since that would indicate Trowa’s financial situation. What kind of money did a super-powerful immortal magician make? What kind of home would he live in? This was secondary to Sano’s feelings in relation to Hajime, however. He was incredibly annoyed with the guy for letting him worry and not telling him anything about what was going on; and in addition to the annoyance, some of the worry still hung around as well for good measure.

The house turned out to be a nice, decent-sized one in a nice neighborhood, with the forlorn look of a newly purchased home. Sano hoped Duo had given him the right address, because he didn’t hesitate to park in the empty driveway and march right up to the door. And perhaps it was rude, but he first rang the doorbell and then knocked — just in case. After not too long a wait and the sound of footsteps descending a staircase inside, the door opened to disclose Trowa Barton, and suddenly Sano was a little embarrassed.

“Hello,” said Trowa. He didn’t look terribly surprised to see someone he’d barely met on his doorstep — he mostly looked tired and unhappy — but Sano had already noticed that his wasn’t the easiest face to read. In any case, Sano had already knocked, trespassing on the property of the Trowa Barton with a minimal acquaintance with the man and a demand that really had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t going to get any less awkward and embarrassing no matter what he said. He cleared his throat, preparing to explain himself.

“You’re here to see Hajime, I assume,” said Trowa in the interim.

“Yeah,” Sano replied, the word emerging hoarse and abashed.

“Come in,” Trowa said unenthusiastically. This only made Sano feel more awkward, but what other option did he have? He must reassure himself that Hajime really was all right before anything else — and if that meant inconveniencing the Trowa Barton, that was what he would do.

Silently Trowa led him up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the entry, onto which three second-floor rooms opened. Two of them were open, and beside one Trowa stopped. Before he pointed down past the second (a bathroom) to the last, closed door, Sano had a chance to see into this first room to note the full bookshelves and paper-littered table within. He wondered what Trowa was working on — the mystery of his missing possessed boyfriend, perhaps — but he didn’t have time or inclination to pursue that curiosity very far at the moment. He said his embarrassed thanks and moved toward the final door.

Here he didn’t bother knocking; he was too worried and annoyed. And though one of these states decreased as he entered and observed Hajime, obviously just fine, seated with a book on an air mattress — the only furnishing in the bare room — the other increased exponentially. Hajime’s phone lay atop a small suitcase, plugged into a charger at the wall beside him, clearly powered off. Moreover, the expression the exorcist turned toward Sano, though slightly curious, was otherwise perfectly calm.

“You complete dick,” was how Sano greeted him, letting the door fall from his hand as he stepped forward.

“Hello to you too,” Hajime replied with a faint smirk, setting down his book.

“Yeah, fucking hello! Good to see you’re not arrested or committed or dead in a ditch somewhere!”

As he got to his feet and stepped off the air mattress, Hajime asked, “Did you really think any of those options were likely?”

Sano threw up his hands in irritation at Hajime’s obtuseness or whatever it was. “I didn’t know what was likely! How could I possibly have known?”

“This situation isn’t nearly as dramatic as you seem to think it is. There was no reason for you to be so worried.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? A client disappears — our client — and you don’t tell me, and the police think you’ve got something to do with it, and you don’t tell me, and then you fucking disappear, and all I get is Can you feed the fucking cats? until the fucking police show up looking for you, and I have no idea where you are or what to say, and two fucking days pass, and you might be in some serious fucking trouble, and you expect me to be not even a little bit worried about this?”

“You’re dragging it out far past its logical end point. Once you found out where I was, you could have stopped worrying.”

“Yeah, maybe, if I wasn’t in love with you.” As these words burst out, unexpected probably to each man in the room, Sano’s heart gave a heavy throb and started to race even as the temperature of his entire body abruptly rose. He plunged on. “Don’t you get that? I love you, so I was fucking worried even after I knew where you were, OK? I love you. You probably don’t want to hear that, but I’ve damn well said it now.”

Hajime nodded slowly, his expression having turned somewhat dark. “And I suppose you expect it to change something.”

“You know…” Sano clenched a frustrated fist. “I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t come here to talk about this. I came here to make sure you were OK. But now I see you’re goddamn fine, let’s talk about this.”

“All right.”

“So, yes, I expect it to change something when I tell you I love you! I’ve been waiting months to say it, trying not to, wondering what I should do and what’s wrong with you or what’s wrong with me that nothing’s happening, and now it slips out because I’m just that pissed, and, yes, I fucking expect it to fucking change something!”

“Sano. You’re at my house three or four days out of the week, and when your car won’t start you spend the night. And I don’t think most of your textbooks have seen the inside of your apartment for months.” Hajime’s tone held no remonstrance, only perfect seriousness. “I’m not sure what you want to change.”

Taken aback by what seemed a rather strange argument, Sano had no idea what to say next. Was Hajime really unsure what Sano wanted, or just playing stupid to try to avoid the point? Well, that had been the question all along, hadn’t it — had Hajime always been aware, and just opted to be an asshole about it, or was he actually genuinely ignorant? This certainly wasn’t the first time Sano had wished he could read Hajime’s thoughts, but it might be the most intense instance of that desire.

“You’re right,” Hajime said with a faint sigh. He looked simultaneously a little annoyed and somewhat defeated. “I shouldn’t avoid the point.”

“No, you shouldn’t!” Sano seized on the concession as if it were a life preserver and he drowning. “And if you know you’re doing it, you’ve probably known all along, you bastard, haven’t you?”

“That you want a romantic relationship?”

“God, it sounds so… formal… when you say it like that…” Sano shook his head, looking away from Hajime just for a moment as he dealt with the feeling of awkwardness that wording had instilled in him. Hajime and his professionalism…

“How would you prefer to put it?”

“I don’t know… it’s not like that’s not perfectly accurate… but I don’t feel like it covers everything.” Sano’s gaze rose again to Hajime’s steadily somber expression, and he took a step closer. “I want you to want me around!” He sounded almost desperate as he began his list. “I want to feel like, even when we’re annoying the hell out of each other, we’re still happier there than anywhere else. I want to hear you say you like me. I want–”

“I do like you,” interjected Hajime calmly. “Though I’ve never been entirely sure why.”

“I know! I mean, I can tell. You’re a jerk, but somehow I always feel like you do like me. It seems like you do like having me around, and you practically treat me like family… I’m pretty sure I’m closer to you than your actual family is, anyway… It already feels like we are closer than friends, but… but not quite…” Again he shook his head, and took another step toward Hajime. Though he would rather fling himself across the remaining space, he didn’t dare take more than one slow step at a time, as if he feared Hajime would run from him if startled.

“And I want something physical too,” he went on, “and it seems like you wouldn’t even mind that, except nothing ever actually happens. It was, what, like, a week and a half ago when I fell asleep pretty much right on top of you, and you didn’t move me for the whole second half of the movie, and when you did get up… I mean, you kinda suck at being gentle, but you were with me…”

Hajime, frowning faintly, said nothing. He’d agreed to talk about this, but hadn’t actually done much talking thus far.

Sano took a deep breath. “I don’t think we can keep having this both ways. Me liking you and you ignoring it, I mean. This is driving me crazy. We’ve been hanging out forever; I’ve had plenty of time to get over you and just settle down to being friends or whatever, so I think if that was ever going to happen it would have already. I can’t stand wanting you and not having you and at the same time not being able to get over you. I can’t keep going like this. I can’t be just your friend anymore. It hurts too goddamn much. But you’re not into guys,” he speculated, as he had speculated all along, “or you’re not into me, or you’re not…”

Still Hajime said nothing. It fit the pattern so well it made Sano want to scream and punch the bastard in the unmoving mouth. If he would just say something, just explain himself even a little…! That all of Sano’s emotion toward this man, built up to such a strength over the last few months, was not worth a single word of explanation, cut deeper even than the rejection he’d been fearing.

Again he threw a hand up in despairing helplessness, and it came down to clutch at his bowed face, covering his closed eyes. “I can’t figure you out. I’ve never been able to, and you just won’t tell me no matter what I say, and you know what? I can’t do this anymore. I thought it might work, but obviously I was wrong. I mean, I am an idiot. You’re always so fucking happy to remind me of that, but never…”

He shook his head, dislodging the hand, and turned away before he opened his eyes again so as to avoid looking at Hajime even one last time. “I’m done.” Turning fully toward the door, he repeated, “I’m done. I’m glad you’re OK, and I’ll feed the cats, but let me know when you’re coming home, because I don’t want to be there. Just… Bye.” And though it felt akin to tearing himself from something to which he was physically attached, breaking himself mercilessly open in the process, he started to walk away.


Hajime had known this day would come. He’d been bracing himself for it for months. He’d watched Sano’s infatuation stubbornly refusing to fade, and known that Sano would eventually demand more than he could give. And that when he refused, Sano would walk away forever, unable to continue wanting without being able to have. Hajime had known all this would happen, and believed himself ready for it.

What he hadn’t known was that it wouldn’t go that way at all.

“Sano, come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that he wouldn’t be able to let Sano go, no matter what it took to hold onto him.

“Come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that the desire not to hurt Sano and the inverse of wanting to make Sano happy, not to mention the unexpected awareness that his own complacency was somehow inextricably involved with this as well as with Sano’s mere presence in his life, would be too much for him; that watching Sano walking away forever was simply more than he could stand, would take hold of him and force him to offer what he’d thought he could not give. He hadn’t known that he’d never really known how much Sano meant to him and what that realization might impel him to do. He could never have been ready for this.

“If all of that’s what you want, you can have it.”

Sano had paused to look back over his shoulder at the first call, and turned slowly at the second. Now, his expression of near torment unchanged, he stared at Hajime in wariness that bordered on complete disbelief.

Hajime attempted to smirk, and knew it wasn’t working very well. “Change your Facebook status to ‘in a relationship with Hajime Saitou’ if that’s what it takes to make you happy.”

“You know how I feel about Facebook,” said Sano’s mouth; his expression said something more along the lines of, “That type of sarcastic bullshit is especially fucking annoying right now.” But he took a step away from the door back toward Hajime.

“Then at least you can text it to all your friends: ‘I finally got Hajime to go out with me.'”

“They’ll never believe it. Kaoru thinks you’ve been trolling me this whole time and you’re really secretly married or something. Katsu thinks you’re stringing me along to make sure I keep helping you with shades you can’t deal with.” Sano sounded extremely suspicious even as he took another step closer. “Are you serious about this?”

Excising sarcasm completely, with all the earnestness he could command, Hajime said, “I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me. I’ll even give you something physical.” It surprised him to find that it was, more or less, all true. “What else was there?”

“You really are serious.” This half whisper still didn’t sound entirely convinced, and Sano looked wary.

“Come here.”

Before Sano could obey (or indicate that he wasn’t going to), they were interrupted by a knock. Soft though it was, it caused the imperfectly latched door to swing slowly open, revealing the owner of the house lowering his hand. He looked even more haggard than Hajime had seen him yet, and the exorcist realized with a stab of chagrin that Trowa might well have overheard much of their conversation. It hadn’t exactly been quiet, nor the door completely closed.

“I’ll be out for the next few hours,” Trowa said flatly — though there seemed to be both a touch of weary resignation and a subtle sort of accusation to his tone. “If you need anything from me, call my cell phone.” He didn’t give them a chance to respond, but turned away so abruptly it was as if he didn’t want to look at them for one instant longer. Even as he started walking up the hall he was muttering a spell, and presently the sound of his voice and footsteps cut off all at once.

Into the ensuing silence Hajime murmured, “We’ve just embarrassed or annoyed Trowa Barton — the Trowa Barton — out of his own house.”

Sano stared out of the room, mouth slightly ajar. His head was unguardedly busy with a rather comical equation between this scene and Forrest Gump dropping his pants before the president, and simultaneously hoping with a fervent, almost magical intensity that somebody somewhere had the wherewithal to mend Trowa’s mood before he decided to come back and get revenge for this. When Hajime cleared his throat, wanting to get back on track no matter how humiliating the prior circumstance, Sano moved quietly to close the door — properly this time — and turn toward him.

And then, because it was expected of him and what the situation called for, Hajime kissed him.

Sano, who leaned into Hajime and wrapped insistent arms around his neck, probably wouldn’t have liked to know what Hajime was thinking as he went about this task: how in the world had kissing become a thing people did? What couple first decided to press their mouths together, writhe their lips against each other, and tangle their tongues in this more or less nauseating fashion? How had such an unpleasant and unhygienic activity become a sign of mutual esteem?

He already knew, from experiences such as Sano had mentioned a minute ago involving close proximity on the sofa, that Sano’s body operated at a slightly higher temperature than most people’s. He could have guessed that Sano would taste like Chinese food, though he hadn’t guessed and would rather not have known, since what someone’s mouth tasted like should be, in Hajime’s opinion, exclusively that someone’s business. But at least Sano seemed to be enjoying this. However he felt about kissing, Hajime did enjoy Sano enjoying something. And it couldn’t last forever in any case; there was more conversation to be had.

“But, seriously, why now?” This came out in a near whisper as Sano withdrew, apparently with some reluctance, from Hajime’s lips and looked into his eyes, but the rest of the demand rose into more of a rant. “It’s not like it’s been a big mystery all along that I wanted you like this, even though I’ve been trying to be subtle about it — I mean, more subtle than I usually am about things — because it seemed like I got better results when I wasn’t outright flirting or whatever… but I think it’s still been pretty obvious. But you’ve been ignoring it all along, I have to think on purpose. So why’ve you changed your mind now?”

“Because I don’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing. But for you I’m willing to make an exception.” This fragment of the real explanation might be misleading, but at least it was true.

Sano let out a breathy laugh that was more indicative of surprise than anything else, and there sprang up out of nowhere a horizontal pink patch stretching from one of his ears all the way around to the other. “Really?” As he searched Hajime’s face, clearly wondering whether the words were a lie meant to placate and distract him, this pink stripe intensified and spread. “Just for me, huh?”

Solemnly, Hajime nodded.

Though it hadn’t actually been a lie, it did appear to have placated and distracted Sano, who now, instead of asking why Hajime didn’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing, leaned up — almost sprang up — and kissed him again. The new volume of blood in his face seemed to have perceptibly increased the already high temperature of his lips, which was interesting; that, combined with an accompanying interest in the ferocity of Sano’s movements brought on by the intensity of his emotion, made the action less tedious and distasteful than before. There was something about the fierce demonstration of Sano’s desperate pleasure at being the exception that rendered that demonstration, if not precisely enjoyable, at least acceptable to its recipient.

