His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was.
After being cursed by his best friend Trowa Barton, Duo Maxwell lived as a plastic doll from 1923 to 2010. Here is one story from each decade he spent in that form.

Unique to these stories: This is a difficult collection to tag. There are insensitive terms from some of these decades, and the sexism that might be expected of them as well. Trowa is significantly mentioned but does not appear. A transgender character is misunderstood and misgendered throughout that story’s narration. There’s some disparaging language regarding Catholics. The possibility of rape is referred to but does not take place in any story. There’s a picture of a scorpion. Just a bunch of little things that still bear mentioning.

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Tune In Next Week (1927)

These days you never knew if you would hear ‘nursery,’ ‘playroom,’ or something pretentious such as ‘children’s lounge’ in reference to the young people’s retreat in a wealthy household, but since Duo had never lived in such a house as a child, it made very little difference to him.

He shouldn’t have been forced to spend so much time in such rooms as an adult, either. Thanks, Trowa.

Clarence had been directed by the housekeeper to the playroom, so called here, to wait while she located young Raymond and sent him in to get to know the visitor while their mothers — old school chums reunited after one family’s recent move to Ann Arbor — chatted over coffee and cake in the parlor. Duo had never lived in a house with a parlor, and, due to his current form, didn’t know much of them now. Thanks, Trowa.

Examining the amenities in the small chamber that had more window than floorspace, Clarence waved Duo through the air in a vague flying motion as he often did, and ambled toward a large toy-chest and the much-abused rocking horse beside it. Instead of opening the former to see what interesting playthings Raymond, whose family seemed slightly richer than Clarence’s, had stashed within, he sat on the latter, setting it rocking, and looked down at Duo.

Duo wasn’t so much a participant in Clarence’s games as he was a focus for the dialogues the child came up with. Clarence would stare down at him intently, much as he did now, seem to take an endless amount of inspiration from the sight (Duo had always wanted to be inspiring simply because he was portable; thanks, Trowa), and talk his way, under his breath, through whatever adventure had popped into his head as a result. Sometimes the stories went on for days, though without much recognizable continuity. Judging by the look in the kid’s eye, increasingly familiar in this the fourth week of Duo’s time with him, Clarence aimed to start a new one, despite here and now perhaps not being the best place and time to do so.

But before Clarence could draw breath to speak, the playroom door opened and another boy appeared. This must be Raymond, though he didn’t introduce himself. Maybe he’d intended to, and maybe not — ten-year-old boys could be little monsters sometimes, no matter how hard their mothers worked to hammer manners into them — but in any case the sight of Clarence holding Duo completely distracted him.

“Is that a doll?” With the confidence of the master of the house and someone that has never considered himself wrong in his entire life, Raymond closed the door and came inside, swaggering toward Clarence as he continued with rising skepticism, “As if you were a girl?”

Clarence shrank a little and said nothing. Duo had seen it before: this child almost always chose to withdraw rather than engage. For this reason his father erroneously accused him of being sullen.

Raymond, on the other hand, proved the opposite of sullen or withdrawn. He hopped around like a flea, examining Duo from all angles, poking at both him and Clarence, trying to rock the horse beneath the other boy, spouting further witticisms. “I’ll bet you have tea parties with it, eh? Do you get it all dressed up and comb its hair? Catch me doing that! Does it sleep with you at night? Can you sleep without your dolly? I’ll be a man someday, but I bet you won’t!”

A deep crease had appeared between Clarence’s fine, pale eyebrows, and Duo thought this might be one of the few instances he’d witnessed thus far when the kid would actually stand up for himself. Clarence hadn’t wanted to come, after all, and to keep the experience from being completely miserable he needed to say something sooner rather than later. But Duo couldn’t have anticipated what he came up with.

Technically the words were merely, “Go away,” which made for the most basic of beginnings to his attempt at rebuffing Raymond and his taunts… except that they emerged in the magical language. They had little power behind them, and in any case only the most skilled of magicians could enact a spell without specifying the object at which it was directed, but the fact remained that Clarence had spoken in the tongue shared by all magicians, clearly enough for Duo to understand him easily.

Duo understood, but Raymond didn’t. Now he exhibited what Duo, from his human years practicing magic, recognized as the typical reaction of anyone hearing the magical language for the first time: he started and jerked back, disconcerted. And, given that the gist of Clarence’s command had been understandable despite the words’ incomprehensibility, and that it had been a sort of spell regardless of its overall effectiveness, no surprise Raymond then took two more steps, his features writhing with fear, confusion, and defiance, and left the room.

Clarence had allowed Duo to swivel into a position from which he could watch all of this, and now the doll remained pointed toward the newly closed playroom door and couldn’t see the boy’s face. He was conscious, however, of Clarence stretching his short legs out into the air in front of him before bracing himself on the floor again in order to rock the horse beneath in what seemed like a contemplative gesture.

He was also conscious of an urgent necessity that either hadn’t existed or that he simply hadn’t been aware of before.

Though Duo had only been with him a few weeks, so technically he might have missed something (though he doubted he had), he believed Clarence hadn’t shown any signs of magical ability prior to this — and indeed, children seldom did, seldom had their skill awaken at so early an age. Which probably meant both that Clarence was unusually powerful and that Duo’s presence in his vicinity had caused this awakening. And the temporary privacy in this playroom, before Raymond returned with further tauntings or it became time to go submit to the mother’s selfish demands, made for a very narrow window Duo had no choice but to take advantage of. There was a good reason, after all — a self-preservation reason, you might say; a security reason — nature didn’t allow magic into the hands of most children until after puberty.

“Clarence,” Duo said.

The child went utterly still.

“You hear me, Clarence?”

“Yes,” Clarence whispered, slowly rotating Duo to face him. Nearly his entire extent of eyeball showed in his pale face.

“Don’t be afraid of me, kid,” Duo said patiently. “You know I’m your friend, right?”

“But you heard all my stories.” Clarence’s voice remained choked and almost inaudible; lucky Duo was so close.

“I liked all your stories,” was all Duo could offer to assuage him on this point. Trust such a private child to worry about his personal mutterings having been overheard before wondering about the magical talking doll in his hands.

Shy and uncertain, Clarence asked, “Did you?”

“Yes,” Duo insisted. “But listen, Clarence. We need to talk about magic.”

Now Clarence’s reluctance began to shed from him. “Is that what you are?” With even more energy he added, “Is that what I did just now to make Raymond go away?”

“Yes and yes. And you need to understand how much danger you’re in.”

“Am I?” Clarence made this far-too-interested-sounding query before Duo could continue.

“Yes!” Duo’s tone turned severe. “Magic can be very dangerous if you’re careless about it! How do you think I ended up like this?”

Clarence’s eyes went wide again. “Are you under an enchantment?”

“If you want to call it that,” the doll grumbled. It was as good a description as any; he didn’t really know the nature of the spell Trowa had cast to leave him like this.

“Do you need the blood of a beheaded faithful servant smeared all over you to break it?” Exactly how serious Clarence was with this gruesome suggestion couldn’t be guessed, but evidently he’d come out of his shell somewhat. “Did someone turn you into a doll? Could I turn Raymond into a doll?”

Duo didn’t like the expression on the boy’s face — something much harder than those rounded, juvenile features were fitted for — nor the eager bite to his tone. Why did he so immediately envision perpetuating magical harm upon Raymond, whom he did not at all know? There was something lurking beneath Clarence’s shyness, it appeared, but sullenness was off the mark.

And why must Duo be the one to deal with this unexpected mean streak? Because his mere presence had caused Clarence’s awakening and he happened to have a sense of responsibility? Thanks, Trowa.

“No,” he said firmly, “you can’t. And you need to be careful about what magic you do try. What you did to make Raymond go away just now wasn’t a proper spell — I think he was only startled, so he may be back — but you did speak in the magical language, and–”

“And I can do it again!” crowed Clarence — in the magical language.

Duo winced internally (the only way he could wince). “You see, that’s exactly what you need to be careful of. The magical language is used to cast spells, and if you don’t take care what you say when you speak it, you could end up casting a spell by mistake and hurting someone with it. You could hurt a friend without meaning to, or your mother…” Realizing Clarence might want to hurt his mother, contingent upon circumstances and mood, Duo hastened on. “Or yourself. People can hurt themselves very badly when they cast spells by accident.”

“Hurt themselves how?” Clarence still sounded more interested than concerned; Duo obviously wasn’t getting through to him.

The doll pondered quickly. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but doubted it was enough to make any kind of roundabout point. He would have to resort to something less than perfect honesty. “I’m supposed to be a human man, Clarence. You wouldn’t want to be like this, would you? A doll who can’t go anywhere on his own, can’t feel anything, can’t taste anything?”

The tone of Clarence’s negative made Duo fear he still might be contemplating how this could possibly apply to Raymond.

Duo pressed on. “Well, the magic spell that turned me into a doll was an accident; my best friend did it, but he didn’t mean to.” In fact Duo had no idea this had been the case; he hoped so, but couldn’t and probably never would be certain. “You sure wouldn’t want to do that to one of your friends, but you could just as easily do it to yourself — turn yourself into a doll because you were being careless with the magical language, and get trapped like me for who knows how long.” And in fact Duo disbelieved a spell like this could be cast easily by just anyone. He didn’t know how Trowa had done it, but doubted Clarence would reach that level any time soon — at least not without a powerful artifact or two, something Duo himself didn’t seem to be.

If Clarence’s somber expression meant anything, he took at least some of Duo’s words into consideration now. He sat silently for several moments, swaying the horse again with one foot and kicking against its rockers with the other. The resultant motion probably jarred him repeatedly, but Duo merely knew it was taking place; he couldn’t begin to discern what it actually felt like. And finally Clarence spoke again. This time his tone sounded faintly wheedling, as if he’d gotten the incorrect impression of Duo as some kind of guardian of magic that could, if talked around, grant Clarence permission to do what he wanted with his newfound ability. “So as long as I’m very careful… and know what I’m trying to do so I don’t do things by accident… and take care not to speak the magical language except if I want to do a magical spell… what kind of magic can I do?”

Again Duo pondered. It might be wisest to downplay the desirability of magic at this point, try to dampen Clarence’s interest in it… but how? He’d already indicated magic could do unpleasant things to other people; he couldn’t backtrack and pretend that was untrue after all — not in his current shape! He feared, however, Clarence might be even more interested in that unpleasant side of magic than in the more pleasant and convenient results it could accomplish that would have engrossed most other people far more. How to present magic in such a way that it would seem relatively uninteresting to a child of ten with a secret vindictive side?

This wasn’t fair. A friend — and that term already exaggerated what Duo was to Clarence — shouldn’t be forced into this position; a relative or a magical mentor or anyone else that had voluntarily entered into a position of authority in this kid’s life should be the one to lecture Clarence on magic and try to set him on a correct path rather than a destructive or a cruel one in his use of it. Duo didn’t want to see Clarence harm or even kill himself or someone else with his early-blossoming abilities, but felt underqualified and very reluctant to deal with the problem. He was, however, the only one around that could do it. Thanks, Trowa.

“You can do all sorts of things with magic,” he began slowly, “if you don’t accidentally kill yourself with it. You can…” He still scrambled for examples that would suit his purposes. “…black your shoes so they stay blacked… and…” He tried to remember what he and Trowa had used magic for before the disaster; for some reason he was drawing a blank. “…get your shirts extremely clean without having to pay someone to wash them…”

Clarence’s nose wrinkled. “That’s different from turning someone into a doll, though.”

“Yes, well…”

He didn’t know whether he should consider it a rescue or a dangerous interruption that the playroom door opened before he could say anything more. Raymond reappeared, and, though he didn’t hang on the handle or hesitate in the doorway, the swagger had disappeared from his step, and his expression instead displayed a healthy portion of both curiosity and respect.

Clarence lowered Duo and looked at Raymond suspiciously without a word; the closed-off lines Duo already knew so well had returned to his face.

Though obviously not the type to beg pardon, Raymond was also evidently ready to do anything necessary for the fun of the moment. He came forward a few steps, looking once again at the doll in the hands of his guest — though this time, Duo believed, with far less disdain and far more readiness to admit there might be experiences in the world he hadn’t had — and finally, raising his eyes to Clarence’s face at last, asked, “What was that you said before?”

Clarence gave him a steady stare in return, and replied quietly, “It was magic words. I told you to go away because you were making fun of my doll.”

“Aww, I won’t make fun of your old doll anymore.” Duo guessed this was as close to an apology as Raymond would ever come. “Will you teach me how to say magic words like that?”

“No,” said Clarence sharply. “It’s a secret.”

If anything, Raymond seemed more impressed than before, and probably not entirely convinced he couldn’t winkle the secret out of Clarence, given time. “Well, shall we go outside and play? I’ve got a new ball and bat, but we can’t use them in here.”

Clarence threw a half hesitant look down at Duo, who stifled a sigh. He’d had a narrow window, and it had closed. Hopefully he would have another opportunity; hopefully Clarence wouldn’t become angry again with Raymond this afternoon and do something everyone would regret before Duo had a chance to impress upon him the dangers of careless magic further than he’d already managed.

“Go play outside,” Duo urged him. “We can talk again later.”

Clarence started, raising his eyes abruptly to Raymond, whom Duo hadn’t allowed to hear. What expression might be on Raymond’s face Duo couldn’t tell, but after a moment Clarence relaxed. “All right,” he said, and stood from the rocking horse. He gazed at Duo again, this time contemplatively, and after a moment turned, swiveling Duo’s legs up into a sitting position, and set the doll down on the leather saddle he had previously occupied. He made no comment, but Duo, assuming Clarence planned on leaving him here in order not to have his behavior criticized until it was time to go home, felt his heart sink. He watched the two boys vacate the playroom, closing the door behind them more carelessly than conscientiously, with a sense of indistinct foreboding.

He had no reliable method of marking the passage of time, which had already proven miserable in the four sleepless years he’d spent as a doll, but his eyes worked well enough, even if they were only painted on. Though he faced away from the window and felt no need to lever himself around, he could easily mark the change in the color of the light and the gradual dimming of the playroom while he sat, bored and agitated, on the rocking horse. Evidently far more time passed than he’d expected, far too much time to allow him to believe Clarence was coming back for him. And how had things gone outside with the ball and bat? Quite possibly Duo would never know.

The shadows continued to lengthen, and details in this room, where no electric light shone, grew difficult to make out. If he’d had to guess — and he sometimes did, though at other times too unhappy to make the attempt — he would have said it was past seven in the evening before any sound of human habitation met his ears beyond the occasional distant voice or muffled footstep.

Here came the housekeeper poking her head into the playroom, probably to be sure Clarence and Raymond hadn’t made a mess she would need to attend to before seeing to other evening duties. Since they hadn’t, she moved to withdraw, when it seemed her gaze fell on the figure seated on the rocking horse’s saddle. With an air of curiosity she stepped more fully into the room and pressed the switch to turn on the light. Seeing with greater certainty what had caught her eye, a funny little smile took her face, and she strode forward to pick Duo up.

After studying him for a few moments, she shook her head. “Well, they’re not likely to be back for you… Left in a hurry, they did… I don’t think the ladies got along too well, the snobbish cats.” The world was veiled in dimming white cotton as the housekeeper tucked Duo into a deep pocket of her apron, and then complete darkness fell as she switched off the playroom light. “My little girl will appreciate you more anyway.”

So Duo was to change hands again. The housekeeper’s daughter would be his fourteenth owner so far, and how long that arrangement would last he couldn’t begin to guess.

And what would become of Clarence, from whom Duo would undoubtedly never hear again? With no one around to give the child further information, to try to combat his unexpected desire to hurt others with his power, would he even survive his early magical awakening? Would he hurt some friend, or curse his parents, or burn down his own house, or turn himself into a teapot? This too Duo couldn’t begin to guess.

He hadn’t wanted to be involved in the first place in Clarence’s magical journey, but to be forced to begin and then debarred from seeing it through to the end was in some ways even worse. (Thanks, Trowa.) It reminded him of listening to an adventure serial on the radio, hearing every lurid detail of the catastrophic situation into which the heroine had been hurled by today’s events, being told to make extra sure not to miss next Saturday’s exciting episode in order to find out how she could possibly be extricated from this problem and escape certain death… and then never hearing one more minute of that particular program. Never finding out whether that heroine lived or died, whether justice was served, whether the tale had a happy ending. Even in a story Duo hadn’t been particularly enjoying, that lack of closure both galled and disheartened him.

But it was nothing new. Though he hadn’t previously encountered the precise problem presented by the precocious Clarence, nor any other with such a potentially disastrous outcome, every caretaker he’d had so far as a doll had been a story in progress, a dramatic serial whose second or even third episodes he’d been able to listen to but whose resolution he would never witness. Given the way he lived now, it seemed likely the only narrative whose ending he would be allowed to observe was his own. And his own tale — his erratic, largely immobile, sensationless, bitter, meaningless life — had it been a book, would have been the last Duo would ever have chosen to read through to the end. Thanks, Trowa.

Even Trowa was a story whose setup Duo had been forced to witness as if to make his subsequent lack of knowledge of where things went from there, where they ended up, all the more wretched and unfair.

As he bounced along in the housekeeper’s apron heading toward yet another person he might end up calling a friend of sorts or in some aspects of whose life he might, at least, develop some interest, then eventually, inevitably be separated from just when he learned enough about her to feel the beginnings of curiosity and concern, he supposed it would be best to work to accustom himself to these unfinished stories. As a helpless doll, he saw no real alternative. He saw no likelihood of escape, of justice being served, of a happy ending.

He saw no likelihood of an ending, and he supposed he’d better get used to the idea.



2>>

The Gift of Friendship (1934)

“Why are you only using parts that have no pictures?” Duo wondered as he looked on, prompted by a late-arriving realization.

Antonella paused, ceased her humming, and glanced critically over the newspaper page she’d already finished. Both it and the one she worked on now — at least on the sides that faced up — were solid walls of text broken only by slightly larger headlines. And while Duo supposed no gift would be much enhanced by photographs of murder victims or satirical cartoons of Adolf Hitler, there was usually a baseball image somewhere in front that might have made a pretty cheerful decoration with color added to it.

But Antonella said, “I didn’t want any pictures.” With one small hand she gestured in imprecise elaboration. “They make it look different from when it’s just words.”

“All right,” Duo allowed, watching her return to her task with great care so as not to tear the thin paper with the green drawing crayon she held.

Of course the Flores family could not afford actual gift wrap; honestly Duo wasn’t sure who could (or at least would be willing to spend money on something so impractical and extravagant). Even the drawing crayons, which had been a special treat to celebrate Antonella’s seventh birthday, were a bit of a luxury, and that she now used them so extensively to stripe the two sheets of newspaper with bright colors to create this faux gift wrap demonstrated how much she was putting her heart into the endeavor.

Presently, “I like red next to green,” Antonella commented.

“Yes, they look good,” Duo agreed.

“Maybe I put too many reds next to greens.” She paused again to examine her work.

The doll assured her, “I think it’s all right.”

“I’ll make some dots next.”

“That sounds good.”

Watching a little girl draw stripes across a newspaper perpendicular to the text, and now an uneven row of circles whose disparate size seemed to annoy her but proved difficult to fix, bored him, but not as severely as some of what Duo had suffered over the last eleven years. More than the boredom, in fact, he felt annoyance at this circumstance. Because he couldn’t figure out why the Flores family was doing this at all — why Antonella industriously prepared to wrap up one of the two toys she owned; why elsewhere in the tiny flat her mother had tied a festive ribbon around her more functional pair of shoes; why her father had rolled up, in preparation for taking it to the church, a scarf his late mother had knitted for him that he’d worn every day of chilly December up until this one — when they were struggling just as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone else. If anything, they should be on the receiving end of this gift drive, not scraping to find offerings for other people that might, for all they knew, actually be better off than they were.

Antonella made a frustrated sound, and a gesture as if she might throw her crayon, though she didn’t quite. “It’s going to be ruined!”

Nothing new to have annoyed her this much showed from where Duo sat nearby, so he assumed she must be referring to the varying sizes of the ‘dots’ she’d drawn. “Why?” He hastened to add, “I think it looks fine!”

“I wanted it to be neat,” she protested. “Like a real…” She evidently couldn’t think of the word for what she meant, for she finished in frustration, “Like a real thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be neat to look good, though.” When this didn’t seem to have any effect on the girl’s mood, Duo tried, “And I think true artists prefer to make things different sizes so it isn’t all the same across the whole thing. They do it purposely.”

I’m not a true artist,” Antonella grumbled. But she seemed simultaneously somewhat cheered, and the look she gave the half-colored paper now assessed more than despaired.

Such attempts to boost Antonella’s sense of worth during her not infrequent moments of uncertainty were the most Duo could do for her — offerings of friendship whose value he often doubted just as much as Antonella doubted herself. Unfortunately, even had he been human, he couldn’t have done significantly better. Because everyone was badly off these days. Duo had never been rich even during his normal life, had never managed to do more than scrape a living — and had never wanted more. He might be coming to miss the ability to earn it, but money had never meant much to him. But even if he had it now — even if he weren’t a doll, and had somehow gotten his hands on a fortune — would he be allowed to assist a little girl totally unrelated to him whose race and religion he didn’t share? Would he be able to tell her how remarkable he found her generosity, and offer generosity of his own? Probably not. So his friendship and support, under the current odd circumstances, were all he could present her with.

The look Antonella gave her finished project held only incomplete satisfaction, but Duo knew no way to encourage her more than he already had. Her perfectionism must make many of her life endeavors superb, but it often did her a disservice at the same time — especially when combined with her pessimism. He worried a little about her, actually; that these traits exhibited so strongly in someone so young might actually bode badly for the future. But he would do what he could for her.

She was analyzing both papers now, and after a moment began to touch up spots she felt needed some extra attention. Once, forgetting which color she held, she started drawing with the wrong one, and when she saw what she’d done she nearly threw her crayon across the room again. But in the end she did manage the final touches without too much frustration or self-loathing, and was now the successful possessor of two sheets of lovingly decorated gift wrap for this unfortunate project. Duo thought they would just fit, with space at each end for a small twist, around the wooden pick-up truck in whose bed he often rode during playtime.

A large cigar box, its exterior decoration fading by this the second generation of its use, held all of Antonella’s small treasures — a few stones she’d liked enough to bring inside, numerous bottle caps, a snail shell, and so on — and from this she’d already pulled all the string she owned in preparation for using it in the gift-packaging process. Now Duo was a bit surprised to see her turn the box slowly upside-down and tip its remaining contents into a careful pile on the floor nearby. Though her young, heartwarming sense of selflessness showed even further in this, and though there was some appropriateness to the idea of a full truck-bed, he doubted these items would contribute much.

“Are you going to put those in the truck?” he asked cautiously, not sure he could convey adequately to her that the gift’s recipient — or at least their parents — might not appreciate being handed another child’s random collection that meant something only to her.

Antonella looked around in some evident surprise at the truck, which stood beside her opposite Duo. “Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said, and began scooping up her things and loading them into its bed.

Duo’s brows would have drawn together if they weren’t, in fact, drawn on in the first place. If she hadn’t already been planning to put the things into the truck… “What will you do with the cigar box?” he asked, even more cautiously than before.

Still working on transferring items from the floor to the truck-bed, she replied placidly, “Put you in it. The newspaper will work better on a box instead of on a doll.”

For several moments Duo was dumbstruck. He couldn’t gape — his lips moved, but he didn’t really have a jaw — but that would have been the proper expression of his feelings as it occurred to him that Antonella never had stated her intention of using her pick-up truck for this; Duo had merely assumed that was the toy in view, and therefore never asked.

“I thought…” he said at last, weakly, “the pick-up truck was the gift.”

Antonella paused in her loading efforts and looked the truck over studiously. “This wouldn’t be as good of a gift.”

“Why?”

She gave the specific frown that usually heralded an imperfect attempt at explaining herself. “Father Herrera said the gifts don’t need to cost a lot of money.”

“All right…” That was rather a given in this economy.

“And he said we should look for a gift that would make someone happy.”

“And you think I’ll make someone more happy than the truck would?”

“Yes, because you’re my friend.” Though she still seemed unsure of her ability to express the concept she had in mind, this statement was decisive. “I’m happy to have a friend, so someone else will be happy to have a friend too.”

“I… I understand.” Once again his words came out very weakly, and after this he could say nothing more for another long moment. She might be right: a secret, constant companion and the support that companion could provide might well be the best present she could possibly give someone, far better than anything money could buy. But even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was, or his friendship like a tradable commodity. Antonella undoubtedly had no idea how dehumanizing her actions were, and in some ways that made it even worse.

Knowing he must speak now before he lost his chance, Duo forced himself to ask, “But won’t you miss me if you give me away?” It seemed so ironically sad to think of her giving up something she valued and drew strength from specifically because she valued and drew strength from it.

She finished relocating the last of the box’s former contents as she replied, “Yes, but Father Herrera said we need to use our hearts. Somebody might be very poor and need a friend more than me.”

Duo remembered the sensation of a constricting throat and prickling eyes even if he couldn’t feel them, and his internal state represented several helpless emotions. He was angry because, with everyone poor, why should one person get the preference over another in terms of commodities? Especially when it meant displacing Duo again and removing what he believed with no false modesty to be a useful and supportive influence from Antonella’s life? He was weary at the thought of starting all over with a new child and a new set of circumstances. He was touched more than ever by Antonella’s pure charity and unselfishness, even if it actively wounded him. And though not in any real position to claim such a feeling, he was proud of her. He couldn’t bring himself to protest her legitimate generous impulse even if he hated every moment of it.

She’d placed the cigar box just in front of her and opened it, and now took Duo in her hands. She gave him a critical look, and for a moment he hoped she might be rethinking — but then she wedged him into the box without comment. He wore makeshift clothing that had been cleverly put together by Mrs. Flores from scraps, and he reflected irrelevantly and glumly that, had he been wearing proper shoes — made of anything thicker than cloth — he wouldn’t have fit in this space barely longer than he was tall. But he’d never had a pair of real shoes in this form, so that difficulty was nothing more than a distant daydream.

He looked up at the little girl that had been his guardian for the past six months or so and said forlornly, wishing things could be otherwise, “Well, goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she replied, and swung the box’s lid down atop him.

In the resultant darkness he could hear the rustle and crinkle of newspaper being wrapped around his latest prison; he could hear Antonella beginning to hum once more as she worked. But he never saw her again.

General Dissent (1942)

While the grandmother had been busy making him an outfit — a princely outfit in bits of velvet and lace, with canvas shoes that looked less like drawstring bags than usual, and even a little hat with a tiny plume — Duo had, of course, spent some time with her. He hadn’t spoken to her, but had overheard a lot of the remarks she’d made. Funnily enough, this hadn’t prepared him for the granddaughter whose gift he was to be.

“Every birthday for as long as I can remember…” She’d shut herself into her bedroom at last, seeming relieved to have done so, and now looked down at Duo with a wry, weary expression. “One of these years they’ll have to realize I’m too old for this.”

And she was. Sixteen as of today, a tall, gangly girl in a lumpy dress with unkempt hair, she’d quite surprised Duo when he’d first seen her and realized she would be his new caretaker.

“I guess you can sit here with the rest of them,” she told Duo, swiveling his legs outward and reaching up to place him on a lace-draped shelf alongside an extensive row of other dolls, presumably birthday presents from previous years. Then she turned away from him in an almost eye-rolling movement.

This behavior fit with the attitude she’d exhibited downstairs during her grandparents’ visit. Duo speculated it had been getting harder and harder for her, year after year, to respond with any degree of graciousness to these gifts she didn’t want (and evidently hadn’t even played with much as a younger child, if the state of the dolls down at the end of the line was any indication). She’d tried to behave herself — the struggle had been visible even to newcomer Duo — though her efforts might perhaps have been more for the sake of her depressed-looking mother than the grandparents that beamed obliviously at her as she politely examined her new doll and his clothing. They might not have noticed a more open show of disinclination, but the mother was clearly anxious for the visit with her in-laws to be as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Now the young woman, Ethel, abruptly unhooked the frock she wore, yanked it over her head, and threw it carelessly to the floor. That explained its wrinkled state, and the underlying cause of its lumpiness was also revealed: a pair of overalls, the legs rolled up to hide beneath her skirt, atop a short-sleeved shirt (plain-cut; no girl’s blouse, this) that had also been invisible under the frillier bodice she’d previously worn. Next she roughly unrolled her trouser legs, then threw herself onto the bed with the air of one returning to something after an annoying interruption, and took up a book that had been lying there open on its face.

While Ethel made her way determinedly through The Red Badge of Courage, Duo studied his new home, which seemed destined to be a very static one. This family evidently had plenty of money, based on what he’d seen both of the grandparents’ home before this and the rooms downstairs, and Ethel’s bedroom appeared comfortable, if a trifle over-decorated. Everything here was fluffy and lacy and milky (except where little embroidered flowers in pastel colors peeked out from various surfaces), giving the decor a soft, almost dreamlike quality that Duo found he didn’t like very much.

And neither, it seemed, did the room’s inhabitant. Nearly everything in here — from the long row of dolls on the white shelf to the various cosmetic products atop the lace-covered dresser to the framed picture of a sweet pastoral scene on one of the walls — appeared disused and unregarded. The only parts of her bedroom Ethel seemed to derive any benefit from were the bookshelf beside the bed, the bed itself, and the large mirror near the bureau.

This last Duo looked at longest. For Ethel had decorated it, to the point of partially obscuring the glass, with papers of various shapes and sizes, ruthlessly driving pins into its beveled white frame in a destructive manner Duo wondered whether her mother knew about. The papers seemed to be mostly letters, some long and some short, all much-folded prior to their being smoothed out and tacked up around a girl’s mirror, many of them stained and probably difficult to read even if you happened to be close enough to try.

Interspersed among the letters were a few photographs, mostly of a man in uniform but a few of groups of soldiers presumably containing that same man. None of the personal pictures could Duo see in enough detail from here to detect any family resemblance between the man and Ethel, but he thought he knew now the reason Mrs. Roanridge appeared so haggard and sad. Many people already looked like that less than six months after the U.S. had jumped into this new war. They’d looked like that during the last one too, the one that had been supposed to end all wars. It seemed a perfectly understandable bitterness.

Ethel had been reading for barely fifteen minutes, kicking her legs and changing her position routinely and giving every indication of disinterest in her book except for lack of progress through its pages, when she dropped it, jumped up again, and came to stand in front of the mirror. There she waited, completely still and staring, for such a long time that at first Duo thought she must be perusing one of the letters tacked to the frame. But the eyes of her reflection roved too far up and down, seeking some mysterious object too restlessly, for her to be reading anything quite so small, and Duo decided eventually she must be examining herself. That was, after all, a mirror’s purpose. What he couldn’t quite determine, at least at first, was what she saw there.

And then, in a gesture so abrupt it startled the watching doll, she snapped her right hand upward on a stiff arm in not a half bad imitation of a military salute. And he realized that her prolonged stiffness as she faced the mirror had not been merely the stillness of concentration; she’d been standing at attention.

“Private Ethel Roanridge reporting for duty, sir,” she declared, putting into her voice all the firmness Duo suspected she longed to use with her grandparents on her disinclination for childish birthday gifts. Then she began practicing her salute, which had appeared acceptable to Duo but probably not up to snuff to its performer or the imaginary superior officer receiving it.

So Ethel didn’t merely miss her father in his country-serving absence; she wanted to join him, to serve alongside him. There had certainly been people like that last time; Duo couldn’t say he was surprised, though he’d never been one of them. During the previous war, despite the rampant patriotism and calls to support the effort going on around them, he and Trowa had considered themselves nothing like soldier material, and had avoided even the suggestion that they might enlist in what was proving an unpleasant experience for everyone; and Duo had come out of it with a dismal concept of war and some relief that he hadn’t been more closely involved.

This new conflict… He didn’t entirely know how he felt about it. Here was, he had grudgingly to admit, one of very few benefits to his current form: he didn’t have to decide how he felt. At forty-four years old, he might be too old to serve, and might not… but in any case wouldn’t be forced to make that decision.

Now Ethel had stopped her repetitive process of saluting, and frowned into the mirror. She took a step closer to it, and this time when she lifted her hand it didn’t snap off a gesture of respect and obedience from her forehead. Rather, she grasped at her clearly uncombed hair and pulled it roughly away from her face toward the nape of her neck. At first Duo thought she intended to tie it back, but he realized after watching her wrestle with it for several moments that she was trying to get an impression of her face without the long brown locks in the way. She appeared dissatisfied with her success, and threw more than one look of frustrated longing at something off to her right. Only after she’d done this several times could Duo hazard a guess as to what she contemplated over there: a pair of sewing shears lying atop her bureau.

Finally, obviously resisting with a greater or lesser level of difficulty the urge to hack all her hair off, she did tie it into a low tail, though this still left her scowling into the mirror at the insufficiently militaristic effect she’d created. She stood once more at attention, however, smoothing the discontentment from her face with some effort. And she saluted again, perhaps even more forcefully this time than before, as if she’d been reprimanded.

“Private… Ethan… Roanridge… reporting for duty, sir.” She held her pose for a long, silent moment, then said as if in response to an unspoken question, “No, sir.” Then, “Yes, sir.” And finally, “Eighteen, sir.”

Duo experienced the mental equivalent of a shiver of discomfort and concern.

For a few minutes Ethel continued to answer questions from nobody, though none of her answers were as telling as the first few. She continued practicing her salute as she did so, and the resulting impression was not so much ‘accurate military personnel behavior’ as ‘desperate windup toy,’ but Duo supposed that to be part of the reason she wanted practice. Then at last, after another disparaging glance at her hair, she turned away from the mirror and went back to her book. And it was her manner of doing so that really clinched it for Duo, that solidified in him the concern her words of a minute before had raised.

For she didn’t sigh, or turn forlornly aside as if from an impossible dream. She didn’t untie her hair and let it fall messily back around her shoulders as a symbol of defeat. She narrowed her eyes slightly, gave her figure in the mirror a calculating once-over, then nodded once, sharply and decisively. It was as if a choice had been made, or even as if an agreement had been reached — perhaps with some other self Ethel could see clearly in the mirror but Duo couldn’t. In any case, Ethel obviously had a plan. Duo didn’t know her well enough yet to assess just how serious she might be in pursuing it, but he definitely already worried.

The tale of the brave young woman disguising herself as a man in order to enter military service — usually in order to chase after some boy to whom she had a mulish attachment — was as old as the hills, and as familiar to Duo as to anyone else. But it occurred to him now to wonder exactly how romanticized those stories were. Had women actually successfully done that in the past? And with what degree of difficulty and personal suffering had it been accomplished? And surely, even if it had been feasible once, modern military procedure must make it next to impossible now.

He remembered when they’d opened up the draft to include men ages eighteen to forty-five just at the end of the last war because they’d needed the manpower; he hadn’t heard how the current system worked, but, knowing the U.S. had only recently become involved, doubted they were likely to be that desperate yet… desperate enough, maybe, to overlook the presence of disguised women in their ranks. A woman attempting to enter the U.S. Army simply didn’t seem practicable to Duo at this point.

What seemed a lot more likely was that Ethel would, sooner or later, attempt futilely to carry out her plan, and would either be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society, or get herself raped by some unscrupulous Army recruiter and then be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society. And in the unlikely event that her attempt proved fruitful, then she would have the dangers of war to face. No outcome of this venture seemed desirable, and apparently Ethel couldn’t see that.

Could Duo make her see it? He didn’t know. Based on his reflections of just moments before, he had no idea what to say to someone in a situation like this. Because if she or anyone else made the decision to go to war — admittedly a more difficult prospect, in her situation, than in many another — shouldn’t that choice, and the possibility of gruesome injury or death that went with it, be respected? Who was he to condemn someone for joining the army just because he personally believed war was detrimental to society and probably not worth giving up one’s life for? With his own attitude on the business as a whole so uncertain, how could he think to persuade someone else to stay out of it?

That particular aspect of the question didn’t matter, though, since he still believed Ethel couldn’t possibly con her way into the army without getting caught. What he would really need to convince her of was the futility of her scheme, the potential dangers of putting herself into a vulnerable position for the sake of something that wouldn’t work out in any case. And fortunately, this seemed a much easier argument to make than any larger-scale social or moral rumination on the nature of war.

In any case he would have to talk to her, and this in its turn brought up a whole new set of problems. Because, though he knew her not at all yet, what he’d seen of her so far seemed to paint her as not the type of person to take a talking doll very seriously. Her quiet frustration with a girlish present at the age of sixteen, her preference for overalls instead of a dress and a book about war instead of fairy tales — even her daydream that, though unfeasible, was far more down-to-earth than what Duo believed sixteen-year-old girls typically fantasized about — all this pointed toward an abundance of the practical and lack of the fanciful in her personality. Such people were often difficult to convince that magic really existed; regardless of what other explanation they came up with for Duo’s ability to speak, they often lent very little credence to anything he had to say.

If only he could write! He’d often felt that yearning, since in far more situations than this one penmanship would have been extremely useful. The ability to communicate with people in a manner that wouldn’t disclose his status as an enchanted doll would put him two steps up the long ladder back to humanity. And in this case, he could write to Ethel’s father, whom he guessed to be the strongest influence in her life, and explain the situation. Thus it should be, after all; it wasn’t fair that Duo found himself in a position — and not for the first time! — where, with his extremely limited resources, he had to attempt to mend a situation that should more properly have been tackled by friends and relatives of his human caretaker.

Silently he sighed (more of a mental gesture, since without sound or breath the action had no substance). He would do his best. Though his life experience had been, by now, more doll than human, more acted-upon than actor, still he was in years lived more than twice Ethel’s age… and arguably wiser. He wouldn’t abandon her to her fate simply because he felt awkward about it, passively look the other way while she destroyed herself. He just had to figure out what to say and how best to say it.

And when best. It seemed unwise to alert her to his sentience today, when she’d only barely taken possession of him, and if he kept an eye on her for a while he was likelier to get a more complete impression of her specific attitudes and intentions. Sooner or later he would have to introduce himself, but later might turn out to be the best option, and that relieved his mind somewhat.

And possibly he wouldn’t have to talk to her at all, at least about this issue. Unless she was considerably less intelligent than she’d seemed so far, she must be fully aware that, though she might be able to pass for a young man, she wouldn’t be able to pass for a young man old enough to fight in a war for a while yet. She would have to wait until some time had passed — probably until she was eighteen, as her earlier apostrophic dialogue had hinted. That was exactly two years away, so perhaps Duo had nothing to worry about. The war had already been on since 1939; with the U.S. involved now, surely it couldn’t continue for another two years, could it?

Missing (1955)

Duo lay on his face, not at all an unusual attitude for him. Unless someone had kindly left him in a sitting position or propped him up standing, on his back or on his face remained his only options when people unfamiliar with his ability to move were around. He’d grown accustomed to it. He did rather wish the carpet were thicker, as it might have provided some muffling effect for the incredibly boring conversation that was all he could hear at the moment. This Saturday apparently blazed enticingly, but not too oppressively, as many weekends had all autumn, drawing his kid outside without him to play, leaving him to listen to the father and the uncle talking dullness as usual. Duo had grown accustomed to that too, but on this particular day he longed for something more interesting, or at least that they would turn on the radio. He doubted he would be in any luck with either wish.

Today was Trowa’s birthday, and Duo had — rather unwillingly — developed a tradition over the last couple of decades of dwelling pretty obsessively on his old friend throughout this day (whenever he happened to be aware of the date), and sometimes on the days surrounding it. It couldn’t be healthy, and certainly wasn’t cheerful, but he had no choice. Unless something massive arose to distract him — and that conversation in the armchairs over there definitely didn’t qualify — no thought he could come up with, no memories even from such an unusual life as he’d lived, could engross him the way these thoughts of Trowa did on this day every year.

“If only we could count on someone other than that silly gal over at Hopkins’ for the flyers,” the uncle was complaining. Women weren’t the only targets of his rudeness, but they were the most common.

What, Duo wondered, did Trowa look like nowadays? Thirty to forty years ago, Trowa had embraced the aggressively slicked-back style that had been so popular in men’s hair at that time, using first petroleum and then (when he’d been better able to afford it) that disgusting Brilliantine stuff to create a shiny, plastered-down impression… but that trend had, thankfully, evolved into something slightly less awful, so Trowa must be sporting a different look.

“Well,” said the father, his voice thick with the same disapproval his brother-in-law had expressed, “she seems to be the only one around here who knows the trick of getting magical text onto a mundane printing.”

For his part, Duo had always resisted any style that threatened his braid, regardless of how fashionable or unfashionable he subsequently appeared, and had especially resisted the trend of putting slimy stuff into his luxurious hair. It was vanity, of course, every bit as much as Trowa’s careful parting and fad-conforming oiliness… but he knew Trowa had loved his braid too. That, he thought, had been a secret part of why he’d been so unwilling to relinquish it. He’d made the occasional joke that he wore it to give the ladies some alternative to the helmet-hair, but in reality it had been to some extent to please Trowa. And he also believed it had been Trowa’s strong preference for his braid that had allowed it to remain the same even in doll form — just another cruel little trick of the spell, really.

“If there were anyone else… If only one of us could do it… You can’t trust a woman to understand how important this is, or anything having to do with politics.” This sort of talk consistently prevented Duo from revealing himself to these guys.

Of course these days — today, in fact — Trowa would be 57 years old. How much hair would he have left? It must be all grey by now in any case. It distressed Duo, to an extent that surprised him and struck him as more than a little absurd, that he didn’t know what pattern Trowa might have gone bald in. And what kind of wrinkles did he have? Had his eyesight deteriorated — did he need glasses? How about his teeth? These were all ridiculously mundane considerations, but every once in a while Duo wondered about them with a fervor to match his own desire to be human again.

“She’ll just have to have very specific instructions on how we want them to look. If everything is laid out for her in simple language, she should be able to manage it. And Hopkins himself will take care of the physical printing, so we won’t have to worry about that part.”

And what was Trowa likely to be up to now? Had he stayed at that same factory, perhaps been promoted even higher, and made more and more money over the years? Duo could picture him as the overseer of multiple facilities, raking in the dough, respected and sought after by everyone.

“Do you think we should be concentrating more on the mundane voters?” In this the uncle didn’t truly ask his in-law for advice or even opinion; he merely sought agreement with what he already believed and intended.

But perhaps Trowa had moved on, left Raberba Manufacturing behind, and gotten into something new. He’d been so good at so many things, there seemed endless possibilities as to what profession he might have entered. He’d always been quietly, admirably dedicated to helping others — especially homeless waifs such as he’d once been — but, interestingly enough, it had always seemed to come from a sense of responsibility rather than kindness: where he had the capacity to help, he felt it his duty to do so. Maybe he’d gotten involved in something like that. There would probably be far less money in it than in the by-now-booming plastics industry, but it might fit better with his ideas of rightness.

“No, let his staff handle that side of things. That’s what they’re paid for. And his platform is solid enough.”

Had Trowa, Duo wondered with a faint mental sense somewhat similar to the old one of bodily illness, ever married? He could easily have grandchildren by now if he had. He’d always seemed to like women well enough… maybe, with Duo out of the way, he’d married the one — what had her name been? — that had come between them so long ago. Maybe he’d bought her all sorts of nice things, wooed her properly, and made a home for them both with his vast amounts of money. Or maybe he’d left that city, left her behind, and eventually met someone else. Duo couldn’t imagine someone as clever and right-thinking and handsome (even with the slicked-down hair) as Trowa remaining single for long.

“‘Solid?'” the uncle echoed. Pompously he declared, “Elmo R. Beard is gonna accomplish more than any mayor we’ve ever had.”

Or had Trowa, perhaps, turned out to be attracted to men just as Duo had? That was almost more painful to think about than the idea of his making a happy domestic life with some woman Duo had never met, because it would mean there might have been a chance for them if things had been different. It had taken Duo twenty years to realize he loved Trowa, but he would probably never know whether Trowa, for all he’d loved Duo’s braid, had ever loved Duo. Even if he had, he’d surely recovered, moved on to something else Duo didn’t want to think about. Duo hadn’t recovered yet, but that was hardly a surprise in his unchanging life. By now, however, all such old feelings that partook of his previous frame of reference were more or less mummified, and he supposed he would recover eventually.

“Absolutely,” the father agreed. “And if we can just get the magical community on our side, though it may not be enough to tip the vote, we’ll have a strong grassroots campaign.”

So what, if Trowa either had never loved him like that or had long since recovered from that love, did Trowa think of him these days? Duo couldn’t guess, especially as it depended largely on what had been going through Trowa’s head at the time of the spell’s casting. Duo had long ago convinced himself that, whatever Trowa had intended to happen when he’d muttered those words, this — this long, miserable, helpless existence as a piece of plastic without most human sensation and with no human opportunity — hadn’t been it. Trowa might have been annoyed — even truly angry — but a wide gulf stood between that emotional state and the willingness to commit an atrocity like this. Even a temporary transformation used as a sort of threat or punishment was something Duo considered beyond Trowa’s willingness and moral pale. And if this whole doll thing, this ruination of Duo’s life, had been in part or in whole an accident, Trowa’s feelings about what he’d done must have been every bit as wretched as Duo’s feelings about having it done to him. And what would those feelings have turned into after three decades?

“If only we could count on those flyers looking any damn good,” the uncle grumbled.

Trowa might have been horrified at first, and possibly even downright frantic to rescind what he’d done to Duo, determined to fix things. But as the years passed and they never met again, how would his feelings have transformed? Would he have come to accept the futility of seeking a twelve-inch child’s plaything in a huge country, come to terms with what he’d done, and moved on? Would he now think of Duo only occasionally, and with regret, yes, but only as a forlorn memory of a mistake he’d once made and couldn’t take back? Or would he have held onto the guilt and horror and allowed it to make him miserable in the long-term, warping his entire future, twisting his attitudes and outlook until no happiness remained for him? In that case, he probably thought of Duo as little as possible, and felt only bitterness and despair when he did.

“Even if they don’t look any good,” said the father reassuringly, “if they’ve only got the things he’s promised on them, they’ll be convincing enough.”

Of course, there was always the possibility Trowa had remained angry at him. Trowa had never been the type to blame someone else for his own actions, to dodge responsibility, but it had been Duo’s bad behavior that had led to the situation in which he’d cast whatever that spell had been. Duo had betrayed their friendship by horning in on that woman — what was her name? — and then goaded Trowa into a frame of mind so angry he’d gotten careless with his magic. It wasn’t actually Duo’s fault, of course — Trowa had made his choice, even if it had been a bad one — but Trowa might still bear a grudge against the friend whose aggravating actions had brought them to a point where that choice could ruin one or perhaps both of their lives. Trowa wouldn’t know just how much Duo had suffered, and might look back with some ire in his heart.

“Folks’ll have to see how important it is to elect Beard when they realize he’s got a complete magical overhaul of the railroad infrastructure lined up for once he’s in office. That’s gonna make Beaumont the most successful freight point in the state. If they’re not all the damn fools I think they are most of the time, they’ll have to vote right.”

And maybe… just maybe… Trowa not only had loved Duo, but still loved him to this day. He’d always been reserved about certain things, and it didn’t seem impossible for him to have been incubating the same affection Duo had, maybe even with the same level of obliviousness to his own feelings. Had he recognized them decades later, just as Duo had? Was he out there somewhere now, lonely and heartbroken, unable to move on, just as Duo was? This possibility topped all others in the anguish it produced — worse than Trowa avoiding thoughts of him, worse than Trowa’s anger, perhaps even worse than the idea of Trowa being dead. If he’d had tear ducts, Duo would have wept. Why did he have to go through this year after year? Why must he always be wondering and never satisfied on this point?

“They are damn fools. But we’ll bring ’em ’round. You’ll see.”

There were ways he could have attempted to seek answers. Sometimes, he knew, he let his own helplessness engulf him, and took less action than perhaps he should have. Those two men whose terminally dull conversation he couldn’t help overhearing, for instance, were magically gifted, and might believe him if he told them his story. But what good would that do? Even if they accepted every word, would they be willing to offer him any assistance? He had no good impression of their level of kindness in the first place, and even a much nicer person might hesitate to get involved in a situation like this. Then, supposing they were willing, what could they actually do? Drop everything, drive him to a place twenty hours north of here, and start a dubious search for some fellow that had lived there thirty years before?

Even if Trowa remained in the same city — hell, in the same state — what were the chances of finding him? How would Duo go about looking — just ask around? Trowa had meant the world to him, but never all that much to the world. Who was likely to remember him? No, no, it was pointless even thinking about it. Might as well give up the idea forever, and simply keep lying here on his face.

Peace and Long Life (1966)

For all he complained, there were times he preferred not being able to feel anything. The mere awareness that Trudy’s mouth was significantly more slobbery than Bibble’s (though Bibble was no slacker in that area herself) disgusted him at least mentally… if he’d had to feel his entire body getting gradually coated with dog slime, it might have been too much for his sanity. He liked canines — he really did — and didn’t much like felines, but in such instances thought he would prefer a cat’s paw batting at him, the way they sometimes did, for all it tangled his hair and damaged his clothing, to a dog’s teeth and tongue and overactive salivary glands.