This time when Sano withdrew, the expression he turned up toward Hajime had a touch of something that seemed almost like drunkenness about it; and the idea that Hajime specifically was a sort of intoxicant to him… well, that wasn’t so bad either.

Leaning forward again, Sano ran moist lips across Hajime’s face to his ear and half whispered, “You’re going to fuck me now, right?” And before Hajime could even draw breath to answer, Sano reiterated, “Right?” in a tone that made it clear he was accepting no refusal. So like Sano to discount entirely the possibility that agreeing to enter upon a romantic relationship did not equate to being immediately ready for sex.

“If you insist,” Hajime replied. Deciding that this wording sounded almost as reluctant as he actually was for the proposed activity, he added, “I’ll do whatever you want.” Which he really would, even if it killed him. He did feel the need to remind Sano, however, “Don’t forget we’re in someone else’s house, though.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.” Sano drew back once more, embarrassed and determined. “And if I told Katsu I finally hooked up with you in Trowa Barton’s house, he’d laugh my ass right out of the room. But you know what? I don’t fucking care where we are. You’re going to make up for all those months you made me wait and jack off all the fucking time without having any idea how you’d actually do it if you were really there.” He was grinding against Hajime now, his words coming in a breathy growl. “You’re going to make me come hard enough to make up for trolling me all this time.”

Unsavory as was the scenario Sano described and the pictures beginning to bleed through from his eager imagination, not to mention the stirrings of reaction in Hajime’s own body to the grinding, Hajime couldn’t help but be somewhat amused by his new boyfriend’s wanton phraseology. “I told you I wasn’t trolling,” he murmured, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Sano stepped back and threw a calculating look around, and at the idea Hajime was hearing pretty clearly from his head the exorcist said his name in a sharp, remonstrating tone.

“What?” Sano demanded. “I want you to fuck me for real, and Trowa Barton’s as gay as all fuck.”

“He’s not likely to have any–” Hajime began, but Sano had left the room before he could finish the sentence. With a sigh, he reseated himself and began to remove his tie while he waited for the younger man’s return.

He wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into by agreeing to this. It wasn’t, after all, just a one-time occurrence: he couldn’t grit his teeth and get through the coming sexual scene and then be done with the whole thing. A relationship meant a long-term commitment to a way of life and a set of behaviors he’d never planned on having to deal with again. He didn’t know if he would be capable of it and hadn’t merely put off the time when things would fall apart.

But he felt no temptation whatsoever to go back on his word. His realization and ensuing statements had been completely true: he couldn’t let Sano go. Whether he could return the love Sano claimed to feel for him, whether he could maintain the sort of interaction Sano wanted, whether this whole thing he was entering upon wasn’t or wouldn’t become an elaborate deception, he didn’t know, but he did know that Sano was important enough to him that he was perfectly willing to move out of his comfort zone to make sure he kept Sano in his life.

And that apparently meant he would be having sex with Sano in Trowa Barton’s house, of all places, on an air mattress he’d purchased on the way over when said Trowa Barton had informed him of a nearly complete lack of furniture. Well, he could grit his teeth and get through that, in the interest of knowing what he would be up against in the future. Though presumably, in the future, the severe embarrassment of being at Trowa Barton’s house would be absent.

Emotional scenes tended to break down Sano’s mental defenses, so Hajime picked up on the success of Sano’s venture before the younger man made it back to the room with a bottle of what appeared to be actual lube designed for sexual purposes. Based on what Hajime had understood of Trowa’s current circumstances — the burning of his previous house and the absence of his boyfriend since before the occupation of this new one — he really hadn’t expected Sano to find anything of the sort here… but he supposed that not only wasn’t it even a little of his business, he should also be glad of it, since it would (in more senses than just the literal) help things go more smoothly now.

Sano, certainly pleased about it, held up the bottle with a wickedly smug arrangement of lips and brows — which look, however, changed rapidly to one of slightly irritated disappointment. “You already took off your tie,” he protested as he again made sure the door was completely closed behind him and moved forward with no hesitation. “I wanted to do that!”

Hajime had read this desire in Sano’s head on a couple of previous occasions, and if he’d remembered it today, he might have allowed Sano to live out that peculiar little fantasy. Instead, as Sano dropped to a crouch and began to puzzle with spiky boots, he said, “Maybe next time.”

The thrill these words gave was just as evident in Sano’s thoughts as from his deep but sharply indrawn breath. And if Sano was really that happy at the prospect of removing Hajime’s tie… well, that was no difficult indulgence to offer him. Certainly easier than the probable sequel.

Sooner that could have been expected given the numbers of buckles and laces involved, Sano kicked his absurd footwear aside and began crawling across the air mattress toward Hajime. He came to rest — though ‘rest’ was a very inaccurate term — on top of the older man, legs straddling hips, fingers immediately busy with shirt buttons, and lips seeking out Hajime’s again. Hajime responded as best he could, running his own hands up Sano’s sides, considering reciprocating on the undressing front, and trying to ignore how uncomfortable Sano’s resumed grinding made him feel. At least Sano’s choice of pants today was not as dangerous as the boots; this could have been a good deal more uncomfortable.

Though the sexual stimulation frankly irritated, it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have Sano’s body against his in a more general sense and to explore it with his hands. He could appreciate the casual muscularity, the admirable symmetry, the warmth, without too much trouble — but far more than that, he could appreciate the eagerness Sano displayed that was very clearly directed specifically at Hajime. It was, he supposed, only natural to respond positively to someone else’s adoration of and desire for you, even if those feelings were somewhat alien, difficult to understand, and probably impossible to return. He slid his hands under Sano’s shirt.

Eventually, after further kissing and grinding that Hajime was struggling to deal with, some tugging manipulation of clothing, and some squirming that, at least on Sano’s side, was calculated to move things along, they were fully horizontal and closer to naked. And even nakedness was nothing particularly onerous… it was what people would insist on doing with it that galled. In this situation, however, Hajime was forcing himself to acclimatize.

Actions that further reiterated Sano’s eagerness to be with him bore a certain unexpected charm. It was palpably awkward that Sano, who had shifted half off of Hajime onto his side in order to reach a lubed-up hand down the back of his own loosened pants, was groaning as he presumably prepared himself for penetration; but the way Sano simultaneously rolled his shoulders toward Hajime as if trying to hug him even when that was impossible, trying to stay close and inclusive, and mouthed his arm and chest in tickly, moist, almost desperate kisses showed just how much Sano associated with Hajime the pleasure he was actually giving himself, how good it was to be here with him.

And though, when that was finished, the strong fingers that found their way past Hajime’s zipper and clasped the erection there made Hajime want to push Sano off of him and walk away, the satisfaction evident in Sano’s thoughts — as if he’d just attained some long-sought goal — mollified the older man somewhat. He allowed himself to be stroked into greater hardness, heard his own breaths coming less evenly as moments passed, with solid forbearance, because it was what Sano wanted, because Sano obviously wanted it so much.

This was, after all, not about getting through something unpleasant; it was about giving Sano what he wanted. Making Sano happy… which, in turn, for some inscrutable reason, made Hajime happy. As such, Hajime needed to start tailoring his own actions toward optimal enjoyment for Sano. So he rolled over on top of him and tried both to engage Sano in the kind of kiss Sano had thus far been the one to initiate, and to ignore that they were now right at the edge of the air mattress and liable to fall off at any time.

The latter circumstance was rectified after not too long when they were forced to separate, panting, in order to remove their remaining garments. Had Hajime been in the frame of mind he believed generally accompanied this sort of activity — the hazy, lust-driven mood that filled Sano’s head like a hot, oily mist — he had to think it would have been disrupted by this awkward procedure. Apparently this was no problem for Sano, though he did laugh rather charmingly at the flopping removal of pants and underwear before making a grotesque sound of anticipation at the sight of Hajime’s exposed erection.

And then he was sliding close against Hajime again, encouraging Hajime on top of him and lifting a bare leg up over Hajime’s back. Though not unwilling to take charge once more, ready to grind for a while and tolerate Sano’s noises in response before getting on to the actual penetration, Hajime very much wished for a couple of condoms at the moment. He wondered whether there hadn’t been any wherever Sano had found the lube, or whether Sano simply hadn’t considered them important. He rather doubted he could have brought himself to explore Trowa Barton’s taste in condoms in any case, and supposed this was just another part of the sacrifice he was making… and perhaps a sign of how far he returned Sano’s trust.

Sano was kissing him at random, much in the same manner Hajime was thrusting against various surfaces lower down, and the young man’s current thought was perceptible in his mind — with accompanying visuals and sharply anticipated sensations — before it emerged as a muffled, breathless verbal demand against Hajime’s neck: “Come on, I am so fucking ready to go.”

“Are you?” — an inane question, and perhaps a reflexive attempt at putting off the big moment.

In response, Sano only groaned at first, scraping his teeth against Hajime’s skin as Hajime’s penis scraped against the space between his buttocks and picked up some of the apparently excessive lubricant that had been applied to the area. But then he managed, “Fuuuck meee,” in a tone equal parts silly insistent drawn-out vowels and growling desperation.

“All right.” Hajime found himself in the odd position of being rendered increasingly uncomfortable by the demand and simultaneously unable to keep from smiling. Sano could be winning and entertaining even at such a moment; nobody else in the world, probably, could have pushed Hajime into doing this.

It was a dozen years since the last time he had done this, and, though he’d never anticipated doing it again, he remembered well enough, and it wasn’t exactly rocket science in the first place. With one hand supporting his weight on the air mattress and the other on his erection, he guided himself to Sano’s anus and pushed inward. He might have worried a little about hurting Sano with his unlubricated penis, but evidently Sano had used a gallon or so of the stuff on himself and felt nothing but thorough enjoyment at the entrance.

“Oh, fuck, Hajime,” he groaned, clutching at the man above him and thrusting upward to hasten the process. Whatever he said next was too inarticulate to interpret, but the flood of mental adoration that poured from him was perfectly comprehensible.

Here was the remembered slimy tightness, and, as Hajime began pumping in and out, the stimulation grew steadily enough to make him believe he could probably orgasm eventually — which, despite his achievement of an erection, had been a matter of question. Perhaps he was aided by the awareness of how Sano would be likely to react if Hajime wasn’t able to maintain and enhance his arousal during their very first sexual encounter.

To his own surprise, however, Hajime found himself distracted from such gloomy thoughts when he was actually, after a few minutes, somewhat enjoying the experience.

He didn’t like the way Sano’s fingers dug desperately, bruisingly into him; he didn’t like the way Sano’s body writhed beneath him, always straining for more, more intense sensation; he didn’t like the animalistic timbre of the noises that broke from Sano’s trembling lips… and yet he loved the message all of these combined to send, which was echoed emphatically in Sano’s mind: that this contact, this apparent proof of Hajime’s returned regard, was practically everything Sano had ever wanted, that some profound and very specific need was being gloriously, perfectly fulfilled by Hajime’s actions right now.

Mentally, Sano was giddily, overwhelmingly happy; physically, as he rose toward his sexual climax, still he was already satisfied as he had never been before. And to make him feel these things, to see himself as their sole and exclusive cause, Hajime too was happy and satisfied. It almost completely overrode his disgust at the expanding tension in his groin. This awful friction, these awkward movements, the suffocating smell of sweat and pre-ejaculate — none of it was too high a price to pay to make Sano feel this good. And that was something of a shock.

Sano’s groaning whispers might have been repetitions of Hajime’s name, and then again might have been as meaningless as they sounded. Even his thoughts were becoming little more than a mess of positive emotions thrown over and over at Hajime like a tangled ball of yarn in a soft, absurd, repetitive beating. Sano was drawing closer and closer, and something attempting to shout louder than the chaos in his head, still struggling for coherency, urged him to wait for Hajime, to try to achieve that romanticized and highly improbable mutual orgasm.

“Don’t hold back,” Hajime murmured, and kissed him. Not only had he no desire to draw this out more than necessary, he also looked forward to Sano reaching his peak for more reasons than just that it would be the penultimate milestone on this ambivalent road.

Again Sano groaned, in another apparent attempt (failure) at saying something intelligible, and was clutching even more greedily than before; in fact he’d wrapped both legs around Hajime’s waist for an awkward entwining that would have been logistically inconvenient had the air mattress not deflated slightly and put them in a sort of trough that was perfect for their present positioning and movements.

Hajime supposed he should have been paying attention to things like hip angle and what specific arrangement of bodies Sano enjoyed most, so as to make this even better for him, but that kind of nonsense really was asking too much of him during their first sexual encounter. It also didn’t seem to matter; as Sano’s clinging kept Hajime in such close, swift-moving contact with himself at every moment, it was evidently enough. He stiffened, arching upward, crying out, spasming in his pleasure.

The mental feeling of Sano’s orgasm wasn’t nearly as interesting as Hajime had hoped; instead of a burst of joy to correspond with the burst of bodily ecstasy, it was a white blankness that, while certainly happy, was more distracted by the physical than involved with it. Even so, he was pleased to have induced such feelings in Sano.

The latter now loosened his grip, grinning slackly up, gripping with his legs yet but content to lie back somewhat and let out another string of breathy vowels in time with Hajime’s continued thrusts. His eyes, bright even in the shadow Hajime cast over him, blinked only occasionally to interrupt their rapt stare at Hajime’s face. They were such a rich shade of brown, these eyes, sparsely lashed but perfectly shaped, and Hajime did not at all mind returning their gaze as he tried to finish up this business. Sano was still so happy.

He’d also tightened abominably around the foreign organ inside him; Hajime remembered this increased pressure as one of the worst parts of being the penetrator in anal sex, and hoped he could get through it. He believed, inexpert a judge as he must be, that he was fairly close to his own orgasm but that concentrating on it would be counterproductive. So he concentrated instead on the returning order in Sano’s mind, the untangling of all those positive emotions and the straightening out of all those happy thoughts — none of which suffered any diminution for their increased clarity. He let Sano’s happiness wash over him and distract him from everything, and eventually the moment came.