And now the two dachshunds had started a tug-of-war with Duo’s body as the rope, and he sighed loudly. He could call for help, but Anne probably wouldn’t hear his quiet voice from the kitchen over the snarling and the living room cuckoo clock striking eight. He would need to wait until the dogs got bored and put him down — which in some instances took an anomalously long time. What he would most like was for Janice, if she must abandon him at her grandmother’s house when she went home for the evening, at least to leave him on one of the doilied end tables or somewhere else higher up out of the dogs’ reach… but what were little girls made of if not carelessness?

And he honestly didn’t mind being left at Anne’s house. Though Trudy and Bibble ran amok time after time, fighting over him, carrying him around, and chewing and slobbering on him for hours on end if not checked, this place wasn’t nearly the menagerie some homes he’d lived in had been. At least there were only two fat dogs, and no cats, rodents, or — he shuddered mentally — horses to put up with.

“Trudy! Bibble!” Even Anne’s stern voice was exceptionally grandmotherly, and her pets often disregarded it. They couldn’t disregard her hand — quicker and stronger than her tone, and all pruny with soapy water — reaching in to break up their private little war and seize Duo with no concerns about how much saliva he might be wearing. “Bad girls! Leave the poor doll alone!” The dogs made small circles at her feet, sometimes rising up onto hind legs to protest the removal of their toy, but Anne had none of it. She turned smartly and headed back into the kitchen, saying to Duo, “Let’s get you cleaned up, my friend.”

“It isn’t every day the beautiful maiden rescues the handsome prince,” Duo replied in an overdone tone of grateful appreciation.

Anne chuckled. “It isn’t every day someone calls me a beautiful maiden!”

“Anne by any other name would still be a beautiful maiden,” was Duo’s gallant answer.

Again she laughed. “I’m afraid that makes no sense.”

Duo thought through his words and admitted, “I’m afraid you’re right.” He clicked the tongue he didn’t have. “Beautiful and intelligent!”

As she set aside the dishes she’d evidently been working on when she’d heard growling in the other room and come to investigate, she rolled her eyes… but Duo knew she enjoyed the flirtation. She’d lost her husband, he understood, some years back — before he’d met her — and appreciated the attentions even of a toy whose reality as a person she rather doubted. And of course Duo appreciated the opportunity to connect with another adult, even one whose belief in his reality as a person left something to be desired.

For the first time in his plastic life, Duo had professionally tailored clothing, thanks to the recent release onto the market of a doll approximately his size whose fashions he could appropriate. Of course the striped sweater and white pants he currently wore were more or less hideous, even without the dog slobber, but it was a delightful novelty to have store-bought clothing at all. And now Anne finished up her errand of mercy by stripping him down and putting both doll and clothing into the kitchen sink where an endeavor of cleanliness had already been going on. He wished he could discern the apple scent of the dishwashing liquid she used to bathe him, but was relieved at the improvement of his circumstances in any case.

“You do love to get me naked, don’t you?” he couldn’t help remarking, his voice more muffled than usual by the water running over him.

“And you do love to make terribly inappropriate comments at an old woman,” Anne replied, again in that would-be-stern tone that fooled nobody.

The naked time wasn’t destined to end particularly soon, since, though Duo’s plastic form (if not his hair) could be dried off pretty easily, his outfit needed longer; so, nude and relatively happy, he sat on the counter beside the little shirt and trousers laid out on the towel beside him and watched Anne return to the dishes that had been interrupted by Duo and the dogs.

Anne was a bit of an enigma in her mundane domesticity. Her years of life numbered slightly fewer than Duo’s — by eighteen or so — but she seemed, somehow, to have a far greater amount of placidity in her later decades than Duo did. And perhaps that was merely because she’d actually been able to live for all that time, to have a happy marriage and children and all the feelings and experiences of a normal person rather than being trapped in sensationless and unchanging plastic. But perhaps it was something else as well.

For Duo, sometimes the deadly years crawled tortuously along so he thought he must go crazy before he met many more of them; while at other times, tomorrow was yesterday so quickly it left him reeling and breathless — purely in a psychological sense, of course. He didn’t know which he preferred. Swift chronological progress meant nothing to someone that didn’t change and couldn’t change anything, but there were definitely some unpleasant happenings he would prefer to get through quickly rather than slowly. And outside, independent of how rapidly Duo’s life was or wasn’t moving, the world underwent its own metamorphosis such as he had never seen before — and, indeed, only imperfectly saw now through the media of television and gossip.

Instead of struggling valiantly to support the war effort with every last beat of their patriotic hearts as he’d watched them do thirty years before, people avidly protested that there was a war on at all. Popular music, apparently, was becoming increasingly sexualized and raucous, and was enjoyed in shameless defiance of a disapproving older generation. The oppressed and ignored were rising up and demanding rights and recognition that had long been denied them, willing to flout authority in pursuit of this end. And in many cases, it seemed, the children were leading these undertakings as adolescents and young adults gained a greater voice as discrete peoples.

Even Christine, Anne’s daughter, though she’d been adolescent herself in the 40’s and might have been expected to exhibit the habits of that era, never wore dresses these days and single-handedly supported little Janice, who subsequently stayed at her grandmother’s house in the afternoons and evenings until her mother came to pick her up after work. Sometimes Janice even stayed until morning, and was then driven to school by or else enjoyed a leisurely Saturday with Anne, in order to give Christine freedom to have overnight guests in that man trap of an apartment of hers.

Duo wasn’t certain how he felt about all these new ideas. Sure, he’d engaged in extramarital sex himself back when he’d been capable of it, but only ever with one person at a time — and he certainly hadn’t needed to temporarily relocate a naive eight-year-old in order to do it! He also wasn’t sure how Anne could be so tranquil, could give hardly the wink of an eye to a way of life so very different from what she’d grown up with — nor why he seemed to be experiencing such dissonance in observing it. Were those eighteen years between them really enough to make him so much less accepting than she was? Or else why couldn’t he feel the same peace she did?

He decided, as he watched his latest child’s grandmother placidly finishing up the dishes and then moving on to a barely-necessary more generalized kitchen cleanup, that what he truly wanted was a piece of the action. He wanted to be out there in the midst of the change instead of just faintly hearing about it from afar. He didn’t know how he felt about these new ideas of sexual freedom, but he would like to try them. He had lived through three wars and seen what they did to individuals and society, and would like to protest this latest. He was probably a gay man, and would like to say it proudly to anyone and everyone once he got that sorted. And others fighting for liberation — women and colored folk and so on — surely deserved a chance too! He would march in anyone’s parade that sought better conditions for honest, worthy people. He might even like to hear some of that ‘rock and roll’ music that had been gaining so much traction over the last ten or fifteen years.

But he couldn’t have sex. He couldn’t protest; he couldn’t fight; he couldn’t march. And he had no choice about what he did or didn’t listen to. In the end, his discontentment — and his discontentment with Anne’s contentment — found its basis not in disapproval, nor some supposed moral high ground, nor trepidation about where this new era would lead society… in fact it boiled down to the exact same thing it always did: he hated being a doll. Yes, in some ways he and Anne were similar — both aging products of a previous era watching the world evolve in front of them but taking very little part in it — but in one fundamental way they were very, very different.

She could, if she wished, get involved, but was satisfied not to. He could not, even if he wished, get involved, and was beyond dissatisfied. She was comfortable, after having lived a fulfilling life, to retire to her own happy private world of spoiling her pets and her granddaughter and obsessively scrubbing everything. He would prefer, after having his life put on hold for so long, to dive right off the side of paradise into the uncertain waters of societal progress and see where they took him.

But instead he was played with by children, stored away like the object he was, dropped, forgotten, and fought over by dogs. And what, for him, could possibly be the alternative? Factor in his near-complete immobility, his diminutive frame, and the quietness of his voice, and the chances of his ever being involved in the world, having what could be called an adult life, seemed depressingly minuscule.

Of course there was the dim possibility of his condition being reversed, of whatever spell Trowa had laid on him being broken… but by the time such a distant and unlikely event took place, would that which survived his long years as a doll be worth anything? All his yesterdays were slowly adding up to a tomorrow he didn’t necessarily want to return to. What would he be when no longer a doll? Could he make a new life in this new civilization he was watching grow up around him?

“Finished!” Anne gave the kitchen a long, critical look. Despite her owning two dogs, dirt remained above all things the enemy within this house, and she spent more time cleaning than anyone Duo had ever met. Now, however, the spotless kitchen (which to the doll appeared very little different than when he’d been in here earlier with Janice) evidently met her satisfaction, and she was able to hang up her apron for the nonce. Then she returned to where Duo sat on the counter and smiled down at him. “Fancy some television?”

“Yes, please!” The thought actually significantly cheered him, as television, ever since its invention, had proven an excellent distraction and a window into a wider world he wasn’t otherwise allowed to see much of — the best stand-in for actual involvement he was likely to get. He winked at Anne as he added, “If you don’t mind me sitting beside you in my elegant birthday suit, that is.”

“You’re a rogue,” she replied, picking him up. “But, yes, I think we’ll leave your clothes drying a little longer.” And she turned each piece over so as to air their opposite sides.

Since Friday’s child-care would probably run overnight — Duo had heard Christine making arrangements with a couple of her lovers, and therefore assumed Janice would begin the weekend here at Anne’s — he needed to take advantage of this Thursday evening to make all the borderline-risqué comments he could. “I think you just want an excuse to keep my manly figure uncovered as long as possible.”

“Shameless!” Anne laughed. “You may not say anything more like that during the program. It’s a new science fiction series my friend recommended to me, and I want to pay attention.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo allowed. “I’ll just pine in silence.”

Still chuckling, complacent as usual, Anne carried him into the darkness of the next room and lit it up by switching on the television set. And Duo supposed that, whatever changes the future held — in the world and in his own long life — and whatever frustrating inability he had to endure before he reached the unknown, he could probably face it all well enough with a peaceful example like this in mind.

Annunciation (1976)

In good news, the jar, though smeared with little fingerprints and dusted with dirt, remained clear glass and had had its label removed, and was therefore more or less transparent. In bad news, it had rolled such that Duo, inside it down to his thighs, faced the ground and still couldn’t see anything around him. He could probably heft himself over so as at least to be able to look at the sky for some minimal entertainment while alone, but only if he could be sure he was alone — and of course, lying on his face like this, he couldn’t be.

How much he actually needed that surety, however, he didn’t know; he’d been wondering lately whether it wasn’t about time to start talking to Rosa. If that time had come, manipulating himself onto his back with a stiff arm and leg wouldn’t be any worse a preface to their first conversation than anything else. But revealing that he could (to a certain extent) move under his own power would force the first conversation whether or not the time had come if Rosa happened to be around. Besides, Maria might be nearby as well — this was the exact problem with lying on his face — and Duo knew very well he didn’t want to speak to the superstitious Maria today or possibly any day.

Rosa, though, was a smart kid. Much smarter than her eight years might suggest, and too smart, if what Duo overheard on a regular basis inside the house was any indication, for her teachers to have any idea what to do with. But what baffled the public school system might win Duo a friend and ally. It would be so nice to have someone to talk to, someone to understand his situation again.

What he referred to in his head as ‘first contact’ had a certain ritual about it — a pattern of events that played out with a significant amount of similarity every time and thus that he’d come to regard almost as something he chose to have happen rather than something that merely naturally did. He would start by trying not to be a smart aleck, by saying something reasonable and not too dramatic to announce himself and his abilities. And then the response tended to fall into one of a few predictable categories.

There were the scared kids, of whom the subcategories were the ones Duo had to work on over multiple sessions before their fear would fade, and the ones that gave in to the cool factor much quicker. There were the canny kids that thought at first some friend or family member must be playing a trick on them; and their subcategories were the ones that maintained a dubious demeanor for a while in order to deny plausibly that they’d ever believed in him just in case they turned out to be right, and the ones that secretly wanted to believe and therefore dropped the pretense of skepticism fairly soon. And there were the kids that simply accepted from the beginning with little to no persuasion, whose subcategories were calmness, enthusiasm, and weirder enthusiasm. Perhaps this made for a decently large number of reaction possibilities, but Duo had seen them all multiple times, and he could usually guess, after getting to know a kid for a while, how that kid would behave when the revelation came.

Rosa, he thought, would be either the calmly accepting or the enthusiastic type. She would ask intelligent questions to comprehend the situation, and, once she understood, would assimilate the information into her life and get on with things. Then she and Duo could have conversations on a regular basis that would make existence a little less tedious, and future games could be enriched by two-sided dialogue.

That was all assuming Maria didn’t find out. Duo believed he could predict her reaction too, and it wouldn’t be nearly so measured and rational as Rosa’s: she would gasp and go as pale as her complexion allowed and cross herself and whisper something about the devil and pull Rosa away and probably call a priest to come confiscate the possessed toy. She might even insist the family pack up and move. He couldn’t be sure just how far she would take it, but he knew what, in general, she would do. Nope, definitely not planning to talk to Maria.

So he lay on his face continuing to consider whether it was time or not and listening for sounds of Rosa’s return from inside the house. Rosa and her mother often ate lunch outside, but today Duo had gotten the feeling — from their conversation as they went in, of course, not from any ability to detect the fact on his own — that it was a little cool out. Of course, in Arizona, ‘a little cool out’ probably still meant ‘warmer than anything but summer where Duo had lived back when he’d had the ability to discern temperatures.’ Be that as it might, Rosa and Maria were inside eating lunch, and Duo abandoned outside alone (he thought) in his spaceship.

Rosa had been learning about astronomy lately, and had developed a sudden burning passion for exploration of the cosmos. Thus Duo had transitioned abruptly from the previous, somewhat nebulous occupation of ‘hero’ that had kept him busy for the last few months to that of astronaut. The empty pickle jar was the latest in a series of experimental spaceships, and not, he thought, the most successful: though Maria had promised Rosa she could use construction paper to decorate it up like a real shuttle, it remained too short for Duo’s entire body and therefore faulty for the purpose.

Motion caught Duo’s eye, and he honestly didn’t want to know what it was. The only things he could possibly see from his current position were likely to fall under at least one of the headings ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly,’ and, despite being unable to feel the pitter-patter of tiny feet across his plastic body, he nevertheless deplored the awareness of its presence. Curiosity, however, got the better of distaste and compelled him to look down as best he could. His head didn’t swivel far in that direction, but it was far enough to disclose the blackish-brown figure of a small scorpion squeezing its way between Duo and the concave glass on which he lay.

With a severe mental shudder, Duo wondered why on earth the little creature wanted to be there, of all places. Had the sun through the bottle glass created a warm haven against the cool day? In any case, lying here spooning a scorpion ranked quite low on his list of favorite activities. He weighed the value of waving all his limbs (in an attempt to get the thing to flee) against the possibility that Rosa or her mother could come out of the house at any time without making enough noise to herald their approach.

This had been a fortunate consideration, for, before he’d come to any actual decision, he picked up footsteps and voices — Rosa’s and Maria’s — closer than he would have thought they could get without his noticing them. But he was on a space mission, and, as Rosa had carefully informed her parents just the other day, sound didn’t carry through space. Revealing himself at the moment was out of the question.

Or was it? The entire situation shifted as Duo realized what his two caretakers had come to do. Maria remarked, evidently upon catching sight of Duo’s bottle, “I think it will work great. We’ll tape the pot onto it, and it’ll be a perfect space shuttle.” And then smaller running steps, excited, hurried toward where Duo lay.

The doll had barely a second to plan his actions. He hadn’t considered the scorpion in the jar anything beyond an annoyance and discomfort he would have to deal with for a little while. But now it threatened to be far more than that to more than only him.

He’d been sure all along that Maria’s fear of the devil (which encompassed fear of anything she deemed supernatural, though Duo didn’t think she’d ever encountered anything truly magical besides himself) would make her the type of parent that would throw him away or take him to Goodwill the moment she became aware he could talk. No matter how rationally her daughter might explain that the doll was a friend and not evil, her daughter was, after all, only eight years old. Duo could in no way talk to Maria and hope to retain his place in this home. And he liked this home.

But a scorpion sting could kill a kid that small.

Without hesitation, at what, for lack of a better term, he must call the top of his lungs, Duo shouted, “Don’t touch the bottle! There’s a scorpion inside!”

All noise ceased, and Duo could not make out what happened next. No hand seemed to be reaching in for him; had he succeeded in delivering the message? He couldn’t take any chances. So again he cried, as loudly as possible, “Don’t touch the bottle! Scorpion!”

He thought he heard Maria gasp a broken prayer, and shuffling footsteps that might have been scrambling backward. Underneath him, Duo believed the scorpion stirred a bit, though certainty eluded him when he couldn’t feel the creature and wasn’t looking that direction. Then Maria’s voice sounded more surely: “No, you stay back there. Don’t go close to it. Let me…” And something clinked loudly against the side of the jar, which rocked a bit into a ponderous roll.

The sluggish movement couldn’t flip Duo over, only slid him along the bottom, but it was enough to vex the scorpion and send it outside; Duo knew this mostly by the little shrieks both Maria and Rosa gave. Then there were more quick footsteps and a crunching thud that probably heralded the end of the arachnid that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Duo couldn’t help thinking, Good riddance.

Continual crunching (somewhat disturbing to listen to no matter what Duo thought about scorpions) signified, he guessed, a large stone being shifted back and forth on top of the creature. Just as Duo had felt a minute before, Maria obviously didn’t want to take any chances. Then silence fell once again, nearly — this time marred by Maria’s heavy but unsteady breaths as if she were on the verge of sobbing. But she managed with relative evenness to ask, “Is it safe now?”

“Yeah…” Duo replied resignedly. If he’d already destroyed his future here by talking in front of Maria, he might as well finish the job. “There was only the one.”

Maria snatched up the jar and drew Duo out of it, her eyes moving manically back and forth between the two objects. Behind her stood Rosa, looking not so much afraid as curious. It really was time.

Except then Maria closed her eyes and whispered, “Dear Lord, thank you for saving my girl. Thank you for your voice of warning. Thank you.” Tears began to run down her face, at first in little rivulets but soon in torrents, as she repeated the grateful prayer a few times more. The third time, she referred to the preceding events as a miracle.

So now Duo definitely didn’t know what to say.

Maria calmed somewhat at last, stopped praying, and crossed herself (more or less) with the hand holding the jar. It probably would have looked absurd even to someone that was religiously inclined. “Rosa,” she said, turning to face her daughter, “I want you to remember that you’ve heard the voice of God. He saved you from the scorpion, so I know He must have something great planned for you.”

There were about a hundred things Duo could have said at this point. Obviously Rosa was headed for something great, but because she was a genius, not because of the will of God. Unless, of course, she got accidentally turned into a doll at some point, in which case she was headed for something completely awful. That was the thing about God: if he existed, he sure as hell didn’t care whether or not innocent people suffered for fifty-three years. And when an innocent, suffering person that had just risked his comfort and future and possibly even safety for the sake of someone whose mother then attributed the gesture to that same unfeeling and probably nonexistent God, it represented yet another blow against everything fair and rational in the universe. But Duo, dumbstruck, couldn’t utter a word of this.

“That was God’s voice?” Rosa wondered, sounding impressed. “I thought God would talk Latin like at church.”

Maria’s religion had made Duo wary of introducing himself to her, because he’d believed she would assume he was some devil-possessed object — not practically the opposite! He’d never been mistaken for a divine channel before, and not only did it annoy him, it discomforted and dismayed him.

“God can speak every language,” Maria told her child. “And see how He can say exactly what you need to hear at just the right time?”

Whether Maria believed the Voice Of God had come from Duo or merely out of the jar, the doll had no real way to be sure, unless he happened to be in the room later when Maria recounted these events to her husband — and possibly not even then… but it made very little difference. Whichever she believed at the moment, the very instant Duo spoke aloud again in her hearing, she would be confirmed in the doll side of the theory. She would think God still talked through him, and would be disturbingly grateful to hear whatever he had to say.

Rosa was peering at the dead scorpion now, intrigued. “Can I take it to school?”

But Duo wouldn’t have anything to say. The thought of impersonating a messenger from God would have been enough, even more than the scorpion, to make his skin crawl if he’d had skin. It didn’t matter much that he didn’t believe in God and, in fact, felt rather bitter anyone else still could. It would fill him with an entirely different bitterness to stage such a deception. And what would he say, anyway? “Be nice to all talking dolls from now on; thus saith the Lord!”

“No, love,” Maria replied. She’d barely looked away from the doll in her hand to see what Rosa was referring to. “We’ll get daddy to throw it away when he gets home. Don’t get too close to it.”

Of course there might be a backtracking option: to explain to Rosa privately that her mother had been mistaken, that he was merely an enchanted human rather than a divine vessel (he would avoid using the term ‘curse’ that he’d been revolving in his head for a number of years now)… but aside from doubting he could count on Rosa not to share whatever he said with Maria even if he requested silence, he didn’t think he could face doling out that kind of disillusionment.

“Can we go fix the spaceship now?” Rosa asked.

Maria hesitated. She was still staring in awe at Duo, and the degree to which she ignored the jar in her other hand seemed to indicate her belief that the holiness did not lie there. Duo guessed that, in spite of this, she worried about the potential sacrilege of fashioning a play spaceship out of it after the events of the day. Perhaps she hoped the godly mouthpiece would put in an opinion on the matter. Too bad the godly mouth was defiantly, disgustedly, permanently shut.

“Let’s… let’s go inside,” she said at last. “We’ll see.”

And so Duo was carried reverently into the house and an uncertain future with the depressing knowledge that he’d saved a brilliant little kid from a lot of trouble and possibly death by sacrificing any chance he had to make a friend of her… that by choosing to talk to Rosa and Maria once, he’d made it impossible ever to talk to them again. That he’d doomed himself to an even worse time in this home he hadn’t wanted to lose by valuing human life… something he didn’t even have.

The Irony of Not Actually Being a Liar (1984)

It had begun with Todd asking Duo several times if he was sure he couldn’t be damaged, to the point where Duo had felt it necessary to relate some of the experiences he’d had during the long years that would otherwise have meant some degree of destruction to a helpless plastic doll — including being run over on multiple occasions by motor vehicles, left on the floor of a Jacuzzi for half a week, and an encounter with an InSinkErator that the kid responsible had always (Duo believed falsely) claimed was an accident. Then Todd had gotten that conniving look and left the room, and Duo hadn’t had any idea what was in store until several days later.

Now Todd, three friends, and his younger sister Stacey, in whose six-year-old hands Duo currently rotated, had gathered in the Kelly family garage. Devoid of car while Lt. Kelly was at work, it left them plenty of free space, but Duo still had no idea what was in store. For one thing, the only light in the room came from the small windows across the top of the closed garage door, so he had an imperfect view of the setup to begin with; for another, Stacey rarely held him still so he could actually look at things — she constantly shifted him around into different positions, so at any given moment he might equally well be staring at the ruffles on the bottom of her shirt or the kitchen door behind her as what everyone had gathered for.

“Why don’t you turn on the light,” Ned complained.

“You’ll see!” Observing his friends weren’t buying this cryptic reply, Todd added, “It’ll look cooler in the dark when I get the fire lit.”

“You’re lighting a fire?” No surprise Sumit hadn’t been able to figure out what Todd was fumbling with.

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” said Rhonda gleefully.

Todd declared, “No, I’m not. Look, it’s in a can — a metal can’s not going to catch on fire — and I put it way out here in the middle where there’s nothing around it. It’s totally safe.”

They all crowded in, and Stacey’s hands remained stationary enough for several seconds that Duo could see the large coffee can, presumably filled with combustibles of some type, on top of a cinder block in the center of the otherwise empty expanse of concrete garage floor.

“Don’t stand so close, you guys!” Todd complained. “You’re making shadows and I can’t see the matches.” He still fumbled, and had yet to produce even a single spark.

“There’s going to be smoke, though,” Sumit protested, “even if nothing else catches on fire!”

Frustrated tone testament to his continual lack of luck with the matches, Todd said, “Oh, don’t be such a baby. There’s no smoke detector out here.”

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” Rhonda repeated.

Ned wondered, “How’d you hang this thing up?” He referred to, and poked at, the unidentifiable object — some type of roughly rectangular framework — that dangled mysteriously several inches above the coffee can and swung in response to his prodding finger.

“I climbed up on the rafters and tied it up there.” Todd sounded extremely proud of himself.

Stacey contributed to the conversation for the first time with, “Mom says you’re not supposed to climb up there.”

“I know, but don’t tell her, OK?”

Stacey remained silent. Her nervousness about the proceedings showed in her tight and now relatively unmoving grip on Duo. The doll didn’t blame her; he still hadn’t figured out what was going on, but doubted the ingenious Todd, in dragging his friends into a dark garage and breaking so many rules, could possibly have anything particularly edifying planned.