He couldn’t quite help a deplorable grunting sound, but did manage to withhold any indication of his distaste at both the sensation and the positively gruesome awareness that he’d just shot semen up into Sano’s rectum. Then he took a deep breath and stilled, forcing himself not to pull out so quickly that his discomfort would be evident in the movement. Simultaneously he was congratulating himself on surviving this ordeal.

But the ordeal hadn’t quite ended. Sano was petting his hair and neck, still breathing loudly and happily, and Hajime was pricklingly aware that one of those hands of Sano’s had, not long ago, been exploring regions significantly less hygienic. In fact a general desire to make use of the bath in the next room was growing with shudder-inducing quickness and intensity in Hajime. A cigarette would be delightful as well, but he had neither any with him nor permission to smoke in this house. With an iron will he restrained his urge to get up and leave.

He did, however, ease his penis out from where he felt it should never be (but where it would undoubtedly spend some time in the future), slide his arms around Sano again, and settle into a more comfortable position. Some standards of cleanliness (no petting of hair with fingers that had recently occupied anyone’s ass!) would have to be established for future encounters, but at the moment he wasn’t going to ruin Sano’s enjoyment of the scene.

And his own, really. This hadn’t been so bad. Well, it had been bad, but not intolerably so, and its wonderful aspects had at least balanced if not outweighed the horrible. At the moment Hajime was actually fairly content; if he could ignore the discomfort of what people that liked this sort of thing called ‘afterglow’ and of his awareness of sexual fluids potentially leaking or smearing onto his proposed bed for the night, he even enjoyed lying here with Sano in his arms feeling Sano’s intense satisfaction and anticipation of times to come.

“I hope that made up for the trolling,” Hajime murmured at last.

“Mmm, not really.” Sano stretched, rubbing his body languidly against Hajime’s as he turned his face toward him. “But it was a good start.” And he kissed Hajime just as languidly. This prevented him from finishing his statement verbally, but Hajime caught, faintly, the remainder of it in his head, around which the shields had been gradually reforming: I mean, it was really good, but it only lasted, like, ten minutes or something, and I bet we could go twenty times that long.

Thankfully Sano hadn’t said this aloud, since how to respond would have been an unpleasant mystery Hajime might not have been able to solve. He was impressed with himself for managing to orgasm after only, like, ten minutes of stimulation, and simultaneously appalled at the idea of having to attempt to put up with sex for twenty times that long. And what else would Sano demand of him? He would probably want to do the penetrating on occasion, and then there was fellatio and anilingus and god only knew what. Well, Hajime would just have to draw a line somewhere.

But it wouldn’t be a line debarring sex entirely. He wouldn’t deny Sano that. And maybe this wouldn’t have to be as much of a deception as Hajime had been fearing. He had, after all, legitimately enjoyed some aspects of tonight’s encounter, and felt he could manage to make sex with Sano a part of his life. He could and would do what was required to keep Sano with him, to keep Sano happy.

Finishing at last the lingering kiss that had allowed Hajime time for all these thoughts, Sano drew back a bit and sighed contentedly. “Yeah,” he said in a luxuriating tone, “I think I could stand to do that a fucking lot from now on.”

And he undoubtedly didn’t recognize the complete lack of facetiousness in Hajime’s reply, “I think I could too.”



If you’re curious where Trowa went when he left the house, see Consummate Timing.


The most infuriating thing was that then Sano had to go home. Back to Hajime’s house, anyway. He’d run off in such an outraged state of worry and confusion, he hadn’t given any thought to the cats’ dinner — and if he had thought about it, he would never have guessed that a situation might arise wherein he would be tempted to put off returning to the hungry familiars in favor of having sex with Hajime again. And then maybe again.

The other problem was that Hajime pretty clearly didn’t take much pleasure from the fact that they’d celebrated the upgrade to their relationship in somebody’s guest room — especially given who that somebody was — and probably wouldn’t have been willing to have sex again (and then maybe again) in that venue in any case. Though he’d seemed ready enough to cuddle Sano on the air mattress for a good long time, he’d also seemed to want a shower very much as well. Evidently he was going to be a fastidious lover; Sano couldn’t say he was surprised.

And the cats still needed to be fed. This and the awareness of morning class (for which all his things were at Hajime’s house) had forced the very reluctant Sano out.

Despite the severe annoyance of having to drive home, Sano barely remembered the drive home. There had probably been stoplights and other motorists and… gasoline… and stuff. Obviously his car had started without too much trouble. Hopefully he’d worn his seat belt. It was all more than a bit of a blur. At the moment he was standing in Hajime’s kitchen, not quite sure how he’d arrived there, watching the cats eat food he wasn’t quite sure when he’d given them, grinning in a mixture of dreaminess and triumph and savoring the last of the sensations fading throughout his body.

“For you I’m willing to make an exception.”

The sensations in his heart weren’t fading.

He was tempted to do what Hajime had suggested and text an all-caps, possibly multi-message announcement to everyone that had ever put up with his complaints about his lack of progress in this area — or even actually sign onto Facebook for once and change his relationship status. But he held off for the moment. He was thinking about Hajime’s lips on his neck. He would, of course, relate the gleeful news to his friends after while, and rejoice in so doing and in their reactions, but right now it was too close, too precious to share with anyone.

“I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me.”

It wasn’t as if Sano had never been in a relationship before, never believed himself in love before. But he’d never had to wait this long for someone he liked this much, and he’d never had anyone make so much of a concession for him. Though it hadn’t been overtly stated, he thought he had the answer to the question he’d been silently asking for so long: his interest had been ignored all this time because Hajime disliked relationships.

That… that Sano really should have predicted. Hajime had moved to a different country to get away from his family and admitted, as far as Sano knew, a total of two friends. Maybe two and a half. And yet, when push came to shove, he would go against his own evidently fairly strong disinclination and accept Sano as his lover. Make an exception just for Sano. Who knew perfectly well that Hajime Saitou wasn’t much given to making exceptions.

“Don’t hold back.”

If he concentrated, he could still call up the sensations of Hajime touching him, kissing him, fucking him… he could still smell him. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that he was in Hajime’s home, but the memories were so visceral it seemed like more than merely that.

A shower here to supplement the handwash Hajime had insisted upon at Trowa’s house might have been a good idea, but that scent Sano swore he could still detect all over his own body was, at the moment, something he could not bear to lose. Besides, such considerations barely registered through the preoccupied felicitous haze in which he currently operated. Maybe tomorrow. For now, happily brazen, he stripped off his clothing for the second and less interesting time tonight and, after a trip to the toilet that was as far as he was willing to recognize mundanity, crawled into Hajime’s bed.

With hands behind his head on the pillow, he stared up toward the ceiling, but his line of sight was broken by memories like visions that arose in front of his eyes: Hajime’s expression when he called Sano back, having finally made the choice to accept him in full spite of his own habits… Hajime waiting for him on that air mattress, having done the unthinkable and actually removed that uptight tie of his… Hajime’s gorgeous eyes boring into Sano’s from above as he finished inside him, having just made him come if not quite hard enough to make up for all the lonely masturbation at least pretty damn satisfyingly.

“I do like you.”

“You really do, don’t you?”

Misao, who had curled up beside Sano on top of the blanket at some point completely unnoticed by him, wondered now what he meant. He reached down to pet her, scratching her head absently as he replied that he hadn’t been addressing her.

He’d begun mentally reliving the entire evening, in the level of detail with which only that kind of exquisitely indelible event can be recalled — earlier, more aggravating parts not excluded — and gotten as far as the extremely embarrassing entrance of Trowa, when noise arose from the pocket of his pants on the floor.

The tone he’d set for text messages from Hajime, a cheesy harp sound that had come pre-loaded on the phone, had felt appropriate not even remotely for Hajime’s personality but for the silly sense of romantic longing it seemed to convey. Hearing it now, Sano let out a cry of triumph and joy. He would have to change it — he would definitely change it to something more befitting his official boyfriend — but at the moment it carried vindication of his long wait and congratulations for tonight’s events.

Misao expressed annoyance at being disrupted from her comfortable position as Sano scrambled up and leaned over the side of the bed to find his forgotten phone, but his placating reply trailed off into distraction as he unlocked the device and read the message Hajime must have sent once he was done with his much-desired shower:

Thanks for the 67 texts. I apologize for being inaccessible. It won’t happen again.

The same stupid grin Sano was pretty sure he’d been wearing since he’d left Trowa’s house now widened perceptibly as he typed, I can forgive you for just about anything right now.

So if I wanted to stab you again… Hajime suggested.

Sano wished he could convey an eyebrow vigorously pumped, or at the very least a licentious tone, with his reply, Depends on what kind of stab we’re talking.

Idiot, Hajime sent.

Sano flopped onto his back again, laughing out loud in his delight and then continuing to grin up at the phone he now held above him. This is so high school. Where you go to a friend’s house whose parents aren’t home so you can fuck and YOUR parents won’t know, and then you go home before curfew and text about it all night?

Somehow I’m not surprised you were doing that kind of thing in high school.

And YOU weren’t? Immediately he’d sent this he rethought it. No, of course you weren’t, kouhasan, why would I even ask.

Idiot. Sano had liked being called ‘idiot’ by Hajime (some of the time) for quite a while, since it had often seemed, counterintuitively, a sign of friendship. But he’d never thought he would come to love the sound (or in this case the look) of it quite this much.

Idiot’s going to sleep in your bed by the way

Feel free.

Mentioning the bed had raised a question. Also by the way, why Trowa Barton’s house? If you went to a hotel, we could be fucking again right now.

No, we couldn’t. You wouldn’t have found me at a hotel.

Not with you not answering your damn phone!! So you went to TB’s house SO I could find you?

No, it was because Gains from Seido called and offered me a place to stay while the police want to talk to me. I had to be able to tell him I was already staying with a friend.

On reading this, Sano sat up again, giving the not-so-good news the first frown he’d worn since before Hajime had kissed him. He supposed Hajime’s choice made some sense, under the circumstances… though he could already think of other options that might have been more convenient. At some point he would have to ask Hajime why Trowa Barton’s house in particular had seemed the best place to go. Not right now, though; anything to do with Seido was a spectacular buzz-kill. So the only remonstrance Sano offered at the moment was, You should TELL ME about shit like that instead of making me worry.

Are you saying you’re dissatisfied with how tonight has turned out?

Haha no. Now he was able to smile again, and to pet Misao when she crawled into his blanketed lap. The message he then composed one-handed would certainly have made him blush if he’d been saying it face-to-face, but in writing seemed calmly straightforward: I hope you’re happy with it too

Hajime’s reply was gratifyingly immediate: I am.

I meant when I said I love you, Sano told him.

This time the response was not quite so quick. I hope you know that saying that puts you at risk of not having it said back.

Sano didn’t stop smiling at this, but he felt the expression go a bit wan. He hadn’t really expected Hajime to pour out his heart or whatever… but he wouldn’t have objected. Well we already figured out that you suck at telling me stuff.

And yet you love me anyway.

Here Sano made an indignant sound, which was echoed by the cat in his lap at his cessation of caresses. He didn’t resume just yet, though, since he wanted both hands to hasten the composition of his protest. Hey, it is completely unfair to say you can’t say you love me and then turn around and give me shit about saying I love you.

Your definition of “unfair” is so elastic.

Sano wasn’t sure how to reply to this, and a little annoyed at the turn of the conversation — which feeling threatened to translate to dismay under the current circumstances. But he’d barely resumed petting Misao, and hadn’t yet decided what to say, when another message arrived:

Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life.

Just as if Hajime had actually been in the room speaking aloud, Sano could hear the words in his boyfriend’s deep voice, Japanese accented, perfectly serious, devoid of any of the sarcasm that often colored it. And while not a declaration of love, still the statement meant the world to him. He wondered if Hajime knew just how much it meant to him.

I guess that will do for now, he sent. Then, staring at the words, he found another frown on his face as he decided he was not at all satisfied with that reply. Wow, that looks so cold, was his addendum. I mean I’m really happy to hear that, it really IS good enough for now. After another moment’s thought he added, REALLY good. And then, REALLY REALLY GOOD.

Does each “REALLY” have a cumulative effect? Now it was amusement Sano could hear in Hajime’s words as easily as if he’d actually been there.

Yes, 10x, he replied at once.

So is that 100x or 1000x good?

Again Sano laughed out loud. Now YOU’RE being an idiot

You must be rubbing off on me. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

DON’T YOU DARE, Sano texted fiercely, replying with very serious insistence to what he believed (hoped!) had been only a facetious threat.

All right, fine, Hajime answered. But I AM going to stop texting you so you can go to sleep. I know you have class in the morning.

First tell me I won’t wake up and find out this was all a dream.

You tracked me down intending to (try to) beat me up, then embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Trowa Barton. That sounds more like a nightmare to me.

While this was actually a fairly reassuring response to Sano’s demand, part of it had to be picked at. What’s that (try to)?

Consider the last time we fought. Actually consider every time we’ve fought.

You’re a bastard.

And you still claim to love me.

Sano wondered if this teasing regarding his professions of love was going to become a problem. At the moment it didn’t significantly bother him; in fact he was glad of the banter, and glad to have his true feelings out in the open at last… but if Hajime kept it up, it might become somewhat painful. It seemed to imply a real disdain for the emotion, which in turn implied that not only was whatever Hajime felt for him at this point not love, it might never be.

But Sano refused to think about that right now. And in fact the next message from Hajime, on the heels of the more worrisome one, distracted him: Go to sleep. I’ll call you in the morning. What time do you want to wake up?

It was exactly the promise Sano needed, and probably the only thing that could get him to abandon this conversation instead of continuing literally all night. Seven, he replied.

I’ll talk to you then. Good night.

Good night. There was something oddly and delightfully intimate about exchanging these wishes after what had evolved between them. Even via text, ‘good night’ meant something different now. It meant what Sano had always wanted it to mean.

He wondered, as he set his phone on the nightstand and then lay down again, how long Hajime would stay at Trowa Barton’s house — how long it would be before Sano could make the use of this very bed that he’d yearned to since March… undoubtedly, somewhat depressingly, not until some new development occurred in the situation with Quatre Winner. Between now and then, it seemed unlikely that any further sex could occur between him and his lover. Indeed, Sano wasn’t sure he could bring himself even to visit Hajime at that place, could manage to look Trowa Barton in the face any time soon after having searched his sparse bedroom for lube and actually found it.

But knowing that Hajime did care about him, knowing what had already passed and what would come to pass, made him strong. Phone calls and texts, probably limited to off-hours when the police weren’t likely to try calling, would do for a while. Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life, he felt, would make him remarkably patient.

Again absently, he petted once or twice the cat that had settled against his stomach when he’d turned onto his side. He’d believed he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with so much to think about, with the memories of this evening still so strong and the scent of Hajime still so perceptible around him, but found as he closed his eyes that he was surprisingly drained — a good kind of drained that seemed ready to pull him straight into placid depths.

And, though in his startlement at the unaccustomed ringing of his phone at 7:00 in the morning he did not immediately recall how beautifully everything had changed, it all came rushing back to him when the first thing he truly comprehended upon awakening was a beloved voice saying, “Good morning, idiot. It wasn’t a dream.”



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.

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



He Can Be Taught (1/3)




This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length:

1
2
3

A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He shouldn’t be so melancholy, now Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.

He tried to believe his depression was based in a right hand that would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the concept of disappointment that he’d never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.

The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.

Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…

And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.

So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.

The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.

Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that stemmed merely from being around her all the time; you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?

“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko demanded from his side.

Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”

Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”

“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”

“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”

This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some she pointedly lacked.

He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.

Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.

But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.

Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.

And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.

The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.

Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.

***

“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”

Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolition or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.

Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.

Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to demonstrate he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.

Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.

“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”

“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”

At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.

But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.

In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.

Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than himself, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.

But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?

He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.

As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.

Not Aoshi, then.

Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give in, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…

On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.

The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of sobriety that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.

Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!

Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–

–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!

Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”

Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.

An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.

But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.

In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.

His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.

And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”

***

As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.

Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.

“Yo, tori-atama!”

Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.

“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.

“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.

A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience how many of these lined the corridor, and that the cops only lit each one when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t about to point it out, Chou stood precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one generally a good deal more straightforward.

“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.

“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”

Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”

Squint momentarily not so tight, Chou stared at him in bemusement. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”

Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.

Now the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wouldn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he’d gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought of Saitou alive?

“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.

Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in an unaccustomed voice pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that.”

Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say, bakayarou. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”

Sano just grunted.

“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”

On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.

Once he determined Chou had really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou no longer blocked, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…

“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was simply because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”

“All right, Kenshin!”

Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…

…for a week.

By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!

He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.

And then one day they let him go. Half asleep, as wasn’t infrequently the case where he had no other pastime, he was dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out an incoherent oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.

Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing aside watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.

With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”

Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.

“By who?”

Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”

Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?

One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?

The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards proved that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”

“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”

But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise couldn’t be sure whether or not Chou knew some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not be sure, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.

***

All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. It was unmistakable, even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice his tail. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.

Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, with Sano crossing the dojo grounds in a direction unpropitious for entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of washables.

“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; possibly the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the muddy results of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.

Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”

The distress mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the dirty appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.

“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone barely cracked with the faintest touch of unhappiness.

“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.

Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”

Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”

As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”

“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.

“Sanosuke!”

Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.

“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.

“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”

“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”

The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”

This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”

Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”

With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”

In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.

“Um, no…” Sano gave his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”

For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”

Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.

“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”

Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.

And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.

***

If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained — possibly because his attitude made even less sense to him than it would have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.

This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.

And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he found himself about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.

Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. Too bad Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…

He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, with all of that done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.

But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he’d survived as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!

Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the month was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles loosened and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity started to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.

Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.

He started to plan.

“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”

Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.

“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”

That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…

“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”

Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.

“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”

Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.

Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not Tokyo was the most likely place. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.

“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to revisit, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…

Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.

This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and that not exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.

In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.

And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”

Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying spiraled as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only a messy growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.

“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”

Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-completely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop it, he blurted out, “That was you?”

“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.

“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.

“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”

“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that dirtied his chest and probably bruised it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”

An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”

Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”

“Again, why should they be?”

“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.

The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”

“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano swatted frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”

Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”

Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground. “Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.

“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.

By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.

“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.

Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”

“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”

Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.

Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.

“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”

“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”

“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”

Sano blushed and scowled.

“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”

“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.

This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.

“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano considered himself in uncharted waters.

“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.

Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words formed in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.

“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”

“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.

“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”

Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”

“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”

“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”

With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”

Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”

And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”

“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”

For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)

Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”

Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”

Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice held just the tiniest bit of strain — so faint Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”

“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”

“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.

Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form blocked the light again as he entered the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.

This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”

Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”

“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”

Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.

At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”

These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.

“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if out of suggestions.

Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.

“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.

“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.

“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.

“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.

“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.

With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”

Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”

Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”

After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”

“I did.”

“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”

“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.

Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he’d come here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”

“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”

Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”

From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the promise of food kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”

“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”

“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”

“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”

A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”

“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.

“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.

The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.

The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and Sano quickly centered it (roughly) in the living area and started loading it up. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he didn’t quite know, Sano joined him.

The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef weren’t as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.

After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it — hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.

“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”

Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”

“I’m kidding!” Sano could laugh, because Saitou’s threatening statement had restored a more accustomed atmosphere between them. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”

“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”

“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.

At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”

“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”

Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.

***

The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.

As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.

So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.

He whistled as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he would be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them fled his thoughts after not too long, though, as he began to remember last night’s dreams: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was totally worth it.

By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head swam in warm, misty thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought of stepping so definitively onto the path to his goal.

Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!

Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, the load didn’t seem too heavy, but was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.

Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books distracted his eye. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.

On the other hand, practically nothing needed to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only wanted washing once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.

So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.

All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he’d said this would be more work than Sano expected. If the young man hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but since he had, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’

Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, obviously this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano wasn’t such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wouldn’t do when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.

To this eventual seduction, Sano deliberately avoided giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.

This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.

The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.

So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.

Whether he looked forward to or dreaded the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.

The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.

Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the knowledge that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.

Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip; and as his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”

The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”

With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”

“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.

“Isn’t it?”

What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wouldn’t admit to Saitou just how at-home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.

Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.

Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then vomit it all onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.

“I thought that might be the case: adaptive for your subspecies.”

Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was an insult. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.

Their meal consisted of the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they’d finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.

As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he examined Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made the kenkaya a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”

Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano suddenly felt a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”

***

The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while a more or less forgivable reason for it: Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.

A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, if at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.

When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.

He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, damp laundry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou would have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.

This task finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.

With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his hectic day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.


Saitology

It seemed so random, and he’s just not a random type of guy. So I’ve been paying attention — making a study of it, you might say.

A very important branch of scientific study. For Sano, anyway.


There are four cells they typically use for short-term containment at the main police station. Sometimes, when there were a bunch of people involved in whatever they’re getting arrested for (like a brawl or something) they’ll open up the long-term cells, but most officers usually just grab the four worst offenders and toss us into short-term for a night or two as an example. I say ‘us’ because ‘worst offender’ usually describes me pretty well, so I’m often one of the examples. If he’s the officer, I’m always one of the examples.

Funny thing is, even though he’s about the most consistent person I know and even though he always drags me in first so he’s got his choice of cell, he doesn’t always put me in the same one. The main reason I started thinking about this at all was because it seemed so random, and he’s just not a random type of guy. So I’ve been paying attention — making a study of it, you might say — because it seemed weird. And I’ve begun to figure out the pattern; of course it’s not really random.

The first cell is just opposite the entry. That means it’s the first one you see when you come into the cell area, and the only one you see if you just glance down the stairs. The police chief likes to see that cell occupied, since I guess he thinks that means his men are doing their job. He also likes to see it clean, and I’m pretty sure that’s more just because he’s a bit of a neat freak than for reputability or concern for prisoners’ health. But that does mean it’s the cleanest of all of them.

The chief doesn’t much like to see me in there, though; it makes him nervous, mostly because I’m Kenshin’s friend but partly because he knows how much damage this fist of mine can cause the premises if I really don’t want to be there. Saitou hates station politics, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of them… so unless he specifically wants to make the chief nervous (which, occasionally, he does), he usually keeps me out of the first cell unless every single other prisoner would actually look worse in there than me.

And one time when he practically had no real reason to arrest me at all — seriously, it was totally for show, and even Saitou admitted it — and the chief was out working on something at another station for a couple of days, Saitou let me hang out in that most comfortable (least uncomfortable) cell. Usually when I’m in there, Saitou’s annoyed, but not actually at me… so he sometimes comes by to chat. Usually about the things that are annoying him, which, when that’s not me, is pretty funny to listen to.

But the second cell… well, that one’s just the opposite. That’s the most uncomfortable cell, because it’s drafty and damp and, since it’s half hidden behind a pillar so you don’t really see it unless you’re purposely over there to look, it practically never gets cleaned. He tosses me in there when he’s mad at me: when whatever he arrested me for was actually my fault or particularly stupid — or he thinks it was. And I hate to say it, but when he thinks that, he’s usually right.

I like to claim he’s biased and totally unreasonable, but, since I’ve been paying such close attention to this cell thing, I’ve been forced to admit… well, I think he still overreacts, because that’s how he expels stress, but I do sometimes do some pretty stupid shit, and… I can’t really blame him for getting mad. Just don’t tell him I said so.

Anyway, he sometimes comes to visit me when I’m in the second cell, too — I mentioned the pillar, right? so there’s pretty good privacy… but when he’s mad at me, the conversation’s a little different from when he’s just arrested me for show. Still interesting, just usually a lot more painful.

The third cell and the fourth have a brick that comes out of the connecting wall. It’s easy to work free from the third side, but not so much from the fourth, especially if you don’t know it’s there, so it’s kinda considered a fixture of the third cell. Sometimes Saitou wants to get someone talking, for whatever reason, and if he’s in the mood to trust me he’ll sort of assign me to do that. And I do it, not only because it’s interesting but also because he’ll reward me for it in one way or another. Plus it’s nice to be trusted.

You’d think at that point he’d put me in the third cell, but it’s actually when he puts me in the fourth that I know he wants me to talk to someone next door, since the prisoner in the third cell is more likely to mess with the brick and initiate a conversation with a fellow prisoner (and even if he doesn’t, I still know how to get the brick out from the other side).

He only puts me in the third cell when he’s still worried about the situation even after arrests have been made. It took me a while to figure this one out, since I’ve never actually seen the cells evacuated, and at first I thought it was just wishful thinking, but by now I’m pretty sure I’m right. The third cell has the newest lock of the four, ever since someone who totally wasn’t me broke the old one — the easiest and quickest to open where the key never sticks. And when whatever situation landed me in there isn’t quite done with, and some unknown element still exists that might, for example, want to eliminate witnesses or get some kind of revenge on the police by attacking at the station, apparently Saitou likes to feel like he could get me out in a hurry if he needed to.

Of course that’s him being a control freak; I could break out of any of those cells in twenty seconds without his help, and I only really stay in ’em in the first place out of respect for him (only don’t tell him that), and there’s no unknown element that would be any kind of threat to me… but it’s exciting (and a pretty big triumph!) to know he cares.

My favorite cell isn’t any of those four, though. What I like best is the other downstairs hallway, the long-term cells. See, even though they’re a little smaller, those ones have solid doors and thicker walls, less traffic going by, more privacy in general… you get where I’m going with this?

Maybe it’s weird that my favorite cells are the more intense ones intended for the real kind of criminal I’m really not (most of the time), but I guess it’s no weirder than having a favorite at all… or that he only puts me in those more serious cells when he’s actually pretty happy with me.

The thing right now is, there are four long-term cells since that hallway matches the other… and I don’t have the faintest idea why he chooses which cell he does over there. Does it correspond with something specific he’s in the mood for, or what? Since I’m pretty much in the mood for anything any time, I haven’t really noticed. Which seems pretty unscientific of me. I don’t have enough data.

Which is why right now I’m trying to keep quiet out back of this shop I heard some whispers about earlier, looking to stop a crime but maybe cause a little damage in the process.

It’s going to be hard to orchestrate a situation where I’ve done him a favor but he still has to arrest me, where he’s got someone better than me for visibility and he doesn’t need me to talk to any of the other guys… but in the name of my research I’ve got to try. And if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll try again. And again. For science, you know?

Yeah, for science.


I’ve rated this story . I remember being inspired by the word “cytology” that we were discussing at animal school once upon a time. In case you don’t get the pun, cytology is the study of cells. Brilliant, eh?

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


His Own Humanity: Fast Decisions

The Wal-Mart electronics department was a stormy sea of temptation in which Sano, when foolish enough to venture there, not infrequently foundered. The broad ‘electronics’ heading simply held too many items he would be more than happy to own for him to approach even such a homogenized selection as this without going into a sort of trance in which all thoughts of prudence or the need to eat for the next month were swallowed up in the desire to shoot enemy soldiers and/or aliens underscored by some badass guitar.

Today, however, he had a specific and reasonable purpose — even an inevitable, necessary one — and hoped to avoid spending too much on anything he didn’t need by concentrating hard on what he actually did.

His cell phone provider was cheap in every sense, and the part of the rack that bore their logo had the smallest variety of phones of any of the assembled companies — but they had, at least, finally acknowledged modern times with a single smartphone option, and over this Sano lingered longingly. It looked a bit outdated compared to those from other providers — though still five or six times more expensive than the plainer phones from this provider — but in any case it had to be worlds better than the device Sano had come to replace, which was by this time not so much on its last legs as ignoring its vestigial organs in favor of a sidewinding slither.

Of course he always had the option of switching providers. It would be more expensive per month, but also nice to have voicemail included in the plan rather than as an add-on, as well as, probably, some other little features he’d been entirely doing without all this time… and then he could get a much prettier smartphone than this one here. Like one of the new iPhones made with indestructible helicopter fiberglass or whatever. He could see what that Angry Birds thing was all about.

But did he really need to see what that Angry Birds thing was all about? And aside from games he could play anywhere, how did a smartphone actually compete with the less intelligent kind? Of a phone, after all, he only required standard communicative functions, and that purpose had been adequately fulfilled by a much crappier one this whole time. What use could he possibly have for a smartphone?

Stupid question. A smartphone was a little computer, and nothing like a computer could ever be a bad thing to own or a waste of money, right?

But if he wanted to buy a new computer, wouldn’t it be better to buy an actual new computer?