“Can’t the strings catch on fire?” Sumit was a bit of a worrier, which in this situation was probably for the best.

“They’re fishing line,” said Todd dismissively. “Even if the fire got that high, they’d just melt, not burn and catch anything else on fire.”

Scornfully Rhonda said, “You don’t know how to use those matches. Let me do it.”

“I can use them just fine!” Todd jerked away from her. “I just can’t see anything!”

“Let’s turn the light on for a minute,” Ned suggested. “Just ’til you get the matches lit.” And when Todd reluctantly agreed, he fumbled his own way to the nearby dangling string, with its attached ping-pong ball that tapped against the windshield when the car had pulled in far enough to avoid having the garage door close on its rear bumper, and clicked the space around them into visibility.

“All right,” Todd said, and set to work again. It soon became clear, though, that Rhonda’s suggestion had been pretty near the truth — either he didn’t know how to use matches or just hadn’t had enough experience with them to do so smoothly or practically. He kept bending them out of shape without successfully striking them across the back of the book.

Duo rather hoped Todd would continue to fail until he’d mangled all the matches beyond any usefulness. The doll believed this had something to do with him and his indestructibility; he’d recalled, by now, their conversation of last week, and linked it with this scene with a fair degree of certainty. That framework hanging from the rafters, which in the light he now identified as having been formed out of wire coat-hangers, looked very much like some sort of torture rack as it dangled above the proposed fire-pit.

Todd’s creativity and handiness usually didn’t take so malicious a bent, but Duo couldn’t think of anything else the device could be intended for. And though Todd’s friends would certainly be impressed by a doll that resisted melting or blackening while dangling over a fire — undoubtedly one of the reasons he’d put this little demonstration together — Stacey was just as certain to be agitated and frightened by the scene. And Duo was Stacey’s doll, not Todd’s, even if his revelation of intelligence had brought him closer to the ten-year-old than to the younger sibling that technically owned him.

A triumphant noise issued from Todd’s throat as the latest match burst into flame and, not dropped in startlement like the previous, stayed there. Then his movements were perhaps a little jerky with haste as he hurried to light whatever filled the coffee can before the match could go out. Quickly he withdrew his hand, and there followed abruptly an up-springing of fire that seemed to give him a great deal of satisfaction.

“OK, Stace,” he said, turning to his sister and holding out his hand, “gimme Duo.”

Duo doubted Stacey had seen this coming, but that didn’t make her emphatic negative response less immediate. She took a step back, clutching at her doll now with both hands and vigorously shaking her head.

“Come on,” Todd wheedled. “You said you wanted to see the movie… I’m going to show you the best part!”

“He’ll get hurt!” Stacey looked back and forth from her brother to the fire in the coffee can with wide eyes.

“No, he won’t, I promise.”

Here Sumit put in with some concern, “But his clothes and hair–”

“He won’t get burned!” Todd interrupted impatiently. “Besides, your parents won’t let you see it either.”

Reluctantly Sumit had to admit the truth in this.

Rhonda had caught the interest of the scene — either that or she wanted the pleasure of tattling on Todd once he’d destroyed his sister’s toy — and now brought her own influence to bear. “Come on, Stacey, it’ll be fun!”

“I know what part he wants to do,” was Ned’s contribution, “and it really is the best part. Maybe this is the only way you’ll ever get to see it!”

Todd held out his hand again. “Come on, Stacey!”

The combination of legitimate curiosity with peer pressure (which she probably knew would become browbeating after not too long) forced the six-year-old to give in, and, though her motion in handing Duo over remained reluctant, she finally complied with the wishes of the group. Duo, as he so often did, restrained a sigh when he found himself looking up at Todd’s eager face; this couldn’t end well. In better news, the process of convincing Stacey and the subsequent preparation was taking so long that the fire might well have completely died out by the time the main event got started.

Todd began stripping off Duo’s clothing — which, having originally been designed for 1970’s Ken, Duo did not regret, but didn’t envisage being replaced by anything nicer anytime soon — while the other kids crowded around to see what he was doing. Of course as soon as the pants were removed, Rhonda started giggling uncontrollably, which made the boys laugh as well, but Todd stuck to his purpose: he’d withdrawn from his pocket what appeared to be the excised toe-end of a sock punctured twice so as to accommodate the legs of an unsuspecting doll. This makeshift undergarment, upon application, proved too big, but Todd had anticipated this, and fastened it in place with a rubber band cinching it close around Duo’s waist.

“He looks like he’s wearing a diaper,” said Rhonda, still giggling despite the hilarious penis having been covered up. Ned, also with a bit of residual laughter, agreed with her.

“You guys have anything to make a real loincloth for a doll out of?” Todd retorted. “I couldn’t leave him in that stuff, could I?” And he pointed disdainfully at the imitation-corduroy pants and striped red shirt he’d thrown to the floor, which, at his gesture, Stacey now snatched protectively up. Then, turning toward the coffee can and hanging wires, he said, “Now I just have to get him into the thing.”

This turned out easier said than done, as Todd planned to tie Duo’s arms and legs down with more fishing line, which proved absolutely impossible (without an additional hand or four) while holding the framework away from the fire and Duo motionless at the same time. Eventually he had to accept assistance from Ned and Rhonda, and the task went on far longer (and with a lot more arguing) than probably any of them had anticipated. Sumit stood on tiptoe trying to watch in evident agitation, Stacey was obviously bored despite her equal concern, and Duo might have been increasingly sanguine about the diminution of the fire if he hadn’t been directly facing it the entire time. Whatever Todd had put into that coffee can, it hadn’t yet stopped its steady burn even after all this nonsense. It looked like this torture ceremony really must happen, then. Duo could only hope Stacey wouldn’t be too traumatized; perhaps the boredom and impatience would act as a sort of buffer.

“OK, OK,” said Todd at last as Duo fell into place above the crackling flames and swung slightly before the boy steadied him. “Now you guys stand over here–” he gestured– “and I’ll do the ceremony.”

“There should only be three of us,” protested Ned.

“I don’t want to be the girl,” Rhonda complained at the same time. “I don’t like her!”

Also simultaneously Stacey, all fear for Duo’s safety abruptly renewed, squeaked, “What are you going to do to him?”

Todd addressed multiple concerns at once. “Stacey, you stand next to me — you’re one of the coltists, and I’m the high priest — and the rest of you guys stand over there. It doesn’t matter who’s who, because you just have to watch and pretend like you’re hiding.”

“But the girl didn’t watch.” Rhonda stood her ground. “She was too scared, remember? So we have to decide who’s the girl, because that person can’t watch, and I don’t want it to be me.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “But you have to be her. One of us can’t be her!”

At the same moment Sumit asked, “What’s happening? What are we doing?”

“We can just pretend the girl did watch,” Todd said in a loud and dictatorial tone, “and then it doesn’t matter who’s the girl because you can all watch. Sumit…” Though clearly impatient to get on with his big scene, he also took pity on those in the dark as to plotline, for he next gave a summary (which would have been brief if not for the helpful interjections of Rhonda and Ned) of the events that had brought the characters represented here to the scenario about to take place.

To this Duo, who hadn’t been to the movie and probably never would, paid little attention (though admittedly he was starting to understand why the Kelly parents weren’t allowing their younger child to see it). He watched Stacey’s pinched-up, worried little face with growing concern — not that he could do anything to help — and hoped she wouldn’t cry herself to sleep tonight and then wake screaming from bad dreams her parents would be at a loss to comprehend.

Finally — and, as far as Duo could tell, the fire had actually only gotten higher in its metal container — it was time. Stacey could not be convinced to chant or drum on anything or even stamp her feet, so Todd gave up on her participation entirely and turned toward Duo in his framework with a portentous expression; actually he looked somewhat constipated. As Todd began mumbling nonsense words (under his breath so as to hide the fact that they were random and unscripted) and stroking the doll’s face on both sides with one finger, Duo noticed they’d neglected to turn the light back off.

Todd’s incoherence rose in pitch and comprehensibility as he shouted, so abruptly it made most of the others jump, “Kali maa!” He lifted one hand toward the ceiling and repeated the phrase several times, his volume increasing with each instance.

The effect was entirely spoiled, however, when Ned cried out accusingly, in response to some movement of Todd’s other hand, “He didn’t use a knife!”

Todd turned an annoyed face toward Ned. “I can’t really stick my hand inside him, can I?”

“You can’t cut Duo!” Stacey shrieked, and now Duo could see the Swiss army knife Todd had pulled from his pocket.

“It won’t really hurt him,” Todd told her in a low, firm tone, seemingly far more concerned with being allowed to continue his act as high priest than actually comforting Stacey.

Sumit, confused and unhelpful, put in at this point, “I don’t think Kali would really–”

“Kali maa!” Todd roared by way of override, jerking the knife’s biggest blade out and raising the weapon threateningly.

“He didn’t say it that loud,” Ned muttered.

Abruptly Todd stabbed at Duo’s chest, repeating the dramatic phrase yet again at top volume. And once more the effect was ruined, since the gesture only set the framework swinging wildly, the contact between sharp metal and imperturbable plastic far too brief to amaze Todd’s friends and reassure his sister as to Duo’s indestructibility. With a frustrated sound Todd caught and stilled the wire with his left hand, holding it solidly in place as he took aim with his right, again made his meaningless declaration that seemed to have Sumit so perplexed, and gave Duo’s chest another, more solid jab.

This time the effect was not so much spoiled as augmented, since the knife glanced off plastic pectorals, slid to the side, and, as far as Duo could tell without turning his head, drove right into the hand holding the framework still. Todd’s latest “Kali maa!” broke off in a sort of surprised croak, and he dropped the knife with a clatter and drew back a suddenly bleeding hand to stare at in bewilderment and shock. The garage was overtaken, but for the crackling of the fire, by complete silence.

Then Stacey started to scream.

Pandemonium, complete with stomping feet, shrieking from some voices and ever-louder suggestions and comments from others, rapidly ensued. With everyone crowding so tightly, Duo was surprised he wasn’t torn down or the coffee can knocked over. He supposed the heat of the fire kept them at a safe distance.

Though weak-voiced and in some evident shock, Todd regained his presence of mind quicker than Duo would have expected. He held his wounded hand high, trying to prevent the others from touching it — which didn’t help at all to stop blood getting everywhere — and urged them to quiet down. He’d lost his audience, however, and found himself quickly overridden by a general insistence that they needed to go inside, wash the cut, put alcohol on the cut, bandage the cut, stitch the cut, cotch-rize the cut, and probably get Mrs. Kelly involved. While this latter was obviously the last thing Todd wanted under the circumstances, he no longer had any say in the matter.

Stacey had stopped actually screaming, but still made a string of distressed noises and gripped her brother by the arm not flailing in the air, and nobody could get her to shut up or let go. Rhonda looked inordinately gleeful about this bloody fate of someone for whom she supposedly had feelings of friendship, while it appeared all of Sumit’s worst nightmares were coming true. Ned was the loudest in insisting on seeking out medical attention (of the home-brew variety) for Todd, and the latter struggled just to make his voice heard. None of them seemed to remember, as they stampeded their agitation and din across the garage, the fire they left burning behind them. There was no reason they should remember, under the circumstances, the doll hanging above it. And presently, to the sound of the kitchen door slamming so hard it must seize Mrs. Kelly’s attention wherever she might be in the house, Duo found himself alone.

He’d known this would happen. Well, he hadn’t known exactly this would happen — that Todd would stab himself in the hand and the kids would all run off in a panic, leaving Duo hanging above an unexpectedly tenacious fire that now rose high enough now to lick at his legs — but he’d known this would end badly. And there had been absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Oh, sure, he could have talked to them, could have tried to convince Todd not to go through with it. But even aside from his desire not to expose himself at once to three extra people from divergent situations, would it have done any good? He had no authority and barely any influence; even the weight of his long experience might not have convinced these kids that their play was likely to be harmful in more than one way. In all probability they simply wouldn’t have believed a word he had to say; some of them might not even have believed a real person said it.

Duo let out a protracted sigh. He didn’t bother trying to stifle it this time. Even had someone been around, he wouldn’t have worried about the sound giving him away — the fire crackled too loudly.

And he couldn’t feel it. No matter how his situation changed, no matter how many years passed, this remained the same: even flames hot and high enough to have set his clumsy loincloth ablaze made no impression whatsoever on his nerves. Well, better to say he didn’t have nerves, just some kind of magical awareness that informed him coldly — ever so coldly, in situations like this — of something touching him. And even that was limited, apparently, to when he legitimately needed to know; at the moment he barely recognized the flames licking at him, more clearly the disintegration of his single garment, and only either of these because he concentrated on them.

Well, he wouldn’t be able to say ‘I told you so’ to Todd, since he hadn’t actually told him anything except the unfortunate information that had facilitated all of this — but he did hope Todd had learned his lesson about trying to impress his friends with fire and knives, and that his hand wasn’t so badly damaged he must spend the rest of his life regretting the tuition.

And what lesson had Duo taken from all of this? That sock toes burned slowly? That movies were becoming increasingly violent? Or perhaps that even the kindest-hearted of children were capable at times of a ridiculous level of insensitivity, even cruelty, against which Duo in his current state was utterly powerless?

But perhaps having a talk with Todd after the fact would work better than the hypothetical during. If Duo could only draw from this experience the moral that rules were in place for a reason (and if Todd’s wound proved mendable), they could survive and grow, and hopefully remain on good terms. Duo’s latest sigh turned unexpectedly into a laugh. For as little as the precise circumstances in which he now found himself were characteristic, he really felt like a dad sometimes.

It Hasn’t All Been Kids (1997)

Duo didn’t think he liked the expression on the face of the man that had done a double-take, retraced his steps to the dingy shelf full of worn old toys, and picked Duo out of the clutter to lift him up and look more closely at him. He’d come to associate that expression, on an adult, with being boxed up and wrapped, generally still naked but occasionally more creatively clothed, and given to other adults as the funniest birthday or bachelor(ette) party present they’d ever received. Usually when he saw that look on someone’s face in the Arc, he was back on that same Arc shelf within a few weeks after an experience he found far less hilarious than did the other people involved.

“Two fifty?” wondered the man under his breath, turning Duo over and finding the price tag Duo was absolutely positive would have itched like crazy if he’d been able to itch. “That’s not bad.”

Yeah, when they commented on his relative dollar value after staring at his penis, the stars had not aligned well. With an internal sigh, Duo began the process of bracing himself, though he’d started to consider it not worth much anymore.

Against the conversation at the checkstand he couldn’t exactly stop his ears — they weren’t even physical ears; even the world’s tiniest cotton balls wouldn’t have done him any good — but he didn’t exactly pay close attention either. It had been surreal and somewhat fascinating, once upon a time, to be the object of a sales transaction — to hear the polite exchange between cashier and customer that involved a dollar amount pertaining to the ownership of Duo himself, sometimes with commentary on his attributes but more often ignoring him completely as if, though at least part of the purchase, he remained unworthy of mention — but by now the process had become just as discouragingly real as any other mundane aspect of his dreary life. A mixture of bitterness and indifference fluctuated within him as the scene progressed; one moment he actively didn’t want to know what they were saying or what percentage sales tax had risen to these days, and the next he simply didn’t care.

He wouldn’t bother talking to this one. No point, when he’d obviously been acquired merely as a present — undoubtedly not a very serious present at that — and wouldn’t be spending any real time with the guy. But as Duo lay in the Arc bag in what he believed to be the man’s car heading he could only guess where, he was pretty sorely tempted. It had been months since he’d spoken to literally anyone, and ‘bored and lonely’ didn’t begin to cover how he’d been feeling lately. Still, reminding himself he would surely change hands very soon, after which he would probably be passed around amidst much laughter and then returned all too quickly to the Arc, whence he could hope to be rescued by someone more age-appropriate for appreciating him as a potential conversational companion, he restrained himself.

His guess as to where they were going had been ‘home,’ and he’d evidently been correct. Of course Duo could only assume the guy lived here, but he’d reached the point where a momentary glance was often all it took to recognize the homes of various types of people, and if he assessed this man correctly — single, straight, mid-to-late-20’s, decent but not huge income — then, yeah, this was definitely his apartment. The remains of his breakfast on the table where Duo now sat were eloquent about his way of life.

And now the guy examined him more closely than before, seated at the table staring hard at Duo with a hand worrying away thoughtfully at his chin and upper lip. Duo might have taken the opportunity to absorb details of his own about his new, short-term owner — the dark curly hair, the lingering acne, the pleasant features — but he didn’t bother looking particularly hard. This wasn’t a kid he would be playing with or even a friend he would be talking to; and the manner in which the man seemed to be considering something peripheral to Duo rather than any details of Duo himself made the doll feel free to do the same.

He supposed it would be equally evident in any situation where someone didn’t know you were observing them, but being a supposedly unresponsive doll really served to indicate how much adults talked to themselves or narrated their lives to nobody in particular. In fact they often talked directly to Duo — not the way children did, in an imaginative way as if he might talk back (regardless of whether or not they knew he could), but merely using Duo as a focus for the aforementioned narration because he happened to have a human-like shape complete with ears.

Now the guy said, in the half-under-his-breath tone people often used when they didn’t need to be saying this aloud at all, “Should I put you in a box? Or maybe a gift bag? But that makes it seem so formal…”

So Duo would be a surprise out of context this time, would he? That was less common than the bachelor party gag or birthday present, but not unheard of.

“But just handing you over like this–” Duo believed the guy’s eyes flicked specifically to his penis for a moment– “seems really weird.” He paused, considering, pointer finger still running pensively up and down his philtrum. “But wrapping paper would make it seem like a serious present, and I don’t want her to think I want something in return…”

‘Her?’ Now Duo perked up a bit. That was an unusual arrangement.

“Not like I’d complain if she said, ‘Oh, Eli, he’s so great; you wanna get some coffee or something?'” He chuckled at this clearly absurd idea.

Some light began to shine on this situation, though the nature of the present in hand still puzzled Duo. Who gave their crush an anatomically correct doll with no clothing?

Eli’s one-sided conversation obviously hadn’t helped him reach a decision as to how Duo should be packaged, so he discontinued it and got up abruptly from the table. Evidently the matter remained on his mind, though, as he started clearing his breakfast dishes from beside the doll — and not secondarily on his mind, either, if the half-hearted manner in which he ‘cleaned up’ was any indication. And partway through scraping the remaining eggs and cheese into the sink, without yet having rinsed it down or run the disposer, he apparently reached his decision. Abruptly he dropped everything he was doing, wiped his hands on his jeans, and returned to the table.

Duo, watching him approach, hoped in some amusement that the crush, whatever else she might be, was the type of person that could effectively insist on some better basic cleanliness. Of course it made little difference to a plastic doll that never seemed to stain despite his realistic hair and in no danger whatsoever of contamination, but he knew a lot of humans wouldn’t tolerate that food sitting there in the sink.

“I’ll just put you back in the Arc bag,” Eli said decisively as he looked down at Duo. “Then she’ll know I didn’t spend a lot of money or anything, and it’ll look like a casual, I-just-happened-to-find-this present.”

Though Duo still didn’t understand the specifics of the situation, he had to agree — not least because he was an I-just-happened-to-find-this present. He wondered, though, whether Eli realized exactly how much a naked doll with a big ol’ penis would make him look like a total creep when he gave it to some woman.

Duo couldn’t name the day of the week — he did tend to lose track when the thrift store stay lasted more than a fortnight or so — but Eli apparently had no work shift to get to. He’d wandered leisurely down several more Arc aisles even after finding Duo, had never hurried to get out and come home; did that imply a weekend? Duo supposed it was possible. In any case, Eli obviously had no problem with re-bagging Duo immediately in preparation for taking him to his next destination.

Despite this, they didn’t leave immediately. Though the bag Duo again found himself wrapped in crackled a bit, he could still hear pretty well what went on outside it, and from the echo (and other sounds), they evidently occupied a bathroom for at least fifteen minutes before doing anything else. Since only about three of those minutes involved actual use of the toilet and a very thorough handwash thereafter, it had to be assumed Eli was concerning himself with his appearance in a mirror, and that the opening and closing of drawers and what sounded like a magnetic medicine cabinet played into that endeavor as well. Duo found this kinda cute, as it seemed to indicate how infatuated Eli was, but feared it would all be for nothing the very moment the woman opened this Arc bag and saw the would-be-casual but in reality quite suggestive present he’d brought her.

Because of situations just like this, Duo had learned to deduce a fair amount from only what he could hear going on around him. And he speculated with some certainty that Eli was nervous as he drove wherever. Further monologue took place at first — about whether or not she would be there and how she was always there and should take more time off than she did because it wasn’t like the other employees didn’t do a good job but he supposed when you owned a place you got more paranoid about how it ran — but after a while he turned on the radio.

His pitch off for every single note, he sang along, first about flying like an eagle to the sea and then something fast and largely incomprehensible that seemed to involve cherry cola, and when he resumed talking to himself afterward — this time incomprehensibly as the subsequent noisy advertisements drowned him out — he seemed to be doing a tiny bit better. The deep breath he took once he’d stopped the car, however, before Duo was seized and lifted inside his crinkly plastic prison, indicated how nervous he still felt.

Eli’s determined footsteps across what sounded like a parking lot were followed by the entry chime inside their destination and the cars on the street outside fading. “Hi, there!” someone some distance away greeted. “Come on in — oh, hi, Eli.”

“Hey,” Eli returned the greeting, and Duo thought he struggled to sound natural. “Is Becca around?”

“Bex!” the other voice, now nearer, called. “Come out here!” The tone suggested Becca would want to do so and that the speaker had no need to detail why. Duo smiled again; evidently Eli hung around this place enough not to need specific announcing.

They’d stopped moving, having evidently reached their destination, and the volume of the other voice no longer changed as it asked how Eli had been. He answered only absently, and the amused edge to her reply made it clear she knew perfectly well where his real interest lay. And then Duo was conscious of Eli’s grip tightening on the bag as a new voice from farther away said, “Oh, hey, Eli.”

“Hi!” Eli’s reply was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, which he appeared to notice, if the far more subdued sound of his follow-up was any indication. “How’s it going?”

“Good, good,” she replied jovially. “What about you?”

“I’m great,” said Eli. “I had to come by and — I found this — I thought this would be…”

Duo was aware of his conveyance transferring from one grasp to another. If he’d been able to do either, he would have been biting his lip and holding his breath in agitated anticipation of the moment Becca pulled him out of the bag and saw exactly what Eli had brought her and all it implied. The bag unrolled, and a hand reached in for him, and Duo counted down to the moment when all of Eli’s chances with its owner died an embarrassing death.

Able to see something other than translucent white plastic at last, Duo looked up into Becca’s face, both studying her features and watching for her reaction to the gift. The first struck him as not particularly attractive — not that his opinion of her level of attractiveness mattered one whit to anyone — and the second as not exactly what he’d expected.

“Where did–” She glanced at the bag Duo had come out of. “Which Arc did you find this at?”

Eli reminded her, “There’s only one left, remember?” And it was a sad day when charitable secondhand stores started going out of business, no matter how much Duo loathed them.

“Well, he’s…” Becca looked down again, her gaze traversing Duo’s entire figure and sticking, as predicted, on the penis, and as she hesitated before finishing her sentence, her jaw opened somewhat slackly for a moment. Duo waited, braced, for her to crush all of Eli’s hopes and dreams.

“He’s perfect,” Becca finished. Her astonished face rose again toward Eli, still gaping slightly. “How did — you just came across this at the Arc?”

“Yep.” Eli seemed not only ridiculously pleased at her positive reaction (doubtless, in part, because she’d said one of the things he’d seemed so certain she wouldn’t), but relieved as well. “Just laying there on the shelf with all these other toys.”

“Other toys without dicks, I bet!” Becca grinned.

“Yeah,” Eli laughed.

She moved suddenly. “Oh, he’s going to be just perfect in here! I think I even have…” She’d stepped into what seemed like a central island of sorts — Duo couldn’t turn his head to get a good look around without Eli and Becca, who’d both held him, seeing the movement, so he wasn’t sure — and pulled open a drawer. While she made rattling sounds digging through it, Duo stared up at the enthusiasm on her face and puzzled over this totally unexpected reaction and behavior. Though when after not too long she said excitedly, “Yes!” and extracted one of Duo’s least favorite things in the world, he was distracted for a moment.

“I can’t believe you found something like that,” the other woman — the clerk that had already inhabited the central island — remarked. “I didn’t know they even made Ken dolls with penises like that.”