This train of thought was, presumably, the reason he found himself looking at laptops when he’d come to find a new cell phone. His desktop occasionally crashed for no apparent reason, and some games the video card in particular just couldn’t handle. It would be nice to be able to take notes at school in a more organized fashion, too.

But it wasn’t strictly necessary. He hadn’t made any real attempts to do anything about his current computer, and a system restore — a much less expensive option than an entirely new machine — might solve its solvable problems. It seemed extravagant to buy a new computer outright when the old one still functioned at a high level. And he needed a phone in any case, and certainly wouldn’t get a laptop and a smartphone.

On the other hand, laptop prices had come down drastically in the last few years… four or five hundred dollars would give him the chance to stop rocking XP Professional and finally try out that copy of The Saboteur he’d never gotten to work, and then he could grab the least expensive phone his current provider offered and come out of the shopping trip not too much poorer.

Who was he kidding? Four or five hundred dollars poorer when he’d come in planning on a twenty dollar phone?? Also, if he did decide to switch providers — which seemed like a good idea, on the whole — that would cost him extra to get started too. And he might still actually want a more advanced phone than the least expensive one available. More than twenty dollars, sure, but less than four or five hundred.

But it still seemed silly to buy a miniature computer instead of an actual computer. And he wanted a laptop.

But he didn’t need a laptop.

“If you know you don’t need a laptop, walk away from the laptops. Don’t stand here staring at them like some broke idiot who’s wandered into a bar hoping someone will buy him a beer if he just looks thirsty enough.”

“I wasn’t doing that!” Sano turned to face the suit-coated man that had appeared unexpectedly at his side. “I wasn’t doing that at all!”

“Close enough.” Hajime, obviously picking up on Sano’s brainwaves, couldn’t possibly miss the rush of joy that always filled the younger man at the sight of the older; but in this case, before Sano’s effort at keeping his thoughts in check (an automatic response to Hajime’s presence) took hold, there must also be a rush of annoyance as the exorcist moved to stand between him and the computers on display. “You clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a communicator,” Hajime went on, putting a firm hand on Sano’s shoulder. “It’s bad enough that I have to hear irrelevant thoughts from half the people around me… then someone like you comes along and starts broadcasting his problems.”

Though Sano immediately protested that he hadn’t been broadcasting, he allowed himself to be directed — almost pushed — away from the laptops and back toward the cell phones.

“I could hear you from all the way across the store.”

Sano grumbled something mostly indistinct, but he did recall what his mental state had been before Hajime popped out of nowhere. Though not about to admit it, perhaps he could see how he had maybe been broadcasting just a little. That it seemed to have summoned Hajime, though, like a genie at the rub of a lamp, wasn’t likely to make Sano think too badly of the activity.

“You were radiating indecision like a criminal who wants to get caught so he can get help. So here I am to rescue you from your complete lack of self-control.” With the final shove necessary to reposition Sano before the rack he’d originally been examining, Hajime also came to a halt. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason,” he continued in a businesslike tone, “for you not to switch carriers and buy a reasonably priced smartphone if that’s what you want. In this society a reliable phone with reliable service is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As long as you know you’re up to the monthly bill and won’t let the phone get damaged so you have to replace it.”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t broadcasting, ‘Hey, Hajime, come over here and lecture me,'” Sano muttered.

“I’m not lecturing.” That Hajime released Sano’s shoulders at this point was a mixed blessing. “I’m reminding you of what you already know. Make up your mind about your new phone and then come find me in grocery.”

Sano felt a little thrill at the command, as it pretty much guaranteed this chance meeting would lead to them hanging out. And though that was a fairly standard result of a chance meeting between them, with Hajime chance meetings weren’t so plentiful, nor friendly declarations of such low value, that Sano could fail to take pleasure from them. So, much more gleefully than before, he turned his attention seriously back to the rack he’d come to examine.

All of a sudden the choice of carrier and model didn’t seem nearly as complicated as it had a few minutes ago. In fact, it was now perfectly obvious which company would be the best option and which smartphone he wanted. And though veiled laptop desires still danced, sparkling, at the edge of his awareness, they no longer significantly tempted him.

It turned out he had no need to go find Hajime in grocery. The process of obtaining the fixed attention of an employee qualified in the workings of cell phone accounts, then waiting while that person set him up with a monthly plan and initiated a port process, necessitated a longer time spent in the electronics department than Hajime could possibly take looking for and even purchasing food and whatever else he needed throughout the store. He rejoined Sano just as the latter had finished setting up an automatic recurring payment on his debit card and was receiving lengthy and repetitive instructions on how the service switch would progress over the next twenty-four hours.

And as Sano, ridiculously pleased at his new acquisition and excited to play with it extensively, finally turned away from the counter to the sound of the employee’s polite goodbye, Hajime asked with just the tiniest touch of impatience, “Do you need anything else here?”

“Nope, this was everything.” Triumphantly Sano held up the box containing his new phone.

“You came in your own car?” And when Sano confirmed this, Hajime replied, “I’ll bring you back here later to pick it up, then.”

Under some circumstances, Hajime’s dogmatic assumptions about coming events, what people around him would do, irritated the hell out of Sano. But he could never be annoyed by the assumption that the two of them would be spending the evening together. And anyway he would only be exploring his new phone all night regardless of where he was. He did wonder a little, though, how Hajime would react if he told him he had somewhere else to be.

“We can’t finish season two if you’re not going to be paying attention.” Hajime, now sounding somewhat amused, had clearly foreseen Sano’s primary activity this evening. Without divination, even.

“You’re right,” Sano admitted regretfully. “It’ll have to be something else.” And his inevitable preoccupation ruled out a number of options — any show he particularly cared to see, all games of any type — but Hajime never had a problem finding something to do while Sano hung around pointlessly. That this was the case blatantly delighted Sano.

“The movie I just rented is supposedly extremely funny,” Hajime informed him, lifting a shopping bag through which the shape of a DVD showed vaguely among the obscure purchases. “We’ll see if it can distract you from your new toy.”

“More like I’ll be distracted watching you,” Sano retorted as he waited for the click of lock to let him know he could climb into Hajime’s car, “to see if you’ve grown a sense of humor lately.” Since Hajime generally seemed to enjoy laughing at what he considered folly in Sano more than at anything else. Which Sano actually didn’t mind much.

Whatever Hajime said in response was largely inaudible between the crackle of his shopping bags settling into the back and the closing of one door before he opened the other and took his seat behind the steering wheel, but, judging by a familiar tone, Sano thought it must be some variation of, “Idiot.”

Only belatedly, as they left the parking lot, did Sano realize his old phone was due to stop working any time and the new one might require some figuring out. With this in mind, the text he immediately sent might have been just a little more hastily composed and poorly spelled than usual, but he believed his friend would get the gist of it.

Sensing a mental outreach from Hajime as he would detect something he didn’t want to collide with in the dark, Sano glanced over at the other man and remarked, “You know I’ll tell you what it says if you ask? You don’t actually have to intercept them.”

In a tone that acknowledged the truth of this Hajime replied, “And you don’t have to cancel all your other plans every time you run into me.”

Sano grinned crookedly. “You were the one who just decided I’d be going home with you without even asking.”

“I assumed you’d tell me if you had other plans.”

There were a few things Sano could say in response to this. Unfortunately, “You really think you’re not first priority?” was probably too much of a come-on, which type of remark always seemed to irritate and put off Hajime. And, “Funny how you assume I’ll tell you things when you suck so much at doing that,” might well start an argument Sano’s good mood wouldn’t tolerate at the moment. So what he decided to say was, “It wasn’t really plans, just ‘we’ll hang out if nothing else comes up.'”

And then Hajime did that mixed message thing where he seemed silently pleased that he counted as ‘something else coming up,’ but would obviously get miffed and more offensive than usual if Sano were to make some leading comment about this pleasure.

Never before had Sano gone this long liking someone without saying something openly about it, and he often wondered whether this indicated an interest stronger than or different from any previous crush, or that the two of them simply weren’t meant to be more than friends. Because two months was an extremely long time not to raise the issue definitively, especially with someone he saw in person with tolerable frequency; and it just wasn’t his style to wait around hoping for the development of reciprocation from someone already aware he was interested.

Admittedly logic (something that, whatever Hajime had to say about it, Sano did regard) was on his side in not behaving in a manner that would push Hajime away while he waited for the jerk to return his feelings or at least explain why he never would… but it couldn’t last forever. A sense of novelty hung about this unusual patience and forbearance, but even that couldn’t maintain his silence indefinitely. And Sano was watching with some fascination, with a sense almost of detachment as if he were outside the situation, to see how long it would take him to snap and demand Hajime like him the way he liked Hajime.

In the meantime — and this was undoubtedly the only reason he’d held out for so long and had any hope of continuing to do so — he could still enjoy the exciting and not infrequently aggravating company of a man he should probably consider himself lucky to have even as a friend.

*

Not entirely to Hajime’s pleasure, Sano was sitting there thinking about their relationship again. He did that for at least a few minutes, if not off and on the entire time, whenever they spent time together; and though he appeared aware that bringing it up aloud would be counterproductive, and though it didn’t agitate his companion enough to make avoiding him a better option, Hajime still disliked it.

The eventual decision that to state bluntly his total disinterest in romance would probably drive Sano away unhappy, and that Hajime hated that thought, had involved them in a sort of waiting game: Sano waited for Hajime to suddenly feel like falling into bed with him, and Hajime waiting for Sano to get over his infatuation. The wild card of Sano’s impatience would force both of their hands sooner or later, since Hajime was never going to feel like falling into bed with Sano, and then everything would probably be ruined; so Hajime had been working to resign himself to the fact that this friendship was a temporary arrangement. And in response to this knowledge, there might have been some of the dictatorial assumptions Sano always accused him of: he wouldn’t waste chances to be with Sano while he still had them.

Thinking-about-relationship time ended when Sano’s friend returned his text. Incoming messages were much more difficult than outgoing ones, since, if you weren’t reaching unceasingly to catch anything that appeared, you had to know when they might be coming to know when to reach at all — it took a lot of practice to get any warning of an approaching message, and Hajime didn’t quite manage to read this one. Sano’s reply, an affirmative in all lower case, was easy enough, but gave no clue as to the question it answered.

Once again Sano noticed what Hajime was up to. “I think I’m starting to see how you do that.” He’d tilted his head as if a different neck angle served his magical senses better. “Sometime when you’re not driving, you should text me and see if I can grab it.”

Thinking this worth immediate pursuit, Hajime pulled so abruptly into a turn lane pointing toward a gas station that Sano made a surprised noise. Soon he had the car in park and his cell phone out. He would be interested to see whether or not Sano really could do this trick without ever being specifically shown how.

Sano held his old phone closed before him, staring at it with an amusing degree of concentration, as Hajime sent his first message, and frowned slightly with effort as Hajime sent his second. His mental nets were perhaps a little too intense, certainly very unsubtle, but he did seem to have the general idea of how this worked. After an unusually long time, the dilapidated phone chimed only once. Still frowning, Sano opened it, compared the text with what he’d picked up magically, then waited impatiently for the other to arrive. As he realized the transition of service was probably just taking effect and had robbed him of the second message, at least for the moment, his frown deepened into a scowl even as some of his previous excitement about the new phone reappeared to mix with the annoyance at having the experiment interrupted.

“I think I got both of them,” he said at last. He threw his old mobile a dirty look. “But I only know for sure I was right about the first one.”

Hajime, who had already repocketed his own phone, moved to leave the parking lot. “And?” His first message had asked, Why were you worried about spending a few hundred dollars on a computer anyway? The second had added, You can’t have spent all the money Gains gave you already. Now that he was satisfied on whether or not Sano could teach himself to intercept text messages mentally, he wanted answers to his other questions as well.

“Oh.” Sano cleared his throat. “I kinda… gave half that money to Kaoru.”

It took only a moment’s consideration for Hajime to reply, “I can’t say that comes as a big surprise.”

“It just seemed too unfair.” And Sano’s quick response just seemed too defensive. “Sure, we did Gains a favor, and it was a pain in the ass — and the shoulder — but it was his boss’s fault her husband died and her life got fucked up. Why should he just give us money?”

Hajime chuckled. “Your logic’s a little flawed, but I’m sure she appreciated it.”

“My logic’s just fine,” Sano insisted. “You’re just a jerk who wouldn’t ever think about someone needing money in a situation like that.”

Hajime believed Sano’s defensiveness resulted from an internal battle between concern for Kaoru and old indoctrination that money was to be retained as long as possible at all costs. That Hajime found Sano’s hang-ups about money entertaining and more or less adorable would be taken exactly the wrong way by Sano, the exorcist knew well, and he didn’t plan to mention it. Instead he said, “Just because I have no interest in being her friend — especially since you seem to have that base covered — doesn’t mean I have absolutely no sympathy for her or her situation.”

Sano gave him a disbelieving look. “Yeah, but I don’t think you would have given her any of your share.”

“Which would be normal behavior. You went above and beyond in your usual extravagant way; don’t expect the same of me.”

“I don’t,” Sano muttered.

“But in any case, even with just half the payoff left, you should still have plenty of money. Why was the computer such a problem?”

“Because I’m trying to save that other half,” said Sano irritably. “You fancy exorcists with your inheritance and stocks and house that’s already paid off and shit might not know what it’s like for poor college students who work at a cheap-ass restaurant.”

Hajime, not bothering to point out either that his house was not, in fact, paid off, or that Sano’s plurals were getting a little confused, merely laughed at him again.

Though he opened his mouth to continue, Sano reclosed it as he seemed struck by a thought. In pensive silence he turned to his phone packaging, then the puzzle of how the battery and back cover went into or onto the device; and, though a certain interested part of his attention was genuinely caught up in getting the thing powered on, a large part of his consciousness seemed to be grinding away furiously at whatever had just occurred to him. Curious though he was, Hajime continued the drive toward his house in equal silence and relatively solid patience.

Finally, as they entered Hajime’s neighborhood, Sano said, “You know what I should do…” His tone sounded distracted, and light from the new phone glittered in his eyes, but he went on almost immediately: “I should have you hold onto all the money I’m trying to save. That way, whenever I wanted to spend some of it, I’d have to tell you what I wanted to buy, and then you’d give me hell about it; and plus even if I still decided to go through with it, it would be a huge pain to get the money back to my account. So I’d really have to want whatever it was, and it would force me to really think about it.”

Normally Hajime had a prompt reply for anything Sano said, even if only “Idiot,” but this one required an unexpected amount of thought. In continued silence, therefore, he pulled into his driveway and shut off the car. Then he turned toward Sano. The latter appeared to have his full attention on the phone in his hands, but this did nothing to lessen the impression of sincerity in the proposal he’d made. He really had just thought of this idea, given it perhaps a minute’s contemplation not undivided with more frivolous thoughts, come to a conclusion, and presented it immediately to the other party involved. Perfectly simply.

Whatever nickname Hajime chose to give him, Sano was not actually unintelligent. And that an intelligent person could reach and divulge such an important decision so quickly without seeming to worry about it at all was… well, stupid. But in a way it was also impressive. And something about such an alien manner of seeing the world, of thinking about things, fascinated Hajime, too. Stupid, impressive, fascinating… it was almost Sano himself in miniature.

He must also consider the issue of Sano’s apparent level of trust. Though Hajime remembered with unusual clarity the unhesitating way Sano had told him, “You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to,” in regard to a certain fairly serious injury a couple of months back, he hadn’t properly recognized, even then, to what degree Sano trusted him. At the moment he had not only the evidence provided by what Sano had put forward, but a mental sense of that confidence not terribly difficult to pick up on now he actively looked for it.

Of course Hajime had no intention of betraying or taking advantage of Sano in any way — and didn’t anticipate any unless in the unlikely event there arose some moral demand superior to that of not betraying or taking advantage of a friend — but despite Sano’s trust in him being (probably) perfectly justified, its level after this amount of time seemed easily as precipitously attained as Sano’s other choices. Simultaneously, though… no matter how silly it was and no matter how logically Hajime argued against the sensation… he liked it. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever trusted him to that degree, and that Sano did specifically and recognizably pleased him.

Perhaps equally pleasing was a sense almost of domesticity about the suggested arrangement — the idea of stronger ties to Sano and perhaps a lesser degree of brevity to their friendship than Hajime had previously been assuming. Unfortunately, despite the allure of these concepts, he couldn’t fail to recognize their other implications as well. Domesticity did rather go hand-in-hand with romance, or at least often formed its natural result, and there was an almost marriage-like quality to this type of financial cooperation. Entering into this agreement would not have to indicate increased interest in a romantic relationship on Hajime’s part, but that indication would undoubtedly be fabricated by the eager Sano. And it was this more than any other consideration that determined Hajime against the idea.

“No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t think so.”

Raising his eyes from his phone and appearing to realize for the first time that the car had stopped, Sano gave Hajime a petulant look. “Why not?”

“You don’t really need my help with this. You’re perfectly capable of controlling your own spending habits.” Not that the idea had been entirely unreasonable… but it also wasn’t necessary, and could be dangerous.

“Hey, you just swooped in to rescue me from buying a laptop,” Sano reminded him with some defiance.

“You wanted someone to swoop in. What you really wanted was for someone to swoop in and give you permission to do what you already wanted to do but knew you shouldn’t.”

“But I got you instead.” Whether Sano considered this better or worse — or simply different — than whatever rescue or justification he’d subconsciously desired was not evident. “What do you think I would have done if you hadn’t come along?”

“I don’t know what you would have done. But I know you could have made the right decision even without me.” Hajime said this fairly casually, but Sano would know just how seriously he meant it. Sano’s trust, and the satisfaction the offer thereof had unexpectedly raised in Hajime, deserved that serious response. More typically shallow interaction could resume afterwhile.

“Really?” One corner of Sano’s mouth and part of each of his eyebrows rose, apparently almost against his will, to change his somewhat annoyed expression into a dubious half grin. “Because I’m pretty sure you said I have a complete lack of self-control.”

“Your self-control is fine. When you’re not being too lazy to bother with it.”

“Well, then,” Sano demanded, both gratified and irritated, “why won’t you help me with my laziness?”

“I will.” It had occurred to Hajime that, though he couldn’t respond the way Sano wanted, he also couldn’t respond to the not-entirely-unreasonable idea and the pleasing indication of trust with cold and complete refusal. “But not the way you suggested.” He spent a lot of time shooting Sano down, but at the moment it needn’t be to such a depth as was often the case. He could return haste for haste, and hopefully keep from injuring his friend more than necessary. “Here’s my offer: whenever you’re tempted to buy something stupid you don’t need, call me.” He gestured to what Sano held. “You have a phone that should be reliable at any time of day, so you’ll have no excuse not to. Call me, and I’ll tell you exactly what I think of whatever you’re planning.”

“So you’re saying… I’m allowed to call you any time of day.” Sano’s tone was almost perfectly flat but for the tiniest hint of skepticism. “Just… call you whenever. Doesn’t matter what time it is.”

“Yes.” Perhaps this had been a bit impetuous, and perhaps that worried him slightly, but Hajime held steadfastly to his stated purpose.

“Just so we’re clear: ‘any time of day’ means any time of day?” Now a feeling of impending… something… colored Sano’s voice.

“Yes.” And perhaps Hajime hadn’t entirely considered the possible ramifications of this course of action… but that was the price of fast decisions. Sano probably didn’t appreciate Hajime’s willingness to pay that price for his sake, and would only have taken it the wrong way if he’d known.

“So, like, three-in-the-morning any time qualifies as ‘any time?'” It was glee building up in there, taxiing toward a runway Hajime could practically see behind Sano’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“All twenty-four hours? For real?”

“Yes.”

A sudden suspicion seemed to put a momentary brake on the takeoff. “But you’ll have your phone off half the time.”

“I won’t. Why would I miss a chance to tell you you’re an idiot? You call, I’ll answer.”

And they had left the ground. Sano made not the faintest attempt to hide the pleasure this exchange gave him: his mouth spread into a wide grin, his eyes crinkled at the edges, his entire body seemed invigorated by his rising elation. “Really? Even if you’re in the middle of something?”

Hajime nodded. Unwarranted as this level of happiness seemed at the promise of something so simple, so nearly meaningless, it was nothing but a joy to observe. He’d always loved to observe Sano’s emotions, and the contagion of his happiness in particular was at times only just short of thrilling.

“What if you’re meeting with a client or something? Or in the shower? What if you’re on another call?”

Again Hajime nodded. And maybe an offer like this, and the exercise of Hajime’s apparently stupidly great influence over Sano’s mood, provided the young man with undue encouragement — though not nearly as much as Sano’s suggestion, had Hajime accepted it, probably would have — but Hajime couldn’t regret having excited such felicity even if it did.

“What if you’re in the middle of a nail-trim on Misao?”

Here Hajime hesitated. Of course the perseverent Sano would find an exception. “If I actually have Misao pinned down so she can’t move, I may not answer the phone even for you.”

“Man, I wish someone had been around to take that out of context — hey!” Abruptly Sano started laughing, and his late exclamation indicated it wasn’t so much at the notion of someone getting incorrect ideas about who and what Misao was and what Hajime might be inclined to do to her as at some new thought. And eventually he had to be prodded, since, though Hajime had been practicing getting at people’s thoughts in spite of their mental barriers, he hadn’t mastered the technique yet. But in response to an impatient demand, Sano seemed perfectly willing to share: “I’m going to give Misao my old phone.”

To Hajime this intrigued more than amused, since chances were that having her own phone would deter Misao from climbing people trying to get at theirs. He didn’t really mind her climbing in general, but sometimes her interjections into serious conversations, such as with potential clients, were somewhat problematic. “Not a bad idea,” he told Sano. “But you’ll have to remind her what will happen to it if she constantly leaves it where I’m going to step on it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll remind her you’re an unforgiving tyrant,” Sano promised. Neither his broad grin nor his overflowing happiness had faded. “Come on, let’s go tell her.” As he reached for the door with one hand, the other held up his new phone so he could glance at it once more before leaving the car. And the look he gave it seemed extraordinarily pleased, now for more than one reason.

Was the assurance of an answer to a call at any time really so wonderful? Wonderful enough to make Sano completely abandon his previous idea with no apparent regret? Though Hajime loved to see Sano happy, he doubted the rationality of the origin of that emotion. Sano clearly read more into this than was intended. But that had been inevitable, and Hajime still couldn’t truly regret it. Their interaction could only ever be full of mismatches, and Hajime thought it was probably worth it.

So he disembarked with a faint smile at the pleased agitation of the young man waiting now beside the kitchen door, took up his shopping bags from the back seat, and headed toward the house and an evening that both he and his companion were likely to enjoy despite any possible — even probable — ambivalence to the proceedings.



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.

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Seeing Red 0-4

Seeing Red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Red?” Hajime asked.

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

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

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

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

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

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

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

“Everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

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

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

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

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

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

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

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

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

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

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

“You have no idea?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

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

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

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It never all quite leaves,” he muttered. He couldn’t see any remaining shade energy, but when he opened himself as he just had, he felt as if he were being battered by a hot, heavy wind.

Sano stood. “Let me see if I can get the rest of it.” Hajime nodded; a combination of techniques might be exactly what they needed.

The only time the ghost seemed to react to anything was when Sano moved. Hajime had been slowly pacing the room in order to keep right next to it as it drifted, but when Sano approached, the thing finally held still. Could it sense that Sano wanted it to? Perhaps, despite claiming not to be a communicator, Sano might have a better chance than Hajime at talking to it.

Now he’d reached up so his hand hovered in the air near Hajime’s, and his face had taken on an expression of angry concentration. Shades had a certain resonance that varied from one to the next, and people that absorbed shade energy did so by matching that wavelength precisely. It was about the only field where a talent for feeling a particular emotion became a trade skill. And it seemed Sano was particularly good at getting angry — either that or he’d been around this specific spirit so much that it only took him a moment to attune to it and draw off the last remaining shade energy into himself.

But it wasn’t the last. Or at least the action didn’t help. Continued attempts at communicating with the ghost, either giving or receiving ideas, met with the same failure as before, and that sense of being attacked (and the near-migraine that went with it) did not diminish. Hajime still couldn’t begin to sense a consciousness anywhere in there, and not knowing whether or not he should be able to only complicated things.

So did Sano’s increasing anger. The young man hadn’t moved from where he stood facing Hajime (across the ghost, as it were) with his hand in the air, but he’d closed his eyes and was looking — and feeling — more and more angry. The sense of its growing radiation interfered somewhat with Hajime’s concentration on something that wasn’t working anyway; so finally Hajime put his own raised hand over the younger man’s, which had by now clenched into a fist, and pushed it out of the ghost’s space.

“This isn’t working,” he said quietly.

Sano’s eyes started open, the irate gleam in them surprisingly hot and strong. It occurred to Hajime, looking into what seemed at the moment an inferno of unfathomable depth, that Sano might be dangerous if he absorbed too much anger; not that it was likely to be anything Hajime couldn’t handle, but they must remember to keep the lethal weapons out of Sano’s reach at such moments.

Sano jerked away from Hajime and the ghost, turning abruptly to stalk back over to the sofa and throw himself down. “Damn right it’s not,” he growled. “You were right: there’s just no end to the fucking stuff.”

Hajime also stood back, out of the way of the headache-inducing energy, letting his mental shields rise back into place, and nodded again. It looked like they really would have to try silly séance business, candles and all, and it was so hard to get cats to sit still for things like that, and he honestly didn’t think it would work any better than what they’d already done — though, once again, the attempt had to be made.

He glanced at his watch. It was getting to be mid-afternoon already, somehow, and they’d made no progress except to confirm that the thing was, in fact, a ghost. If the lack of results continued and Sano got much angrier, he might decide to take his ghost elsewhere. And though not exactly a paying customer (yet… though Hajime sensed ‘ever’ might be a better term), he’d presented the exorcist with a unique opportunity Hajime didn’t want to lose. He would talk to this ghost, no matter what it took. Which meant he needed to try to keep Sano happy.

“This might take a while,” he said. “How do you feel about ordering Chinese?”



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.



Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
33-
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm


Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after t
he next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if there turned out to be one.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt, jerking the equipage to a similarly precipitous stop, as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the latter neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” This was obviously untrue — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion were actually from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she was with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying harmlessly high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He was now holding a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised that they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, really didn’t do much for him; it wasn’t difficult to be brave facing a man on foot when you were on a horse.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The swordsman swept the weapon in his hand at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the bandit’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow did not break all the way through, but there was a loud cracking sound as the blade made contact, and a second similar noise as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter was now even angrier than before and ready for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, the fact that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it was a little more difficult to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife that the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic was standing and looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. “I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not realizing that he was inadvertently complimenting Seijuurou with his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

“How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou mildly, entirely ignoring the young man’s second question. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded. “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Divine lady Tomoe. The black lotus represents death, which Tomoe (among other things) does as well. Here’s the full-color version too:

Why is she in a yoga pose? I’m not entirely sure. Just what I thought looked cool back when I drew the picture, I guess XD

Divine lady Misao. Her symbol is a rabbit because she is, among other things, particularly fond of small, quick animals. Here’s the full-color version as well:


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


I’ve rated this story . The idea was kicking around for literally years before I actually wrote it. I think it’s pretty sweet. Also, you know Tokio and that ex-prostitute are going to hook up now. Maybe I should write a story about them

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


Clinical Treatment


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

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

“Nothing.”

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

“Yeah, it sucks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll explain that too.”

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

She was smiling, though.


I’ve rated this story .

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


Vicissitude


Why the hell am I here, again? It’s fucking raining.

Well, it’s drizzling, anyway — enough to make me damp and uncomfortable. And it’s a shitty walk. I mean, it’s a nice enough neighborhood and the roads are all right, but all of this last bit is uphill. In the rain.

I don’t know why I even come here. Half the time I can’t get his attention anyway — I swear I spend my whole life trying to get his attention — and then it’s a long walk home. Well, sure, today he appears in the doorway the moment I set foot on his property, but usually…

Look at that look he’s giving me. Stupid eyebrow; why am I even here? He’ll probably refuse to fight me, too. All right, well, he’s tugging his gloves tighter and stepping down from the porch, which means he is willing to fight me today, but that damned eyebrow of his is still wondering why.

“I had a real shitty day,” I announce in answer.