I’ve never seen one before,” Becca agreed as she adjusted the doll stand and then inserted Duo. “And look at his hair!” The latter, at least from the back of Duo’s head down, had been wrapped in a taped roll of plastic for protection, and this Becca now removed, causing a faint crackle of static electricity Duo couldn’t feel.

“I thought you’d like it,” Eli put in, still sounding very pleased.

“I love it,” Becca enthused. “I’ll get him an outfit made, and he’ll go perfect in this display.” She bent to make some brief rearrangement inside the referenced space before placing Duo, in his new hated doll stand, within. “For now he can just stand here naked.”

From inside the glass case beneath the counter where Duo found himself, he had been planning on scrutinizing the room around him and figuring out exactly where he now lived, to the extent he could do so without turning his head. However, something much closer at hand and directly in his line of sight seized his attention and held it for quite some time.

“Yeah, he looks good,” said Eli. The two women, who had both hastened out of the island and around to where he stood to look at the display from the outside, voiced their agreement.

Duo’s compelling focus was his new roommate, a Barbie perhaps six inches away from him in a similar doll stand. She had, if Duo was any judge, had some red and black stripes added to her hair for variety, and her makeup redone with a fairly deft hand and a very small paintbrush, but other than that appeared to be a bog-standard blonde Caucasian Barbie — except that she wore a shiny leather leotard that zipped up the front all the way to her chin, with a couple of perfectly round holes baring plastic breasts that had been modified with little nipples of some sort. Were they modeling clay? Duo couldn’t tell. When was the last time he’d stared so hard at anyone’s breasts? He didn’t know.

“He’s just…” As far as Duo could tell out of the corner of his eye, Becca was shaking her head in wonder. “Perfect. Eli, thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” Eli smiled.

“But seriously,” the sales clerk put in, “when did they start making Ken dolls with penises?”

From this angle it wasn’t a certainty, but Duo thought the back of Barbie’s outfit narrowed into a thong that would not, of course, fit between her buttocks since there would be no real groove there, but would at least suggest. In the last few years Mattel had started adding texturing to Barbie’s crotch area to suggest panties, but this model, fortunately for the current aesthetic, was one of the older ones without that embellishment.

Becca shook half-clenched fists in the air in excitement. “I need to go get some stuff for him. I need to go to the fabric store.”

“I can hold the fort,” the clerk assured her readily, obviously having expected this, “if you want to go right away.”

Barbie’s studded leather armbands were interesting — more in the question of why she wore them than for their own merits — but Duo couldn’t look at them for long. Because her boots — where had those boots come from? It wasn’t that Duo interested himself excessively in Barbie fashion, just that by necessity he happened to know a lot more about it than many people did… and he’d never seen boots like that on a Barbie doll before. If they were homemade, they were the most professional-looking homemade Barbie footwear he’d ever seen. Could you get stuff like that at a fabric store? They were the same shiny black leather (or imitation thereof) as her leotard thing, and they came all the way up past her knees. The buckles in front were almost confusing to the eye, and he could tell by the bows peeking out from behind her thighs that they laced up in back.

“Can I come with?” Eli said this with the air of one taking the first big, scary step down a path long eyed but never until now embarked upon. “Buy you lunch on the way?”

“Eli, you just got me, like, the best present ever,” Becca protested with a grin.

“Yeah, but I’m hungry,” Eli shrugged, doing a really good job on the nonchalance — better than Duo had expected, actually; he must have practiced.

“OK, fine,” said Becca, turning a complete three-sixty and patting her pockets as if trying to determine what she had on her right this moment. “Just let’s go now. I want to make something like that for him.”

Duo couldn’t see where she pointed, what kind of outfit she had in mind, but he also couldn’t help joining in the laugh of everyone else besides Becca at her adorable excitement and enthusiasm. His laugh was quiet enough; even those that had held him wouldn’t hear it through the glass.

The land definitely lay differently than he’d realized. Obviously to Becca, who must have created the outfit the Barbie across from him wore, a penis doll wasn’t nearly so creepy as it might be to many others, and in fact was something she specifically wanted. And clearly Eli had known that. Eli had anticipated, in fact, every little nuance of how this would come across. Knowing she would appreciate the offer but at the same time fully aware of exactly how creepy it still might seem; knowing also that it would be a professionally welcome item but wanting it to come across as a personal gift — yet, again, not wanting to seem like a weirdo trying to send an inappropriate message, Eli had been in an interestingly awkward position. Of course Duo could only guess at all of this, but he could also easily spot the potential dilemma, and thought he assessed the situation correctly.

It made him a little sad, now, that he hadn’t initiated a conversation while he’d had the chance, as he came to the realization that Eli was truly a decent guy. Maybe decent enough to have accepted the humanity of the doll he’d bought at the Arc… though counting on that often proved unwise. And the opportunity had passed, since this display case made no good venue to try to start a friendship from, especially with someone that didn’t even work here.

“So what– I’m just curious,” Becca was remarking as she and Eli walked away from the counter toward the door– “what were you actually looking for at the Arc when you found that doll?”

“No, I was actually there looking for a doll with a penis,” Eli said in a tone that barely maintained its seriousness all the way through the statement. “I go check every month or so in case they have one.”

Becca’s laugh, half drowned out by the entry chime, was the last Duo heard of them.

Deeming it finally safe to turn his head and look around, he dragged his gaze from the nearby leather-clad doll and surveyed the rest of the room, as far as he could through the single transparent surface facing out from the island. And gradually he realized exactly why he’d been such a welcome offering here.

Two mannequins of shiny black plastic, which would be visible from outside through the windows that flanked the doors, wore outfits similar to the one Barbie did — one leather like hers, the other of a lacier and more ruffled variety but just as revealing. Behind one of them stood a rack of more clothing, apparently available for both male and female bodies and tailored for optimum exposure or at least suggestion of primary and secondary sexual organs. Duo wondered if Becca made it all herself. In the other direction, a rack of tubes and plastic bottles in a number of colors bore a sign that read, All lubricants / Buy one get one half off. In between that and some shelves full of whips, gags, masks, and various unidentifiable items of restraint, visible only with difficulty from his angle, Duo could make out a more distant set of shelves that seemed to be full of videos whose covers featured a lot of flesh colors.

That was about all he could see of his new home, and all he was likely ever to see if he retained this spot — though Becca would presumably have to pull him back out of the display when she had the outfit made and needed to get him into it — but he anticipated that listening to customers and staff discuss items in stock and purchases being made would shed light on what lay beyond his field of vision.

And all he could think, with a bemused sort of gaping he couldn’t physically affect but that was mentally just as slack-jawed as Becca had been at the sight of his penis, was, Well, this should be educational.

Season Finale (2008)

Felishawna was never silent, never even quiet. She chattered nonstop to anyone nearby, or to Duo in the absence of properly human companions, or to animals she happened to encounter, or to herself or the walls if necessary. When not talking, she sang songs of her own invention, or made strange noises with a perseverance that eventually grated even on a doll with 85 years of practice dealing with repetitive tedium.

He would have thought a child so relentlessly noisy would be impossible to lose track of, but it seemed the very constancy of her sound rendered it transparent so she blended into the background. She made no attempts at sneaking anywhere, yet somehow did it remarkably successfully; the fading of her childish vocalizations evidently struck those around her only on a subconscious level, very much like, say, the discontinuance of distant construction noises outside at lunchtime: it might be a while before anyone actively recognized their absence and asked, “Where’s Feli?”

Thus Duo felt little surprise when Felishawna’s relatives failed to notice she’d wandered out of the living room and into her uncle Leon’s bedroom. The doll was uniquely positioned to observe both that she’d done so and the lack of notice on their part, since she’d dropped him in the hall on her way at a near midpoint between the two.

She hadn’t turned the light on in her new venue of play, whether because she couldn’t find the switch, or couldn’t reach it, or for some mysterious reason reserved for herself, Duo didn’t know. In any case, she made scant noise in there — just quiet shufflings, as if she were pulling the linens off the bed (something she loved to do), and, for the moment, a sort of chant that was her childish version of a rap: “I gotta tell you a story about the princess and the time she was going out, fighting the bad guys of evil ray, being a pirate on Saturday, swim in the pool and the ocean lake, eating the hamburgers and the cake.”

Meanwhile, in the living room, most of the conversation between Felishawna’s mother and uncle could be heard even over the sounds of football from the television.

“I wish you would’ve stayed later last night,” Tonya lamented. “Mom got going about Feli again, and I bet she wouldn’t have if you were there.”

“Sorry.” This apology Duo could barely make out; he hadn’t seen much of Leon thus far, but already got the impression of a very calm and quiet person.

“You better look out if you ever get married and have kids; then she’ll be on your case too. But maybe,” Tonya added with a sigh, “only if she doesn’t like your wife.”

In the dark bedroom to Duo’s left, the shuffling sounds continued. He couldn’t see what Felishawna was up to — he lay on his face — but he could hear her latest song clearly, even more easily than the TV-obscured sounds of her relatives. “I’ve been deeming of a true-love’s spike, and a Pokémon who comes with Mike. So to meeve a mife of emless this…”

“Mom likes Estevan,” Leon was assuring his sister.

“Sure,” Tonya allowed grudgingly. “She likes him personally, but she doesn’t like us living so far away even though we both got great jobs out there and I love New York.”

“That’s probably a grandma thing.” Leon undoubtedly shrugged as he said this. “She doesn’t get to see Feli as often as she wants.”

Tonya gave a frustrated sigh.

In the bedroom, the child in question chanted, “Beetle butt, bootle butt, bitle butt, butt. Butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt.”

“It’s not just that. She thinks Feli’s problems came from her dad, or his side of the family. She blames Es for all the trouble Feli keeps getting in.”

Leon sounded surprised as he asked, “She said that?”

“No.” Tonya sighed again. “But I can tell.” She continued in a grumbling tone as if it were a direct follow-up, “There’s no way we can come back after that.” It took Duo a moment to realize, with some relief, that she referred to the football game and not her relationship with her mom.

Leon agreed regretfully, and that he didn’t question Tonya’s stated awareness of their mother’s opinion seemed to indicate he found the assessment undeniable.

“And the worst part of it is she might be right.”

“See, I’ma pold you, like you pold me, trash rules everything around me. See-ya la la la la lee-ya, la la la la bee-ya.” Duo vaguely recognized the song this was a take on, and, believing it to be about a prostitute, wondered if Tonya knew Feli had listened to it often enough to imitate it even this much. The child went on with more of her chanting version of rap: “She use to be the sweetest girl ever. Ever ever bevver. Now she’s the princess of all the world, all the burld. She’s gonna get you and make you do what she wants. Ride all the horses and do the dahnce. Do the dahnce, do the dahnce, do the dahnce.” She saw fit to end this repetition with a drawn-out hiss on the last sibilant before resuming, “See, I’ma fell you…”

“Estevan always had behavior issues as a kid, he told me, and a lot of it’s just like what Feli’s dealing with.” Tonya sounded downright angry as she protested, “But the answer to that isn’t to take her away from her dad and send her to live with her grandma across the country! It’s not like being around him is making it worse somehow; if she did inherit something from him, that’s, like, a genetic or chemical thing, not like he’s a bad influence or something!”

“So what is the answer?” Leon sounded truly concerned with his niece’s welfare.

Said niece had mostly ceased her shuffling, but was busy with another rousing chorus of Beetle butt, bootle butt, only slightly more adjectival this time: “Beetly butt, bootly butt, bitelly butt, beetly butt, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly…” She seemed to be stuck on that word and enjoying it very much; she kept saying it for the next minute or so. She started tripping over the syllables eventually, adding extra t’s where she didn’t necessarily want them, and after a while shifted to blowing harshly through her teeth in mingled amusement and frustration.

“God, Lee, I wish I knew. The counselor at her school wants us to see an actual child psychiatrist, but Es doesn’t want to. He’s afraid they’re going to want to put her on drugs, and he doesn’t like that. He got through his childhood OK without drugs, and she’s so young…”

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t know. She’s such a good kid; she’s smart and nice and creative; she just…” It seemed a significant relief to Tonya to be able to discuss this with her sympathetic listener of a brother, and Duo was glad this vacation had given her the chance to do so. He agreed with her, too: Felishawna was a good kid, at least at heart if not always in practice.

And she’d come out of the bedroom now, as indicated by the random noises a few feet above the doll’s head. She picked Duo up and added him to whatever she carried, obviously acquired within, then turned toward the far end of the hall and the bathroom.

Here Duo could no longer hear the adults’ conversation — the TV with which their voices had always been in competition now conspired with Feli’s echoing speech nearer to Duo’s ears to drown them out — but he regretted this very little. The discussion might make Tonya feel a bit better, but seemed likely to have no other useful outcome. Even Duo, creeping up on a century of experience with children, didn’t know what to do for Felishawna; what chance did Tonya and Leon have to figure it out?

Feli couldn’t reach the medicine cabinet, which relieved Duo since he didn’t doubt she would eat something inside it believing (or pretending to believe) it was candy, but the items beside the sink and on the bathtub ledges were easily added to her collection of stolen goods. These included hand soap, aftershave, toothpaste, and body wash.

Duo had met children with the same prolificacy of oral noise as Feli, the same endless energy toward talking and singing and making strange sounds either for their own amusement or in interaction with others. They, like Feli, had gotten in trouble at school for never being able to keep quiet or for responding to statements made or questions asked with silly irrelevant chatter. The only cure for this behavior Duo had ever observed had been dogged repetition of commands to be quiet or to answer properly, and he felt this had only repressed the noise, not rechanneled it in the right direction or taught the kids how to manage and control it. He didn’t want to see Feli come to believe that expressing herself was shameful and become a sullen, speechless victim of a constant, “Shut up.”

A cheer from both adults in the other room overcame the television, and Feli joined in with an incredibly squeaky “Wooooo!” that sounded more like a ghostly whine than a cry of joy. She didn’t look up, though, from where she’d seated herself, legs akimbo, on the bathroom floor and started organizing the objects in front of her.

Other traits Feli demonstrated had been shared by other children in Duo’s past as well. She had a tendency to resent authority, and to do over-the-top silly things in response to direct commands, and Duo had definitely encountered that before on playgrounds and in schools and even in homes. Of course that led to trouble too, and Duo had never seen an adequate correctional process for it. The problem, he thought, lay more with the authority figures anyway, a problem that existed on too large a scale to hope much for.

The largest item Feli had purloined was a replica NFL jersey in pristine silver and black, and this she now arranged in a rough rectangle on the linoleum before her, crumpling its edges to create a sort of container. She sang nonsense words as she did so, but under her breath so Duo only caught the occasional ‘zoodles’ or ‘poopermooper.’

Where she got the energy for the ongoing activities and excitement that filled her life, Duo, like Tonya and her teachers at school, could not begin to guess. Well, no, that wasn’t quite true: the constant movement and noise and the thoughtlessness or even clumsiness that often came with them reminded him very much of the girl’s father, Estevan — a nice guy whose possession of these traits didn’t seem to have damaged his childhood beyond repair… but that didn’t help with the current issues.

Into the jersey Feli had now placed all the other objects she’d gathered except Duo. She began bouncing him from one to the next and the next, and doing his dialogue in a weird falsetto as usual. “Oh, I gotta get across… I gotta jump on the… stepping-rocks, and not fall into the swamp!” She paused, expression thoughtful. “I need a Real Swamp,” she announced.

Duo groaned internally as she then, clumsily with her small hands, popped open the bottle of body wash and began pouring it out onto the jersey. Since she’d left him lying in the swamp, he received a healthy dose of the gooey substance on his own body. He probably needed a wash anyway (well, he certainly did now). The bottle plopped down beside him, and next she unscrewed the cap on the aftershave. A much runnier liquid, it came out faster than she’d intended, and she giggled as she added its entirety to the bog. It made her cough, though, and Duo wished he knew what it smelled like.

Construction of the Real Swamp finished and the aftershave bottle taking its position as a stepping-rock, more satisfying play could commence. Once again Duo hopped from item to item, ‘narrating’ his journey in an absurd voice. Feli, almost immediately covered in body wash and aftershave, squirmed at the sensation of the latter’s ‘icy cold’ as well as the combination beginning to soak into her pants. Of course the jersey’s edges presented no significant barrier — they hadn’t even crumpled effectively in the first place — and soon the bathroom floor swam in a slowly expanding tide of personal care products.

Feli tried to sing a swamp song, tried to pretend she was foundering in muddy water from which Duo would have to rescue her, but signs of real discomfort from the aftershave marred her ability to perform or even to enjoy herself. Eventually she set Duo down again and started pushing the muck off her hands as best she could; her face threatened tears.

Perhaps because the little girl had gone silent, perhaps drawn by what must be an overpowering smell, Tonya entered at this moment. There was a prolonged lack of respiration as widened eyes twitched from one aspect of the disaster to another, and then the bathroom exploded into chaos. Tonya always tried her best not to react too harshly to Felishawna’s escapades, but this child would push any parent’s patience to its limits — and Duo thought embarrassment at today’s mayhem having been wreaked upon her brother’s possessions exacerbated her response.

Demanding to know what Feli had been thinking, declaring that she knew better than to do something like this, and with multiple interjections not quite profane expressing her various emotions, Tonya hauled Feli to her feet and pushed her toward the sink. Feli had begun outright crying, and every word from her mother’s mouth raised the volume until she was bawling and sobbing roughly. Not much more gently did Tonya ‘help’ her daughter wash her hands and forearms, demand of Leon in the doorway whether he had any washcloths, and begin scrubbing Feli’s legs and shoes. Feli complained incoherently through her misery that it hurt, that it felt like when she wet her pants (something Duo had known her to do at least three times since he’d been with her), and this did not improve Tonya’s mood.

From his bed in the swamp, the doll had a decent view of Leon at the bathroom entrance. His soothing words and mild suggestions of assistance had been totally ignored and overridden by his sister’s more forceful activities and tirade, and now he stood silently looking on. Whenever his gaze strayed to the possibly ruined jersey on the floor, he winced, but otherwise he showed no sign of being upset, and certainly none of being angry. In fact, though he’d schooled his handsome face into a somber expression appropriate to his niece’s misdeed, hints of amusement showed now and then, especially when Feli referred in anguish to her Real Swamp.

Eventually Tonya whirlwinded her daughter out of the bathroom. Duo heard her requesting a trash bag Feli could sit on so she didn’t dirty the rental car, and then there were hasty goodbyes. Out of Feli’s continued roaring Duo managed to hear the protesting cry, “Peanuts! Peanuts Hair!” She called him Peanuts Hair X. Correa whenever she hadn’t invented some context-dependent temporary name, so at least he wasn’t entirely forgotten. But that didn’t mean anyone extracted him from his slippery bath and allowed him to go with her, and soon her noises were muffled by the apartment door closing.

So there went that relationship. It had happened so fast, it was as if a guillotine had sliced down into his life and neatly severed him from his companion. Again. And he hadn’t even talked to this one yet. He hadn’t known what to make of her, what angle to approach her from, what reaction to expect. At that very moment, he began to consider it rather tiring and pointless to be so cautious about talking to people.

Whether he’d struck up a conversational friendship with her or not, Felishawna now numbered among those whose stories he’d become invested in but would never see the end of. Would her parents figure out what her deal was and how best to respond to it? Would she improve in her school performance and her behavior? Could she find some way, perhaps through her artistic propensities, to become a productive member of society in the future? Or would she die sometime from falling out of a tree not meant for climbing or playing with paper clips and power outlets? Once again, for the nth time, Duo would probably never know.

Yet this situation differed in several little ways from many in his past. Tonya and Feli had plane tickets back to New York tomorrow, but might they not swing by here and pick Duo up once Tonya’s desperate annoyance faded? Duo doubted it, but it wasn’t impossible. If they didn’t, might not Leon mail the doll to his niece? Sending packages no longer cost an arm and a leg; it could happen. And if he didn’t, Duo had already decided to talk to him. He seemed kind-hearted and not given to extravagant reactions; he might prove a better friend even than Felishawna — on whose progress he could keep Duo updated. In any of these cases, Duo would be able to continue following Feli’s story after all. Communication had become so much easier, faster, better these days. Maybe these days were just better.

That prospects had evidently improved so much gave him a feeling not precisely of hope, but of relative sanguinity. If distance travel and package shipping were more affordable and communication was easier… if times were better… if being separated from his caretaker no longer automatically meant the severance of all interaction with and knowledge of them… his life, such as it was, must become better as well. Surely this improvement must herald greater improvements to come!

After all, he hadn’t been left lying on his face this time. He wasn’t in a trash can or a doghouse or a forgotten toy-box. Sure, his hair and clothes were saturated with gunk he couldn’t smell or feel, his hearing a little muffled by the same, and he had no idea what Tonya or Leon planned. But he truly believed (perhaps only because he chose to, perhaps compelled by outside circumstances) that things were, just as he was, looking up.



<<8

I’m incredibly pleased with this collection of stories, and will probably have more notes about them by and by. For now, check out lebzpel on Tumblr, because their art is always, always worth looking at.

His Own Humanity: Cockatiel and Armadillo

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei.

Ze likes fashion, football, and social justice. He likes Star Wars, friends, and tabletop roleplaying. Can this meeting between totally dissimilar strangers go anything but badly?

Kamatari was conscious of eyes on zir. Not that the entire café was staring or anything so dramatic, but ze was sitting by the door, and nearly everyone that came in or went out threw zir at least a glance. Zir hemline sat too high, perhaps, for a day of shopping — it might have been better suited for a night of drinking and dancing — but the lovely weather and zir lovely waxed legs had been too tempting a combination. Ze knew the entire outfit looked fantastic on zir, and if anyone in the café had a problem with it, they could just deal.

Some of the looks ze caught reflected in the window, however, indicated that most of them wouldn’t have used ‘problem’ to describe their reaction, so for now the situation remained tenable.

“Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker,” said Darth Vader from nearby.

Kamatari glanced at zir watch. Fifteen more minutes before zir bus would arrive, assuming ze remembered the schedule correctly. Fifteen minutes would be adequate time for a little more wandering, and, with a half-empty apartment in mind, the furniture store two doors down definitely appealed… but ze was tired. Ze might have overdone zir shopping exploration of zir new hometown.

“Obi-wan knew this to be true,” said Darth Vader.

Perhaps tomorrow ze would find zir way out again and have a look at some furnishing and decoration. Sundays offered nothing better to do in a place where ze had literally no friends. Even overtime wasn’t an option, since neither ze nor anyone else at zir company worked on the Sabbath. Or perhaps ze would sit around with a few beers signing petitions on the internet.

“All too easy,” said Darth Vader.

Kamatari glanced toward the source of the voice. Though the corner spot half ringed with booth seating and half with chairs was probably the biggest table in the café, only one person sat there now, and he didn’t look much like a Sith Lord. He did glance up from the phone he held, though, just after the latest quote played, so Kamatari quickly removed zir attention.

“Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought.”

James Earl Jones had a damn sexy voice, Kamatari had to admit. Why that voice should be speaking up to harass an absent Luke Skywalker in this relatively busy restaurant/coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon not, as far as Kamatari knew, a date of any particular significance to fans of the actor, the character, or the franchise? That was another story.

“Impressive.”

Ze couldn’t help looking over again at the man from whom this effusion of Star Wars came. Was it a game on his phone playing these quotes, or what? From his movements, he appeared to be texting, but that didn’t quite fit with the sounds. He also kept glancing up and around as if to check whether he’d attracted any attention. Again Kamatari looked quickly away.

“Most impressive.”

These lines, arranged (as far as Kamatari could remember) in their proper order of appearance, were simultaneously cool and obnoxious. If the guy knew he would be receiving a string of text messages or whatever, he should really turn the sound off; yet if the quotes were text-tones, it was interesting that they played in the order the lines had been spoken in the movie.

The next sound from the stranger’s phone was the first nine notes of the Imperial March, and this time the guy caught Kamatari peeking. Where many might have smiled, the stranger instead gave a nod of acknowledgment. He looked good — though he would have looked better without the huge glasses — and wore (to somewhat strange effect, Kamatari thought) a t-shirt tucked into belted dress slacks. Which Asian heritage, specifically, he came from, Kamatari couldn’t be quite sure.

“Please forgive me,” the man said, “if my text messaging is bothering you.” His demeanor seemed at odds with his words, however: he didn’t come across as at all penitent, or even as if he really comprehended how he could possibly have been bothering anyone.

Bemused by the overall presentation, Kamatari replied, “I was mostly wondering how you got the quotes to play all in a row like that.”

“Oh,” said the man, clearly pleased at being asked, “it’s an app a friend of mine developed. It allows you to establish a folder for your text-tones and arrange them in the order you’d prefer them to play when you receive several messages in a row, or to have them chosen at random.”