“And I will never understand why my beating you up always seems to make you feel better,” he replies.

See, he doesn’t even understand me. Why am I here? But at least he’s giving me what I want.

Not that I’m really sure why I want it. Bastard’s right… why do I seem to enjoy getting my ass handed to me like this? Well, only by him, though. But it’s not like I’m improving or anything — not that I need to!! — except, I guess, sometimes I feel like maybe I’m learning how to deal with the ‘Asshole’ style of fighting a little better. And it’s not like he would ever acknowledge my improvement even if I somehow managed to totally beat him. Not in a million years.

Well, all right, today one time after he knocks me down he does say, “Keep working on that move and you might actually dodge one of my hits one of these years.”

Jerk. Why do I do this?

“Fujita!” That’s the wife. Why am I here?? I still can’t believe he’s married. I mean, I know she does her own thing and lets him do his, and she really is a fun person, but I still can’t get over the fact that he’s married to her. “Fujita!” she yells from the house again. There’s about a million other things she could call him that would make more sense, but I guess ‘Fujita’ is less disturbing than ‘anata.’ “Is that Sano out there again? Stop kicking his ass and bring him in for supper!”

So Saitou reaches down and grabs my hand to drag me to my feet, and before he lets go pulls me up against him and kisses me hard. What a weird moment to choose to do that.

Well, but I can feel most of what’s left of my frustration from the day just draining out of me, and I can’t help grinning a little as we go into the house.

Why the hell am I here, again?

Oh, I remember now.

I’ve rated this story . It was the one and only story I wrote while navigating the dreadful city bus system to and from school for a year and a half, where I thought I’d get a lot of writing done and then mysteriously didn’t.

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


Unconventional Gift



Sano lost track of his laundry basket as he craned his neck to watch the car — he’d caught sight of it some-miraculous-how the moment it appeared at the stop light — pulling into the lot and then a parking space. The laundry room at the rear of his apartment building, which was on a slight rise, had a good view of the adjacent lot, but a few of the venerable wide-boled trees that dotted the landscape of the complex got in the way. Which was just as well, since Sano would really prefer that fewer people noticed him blatantly ogling his neighbor.

Though Sano wasn’t sure how much money there was to be made in undercover cop work or super spy work or whatever exactly kind of work the guy did, the fact that he lived in this relatively cheap apartment complex meant either he wasn’t rolling in the dough or he was on some kind of long-term ultra-secret assignment that required him to pose as a typical middle-class drudge. In any case, Sano thought he could afford a nicer car. Sure, that thing got good gas mileage, but it was so ugly.

Unlike the man himself.

Sano found himself holding onto the zippered edges of his sweatshirt hoodie, as if holding himself forcibly back from running to attack (in one way or another) the man now climbing the shallow sidewalk steps toward the building they both inhabited. It would be a pointless maneuver; Saitou wouldn’t even bother to knock him down — he’d just move out of the way to let Sano fall on his face, make some caustic comment, and keep walking. So Sano merely watched him, probably with the Stupidest Expression Ever on his face, until the apartment blocked his view of the sidewalk and, consequently, Saitou.

There was one moment before that inevitability, though, when Saitou turned a pointed gaze directly at him, and Sano shuddered. His upstairs neighbor had this way of looking at him — well, at anyone, he supposed; he wished it was just at him — that seemed to say, “I will kill you.” And Sano couldn’t blame him — it couldn’t be anything but annoying not to be able to walk from the car to the apartment without being stared at — but he knew it was a bluff. Saitou was far more likely to ignore him to death, these days, than to bother killing him any other way.

They’d come to blows several times during the odd circumstances under which they’d met in the first place — a rather complicated business involving a couple of Sano’s friends that had turned out to be based largely on misunderstanding — and Sano had always been distinctly, bloodily on the losing end. Saitou hadn’t laid a hand on him since then, but it made perfect sense that Sano couldn’t just let it go. Nobody beat him that decisively, let alone that dispassionately.

It might have been irrational to think the rematch he wanted would end any differently than any of the previous bouts, but wanting it was completely logical. So, he thought, was the subsequent transformation of his desire into something more curious than angry; he’d still craved the fight, but now more because he wanted to know the extent of Saitou’s abilities — not to mention how his own might improve in the process — than because he felt the need to take out his frustrations on the man… and that was quite understandable.

It was in retrospectively contemplating the next transformation that he lost the thread of logic. The first two attitudes made sense, but the final evolution — an interest in Saitou as something very different from a rival or sparring partner — seemed removed from them by a bottomless gulf of incongruity.

OK, well, given that he would still enjoy a good fist-fight with the guy for the previously mentioned reasons, he couldn’t even really say that particular desire had changed. It had just sprouted some kind of unexpected cancerous growth that turned out to be something like a mad crush. Or were they unrelated? It was all nonsense.

With a sigh that was almost angry, he cast about for his laundry. He’d dropped it, and the overloaded basket had fallen onto its side in a spill of dirty clothes. Gathering these up somewhat absently, he glanced once more toward the corner of the building behind which Saitou had disappeared. It might all be nonsense, but that wasn’t by any means a deterrent; Sano was whole-heartedly obsessing and disinclined to deny it. He’d accepted with relative equanimity, in fact, and wouldn’t have complained even merely to himself… if Saitou didn’t seem to have this obnoxious attitude of being entirely finished, case closed and paperwork filed, with Sano.

The latter spent more time than he would like to admit daydreaming… trying to come up with an ambiance romantic enough to force Saitou to stop thinking of him as the stupid neighbor kid that always wanted a fight and see him instead as… something more. Even a little more would help.

If, for instance, he were to sabotage the stairs up to Saitou’s door and then lie in wait for Saitou to come along and sprain his ankle, Sano could tenderly care for him until Saitou was all better, and during that time Saitou would surely realize… well, no, sprained ankles weren’t terribly romantic, and neither was what Saitou would probably do to Sano if he realized it had been a setup.

Along the same lines, some manner of mildly poisoned food or drink was similarly unromantic and likely to be more dangerous to Sano’s health than Saitou’s.

There was always the good old mail mixup… it was delivered here to unlocked boxes just inside the outer door; Sano potentially had access to that of all four of the apartments in the building. But, while it was an excuse to meet, that was not even remotely romantic… not to mention the fact that the meeting would last all of ten seconds anyway: Saitou would accept his letters, possibly make some disparaging comment on the state of the postal service, and close the door in Sano’s face.

Borrowing a cup of sugar was just stupid.

But what if Sano played his music really loud and then answered the door half naked when Saitou appeared to tell him irritably to turn it down? Sano could pretend to be drunk and horny, and… No. That was not romantic. That was pathetic. Why did so many of his ideas seem so blatantly to run the risk of making Saitou dangerously angry?

So apparently he was good at thinking up dumb situations, but his romantic sense needed work. But, hell, if he could just get Saitou to notice him — other than by demanding a fight, that is… not that Saitou was even willing to give him that… “That’s all behind us,” he always said, or some similar whitewash. “Why can’t you just drop it?” Obviously he didn’t realize how Sano’s attitude about it had changed, and Sano couldn’t figure out how to tell him.

Laundry was something he always put off for as long as practicality allowed, but he’d been lectured in the past about the rudeness of occupying both washing machines at once… so, rather than risk the wrath of the other tenants, although he had two loads’ worth of clothing, Sano got one of the washers going and then stood staring at the other, empty machine somewhat wistfully for a few moments while the first whirred noisily about its business. Then he wandered out of the detergent-scented humidity to the chillier outside air.

Tall and lean to the point of angularity wasn’t something Sano would have thought he might at some point find attractive, but there was something about Saitou’s form that had a devastating effect on Sano’s frame of mind. Maybe it was the awareness of what kind of musculature lay under the impeccably buttoned long sleeves despite the look of leanness. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the figure as the eyes, which stabbed into Sano like jolts of hot adrenaline… or the smirking lips so promising and expressive. Whatever it was, seeing all of these aspects suddenly just in front of him outside the laundry room door was enough to make Sano suck in a quick, surprised breath.

Saitou wasn’t here to do laundry. If Sano hadn’t immediately noticed, with the acumen that cleverly picks up on superlatively useless facts at moments like this, that the other man had no basket full of white button-ups and slacks not discernibly dirty but probably having been worn to work and back the requisite once — at least, this was what Sano assumed Saitou would bring to this location — the clenched fist aimed at his face would have been a fairly good indication that laundry was not on Saitou’s mind at the moment.

“The hell?” Sano demanded as he barely dodged the blow.

Saitou’s only response was an elbow to the side of Sano’s head. It didn’t crunch against his temple nearly as hard as he’d expected, which seemed to contradict the conclusion he’d tentatively reached that Saitou was tired of Sano staring at him like an idiot and had come to let him know.

His expression didn’t look angry at all, in fact, and Sano wasn’t sure how to react. Well, obviously, he’d already clenched his own fists and started throwing punches back — but emotionally it was a little confusing. Normally when somebody jumped him for no apparent reason he would be boiling over before knuckles even brushed his cheek, but wasn’t this exactly what he’d just been wishing for? So for the moment he decided simply to fight back as best he could and assume he would slip into the correct emotional state eventually.

It didn’t take long — five or six punches, two kicks, a good deal of ducking and weaving, and a few jabs from elbows, shoulders, and knees — to get things sorted out: whenever Saitou landed a hit, especially given that the bastard really didn’t fight fair, it was annoying as hell; whenever Sano caught sight of those intense golden eyes, it was dangerously, distractingly arousing; when he realized Saitou was actually prolonging the combat by restraining himself from laying Sano flat in a couple of moves, it was confusing — even if the impetus for this sudden spar hadn’t already been a mystery. But overall, it was fun. Sano’s blood raced, his entire being energized. He couldn’t begin to think what had pushed Saitou to this point, but he was damn well going to find out so he could make sure it happened again. Maybe this wasn’t the full extent of what he wanted from the other man, but it was good and it was a start.

The combination of a knee to the stomach and a hard fist to the jaw stole Sano’s breath and seemed to set off firecrackers behind his eyes; with a grunt he crumpled, his hands falling twitching away from any blow they might have thought to attempt in return. Unexpectedly, Saitou caught him firmly as he fell; it was the only thing firm in a world suddenly very wobbly and increasingly blurry around the edges. Bending quickly, his mouth close to Sano’s ear, he murmured, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Sano was fairly sure his descent into unconsciousness was abetted by the shock of the words and their breath against his face, the realization of their implications, not to mention the glorious feeling of falling into Saitou’s arms. He had just time to reflect, as the blackness took him, that maybe he wasn’t the only one to have allowed a complete incapacity for romance to keep him from confessing something…

And that maybe that was just fine with him.



All right, an author’s anecdote almost entirely unrelated to the story here: once upon a time, over two decades ago, in a high school geometry class, the teacher used to play this CD of truly awful Christian pop during work time. And one of the songs on this album had a chorus that repeated ad nauseum the phrase, “Unconditional love.” So now, even so many freaking years later, every damn time I catch sight of this story’s title, I get that song stuck in my head. Or, rather, since that one main phrase is all I can remember of it, I get that stuck in my head — those two words over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. AAAARGH.

Anyway, I’ve rated this story .

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


Where the Love-Light Gleams

“…he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio…”

Saitou isn’t terribly pleased at the approach of Christmas and the winter break; Sano thinks he knows the reason and what to do about it.


“Well! I’m gonna fail my English class,” Sano announced as he shed his backpack, sat down heavily, and placed squarely in the center of the table his tray full of tacos.

Sano’s companion, immediately pushing the tray away from where it encroached upon his own lunch space, glanced up through spidery bangs and remarked, “You were already saying that before you took the final.”

“Yeah, well, now I know for sure. Stupid little mini essays…”

“You don’t seem terribly concerned.”

Sano shrugged. “It’s hard to be really worried about anything this close to break.”

With a scowl, Saitou returned to the task of applying mustard to his sandwich. “That attitude seems to be contagious, if my last class was any indication.”

Sano always observed Saitou’s lunch with some amusement. The older man seemed to have a stock of frozen sandwiches, comprised only of meat and cheese (which would be thawed by lunch time), onto which he would then put lettuce and tomato from a ziplock and mustard from a packet. What entertained Sano most about this was the mental image of Saitou at home painstakingly laying out the meat and cheese on twenty sandwiches at a time in order to freeze them to take to work every day. Sano had long since run out of energy to tease him about it, however, so today it didn’t interrupt their conversation. “I seriously can’t blame anyone for trying not to think about the kind of finals I’m sure you give,” he grinned as he unwrapped one of his tacos. “Taking one of your classes is probably about the same as suicide.”

“So you’ve theorized before,” Saitou replied — somewhat sourly, Sano thought.

“Well, I’ve just got one more final at 1:45,” the younger man said through a mouthful of spicy beef and lettuce, “and then I’m done! Then it’s home for Christmas!”

“Idiotic song.” It seemed at first that Saitou’s statement was an answer of some sort, and Sano blinked in confusion before he realized what he’d last said had overlaid the same words emanating in wavering, sonorous tones from the speakers above.

At these latter he glanced up pointlessly as he wondered, “Is it?” He hadn’t really been paying attention to the music.

“He says he’ll be home for Christmas,” the teacher elaborated in some irritation, “that whoever he’s talking to can plan on him being there. But at the end he admits it may only happen in his dreams. With as slowly as he’s singing, they might already have made all of their plans by the time he gets around to letting them know he may not actually come home.”

Sano chuckled. “You’re right,” he admitted; “seems pretty rude. Which reminds me I forgot to email my dad.”

“You mean,” Saitou wondered with exaggerated expression and tone of incredulity, “you haven’t mentioned your plans to him every day for the last two weeks?”

“I don’t talk to my dad every day,” retorted Sano. “And I’m excited to go home, OK? You know, since my dad can afford to eat more than, like, three times a week?”

Though Saitou’s monosyllabic laugh reiterated his attitude toward poor college students — especially, Sano was all too aware, poor college students that didn’t budget very well and spent half of the week’s food money on one day’s lunch at the cafeteria Taco Bell — still he seemed to be in a worse mood than usual. Was it just because of finals?

Even in retrospect, Sano was unsure what had prompted him, that cool day back in early September, to go sit down across the little table from what was obviously a teacher ousted from the faculty lounge by the construction then in progress. He was equally uncertain why said teacher had put up with him when a mere half hour’s conversation had evinced the man’s disliking of the human race in general and freshmen in particular. How it had then become a custom for the two of them to eat lunch together every weekday, exchanging news and insults and the occasional joke, was as much a mystery as the other points. Sano liked to think there was a subconscious and perhaps precognitive explanation for it, but always reminded himself firmly not to get his hopes too high.

Of course, his hopes had to have some sort of elevation today, given what he proposed to propose… and he feared that nearly an entire semester of repressing his optimism might be responsible for the complete unpreparedness he felt for the task.

All of a sudden Saitou rolled his eyes, the motion of the irises seeming very pointedly directed toward the ceiling (and therefore, presumably, the speakers therein and the music the latter were playing).

“What now?” Sano wondered, sucking on his drink.

“Why would any sane person want to be wished a ‘merry little Christmas’ like some kind of backwater idiot?” Saitou shook his head and finished with muttered disdain, “I’m surprised the song doesn’t use the word ‘y’all’ in it anywhere.”

Leaning his chin on his fist Sano replied with a grin, “Not much into making the Yuletide gay?”

Saitou just rolled his eyes again.

Then as silence fell but for the continuation, above their heads, of the song in question, Sano took a surreptitiously deep breath, working up his courage. Finally he said, as casually as he could manage, “Speaking of Christmas, I got you a present.”

This caused Saitou to look up from his meal rather abruptly. He expressed no surprise at the announcement, however, merely stared.

Sano tried not to let Saitou hear him clearing his throat as he bent and retrieved the wrapped package from his backpack. He wasn’t exactly heartened by Saitou’s immediate raising of an eyebrow as the object changed hands.

“It’s a tie,” Saitou said flatly. It wasn’t even a remotely inquiring tone; he wasn’t guessing.

“How the hell do you know that?” demanded Sano.

“Because you were as uncreative packaging it as you were selecting it.”

“Hey, it could be anything!” Sano didn’t want to admit that, being fully conscious of the possible implications of a present, he’d chosen as generic a gift as he thought would still be even the slightest bit meaningful. “Just because it’s about the size and shape of a box a tie comes in doesn’t mean…” But he trailed off as Saitou removed the wrapping paper and disclosed the tie within.

The eyebrow rose even higher as Saitou looked, and the expression of wordless incredulity now turned toward Sano bordered on the reproving. Finally Saitou demanded, “And what on earth makes you think I would be caught dead wearing something like this?”

Despite the premonition that his gift might provoke this precise reaction, Sano felt, in addition to a little crestfallen, the stirrings of irritation. “I swear every teacher here’s got a Christmas tie except you,” he explained. “You always wear those boring ones with diamonds or those little bent teardrops with shit all over them.”

“Nobody expects the Japanese teacher to wear a Christmas tie.” Saitou glanced again through the clear plastic at the chaos of candy canes that covered the article in question, rolled his eyes, and bent to stow the present away in his briefcase. Well, at least he hadn’t refused it outright.

Sano was about to protest that Christmas was celebrated in Japan as well, but stopped himself before he’d said a single word to that effect… it really would be too embarrassing if the discussion turned to the romantic nature of that particular holiday in that particular country. Instead, he continued to defend his choice. “Hey, at least I didn’t get you one with Santa or some shit on it, OK? I mean, I saw some pretty horrible and scary ones at the store. You should be thanking me for not getting you any of those.”

With a slight smirk that seemed to arise almost in spite of himself, Saitou shook his head and returned to his food. After a few moments he said grudgingly, “I suppose I should thank you for the thought, at least.” He didn’t actually thank Sano, but, really, that was close enough… and more than Sano had expected anyway.

Saitou usually brought vegetables to eat alongside his sandwich. As with the latter, Sano had long since run out of verbal ammunition to make fun of him for his elementary-school-healthy selections (and, since Saitou never ran out of ammunition, proper eating was a subject best avoided when Sano was having tacos). But he was tempted to dredge up some of the teasing statements he’d made back when he’d still been able to think of new ones, just because the silence was beginning to feel rather heavy. Logically he knew it wasn’t any more uncomfortable than any silence between them on any day, but it seemed worse because he still hadn’t managed to ask what he really wanted to ask.

He was on his last taco, still vacillating, and Saitou was finishing off his iced tea, when the teacher made his next comment. Predictably this was, “People who write Christmas music all seem to be morons.”

“Hey, I like this one,” protested Sano.

“‘Giddy-up, jingle-horse, pick up your feet,'” Saitou repeated in a drawn-out tone of utmost scorn, and Sano had to admit that the words sounded even stupider than usual in that dark, serious voice. “It might be less irritating if the idiot who wrote it had a basic grasp of the syntax of the original song.”

“OK, when you start using words like ‘syntax,'” Sano laughed, “that’s when I really stop caring.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot too,” Saitou muttered.

Sano didn’t bother getting annoyed at this insult (which was typical in any case), mostly because he thought he knew by now what really had Saitou so irritable — and was fairly certain it wasn’t the music itself. To test his hypothesis, he actually listened to the next song that came on, and voiced the first complaint about it that sprang to mind: “If he’d take off those blue suede shoes, I bet his Christmas wouldn’t be so blue.”

Saitou lifted an eyebrow in obvious disdain. This could merely have been a criticism of Sano’s powers of criticism, but Sano felt his theory was confirmed. “I just thought you could use some help in your Grinching,” he explained.

The eyebrow rose even higher, now in skepticism. “‘Grinching?'”

“Well, you’re all kinds of hating Christmas today.”

“I’m not hating Christmas,” Saitou contradicted. “I have no feelings one way or another about Christmas. It’s this stupid music I can’t stand.”

“And my present.”

The slight shift in Saitou’s expression interested Sano; he wasn’t quite sure he could pinpoint what exactly had changed, but somehow its annoyance stood out distinctly from the previous. “If you were going to waste money,” the teacher admonished, “you might as well have bought me something useful.”

“How the hell is a tie not useful?!”

“A tie I’m likely to drop off at Goodwill next week is–”

“You wouldn’t!” Sano scowled at the other man, pounding a fist onto the table so the remains of his lunch jumped. “I know you’re a jerk, but seriously.”

Saitou’s ambiguous answering smirk indicated he was slightly cheered. This didn’t last long, however, for the moment some incredibly obnoxious chorus of kids and a consequently very creepy-sounding adult singer burst out of the speakers with the beginnings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Saitou stood abruptly. “I need a cigarette,” was the only explanation or invitation he offered, leaving Sano to clear up the table and hasten after him as quickly as possible.

By now Sano definitely believed he knew exactly what was wrong, and also exactly how to handle it; the only remaining point of uncertainty was exactly how Saitou would respond. This resulted in a return of his nervousness as he continued to attempt to decide exactly how to word his statement. Heartened as he was by the apparent accuracy of his hypothesis, his state of encouragement had been largely canceled out by the extended response to his present. How the hell was he supposed to put this so it sounded appealing and casual and… not-stalkerish?

The issue, luckily, largely left his hands. As he joined Saitou in the frigid shadow of the building on the north side, snow crunching beneath his feet and his breath as visible as the smoke Saitou was already exhaling, his pocket gave a chirp indicating that the lack of signal inside had caused him to miss yet another call. Withdrawing his cell, he noted that this had actually been someone he wanted to talk to. Turning away from the teacher, who was watching him wordlessly, he called back. As he conversed, he couldn’t help being acutely aware of how the discussion must sound to someone that could only hear half of it:

“Hey, dad, what’s up? …nah, I just had no signal… …no, I got one more this afternoon… …pretty good, all except English, but I knew that would suck… …yep! So I’ll probably be there around three or four… …nah, I’m good… …hey… um, do you mind if I bring someone home with me? …no, not even a girl, actually; it’s a friend from school — well, sortof — actually he teaches here… …nah, he only teaches Japanese history and boring shit like that… …yeah, he is, and his family’s all still over there — and he hates them all anyway — so he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… …no, he doesn’t have any except me, far as I can tell… he’s kindof an asshole… …nah, he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio… …no, no, you’ll like him… …really? OK, cool… …see you tomorrow, then… …yeah, bye.”

Snapping the cell phone shut, he replaced it in his pocket and took another subtly deep breath, bracing himself, before turning to face his companion. Saitou was staring at him with the same skepticism he’d displayed a couple of times already today, but now there was a touch of something else to it — curiosity, perhaps? Sano had spent a lot of time studying Saitou’s facial expressions since he’d met him, but feared it would take a good deal longer than a single semester — years, maybe — to understand them completely. And he refused to allow himself to believe there was some kind of pleased surprise in that look. Just in case.

“Well?” he asked, trying hard not to allow his tone to express his uncertainty. The precise interpretation of Saitou’s arrangement of features still eluded him, so Sano added, “Your last class is done by eleven tomorrow, right? Think you can stand to sit in a car with me for, like, four hours?”

Finally Saitou’s stillness broke as he raised his cigarette to his lips, but his eyes hadn’t left Sano’s face; Sano thought his expression was more contemplative now than anything else. At last he said, “That depends.”

“On?”

“On whether you’re going to play any Christmas music during the drive.”

A huge wave of relief and joy washed over Sano at these words, but, remembering that he wanted to seem not-stalkerish, he restrained himself from any overt display of any such emotion. “I thought you wouldn’t care so much,” was his reply instead, “now that your Christmas isn’t going to suck.”

“You have an inordinately high opinion of your own entertainment value.”

“Hey, my family’s plenty entertaining,” objected Sano with a grin.

“And you think your dad will like me,” the teacher mused, stepping to the ash tray to dispose of his cigarette butt. After this, however, he made no motion to go back into the building.

Cold as it was, Sano felt his heart warmed by the thought that Saitou didn’t mind standing out here in the snow, with him, all alone, making plans with him to go home with him and meet his family. That seemed like considerable progress for someone that didn’t think too highly of the human race in general and freshmen in particular; actually, it seemed like the best Christmas present Sano had received in many years.

“He’ll like you better if you wear that tie,” he said, grin widening.

“You’re already getting me to help you celebrate a holiday that means almost nothing to me,” replied Saitou, his smirk also widening slightly. “Don’t push your luck.”


This story is very unremarkable, and I’ve rated it , but it might have been better if I’d ever gotten around to writing the second half of it. Let’s take a look at what I had written, shall we?

*

It had taken Saitou an anomalously long time to see the truth. Neither the unprecedented companionship nor the unexpected present nor even the surprising invitation had given him a clue. He might have begun to realize what was going on by his own happy reaction to that invitation or the unanticipated pleasure he’d taken in the four-hour drive to Sano’s hometown, if those hadn’t been so engrossing — and, therefore, distracting — in themselves. In fact, it was not until they’d reached their destination and greetings and introductions were over with that Saitou had his first real, jolting hint at the truth.

The little sister, Uki, had apparently demanded more space in which to do her homework, and thus what had previously been the spare room was now devoted to computer desks. It was Sano’s reaction to the news that his guest would have to sleep on one storey of his own bunk bed that gave him away: a startled look and noise accompanied by an intense blush he immediately tried to hide — all of them just a little too vehement for the news in question.

Saitou’s own surprise was equally great, simply because the concept had never crossed his mind. Looking back at his interaction with Sano over the last three months, he was consequently disposed to think himself somewhat blind. But, then, the general consensus around here seemed to be a certain set of idiotic stereotypes for men that liked other men, and perhaps he’d subconsciously absorbed that attitude to the exclusion of more logical reality.

Now all he had to do was decide how he felt about this.

In the meantime, Sano had shaken himself out of his shocked stupor and accepted the situation with a show of backbone. But there wasn’t much mystery behind his excessive sudden embarrassment in his room when he unthinkingly asked, “Do you want top or bottom?”

And perhaps the fact that Saitou immediately, amusedly ran his eyes up and down Sano rather than the bed before answering, “Top, I think,” helped at least to start answering the question about how Saitou felt. He’d never really looked at Sano in this light before; he’d been aware that the kid was good-looking, thanks both to his objective observation thus far and to the reactions of others that made it rather absurdly evident, but that awareness had been nothing but clinical up until now. Now… perhaps it was evolving.

*

Uki has several of her barely-teenage friends over for a Christmas party to celebrate the end of school. Several of them are all googly-eyed over Uki’s hot brother and Uki’s hot brother’s hot friend.

*

A gesture from one of the high-schoolers caught his eye, and he noticed that Uki and another girl were having an intense, rather giggly conversation behind their hands. It seemed to involve looking over at him a lot. Not really interested in what they might be saying, he turned away again — only to find Sano’s eyes, narrowed with suspicion, pointed in the direction Saitou’s had just been. Finally Sano also looked back, looked around, and abruptly turned red.

Saitou wasn’t sure what had caused Sano’s blush this time, but the boy’s embarrassment was getting more and more difficult to pretend to ignore. In a pointed effort to do so, however, he directed his attention again toward the girls… and that was when he caught the whispered word ‘mistletoe.’

He didn’t glance upward. He didn’t need to.

Now he couldn’t look at Sano or Sano’s sister, and the one consolation, as things currently stood, was that if the little girl did work up the nerve to kiss him — something Sano certainly wouldn’t do — watching Sano’s reaction was a guaranteed source of entertainment that might fully make up for it.

*

Sano’s dad asks them to set out the Christmas stuff for him on Christmas Eve, since Outa has caught on to the secret and will be staking out dad’s room. They do this, and then, before heading back to Sano’s bedroom…

*

“I believe…” he began pensively, giving Sano a thoughtful stare. Sano wasn’t looking at him, however, so Saitou left it at that for the moment. When Sano finally did glance over, curious, Saitou finished. “You noticed that mistletoe before your sister did. I believe that means you owe me a kiss.”

“What?!”

*

Outa, coming to check whether the presents are somehow there, walks in on them kissing.

*

“Are you guys gay?”

The concept ‘bisexual’ was not really something he wanted to explain to an eight-year-old, let alone the even more difficult ‘bi-curious’ — so Saitou just nodded.

“OK,” said the boy, and turned toward the Christmas tree.

*

Bit of a shame I never finished that, isn’t it? It’s pretty damn cute. But more things are a greater shame than just the lack of a fun second half of a mediocre story.

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