This was more information than Kamatari really needed, but not entirely uninteresting. Ze might have said so if the man hadn’t continued talking without pause: “It’s on its second version, so it’s very stable by now, but he’s always working on minor updates for it. At the moment I believe he’s attempting to make it possible to combine sequences with random selection in the same settings. The app is called ‘Text-Tone Sequencer,’ if you’re interested — if you have a phone with an Android operating system, that is.”

“Thank you,” was all Kamatari could think to say.

“My pleasure,” the stranger replied magnanimously.

Kamatari might have turned back to the window at this point, but the man had lowered his phone somewhat and begun examining zir more specifically. The glinting gaze lingered longest on Kamatari’s legs — not entirely surprising given both the attractiveness of said legs today and the stranger’s evident lack of subtlety. Or he could merely have been counting the bags clustered at Kamatari’s feet, for he remarked next, “I deduce that you’ve had a successful shopping trip today.”

Now Kamatari tried to repress a smile and to match the gravity — the solemnity, almost — of the other’s tone as ze replied, “Yes, I have. I found some good sales.”

“I have a tendency to do most of my shopping online, so I have a much greater range of locations to monitor for good sales. And these sites often hold flash sales that only last a certain number of hours, so catching them is sometimes extremely difficult.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Everyone in my group of friends is aware of what the others like to buy, however, so we’re able to keep watch on each other’s behalf for sales.”

“That must be nice.” Not really knowing what else to do, Kamatari nudged one of zir shopping bags with zir foot and added, “I love sales.”

“And now, I presume, you’re waiting on a ride. Either that or you’re recuperating between lengths of your walking journey.” The man’s eyes hadn’t risen from Kamatari’s shoes, which were a little high for all the walking ze’d known ze would be doing today (but matched the skirt so well ze hadn’t been able to bring zirself to wear anything else).

“My feet are a little tired,” ze admitted. Ze added with a laugh, “I definitely won’t be wearing these shoes to work and back.”

Ze’d been told, in the past, that ze had a sweet laugh, and ze’d already suspected this guy of trying, ineffectually, to flirt with zir. Now ze was further convinced of both circumstances. The man scooted toward the closer end of the booth seating he occupied, and leaned forward slightly as he replied, “No, if you’re regularly walking to work and back, I would recommend something more ergonomic. Do you lack a vehicle?”

Again Kamatari struggled to restrain a smile of amusement at the man’s expense. “By choice, yes. I sold my car before I moved here.” Ze figured it was zir turn to plunge on with unnecessary additional information. “There’s no reason to contribute to air pollution or waste non-renewable fuel sources on just myself in a city with such a thorough mass transit system.”

The man nodded agreement, but simultaneously seemed surprised. While Kamatari had never had anyone say it to zir outright, ze’d long believed ‘too pretty to be an activist’ was a common assumption about zir. But since that assessment contained ‘pretty,’ the reaction remained generally positive.

Surreptitiously the man cleared his throat. “My RP group meets here every Saturday evening, and this week it’s my duty to reserve the table until everyone arrives at seven… but you’re more than welcome to join me while you await your bus.”

It was barely past five. Did this guy really intend to sit here for two hours simply to make sure no other group usurped the large corner seat? Did this happen on a weekly basis? What did the café think of it?

For a moment Kamatari considered refusing the offer, but could produce no real reason not to sit with the guy for a few minutes. Saying no and continuing at the next table over would be more awkward than anything this weirdo could come up with. Probably.

Kamatari couldn’t quite tell what the stranger’s impression of zir gender was, and the man read as nothing but cis-het… but that could be because the sense of ‘geek’ about him overrode and obscured everything else. Something would have to be offered, though, to be sure everything was on the level. “Sure,” ze said, standing and reaching for zir bags. “If you don’t mind having an Action Transvestite on your team.” Ze knew standing abruptly would hit the stranger with the Full-Length Kamatari Effect, but at least in this case the Full-Length Kamatari had just been outed as a cross-dresser of sorts.

The man’s face lit up — and clearly not in response to the F.L.K.E., since he said, in a truly wretched attempt at some kind of British or perhaps Scottish accent, “You can never have too many Action Transvestites. Well, if you have eight hundred million, that’s too many, I suppose.”

Kamatari laughed, both at this very appropriate response to zir original reference and in pleasure at having successfully exchanged ideas in a language they both spoke.

The man held out a hand. “My name is Wufei Chang,” he said. The formality of his tone did not perfectly gel with his omitting to stand up and only reaching across the table as Kamatari set zir bags down.

Kamatari gave zir first name, shook the hand, then sat.

“I take it you are a sports fan,” was the first thing Wufei said when Kamatari had settled, “because you said ‘on your team’ rather than ‘in your party.'”

Kamatari blinked. As far as ze could imagine, in not a single circumstance would ze have used the phrase ‘in your party.’ Ze was only very vaguely familiar with what it meant. So perhaps ze sounded a little blank as ze responded, “Yes… yes, I am a sports fan.”

“I, sadly, am not, unless you count Eyeshield Nijuuichi and Kuroko no Basuke.”

Though Kamatari had heard of neither title, ze felt ze was at least on more familiar turf here. Not that the small amount of Japanese ze’d learned in high school made zir anything like an expert, but certain specific linguistic research ze’d done a few years back, as well as zir genetics, rendered zir slightly more confident discussing anime or whatever those things might be.

Before ze could make any response at all, however, Wufei’s phone went off again. They were back to, “Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker.” Kamatari raised a skeptical brow as the man turned his attention to it immediately without looking at or saying another word to his companion until he’d answered the message.

“Yes,” Wufei said at last, as if returning to a conversation that, as far as Kamatari knew, hadn’t actually started, “some of my friends and I put together an Eyeshield Nijuuichi group cosplay for FanimeCon a couple of months ago, and purely for reference purposes — all right, I admit that it was only mostly for reference purposes, as we also wanted to compare American football as portrayed in the manga to actual American football — we watched an entire NFL game rerun online.”

This statement didn’t make perfect sense to Kamatari, but ze feared if ze asked for clarification on Eyeshield Nijuuichi, cosplay, or FanimeCon, ze would be getting in over zir head. Ze was also amused at the way Wufei announced he’d watched an entire football game as if it were an accomplishment to be proud of. So ze asked, “What game was it?”

“Something from last year,” Wufei replied vaguely, “featuring, I believe, a team from Texas against somebody local.”

“Cowboys? Texans? Raiders? Niners?”

Wufei cleared his throat. “Excuse me; I don’t remember.” Then he looked down to answer another text message.

This time Kamatari didn’t bother trying to repress a complete skeptical facial expression. This had been rude enough when Wufei was alone harassing everyone with his Darth Vader quotes from a greater distance; in the middle of a conversation with someone at the same table, it showed seriously bad manners. But zir display of disapproval went for naught, since ze didn’t have the energy to keep the expression on zir face the whole time Wufei was busy, and Wufei might not have noticed or interpreted it correctly even if ze had. So Kamatari just picked up the conversation where it had been left:

“I haven’t missed many Sunday NFL games — at least featuring local teams — for the last couple of years, so whatever game you watched with your friends, I probably saw it too.”

“To me this indicates that you don’t work Sundays,” commented Wufei astutely.

After confirming this extremely dull speculation, Kamatari added by way of explanation, “I work for Life’s Covenant. Actually I just transferred here to manage stock at the LC warehouse. We’re the hub for all the stores in the area.”

“The Christian bookstore chain?” Wufei raised a surprised brow. ‘Too alternative to work at a Christian bookstore’ was another assessment nobody ever made aloud, but which was often implied. Or sometimes just ‘too deliberately sexy.’

“I don’t have much to do with Christianity,” Kamatari admitted, “but Elsie’s very accepting, and I’m guaranteed Sundays off. And it’s a low-profit organization with a lot of worthwhile charitable branches, so I don’t mind that the pay isn’t spectacular.”

“I make quite a decent salary,” Wufei said. Kamatari couldn’t decide whether he sought to lord this over his companion or just continue the conversation with a relevant fact despite the potential impropriety of mentioning it. “I doubt I could survive working for a non-profit organization — my hobbies are too expensive.” Whatever his intentions were, it was in a tone almost of competition that he continued, “When you’re interested in 200-episode TV series where $25 DVD’s contain four episodes each, a low salary isn’t an option.”

Maybe there really was a touch of disdain for Kamatari’s unspectacular pay in Wufei’s attitude; Kamatari still couldn’t tell. But that tone of near-competition had stirred zir own competitive blood, and ze found zirself engaging almost without thinking. “I donate to a number of charities and activist organizations, and there are a lot more of those that need a lot more money than anyone ever has on any kind of salary.”

This time a competitive edge unmistakably sounded in Wufei’s tone as he added onto what he’d already said: “I also import a lot of soundtracks from Asian countries, as well as high-quality merchandising.” Here he gestured at the shirt he wore, which bore the image of a frantic-looking blonde child in red riding on the shoulders of a robot.

“Cute clothes aren’t always cheap.” Half agreement and half defiance, this, and somewhere in the back of Kamatari’s head a little voice asked, Are we really trying to establish which one of us spends more money? “Especially if you’re at all interested in new fashions.”

“Or interesting ties. I always make a serious attempt to have interesting ties to wear to work.”

I just bet you do, Kamatari reflected. Ze might have said it aloud, but didn’t want to be forced to explain what a fashion faux pas novelty ties represented. Besides, Wufei’s phone went off again at that moment, and he had once again stepped out of the conversation.

At this third instance of Wufei suddenly ignoring zir in favor of answering a text message, Kamatari wished very much that ze would suddenly receive several messages in a row so as to set a good example by completely ignoring them. But zir text message reception rate had died right down since moving, as past messages had mostly been of the ‘are you coming to so-and-so’s party tonight?’ variety, and were no longer applicable. Now the only person that texted zir was zir step-brother, and he not frequently enough for Kamatari to hope for something right this moment.

Abruptly Wufei looked up and asked, “Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?”

In some surprise at both the suddenness of the new topic and the odd chance that allowed zir to answer in the affirmative, Kamatari replied, “I have. My step-brother wanted to see it, but nobody else was interested, so I took him just before I moved.”

“What was your opinion of Hiccup becoming handicapped at the end?”

“Oh, I…” Thinking back about the movie and shifting gears as best ze could, Kamatari was yet unable to come up with an answer before Wufei went on with a gesture at his phone and an explanation of this out-of-the-blue question:

“My friend feels it was a cheap gimmick meant to evoke needless sympathy from the viewer as a sort of sucker-punch secondary climax.” The disdain in Wufei’s voice as he echoed this opinion of his friend’s told clearly what he thought of it long before he added, “I disagree. I feel it provided a much-needed element of depth to Hiccup’s characterization, especially by giving him another instance of parallelism with Toothless.”

Kamatari, who, though ze’d recovered zir wits, did not remember the movie well enough to be discussing it on this level and was pretty sure ze had no strong opinions on it in any case, decided to bring up something ze’d seen mentioned on the internet in reference to this specific plot device: “It’s nice for the physically handicapped to get any representation in a movie that isn’t all about being physically handicapped.”

“Yes, of course!” Wufei sounded as if, though happy to agree with anything that might even obliquely support his own views, he hadn’t expected this.

“Is it a good representation of a physical handicap, though?” Kamatari mused, for once having a point to raise before being prompted by zir companion. “It happened right at the end, didn’t it? That’s only a couple of minutes of representation…”

“You know there will be a sequel,” Wufei assured zir. “It was a huge box office success, and it has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.”

Kamatari, who cared a lot more for Bitch Flicks’ opinion than Rotten Tomatoes’, said, “It certainly wasn’t a good representation of female characters.”

“Well, in the time period–” Wufei started to apologize.

“The time period when Vikings rode dragons?” Kamatari interrupted sharply.

“It was Hiccup’s story, not Astrid’s.”

“It could have been Astrid’s story. It would have been the same story.”

“It’s based on a book, you understand.”

“A book that’s also about a cis-het white male? Why does every story have to be about that same person? Can’t some of the rest of us have stories too?”

“There are plenty of stories about women!”

“There are some stories about women,” Kamatari corrected almost fiercely. “But they’re usually not riding dragons or fighting battles or even getting to stand in the spotlight all that much.”

“Don’t you watch football?” Wufei’s tone too was becoming somewhat heated. “That’s a field almost exclusively dominated by men!”

“There’s a difference between allowing for physical differences between men and women and continually pushing women’s stories aside, forcing women to be either completely invisible or just secondary characters over and over and over again.” Ze added quickly enough to forestall any comment of Wufei’s, though in a quieter tone, “Though at least there were some female characters in that one. People of color didn’t even get a token representation, if I remember right.”

“Well, in the setting–” Wufei began again.

Kamatari’s interruption was even harsher than before. “The setting that has dragons in it?”

“It makes sense,” said Wufei firmly, “for a story about Vikings to be a story about white people, whether or not dragons are involved.”

“But somebody decided what that story would be about, and, as usual, went with subject matter that would dictate all the characters be–” Kamatari forced zirself to stop. Ze hadn’t meant to start an argument about this with someone ze would probably never see again in zir life, though perhaps it had been inevitable with Wufei’s random introduction of this topic in the first place. In a less combative tone ze said, “I just would like to see more Asian heroes in movies — and other people of color, though of course I have a special interest in Japanese people, and would like to see them take center stage more often. Wouldn’t you?”

Wufei stared at zir pensively, and eventually said, “Yes. Of course I would. I’m of Chinese descent myself, however. And I don’t believe being all about white people makes How to Train Your Dragon a bad movie.”

If Kamatari had had a dollar for every time ze’d expressed this opinion… “Maybe not bad on its own, but definitely not trying very hard to correct any systemic problems.”

“Is it required to?”

“Well, somebody should be.” Wanting to dispel this tension, Kamatari added in non sequitur before Wufei could say anything else, “So you’re Chinese-American?”

Wufei seemed to hesitate a moment, as if less interested in dispelling the tension than Kamatari was, then seemed to give in at least for the moment, and replied, “Correct. It was my parents, however, who moved here from China, and I speak very little Mandarin myself. I found Japanese a much more convenient language to study. It is, after all, the language spoken in a lot of media I enjoy.”

Pleased to have segued to a topic ze could not only discuss fairly well but that was obviously less charged than the previous — and normally ze really didn’t mind charged debate, just not with this weird guy in a random café near the end of a tiring day — Kamatari responded, “I have heard Mandarin is a very difficult language for English-speakers to learn. I’m Japanese-American, and my family’s been in the country for a couple of generations, so I speak practically no Japanese. In fact my original name wasn’t even Japanese, but I legally changed it a couple years back, and did some research in the language then.”

“Oh?” Testament to how successful Kamatari’s tension-diffusing efforts had been was the fact that Wufei’s interested look turned up toward his companion away from his phone. “And what made you choose the name you did?”

“I went with Honjou Kamatari — or Kamatari Honjou, legally speaking — because to Americans, who won’t know what it specifically means, it sounds androgynous and Japanese at the same time. My birth name was Daniel Joshua Reed, and I kept Daniel as my legal middle name just as a sort of nod to my parents.”

Wufei blinked. His brows twitched slightly together and slightly downward in an expression of momentary confusion. He stiffened, and his face went blank. Kamatari had seen this reaction many times before, and knew exactly what it signified; what he didn’t know was why it had been so delayed in this instance.

“So I deduce,” Wufei said, “from that name,” clearing his throat, “that you are actually a transvestite.”

“I did say I was.” Kamatari’s puzzlement sounded in zir voice.

“Yes, you did,” was Wufei’s awkward concession. “But I thought you were just Quoting.” The way he said the word cleared the matter up; Kamatari didn’t even have to ask: Quoting, obviously, was an activity — an art — so worthy in and of itself that the actual purport of the quotation fell by the wayside. A world in which someone could declare zirself a transvestite without meaning it was a somewhat difficult concept to grasp, but Kamatari had certainly met people that seemed unable to speak at all without peppering their conversation with random bits of movie dialogue.

“Well,” ze said, and felt zir voice slipping toward that borderline-threatening sweetness that often emerged at such moments, “I was assigned male at birth, though I came out as agender four years ago, so it’s not stretching the term ‘transvestite’ much to say I am one.” Ze didn’t want to add aloud that, since it was still a bit of a stretch to the term, ze had actually been Quoting just a tad.

Wufei cleared his throat again, and Kamatari waited with patience long-honed by similar circumstances to hear what he would say next. In zir experience, there was a limited list of options — some of them comments, some of them questions, most of them obnoxious.

“You’re very convincing. You pass,” Wufei corrected himself as he suddenly remembered what he believed to be a more appropriate term, “very well.”

Kamatari tried to decide whether or not ze had the energy today to break this down for a complete stranger. The problem was that even a concise statement like, “‘Passing’ isn’t my goal; it just happens because I naturally look like a woman,” still usually managed to raise more questions than it answered. But if ze offered no clarification at all, people were left with incorrect impressions about zir, and possibly about the LGBTQIA world in general.

In this context, ze decided after some quick thought that, since ze would probably never encounter this guy again and therefore could probably afford to overlook any false impressions Wufei might get, ze might as well not bother explaining zirself. So ze merely said, with a slight nod, “Thank you.”

Kamatari had a little less faith in zir ability to overlook misconceptions the next moment when Wufei remarked, “One of my very best friends is gay.”

The problem was that it would take even more effort than the previous hypothetical answer to say, “Please don’t conflate gender identity with sexual orientation. I do happen to identify as queer, but that has nothing to do with my gender. Also? Having gay friends doesn’t mean a damn thing.” As with the debate on representation in the media, ze simply didn’t feel up to it on behalf on an acquaintance ze wasn’t at all invested in. Ze probably should have made the effort, but ze’d been walking all day in heels, and it was really too much to expect for zir to be ‘on’ all the time.

Besides, ze didn’t like to admit to being a little daunted by the phrase ‘one of my very best friends’ that ze couldn’t use with any accuracy.

This time when Wufei received a text message, it was almost more a relief than anything. Kamatari sat back and waited while the man composed his answer, then asked in a casual tone, “So you’re a Star Wars fan?” And refrained from adding, “Speaking of movies with little to no female or racial representation.”

“Naturally,” Wufei replied, raising his eyes from his phone at last. “But I only support the Jedi Order so long as they serve Justice. I won’t be at the beck and call of any Republic.”

“I see,” was all Kamatari could think to say, repressing another laugh.

“The Sith are also an interesting Order, with, I believe, a more rational outlook in many respects, but our group already has two Sith Lords — one a Lady, as a matter of fact — and there are never more than two.”

“So you all have Star Wars… identities… you and your friends?” Ze could just imagine Wufei and his group (all of whom, in Kamatari’s imagination, looked like Wufei with different hair and sometimes breasts) running around in robes with toy lightsabers talking portentously about the Force.

“That’s correct. I am Jedi Master Chang, a Kaleesh from Kalee. Lately I’ve been considering accepting a Padawan, though it’s difficult to decide how much of the Jedi Order’s restrictive precepts I want to pass on to a apprentice.”

“And what precepts are those?” Kamatari preferred to keep Wufei off the topic of queer issues, and Star Wars didn’t make for too bad a substitute.

“The Order is specifically opposed to passion of any kind. And while it’s no great effort to understand that fear, anger, and hatred lead to the Dark Side, they believe that other, more positive emotions do as well.” It sounded like a dissertation. “The Jedi Code expressly forbids attachment. And not merely love, as we observed in Attack of the Clonesall attachment: friendships, loyalties, family bonds… And how do they expect Jedi to value the people and places and institutions they’re supposed to protect if they aren’t permitted to become attached to any of them? The Jedi Code insists on Force-users becoming emotionless robots, and my friends and I–” he put a significant emphasis on the word– “believe we would be dishonoring our commitment to Justice, and each other, by downplaying the attachment between us.”

Kamatari wanted to remark that Wufei (and, evidently, his friends) took this all far too seriously. At the same time, though, ze found zirself responding to the attitude with reluctant approbation, even admiration… and perhaps some jealousy. So, with more difficulty than ze had expected, ze said instead, “I don’t remember any of this from the movies.” And ze did actually remember the movies fairly well. Ze’d even liked them — the first three better than the second, of course, or should that be the second three better than the first? Ze’d never considered applying the Jedi Code to zir own life, though.

“You have to understand,” Wufei replied pedantically, “the movies are only a tiny fraction of what exists in the Star Wars universe. Novels, comics, video games… every day we’re expanding our knowledge of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For example, in The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson…..”

Wufei was still lecturing an only idly listening Kamatari by the time ze needed to head out to the bus stop. In fact he kept talking, hastily trying to finish up his current point, while Kamatari stood and began gathering zir bags.

“Oh,” he interrupted himself at that juncture. “I was going to give you my email address. We’re always seeking extra players.”

Kamatari hesitated, then, in a moment of weakness, felt the inexorable power of loneliness forcing zir to give in. “Why don’t you text me?” And ze rattled off zir phone number.

“I’ll have to inquire into your area code another time,” Wufei remarked as he typed.

Wanting to shake zir head at the implication there might be any more explanation for zir area code than ‘I just moved’ — a fact ze believed had already been established — Kamatari rather nodded. Once zir phone had chimed (the notification sound was called ‘Rose Petals’ and had come preloaded), unsure exactly how to say goodbye in this situation, ze raised one hand with a touch of awkwardness and went with, “Have fun with your game.”

“Farewell, my young apprentice,” Wufei replied. As Kamatari had already turned away, ze didn’t bother to restrain zir smile.

Exiting the building, wending zir high-heeled way toward the bus stop in front of the next business over, ze couldn’t quite decide how ze felt about that entire encounter. It had been frustrating, even aggravating, and certainly ridiculous, but there’d also been about it an incomprehensible sort of pleasantry, almost as if Wufei had been speaking another language the entire time, but in a friendly tone. They’d been like aliens meeting and managing to convey peaceful intentions with very little common ground to stand on — a cockatiel and an armadillo somehow communicating amicably.

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei; it was foreign to zir in a manner almost completely unpalatable. And yet not only could ze not quite bring zirself to condemn it, one aspect of it also could not be dismissed as entirely undesirable.

Wufei clearly moved in a warm, happy, and extensive group of friends that shared his interests and probably thought much the same way he did. They looked out for online sales for each other, they spent every Saturday evening together, they understood each other’s Quotes, they considered denying attachment to each other dishonorable, they watched sports they were clearly uninterested in together ‘for research purposes,’ and their texts meant so much to each other as to overcome public phone etiquette. Wufei might be a hopeless nerd, but he obviously had personal characteristics pleasant enough to win him a place among such a devoted circle.

To someone alone in a new town, there was something enviable — maybe even commendable — about that. Kamatari didn’t want to partake in Wufei’s way of life and had no interest in spending any more time with him or his ilk than ze already had, but ze couldn’t help wondering how long it would take zir to gather even a few such meaningful friends. It made zir feel a little pathetic, really.

It wasn’t impossible that it worked both ways, though. Maybe Wufei, even while looking down on Kamatari’s interest in football and willingness to work for lower pay just as much as Kamatari had looked down on Wufei’s vestiary obliviousness and solemn interpretation of fictional Orders, had yet seen something via Kamatari’s conversation that he wished he could have. He might not be specifically interested in anything Kamatari had mentioned, but perhaps some aspect of the life hinted at during their discussion called to him the way that small part of Wufei’s life called to Kamatari.

Ze would probably never know. It probably didn’t matter. But it gave zir something to think about as the bus wended its rumbling way out of the shopping district where ze’d made this strange acquaintance and back toward zir neighborhood. And honestly, it didn’t seem entirely unlikely. Animals evolved wings or claws as needed on a regular basis, didn’t they?



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

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

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

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

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

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

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

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

And for the moment…

Marinette would never even know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the subject was Ladybug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Chloé…” Chat Noir protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cedulie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgivably Wrong

Forgivably Wrong

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

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

Forgivably Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here?” the young man wondered.

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you describe them for me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

They’re not ogling me, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

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

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though was that idea really so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.

This fic, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

Sano was barely through the apartment door when he found himself practically knocked backward by the advent of a phone right in his face.

“What. Is this.” Katsu held his arm out at its full length and very straight, as if at its end lay something disgusting he wanted to keep as far from himself as possible… or a deadly weapon that required great steadiness and stiffness to aim.

It took Sano a moment to regain his balance, then another to focus on the small screen so immediately in front of him, but finally he managed to un-blur and properly parse the text. Then he said, “Oh.”

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

“‘Sano Sagara is… In a relationship with Hajime Saitou???'” Somehow his roommate managed to enunciate multiple question marks at the end of this statement quoted from his Facebook app.

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

“And you were planning on telling your best friend about this when?” Katsu finally withdrew the long arm and allowed Sano far enough into the apartment to close the door, bringing his phone back around toward his own face that now bore an expression both angry and forsaken.

In all honesty, Sano had counted on Katsu’s inconsistent Facebook usage to keep him from seeing the announcement for a while — possibly forever — so he could work him up gradually to hearing about this development. He didn’t plan on all honesty in this conversation, however (unless Katsu got him really worked up, which was always a possibility).

Thankfully, he had a little more time to decide how to break the news, for Katsu was now busy scrolling with a growing scowl on his face. “Who even is this guy. He looks familiar, but I don’t remember where I’ve seen him before. And you’ve never mentioned him–” Katsu looked back up at Sano with accusatory eyes– “but now you’re ‘in a relationship.’ A formal ‘relationship.'”

Sano cleared his throat. “I guess it did happen kinda fast…” he said evasively.

How fast.” Katsu seemed to have used up all his question marks on that earlier demand.

“I met him, like… less than two months ago?” Sano couldn’t recall the exact date. “At that fight outside the courthouse.”

“Don’t call it a ‘fight,’ Sano.” With disconcerting abruptness Katsu spoke with the wearily patient tone of remonstrance he used whenever Sano wasn’t demonstrating enough dedication to The Cause. “It was a riot, and with the amount of media coverage we got, I’d say it was– wait.” His expression, previously reminiscently calculating, suddenly snapped back into very present focus. “You knew everyone there already. Who could you possibly have… The only new people we ‘met’ were…” His eyes had widened just slightly with every word, and now they were very round indeed. “Sano…” he choked as light seemed to dawn. “Sano, please…”

“Please what?” Sano wondered uncomfortably, just as evasive as before.

Please tell me you’re not dating a cop.”

Sano’s gaze dropped to the floor. He really hadn’t been ready for this conversation.

“OH MY GOD SANO.” Katsu fell back a step, tugging at his hair with both hands. “Why– how– what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s none of your business.” He’d known Katsu’s reaction would annoy him, but wasn’t able to stave off the surliness even having seen it coming.

“It is my business! It’s bad enough my best friend has seen this guy I’ve never heard of enough lately to be ‘in a relationship’ with him… but on top of that, he’s a cop?!”

“Geez, Kats,” said Sano, stung, “does it really bug you more that he’s a cop than that I didn’t tell you?”

“Yes, because you only didn’t tell me because he is a cop.” Katsu could dismiss this concern, but not the other. “Because, seriously, Sano — the exact opposite of everything we are?”

“Most of ‘everything we are’ is unemployed, so, yeah, I guess he’s the opposite of that.” And there was some of that honesty in response to some of that getting worked up.

“I am not unemployed! I sell plenty of art! How do you think we pay rent?” Katsu’s righteous indignation shifted from defensive to betrayed in the middle of his retort. “Besides, I thought you wanted anarchy just as much as I do! How can you be dating the enemy like this?”

“Katsu, I don’t think anyone in the world wants anarchy as much as you do. And he’s not ‘the enemy;’ there is no ‘the enemy;’ he’s just a guy doing his job.”

“You’ve become one of them,” Katsu whispered.

“I was only really ever in it for the fighting and the cool t-shirts anyway,” Sano admitted.

“Like your shirt that says, ‘Fuck the police!?'” Katsu burst out.

“Well, maybe I just decided to take that literally.” Sano couldn’t help grinning as he said this, even if he was annoyed.

Katsu made a frustrated sound and, tugging at this hair again, spun away from Sano. The latter watched with some interest — still colored by irritation — as his roommate started making a peculiar sort of rounds about the room. He picked through the magazines on the coffee table, stacking most in the crook of his elbow; tucked all the coasters — most of them falling apart, since they were just the cheap cardboard kind, but all still visibly bearing the anarchy symbol — into his pocket; gathered up the three or four table-bound CD cases from local independent artists that still released to plastic in their attempts at bucking the system; and moved next to the shelves that held books and, farther down, DVD’s.

He’d been mumbling to himself the entire time, and now his words became slightly louder and more comprehensible. “This… and this… and everything by this guy… and this entire series… Most of this is going to have to go…”

“Katsu…” Sano watched in a mixture of amusement and frustration as Katsu piled more and more junk into his already overburdened arms. “What are you doing?”

“If we’re going to have a pig in here on a regular basis,” his friend replied haughtily, “some of this stuff is going to have to move into my bedroom.”

“You don’t have to do that, man.” Though he still found Katsu’s bustle somewhat entertaining, Sano was increasingly annoyed. “You really think I’d bring someone here who’d get you in trouble just for being an anarchist? That’s not a crime by itself, you know.”

Katsu only snorted.

“Besides, who says he’s going to be here in a regular basis?”

In exasperation Katsu pointed out, “You’re probably the most sexual person I know.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a bed.” Sano slept on an old mattress on the floor, and had no clue when he was likely to upgrade.

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

“And if you happen to be in our neighborhood instead of his?”

Sano cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I really want him to see my bedroom.”

Katsu turned to face him, his stack even bigger than previously and his jaw low. “You… finally found someone… whose opinion of your bedroom you care about that much…” His voice rose into an unhappy, incredulous shout. “…and he’s a cop?!

“Yeah, but my point is he’s not going to be around here all that much — and even if he was, he won’t care what your politics are like as long as you’re not actually breaking the law!”

Katsu snorted again and went back to collecting supposedly incriminating items. Sano sighed, having no idea what else to say.

The cumbersome load had risen above the level of Katsu’s mouth when he turned to face the south wall of the living room and gave a (consequently rather muffled) groan of despair. For against that wall, stacked several layers deep, stood his unsold paintings propped up and staring out over the room in all their bloody, symbolic, explosive, revolutionary glory. There really was nowhere else to store them — they took up half the space in here, and, besides, there were already more in both bedrooms and some of the kitchen cupboards — and there was no hiding the anti-government sentiment that had driven their creation. It was an immovable and undeniable monument to Katsu’s anarchism, and he groaned again as he stared at them.

“Katsu… It’s fine.” But for all Katsu seemed to hear him, Sano might as well not have spoken.

“I could throw a sheet over them…” This tone sounded more hopeful than either of Katsu’s groans, though the proposed solution wouldn’t help with the art on the walls (the pieces Katsu, for whatever reason, hadn’t wanted to sell).

In any case he didn’t get the chance to throw a sheet over anything, for at that moment there came a knock at the door. They both jumped, undoubtedly for different reasons, and then Katsu backed away suspiciously while Sano moved sheepishly forward.

“I thought you were just stepping in to grab your cell phone charger.” And there, badge and gun visible and everything, was Saitou, raising his eyebrows at Sano once the latter had admitted him and then looking around the room.

“Yeah, I, uh…” This was not how he had planned to introduce his boyfriend to his roommate, this was not how he had planned Saitou’s first impression of his home life, and this was not how he had planned this afternoon to go.

Katsu, at whom Sano had glanced involuntarily as if in silent explanation of what was taking him so long in here, gave him a scathing I told you so look before transferring the force of his glare over the top of his armful to the newly arrived police officer. Saitou barely looked at him, however; instead his attention seemed to be caught immediately by one of the hanging paintings, and he moved toward it unblinking.

Despite everything he’d said, Sano couldn’t help some nervousness as he watched his boyfriend approach this canvas his best friend had slaved over and liked so much he couldn’t bear to part with. Saitou could be very, not to say excessively harsh at times, and, though Sano truly believed he wouldn’t try to get Katsu into trouble over this, he might make some criticism that would be, in Katsu’s mind, just as bad.

But what he said, astonishing even Sano, was “I remember this one. The military force that has that family cornered looks even more oppressive in person.” He nodded sharply in clear approval. “But my favorite is still…” And he swung around abruptly, quickly scanning the other hanging artwork and then the front row of those stacked against the wall. “…this one, with the dark angel about to exact vengeance on the abusive cop.”

“I’da thought that one would be your least favorite,” Sano chuckled. This wasn’t going as he’d expected, but it was an unexpected he could deal with.

Saitou’s return smile was very grim, and he said in that intense tone that always sent shivers up and down Sano’s spine, “I won’t tolerate abuse of power. If we had an avenging angel on the force, my job would be easier.”

A set of thuds, variegated in sound (as it were), came from behind them, and they turned to find Katsu had completely unburdened himself with arms that seemed to have gone limp in their sockets. Books and magazines and CD’s and DVD’s slid haphazardly off the coffee table where he’d dropped them, but, eyes locked on Saitou and mouth slightly agape, Katsu didn’t seem to notice. “Are you… DireGold…?”

Saitou seemed to really look at Katsu for the first time. “I am. Are you Four Brushstrokes?”

Sano was, of course, still somewhat flabbergasted at finding his boyfriend familiar with the fruits of his roommate’s profession, but his shock couldn’t come anywhere close to Katsu’s. His jaw quivered, and the lips of his open mouth trembled, but no sound emerged, until finally Sano provided the affirmative Katsu was obviously incapable of giving.

Saitou nodded. “Interesting that you’d turn out to be Sano’s roommate. Your art is a much better use of your energy than the political movement it embodies, but at least in either case–” glancing at Sano with a quirk of lips– “you use your energy for something.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, almost drowning out the whisper Katsu managed at last:

“But… you’re a cop… and you’ve commented on so much of my stuff…”

If Saitou’s smirk was any indication, he hadn’t missed how wild a loop Katsu had been thrown for or just how upside-down he’d landed. But all he did was shrug and say, with almost pointed casualness, “I like what I like.” Then, as if to demonstrate, turning toward Sano with the same exaggerated unconcern (which was only making this worse for Katsu, which Saitou obviously recognized), he added, “Do you have your charger? Shall we go?”

Not sure what to think, or whether to laugh or tremble at this new development, or what to expect from the future, Sano hastened into his mattressroom to get what he’d come for. From the adjacent chamber he heard the ridiculously bland comment from his boyfriend, “I might even be interested in buying this one, if it’s for sale,” but all that came from his friend was a sort of choking gurgle. By the time he got back in there, Saitou had stepped to the door and was conspicuously not looking at Katsu again. When he saw Sano returning he said, “Nice to meet you,” in a deceptively polite tone, and stepped out.

As the door swung mostly shut, Sano demanded of his friend, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” said Katsu hoarsely. “Yes. Don’t let me keep you from your date or whatever.” And, though the look on his face was still entirely poleaxed and the sound of his voice temporarily soulless, the words at least were calm and rational. Sano still hesitated a bit before walking away, but did eventually move to go. And before he made it entirely out of the apartment, he heard his roommate say to himself in a harsh mutter, “I’ve got to think about this…”

This was for leb’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “modern au. extremem anarchist punk sano n katsu. katsu finds out his friend is dating acop n is disappointed. hilarity ensues?????” I don’t know that all that much hilarity actually found its way into this piece, but I still think it’s kinda cute.

I’ve rated this fic . For some further thoughts on it, see this Productivity Log.

Unboxing Party

Unboxing Party

Though Saitou generally walked home from work, using the negligible distance between the station and his house as a cooldown period after the business of the day and to orient himself toward what waited at home, today he hired a carriage. The parcels that had been delivered earlier were too numerous and too unwieldy — individually and in combination — to carry conveniently on foot. He could have had them delivered to the house instead, but hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise.

Of course, the more leisure he had to stare at the things undistracted by his usual evening walk, the more opportunity there was for doubts to return. He’d never really been sure of this plan; it had taken him months to concoct it, almost as long to decide he wasn’t crazy just for considering it, and another small eternity to act upon it, and he still couldn’t be sure he — its source of inception, initiation, funding, and presumably follow-through — believed it a good idea.

At this point there really did seem little to be done, however; the decision had been made along with the order. There were a few possibilities for backing out, but no pleasant ones, so Saitou might as well just proceed as he’d intended.

The cab driver would have helped him inside with his burdens — out of, Saitou believed, actual courtesy more than the desire for a bigger tip — but the officer, preferring to maintain the privacy of his home as much as possible, declined the offer. It was a bit of a hassle getting all the boxes inside, and Sano was footworking around him like an anticipatory monkey and making almost comparable noises of wild curiosity by the time they were all situated in the bedroom, but eventually Saitou did get the driver paid and dismissed and turned his attention to the evening’s real business.

Sano was crouched next to the largest of the boxes in a position that reminded Saitou of that assumed by children playing chicken-scratch games in the dirt, examining its neat cardboard edges and the foreign logo stamped on its top with great interest. As Saitou reentered the room he commented, “This is some fancy shit! What are these?”

“They’re for you,” Saitou replied. “Are your hands clean?”

Sano’s brows rose as he glanced again at all of the parcels, then down at his hands. These didn’t look too bad, but Saitou wasn’t taking any chances. “Go wash up,” he commanded. “This was all too expensive for you to ruin immediately with your lack of hygiene.”

“Hey, I had a bath just yesterday!” This protest was made only as Sano scrambled to his feet, however; it seemed he was too curious about the contents of the boxes to argue much. He went in haste to the basin and, after staring somewhat suspiciously into it — whether assessing the state of the water or silently resenting the need to wash his hands at all Saitou couldn’t be sure — plunged in halfway up his forearms and splashed around for a few moments. How effective this actually was for purposes of cleanliness Saitou also couldn’t be sure, but since Sano’s hands hadn’t been terrible in the first place, he accepted the young man’s presence next to the parcels again after not too long without complaint.

“All right!” Sano bounced up and down on his knees a little in excitement; he wasn’t used to receiving presents.

“Go ahead.” Saitou pushed the biggest of the boxes, the one Sano had been examining closest before, toward him.

Unnecessarily thoughtless and energetic though he sometimes was, Sano did have the capacity to act like a normal, rational person at times. If Saitou had feared he would damage the packages or their contents in the process of unboxing, his worries were allayed now as Sano undid the fastening strings and lifted the lid with unusual care. A layer of thin, crinkly paper protected the contents, and this too he folded aside with responsible fingers. Then he sat back for a long moment and simply stared.

Since entering the house, nothing had occurred to ease Saitou’s doubts. This had probably been a bad idea from the beginning, and, though he was fully committed to it now, it hadn’t really gotten any better. Except that then, as the full implications of the gift seemed to hit Sano all at once, he looked up at Saitou with a sudden smile and enthusiastic energy as bright and hot as a Tokyo summer, and all the officer’s issues with this decision were abruptly blown away.

On occasion — far oftener than he liked, in fact — Saitou was required to attend gatherings such as private music recitals, European wine-tastings, lectures with drinks and discussion afterward, dances (for god’s sake), and just general-purpose parties held by the rich and influential of Tokyo’s upper crust.

It had started with him grudgingly volunteering to represent the police force at certain official occasions to which they’d been invited to send a delegate — a task he only undertook because such get-togethers had the potential to provide him with useful information about the precise type of people it was his real job to investigate, and a chore he was fairly sure Uramura silently thanked him on a regular basis for accepting as that meant he didn’t have to do it — but eventually, usefully but to his chagrin, Lieutenant Investigator Fujita Gorou had begun to develop a certain reputation as a man that enjoyed a life somewhat above his own and would snap up any classy invitation that happened to come his way.

Loathing the entire business — this impression of himself, the condescending amusement with which many of these nouveau riche treated him as a result, and the necessity of attending these phenomenally dull and overly westernized events in the first place — Saitou accepted the invitations with squint-eyed gratitude and continued to gather incriminating or suggestive evidence from circumstances observable and gossip overhearable.

The first time Sano had appealed to Saitou to take him along to one of these parties, Saitou had dismissed it as a joke and thought no more of it. The second time, however, given how vehemently (for him) he’d just been complaining about the musical revue he’d been forced to attend and the offensive insipidity of the group that had gathered for drinks thereafter, he was shocked Sano would repeat such an entreaty, and in such a straightforward tone; so he was forced to take the request more seriously and wonder aloud why on earth his lover should think he wanted to join him in such a dreadful activity.

Sano had appeared a little embarrassed at the question, but answered readily enough. “Well, you know, I was born dirt-poor… My family lived pretty hand-to-mouth while I was growing up, and I never actually made all that much money in the fighting business… And now I live with you, and you make decent money, and I’m really comfortable here…”

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

“Yeah,” Sano allowed. “Yeah. The point is, I’ll never be that person — that guy who gets all dressed up in fancy clothes and goes to a party full of rich people and drinks expensive wine or whatever. I’ll never live that life.”

“And you’d like to see what it would be like to freeload at a higher level,” Saitou finished for him.

Sano’s grin was sheepish, but also perhaps a little wistful. “I just think it’d be cool to see what that’s like.”

“But you don’t need to be that person.” It was as close as Saitou could come to telling him, “I love you exactly as you are.”

Sano had seemed to understand, though; it was remarkable how often he understood the things Saitou couldn’t say. His smile had softened, and as he sat up and shifted over to press himself against the older man, he said, “And the life I do live is pretty damn satisfying anyway.” After which they were too distracted to discuss anything as boring as the previous topic any more that night.

The third time Sano had asked, it had been in a more belligerent tone than previously — “So when are you gonna take me to one of these parties already?” — and Saitou might well have dismissed it once again, as he had in the first instance, if he hadn’t heard Sano’s reasoning the last time this had come up and reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request. Odd as it seemed, especially when Saitou had made no secret of how much he hated the things, Sano legitimately wanted to attend one. One was probably all it would take to show him just what he wasn’t missing, but that one seemed to be important to him. And what was important to Sano was, sometimes very grudgingly, important to Saitou.

So now Sano opened box after box containing the various pieces of a fine (and expensive) suit of clothing provided by a French designer currently based in Yokohama: shirt and pants, tailcoat, waistcoat, white tie, gloves, a set of silk handkerchiefs with an embroidered ‘S’ in one corner for versatility, shoes, and an utterly ridiculous piece of headwear called a ‘top hat,’ all of which would fit in impeccably at one of these hyper-European gatherings he was so interested in suffering through.

“I don’t believe this,” he was commenting in supreme glee as he smoothed out the dark grey vest with a huge grin on his face. “Is all this gonna fit me?”

“It fits me,” Saitou replied with half a shrug. They’d long since determined their bodies to be similar enough in shape and size that they could easily wear each other’s clothing — though how this would apply to European garb remained to be seen.

Sano looked up at him with an enchanted smile. “You went and got fitted for all this?”

“I thought it might be useful to have a western evening suit around.” Saitou didn’t bother getting into details of just how uncomfortable it had been dealing with the French couturier. “You can wear it to the party tonight, and then I’ll have it if I need it in the future.” And he also didn’t mention that, although this was perfectly true, he would never even have begun to consider purchasing such a thing if he hadn’t wanted it specifically for Sano.

“Oh, so it’s not really ‘for me.'” Sano didn’t seem at all put off by this information, and continued to grin over their object of discussion with great delight. “It’s really just a loan.”

“That’s right. Now let’s get you into it.”

Sano jumped up with alacrity and began shedding his clothing almost as quickly as he was wont to do under much different circumstances in this room. As he did so he asked, “What are you wearing?”

“My police uniform, as always.” Fujita-kun’s reputation, after all, involved a touch of stuffed-shirtedness.

“All right.” Sano held up the trousers he’d pulled fully from their box. “But I wanna see you in this sometime too.”

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

At the shop in Yokohama, one aspect of the fitting had been a careful training session on how to wear all these articles. Saitou had wanted to be absolutely certain he could get the things onto Sano and start his festive evening out properly, and just looking at some of them there had been some initial confusion. After that there had been some… well, not embarrassment, exactly, but certainly an enhancement of his discomfort as the French designer and his assistant had obviously discerned without needing to be told that Saitou was ordering these clothes for someone else… and what his relationship with that someone must be. Since the aforementioned two gentlemen seemed to have the same relationship, this had evidently raised him in their opinion… but it had also raised the familiarity with which they treated him, and, given he was half naked much of that time, that had only made things all the more awkward for Saitou.

Sano would never know what his wolf had gone through for his sake, however, since Saitou didn’t plan to mention it. And Sano was certainly in nothing but a good mood now as, with a fair amount of assistance, he donned the pieces in the correct order and manner and made himself into an imitation of a French gentleman of the latest mode. Once his hair was combed out of its chaos and into smoothed-back, shining locks, he was ready for the top hat and a thorough examination from all angles.

“Well?” he wondered when Saitou had prowled all around him twice, eyeing him from head to toe.

Saitou did not immediately reply. Sano looked… well, he looked absurdly handsome and desirable… but also… alien. This ensemble that not only partook of a completely different culture but represented, to Saitou, much of what he disliked about modern times… it suited Sano on one level, the most superficial, but not in any more profound way. Saitou would like nothing better, for more than one reason, than to strip it all off of him again.

At the same time, though, Sano’s delight at his finery and the prospect of attending a party in it was almost luminous. Saitou still didn’t quite understand this desire, but his own confusion, the awkwardness and discomfort he’d gone through, the amount of money he’d laid out to get to this point — even the sight of the person he cared about most wearing, essentially, the uniform of many of his enemies — seemed entirely worthwhile to witness such purity of joy and anticipation in his lover’s face and bearing.

“Very French,” he said at last.

Even Sano’s snort in response sounded happy. “Well, when does the party start?”

“We need to get going. We’re going to be fashionably late as it is.”

Sano’s eyes widened. “‘Fashionably late?’ Is that a thing??”

“Damn,” Saitou muttered, and led the way out of the room.

The rest of the night was certainly going to be interesting. Saitou would introduce Sano to his host simply by name without appending further information, and leave him to his own devices. Then Sano would wander around the place with his thug’s saunter intruding on private conversations; demonstrate that he spoke neither French, English, nor German — nor even particularly good Japanese — in his loud, uncultured accent; eat all the food, possibly commenting uninformedly on its origin and composition, and drink far too much; start arguments and maybe even pick fights; and thoroughly and unabashedly enjoy every last brutish, ignorant second of it. He was going to ruin this party, and Saitou looked forward to it almost as much as he did.

This story, which I’ve rated , was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” For some author’s notes from not long after I wrote it, see this Productivity Log.

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

It’s Curtains For You

It’s Curtains For You

Indifferent as he was to most westernization, Saitou had a distinct opinion on the new curtains. They were part of a continual project intended to ‘increase the comfort and convenience and augment the dignity of the much-respected Tokyo police force,’ a project that had strangers in and out of his office on a regular basis taking measurements and assessing colors. The result was gaudy and provokingly red, didn’t necessarily match the fresh wallpaper as well as they believed it did, not to mention something that would require dusting or laundering or airing or whatever you did with long curtains — which meant further invasion of his privacy on a regular basis with no foreseeable end.

And it wasn’t as if the window needed any covering… This second-floor chamber wasn’t susceptible to invasion through that route — not that the curtains would do much good if it were — and even an assassin with a powerful weapon would never have the office’s occupant in his line of sight since Saitou’s desk was a good six feet forward. Still, he would probably get used to the stupid things eventually.

It was ironic, when he’d just been grouching about the advent of intruders unrelated to police business in his space, how his heart leapt at the sight of Sano’s head poking through the door. And there was something like the exact opposite of irony — a feeling of interest, of piquancy, based not on contradiction but on precise similarity — about the way Sano’s face lit up when he saw Saitou.

“Here you are!” the rooster said cheerfully as he opened the way more fully and stepped inside, closing it firmly behind him. He studied the office with a quick and seemingly fairly negligent eye before returning his happy gaze to Saitou and sauntering toward him. “This is nice! I’ve never seen this part of the station before, only the shitty downstairs.” As something seemed to occur to him, he frowned slightly and added, “Funny how it gets less Japanese as it gets nicer up here.”

A recent conflation of ‘refurbish’ or ‘improve’ with ‘westernize’ was one aspect of the movement Saitou did actively disapprove of, but, though he admired Sano for making the point, he was too impatient to know something else to pursue that topic right now. “How did you find my office? Have you been invading every room on the second floor looking for me?”

“Well, only the unlocked ones,” Sano replied without compunction, placing both hands on Saitou’s desk and bending to give him a cheeky grin. “And I only just peeked in to see if I had the right room; I didn’t interrupt anything.”

Saitou leaned back in his chair and, after a long drag, blew cigarette smoke up into the young man’s face. The harshest expression he could command, however, was a wry smile at the thought of Sano startling every single officer and secretary all along the hallway in his quest to visit his relatively new lover at work for the very first time. He tried to concoct a reprimand, but his brain kept stumbling over that idea — Sano was visiting him at work — and suggesting statements and actions completely different both from what needed to be said and done and even what was feasible to say and do in this context. Finally all he managed was, “Well, now that you know where my office is, you can avoid harassing my co-workers going forward.”

“That sounds like an invitation to come back in here whenever I feel like it.” Sano’s grin had intensified, and now he knelt upward onto the desk, drawing his second leg after so he straddled the paperwork Saitou had been busy with and the wolf would be forced to reach right between his wide-angled thighs should he wish to rescue it.

“You have a gift for selective interpretation.” Not favoring how inaccessibly far above him Sano’s face now hovered, Saitou stood, reaching past the young man on the desk to stub out his cigarette in the ash tray as he did so. This was going to fully confirm the presumed invitation for Sano to return routinely, but to be honest Saitou hadn’t really planned on contradicting it. Instead he put one hand on each of Sano’s knees to protect the stack of sheets in between, and moved in close.

Sano’s arms wrapped eagerly around Saitou’s neck, crossing at the wrists as he tilted forward to bring his face nearer the other man’s. “What time do you get off?” he asked in a tone that was half faux-casual flirtation and half ridiculous husky seduction.

“Not until I get you into bed,” Saitou replied with a smirk, sliding his hands off Sano’s knees and halfway up his thighs on the inside curve, ruffling the overshadowed and largely forgotten papers.

Sano chuckled appreciatively and bent to close the distance between them. His breath tasted like sake and something slightly spicy and the even spicier anticipation of the promised nighttime activity.

Just then, noisy booted footsteps came pounding up the hallway outside so quickly and loudly that both men looked toward the door. “Chou,” Saitou muttered in some irritation, withdrawing his hands disappointingly from their sneaky upward progress.

Sano grunted in similar annoyance and, bracing himself abruptly on Saitou’s shoulders, gave a little spring off the desk, barely missing sending the entire stack of paperwork flying. He’d no sooner hit the floor on the far side from the room’s entrance than he’d ducked behind one of the unnecessarily elaborate curtains beside the window and concealed himself completely.

Saitou wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Yes, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and, yes, they’d been in a pretty compromising position just now, but if Sano planned on making these visits a regular thing, trying to keep them a secret from Saitou’s assistant seemed futile and not worth the effort. Still, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and Saitou did take a certain amount of delight in the delicious novel privacy of Sano’s presence.

He didn’t really have time to decide one way or another, since the aforementioned assistant came bursting in without knocking — they might need to have a conversation about knocking — and breathlessly right up to his desk without a pause. He slammed his hands down in a louder version of Sano’s earlier gesture and gasped out, “Commissioner’s on his way!”

“Thank you, Chou.” Both Saitou’s statement and the nod that accompanied it were slightly exaggerated in response to the over-the-top delivery of this mundane news. And when Chou continued to lean on the desk and catch his breath Saitou was forced to add, “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Grudgingly Chou acknowledged this dismissal by standing straight and backing away a step. “You sure you don’t want me to–“

Saitou cut him off before he could complete whatever spurious offer he was about to make as an excuse to stick around and eavesdrop like the gossip he was. “I’m sure.”

“All right, fine.” And the broomhead made an exit as exaggerated as his entrance had been.

The latch had barely clicked when Sano’s warm hands were on Saitou’s neck, moving up and down in a stroking, almost massaging motion he liked very much. But the comment Sano had to make was, “Nice of him to warn you like that.”

“He does think he’s being nice,” Saitou admitted, giving Chou credit he rarely afforded him in person. “He’s the type of person who never wants his boss to drop by unexpectedly, and he assumes I feel the same.”

“And you think I’m like that too,” Sano concluded from Saitou’s tone, indignant but simultaneously laughing a little.

“You did approve his choice to come in here and ‘warn’ me.”

Taking hold of Saitou’s earlobes and using them as handles to tilt the officer’s entire head back, Sano looked down into his face with a stern expression. “I approved,” he said, “his choice to try to make your day easier.”

“You might make the same choice now and then,” Saitou smirked as Sano’s lips descended.

Before they could come to rest, however, there was a proper knock at the door. Saitou found he’d been balancing his seat on its two rear legs as he leaned back to look at Sano upside-down, for as his lover released him and darted behind the curtain once more, the chair thumped onto the rug below with surprising heaviness. It made Saitou’s “Come in” come out with more vehemence than he’d intended.

Here was, as Chou had indicated, Kawaji, accompanied for the moment by Uramura, though Saitou knew full well the police chief would be dismissed presently without much reason given. He always went with good grace, knowing ‘Fujita-kun’ to be more than what he’d ever been let in on, but while he remained in the room there was a sort of wistful curiosity about his every word and gesture that amused Saitou faintly — though perhaps not as much as, uncharitably, did his awareness that, at this private meeting between commissioner and agent, a former kenkaya and present layabout with no connection to the force except that he was fucking one of its members would be hearing all the interesting details the loyal and discreet Uramura was barred from (and probably wouldn’t even find them all that interesting).

And they weren’t all that interesting. It was a pretty standard meeting with Kawaji: important, engrossing, but nothing to get fired up about. Saitou paid no less attention and responded with no less engagement than usual, and Kawaji certainly didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary… and yet there was a distinct difference to the proceedings in Saitou’s mind that unquestionably sprang from the awareness of what waited for him behind that luxurious curtain. He had a hidden muse, a beautiful secret that made no real difference to the scene except to add an undercurrent of irrelevant entertainment as long as the conference lasted and a crackling anticipation for the moment it ended.

Eventually it did end, no sooner or later than they ever did, and, though Saitou hadn’t been impatient, precisely, he did feel something like relief — and definitely something like excitement! — as he watched Kawaji’s diminutive form disappear out the door. And once again, before the latter was even completely closed, Sano was upon him.

Whatever interest or amusement mirroring Saitou’s Sano had or hadn’t felt back there, he was evidently tired of running out of time and getting interrupted, for in this instance he wasted no words: he stepped immediately around into the narrow space between the seated Saitou and the desk, leaned down, and, braced firmly on the armrests, kissed him thoroughly. Saitou did not protest that he should really get back to work, glorying as he was in the taste and smell and nearness of Sano, the feel of his tongue in his mouth, and wishing this chair were big enough for Sano to fulfill the movement toward which he was obviously inclined and crawl into Saitou’s lap somehow. In fact gloved hands were making ineffectual tugging gestures at Sano’s flanks beneath the open, dangling sides of his gi.

And then they heard Chou’s boots in the hall again.

The sound Sano made as he broke free of the kiss and slipped away was almost more a laugh than a frustrated sigh, and Saitou rolled his eyes. It was annoying, but not as if they wouldn’t have plenty of opportunity for this kind of thing in days to come, or kiss many times over and much more intimately tonight after work. The newness of the relationship and the situation rendered the separation more aggravating than it really was.

The broomhead entered and reached Saitou’s desk in another whirlwind of gaudy garb and hair, but now seemed less panicked and more eager to hear all the juicy news. “So what’d he want?” he demanded.

“None of your business,” replied Saitou in as cool a tone as he could manage given the lingering heat of his mouth. “Get out; I have work to do.”

The dramatic Chou looked so utterly crestfallen, staggering backward this time as if he’d been struck, that Saitou was forced to relent and promise, “I’ll tell you about it later, when I have a chance.” After all, much of it hadn’t actually been strictly confidential, as least as far as Saitou’s assistant was concerned.

This seemed to be all Chou needed to cheer him, for he grinned and continued backing toward the door. “You better!” he said.

“Oh, and, Chou…” Saitou raised a hand, then continued when the broomhead paused. “I’m going to need you to start knocking before you enter.”

Appearing a little surprised at this new development, Chou tilted his head slightly and said, “Got it,” in an almost questioning tone — as if the edict to knock on a superior’s door instead of just bursting impetuously into the room was a peculiar one requiring explanation. But then his eyes strayed past Saitou’s lifted arm in a direction the officer realized might be somewhat dangerous, and a thoughtful expression took his face.

Cautiously, not daring to look behind him just yet, Saitou asked, “What is it?”

“You know…” Chou put one of his own gloved hands to his face, rubbing his chin with a finger. “I kinda like the new curtains.”

Now Saitou did turn and give the curtains — or at least one of them — a long, searching glance, and was able to assure himself that, with the opulent amount of cloth the things were made of, there was no hint of where Sano was hidden even to someone that knew he was there. Which meant Chou wasn’t making a snide comment but voicing an actual opinion.

With a faint smile as part of a thoughtful expression of his own, Saitou turned back to his subordinate and admitted at a deadpan, “They’re growing on me.”

This was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Established Saisa where Sano visits Saito when he’s working and kisses him in his office.” It was only a barely established relationship, though XD

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

Time For This


Sano kept stretching out his arms and examining his cuffs and looking pleased. He’d needed the use of links demonstrated, having barely been accustomed to standard button-up shirts, let alone these fancier things, but he seemed to relish the effect.

Saitou tried not to watch him, because it burned like acid on his heart how good Sano looked in the suit. He also didn’t like to see Sano repeatedly checking his gun because he wasn’t used to a shoulder holster either; he didn’t like to be reminded how much distress he felt at Sano’s recent minor promotion.

As they continued along the highway, however, Sano’s grin at his own finery turned gradually downward until eventually he wore a pensive frown instead of a smile. Finally he remarked somewhat darkly, “You can stop looking at me like that. I know you think I shouldn’t be at this thing.”

Concentrating on the road ahead and refraining from glancing at the passenger seat again, Saitou answered, “I’m surprised you noticed.”

“Oh, fuck you,” relied Sano without venom. “I’ve known for a long time. You don’t think I’m cut out for diplomatic work.”

“You’re not.”

“And fuck you again. You think I can’t keep quiet, but what do you even know about it?”

Saitou just snorted faintly and said nothing, knowing Sano would, as the saying went, open his mouth and prove it.

“I’m just going to be basically Sadojima-san’s bodyguard anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be part of the talking.”

Saitou did not reply.

“And you know that, since it’s pretty much what you’ll be doing too.”

Still Saitou remained silent, though now he did wonder if Sano had some other point he hadn’t anticipated.

“So what I’m wondering is: is the real reason you don’t want me here just ‘dumbass Sano can’t talk fancy and is likely to fuck this up?'”

Uncomfortable all of a sudden for what reason he couldn’t guess, Saitou nevertheless replied drily. “That, and you’re likely to misinterpret everything anyone says to Sadojima-san and start fights over nothing. And a concealed weapon isn’t right for you. And your hair is a disgrace.”

“Pff.” Sano failed at not sounding annoyed, but succeeded at not being distracted. “Same old insulting bullshit as always, huh?” He shook his head, and the movement looked almost wry. “Are you sure that’s why you don’t want me there?”

“Did you have some other reason in mind?” Saitou’s tone was cool, but he was beginning to feel distinctly hot under the collar. Was it possible Sano — childish, inattentive Sano — had noticed? Had recognized how Saitou felt? But why would he bring it up now, of all times? Because Saitou was driving and essentially couldn’t escape the conversation?

“I thought maybe you didn’t want me along because…” Sano tried to hide his deep breath, his nervousness about making this statement, and couldn’t. Would he feel any better if he knew how correspondingly nervous Saitou was about hearing it?

“…because Hanazuki and Shirojima aren’t the only groups that’ll be there tonight, are they?”

It came like a blunt strike when he’d been expecting a sharp, and it took a moment for him to shift gears to deal with it. And then, as the implications of that declaration veiled in inquiry hit him, he literally shifted gears, pulled abruptly to the shoulder, and stopped the car.

“How do you know that,” he wondered in a low tone with just the barest hint of threat to it, “and what else do you know?”

“I know you’re undercover.” Sano’s voice was just as quiet, and also surprisingly even considering he’d obviously had to work himself up to this. “But I only know ’cause I’ve been watching you. Really closely. I don’t think anyone else has you figured out… but I do.”

Saitou stared at him, wondering, first, just how far Sano did have him figured out — whether his original suspicion still held true even in the light of this new information — and, second, whether or not Sano, over there in the dark passenger seat on this dim evening highway, was blushing. Why had he been watching Saitou ‘really closely?’ Was it possible…

It was a further burn on Saitou’s heart that they didn’t have time for this right now.

“You must realize,” he said, steeling himself, “that I can’t take you to the meeting now that I know you know.”

“Yeah, you can,” Sano defied him. “You can take me as your partner.”

Did he know? Could he possibly not be punning? Or was he indeed completely oblivious to how very much Saitou would like to ‘take him as his partner?’

But they still didn’t have time for this.

“You want to abandon Hanazuki and join me?” he asked, blunt and a little skeptical, refraining from specifying the organization he worked for even to this person he longed to trust.

“You want to stop us making an arrangement with Shirojima,” Sano said. This sounded like a reasoned hypothesis rather than a guess — a more logically certain tone than Saitou was accustomed to hearing from Sano. It scared him how much he liked it.

“If Hanazuki and Shirojima start sharing turf and working together,” he answered, “they may both be given boryokudan status.”

“Shit.” All fleeting hints of relationship talk drained from the discussion as Sano vehemently shook his head. “That’s gonna suck for everyone.”

Saitou nodded. “You might want to get out while you can.”

“I’ve been thinking about it…” Sano spoke slowly and not with perfect surety. Undoubtedly this was the first time he’d voiced this sentiment aloud. “And I dunno that ‘getting out’ is enough anymore.”

“What more do you want?”

“I never realized how fucked-up this life is until I talked to you. Not like you ever said it, but you made me think…” At a mumble he added in some apparent chagrin, “Nobody ever really made me think before. Supposedly this is all about family and looking out for each other and shit… but nobody cares much if you’re a terrible person doing terrible things as long as those things are for the family.”

Saitou was moved in a way he hadn’t been in many years, and impressed beyond words that this young man had somehow, in an atmosphere completely antithetical to the concept, developed a sense of individual morality. He wanted to tell him how much more attractive this made him, wanted to express his sense of flattery that Sano had somehow been inspired to this by him, even while he’d been undercover… but they still didn’t have time for this.

“So what is it you want?” he asked again.

“I want to help,” said Sano immediately. “I don’t want a bunch of people getting arrested or killed because the group gets promoted to ‘most dangerous to society.’ We’ve gotta stop them from making that deal.”

“‘We…'” Saitou was surprised how bitter his imitation sounded. He should have known Sano would manage to get himself into a situation even more dangerous than his little yakuza promotion had already lined him up for.

“This meeting’s gonna get raided, right?” This was clearly a guess, but it was a shrewd one. “Then you’ll find excuses to deal with everyone there in one way or another…” Sano sounded a little anxious as he avoided defining how he expected Saitou and his allies to ‘deal with’ the gathered yakuza bosses, but evidently even the worst he could imagine wasn’t a deterrent, for he went on almost defiantly. “It’ll be real useful to have someone else on your side with the Hanazuki people. It might make things a lot easier.”

Saitou continued to stare at him as Sano fell into a demanding silence, wishing he could see more details of that attractive face in the darkness without doing something that would immediately give him away like turning on the cabin light.

It would be useful to have someone else on his side among the Hanazuki people. It might give him an invaluable edge in what was likely to be an unpleasant and difficult situation. And afterward… Sano wouldn’t be able to go back. He would have to seek out other work, other sanctuary. Where and with whom was a matter of question… but certain possibilities came immediately to mind…

But could he trust Sano? Did he really believe Sano had come to recognize the inherent wrongness of yakuza life and wanted a change? Did such things happen — could all of this be true — or did he only want to believe it? Were his heart and his vanity and some misguided sense of optimism out of nowhere overriding his logic, and likely to betray him just as Sano was?

But Saitou had always been one to follow his instincts. They didn’t really have time for anything else. And nowhere was safe for a yakuza thug, especially a passionate and foolhardy one… so they might as well go into danger together.

“All right,” he said, taking the car out of park. “Your briefing starts now.” And he could hear the excited catch of breath — childish as usual! — at the world of meaning inherent in his words. He had to smile a little as he added, “Stop checking that gun, though; I don’t want you killing anyone tonight if you can help it.” He glanced briefly over to where Sano’s teeth showed in the darkness in an eager grin. “It doesn’t suit you anyway.”


This was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Saitou/Sano Modern AU Yakuza,” and it just goes to show that when I think of things in haste, the result is often a lot of idea-recycling XD Also there wasn’t actually any yakuza action, but ‘primarily conversation’ has always been so much my specialty that I even have a content tag for it XD

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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


The Solution

The Solution

The funny monotonous humming, alternately amusing and irritating, that Chou used to pass the time while he worked broke off suddenly, and Saitou glanced from where he sat in his own office to the tank-like outer area housing Chou’s desk. Based on the new ki discernible there, Sano had arrived on the scene. Now they would distract each other and get zero work done for an incalculable period of time; they always did.

After the rude greetings in jovial tones that could have misled anyone about the relationship between these two, Sano asked, “Saitou around?”

And Chou immediately replied, “Nah, he’s not here yet.” And though this might have been a deliberate lie — especially in light of the further conversation — Saitou thought it not unlikely the broomhead really was unaware of his presence; he’d entered his office at a moment when Chou had stepped away, and he wasn’t making a lot of noise in here.

“Damn,” was Sano’s response to the news

Saitou could hear the lazy grin in Chou’s tone as he said, “Well, no wonder he wouldn’t come in when you’re gonna be here.”

And the identical expression must have been on Sano’s face as he replied, “He’s probably just trying to spend as little time with you as he possibly can.” Though if Saitou had really been forced to decide which of them annoyed him more, he would probably have had to flip a coin. He wouldn’t truly have bothered trying to avoid either of them, though; the occasional annoyance was just part of the deal.

Chou replied, “Hey, he’s glad to have me. He was doing all this shit alone before; he’s never had an assistant he could trust.” And the listening Saitou had to admit this was true; he’d never told Chou it was the case, but evidently the broomhead had figured it out on his own.

“I do good work for him too!” was Sano’s defiant response. “I’ve turned up loads of important information for him.” Which was also true — Sano had a gift for reading a crowd, a room, or a witness that spoke to a highly developed, if largely subconscious, analytical ability Saitou greatly valued. He was far more intelligent than many would have guessed. And where Chou was conspicuous both visually and in a sense of showmanship he simply couldn’t abandon, the roosterhead, despite his almost equally ridiculous clothing and hair, could fit into many an unexpected group and winnow out of it whatever Saitou needed to know.

“Yeah, too bad you have to leave writing it up to me, since you’re so damn hopeless at that.” There was that grinning tone again: a surprisingly un-biting tease that was also perfectly accurate — Chou, far more meticulous and systematic than many would have guessed him, had a talent for police paperwork that Saitou also greatly valued. Where Sano was semi-literate, sometimes completely inarticulate, and certainly disorganized, Chou had raised the efficiency of Saitou’s operation to a degree the wolf had never anticipated when he’d begun working with him.

Sano pointed out, “But at least I’m behind him with all his goals. I even totally forgive him for stabbing me when we first met, ’cause it was all for justice and shit.”

“I’m totally behind him too,” Chou protested, though his tone turned to more of a grumble as he went on. “I actually follow laws now, and I never kill anyone except when I need to for work.”

Though unsure whether he was more exasperated at the description of his personal policies as ‘for justice and shit’ or Chou’s long-suffering air of martyrdom, Saitou had to admit (to himself; he never would have said it to them) that he appreciated the sacrifice and change in lifestyle enacted by each for his sake. Sano could still be cluelessly trailing Battousai around and getting nothing done, and Chou could have run off long ago to murder people and steal their swords, yet they were both here dedicating at least some of their not inconsiderable energy to helping him make a difference in the government and the country.

“Way to be totally morbid about it!” If Sano’s laughter was any indication, however, he had no real objection to Chou’s references to his homicidal past. “See, I’m happy all the time–” Saitou didn’t really think this was true, though he did find Sano’s intense and often rapidly shifting emotional state compelling– “and he needs that. He isn’t happy nearly as much as he should be; he needs someone cheerful around.”

“He sure as hell need a distraction sometimes,” Chou agreed. “It’s just this endless grind for him, and he’ll never be able to deal with all the corruption. But that’s where I come in! He likes hearing about my swords, and that helps him think about something else for a while.”

The idea as stated was not entirely correct; it wasn’t so much that Saitou specifically enjoyed hearing Chou talk about his ever-expanding collection as that he was amused and grudgingly impressed by Chou’s unfailing interest and extensive knowledge. And it wasn’t impossible that he did need cheering and distracting more — and more frequently — than he would be willing to admit. It displayed a greater degree of thoughtfulness than anyone could have expected of these two — and certainly more than Saitou was accustomed to having in his life — that Sano and Chou recognized this.

But he couldn’t be entirely pleased at the thought, nor at what he was overhearing. They were confirming, out there, what he’d long quietly and somewhat worriedly believed: that their desire to impress him went beyond the professional. That they weren’t merely ‘behind him with all his goals.’

“I’m distracting too, you know!” And was that ever right! Sano had such a vibrant, entertaining personality that Saitou had never been satisfied — had never been able to stop dwelling on him — until he’d secured him to his employ. The same thing could be said of Chou, however — there was a reason he’d snapped him up the moment he learned about the broomhead’s amnesty deal, after all — so if he’d had to choose which of the two was more distracting, he would have to bring out that coin again.

“I’m never scared to say exactly what I think about him right to his face,” Sano went on proudly, as if this was a mighty accomplishment rather than a childish and somewhat annoying behavior prone to getting in the way of business.

Sardonically Chou replied, “Yeah, too bad ‘what you think’ and ‘how you feel’ are two different things.” And they both sighed. After a long, pensive silence during which Saitou didn’t even pretend to be working rather than following the drama going on just outside his office with an avidity he wouldn’t have wanted to admit to anyone, Chou spoke again. “And I think he likes me being kinda roundabout. Makes conversation interesting, you know?”

It fascinated Saitou that they neither ever denied the other’s claim — that by neglecting to argue Chou had tacitly admitted Sano’s presence was cheering, and Sano that Chou’s conversation was interesting. The two were a volatile, possibly explosive combination, but for all that not, Saitou believed, incompatible. The issue was that they hadn’t realized their chemical compatibility; each had another mixture in mind. And he didn’t necessarily object to that idea, except for one glaring problem.

“You don’t need to do anything to make conversation with Saitou interesting,” Sano said. “It already kinda… crackles… if you know what I mean.”

Chou sounded as if he did know what Sano meant as he replied regretfully, “Yeah… He’s sexy as shit.”

And there was the glaring problem.

I can barely look at him without getting into an argument,” Sano mused, “and he treats you like the worst kind of peon… I wonder which is better.”

“Or… Juppongatana or Sekihoutai — which is worse?”

Sano gave a surprisingly mirthless laugh, and another silence followed.

Presently Chou said, “You know he’s got files on both of us, right?”

“Does he?” Sano wondered in surprise. “I mean, of course he would, but I never really thought about it…” And temptation already sounded strong in his voice even just with this beginning of an idea.

“Not like they’d tell us which of us he’d rather get horizontal with, but it might be interesting to see what he does have to say about us.”

Saitou barely had time to reflect that he’d rather not ‘get horizontal with’ either of them — or anyone, which was precisely his dilemma in this situation — when the sound of Chou’s chair scraping across the floor indicated he had more important things to think about. Not that he was likely to be the one flustered by the revelation that he’d overheard their entire conversation, just that things would probably come to a confrontation now and he needed to be prepared for his part.

The door burst open with the impetuosity of movement exhibited by both of his assistants, so it was impossible to say which of them had done it, and they piled into the room.

“Discuss me in my absence all you want,” Saitou said from where he sat at his desk, “but prying into my files is going too far.”

Though his words had been cool, they seemed to have just the opposite effect on the faces of his subordinates. He found it was a fairly attractive shade of red on both of them.

“What the serious fuck?” Sano demanded. As was often the case with him, the emotions of the situation (regardless of what they specifically were) caused his hands to ball into fists as he took an angry step forward. “How long have you been here?”

“Really, ahou, what kind of question is that? I know it was an engrossing conversation, but do you really think I could have sneaked past you at any point?”

“You’re a damn sneaky bastard,” the roosterhead shot back, “so maybe!” His face had gone even redder. Chou, more circumspect (just as he’d said a minute before), stayed silent, but Saitou thought he too was blushing a little harder at this clear indication that the wolf had been there all along.

“It is my office,” Saitou pointed out.

“So then you probably heard all that shit we were saying out there.” The nonchalance Sano attempted at this juncture was far too little too late, but it was funny he was trying.

“You were talking rather loudly. It’s been difficult to get any work done in here.” Which was true, but not for the blandly insulting reason Saitou implied.

“So there’s no point pretending!” After a deep breath and never breaking eye contact with Saitou, Sano demanded, “Which one of us do you like better?”

“You hired me way earlier,” Chou hastened to remind his boss, speaking for the first time since entering the room. “You musta liked what you saw in that jail cell.”

“Yeah, but he met me earlier than that.” Sano addressed Chou rather than Saitou in order to argue the point more directly. “He liked what he saw on the dojo steps!” And Saitou almost couldn’t believe this was devolving into, ‘Well, I saw him first.’

“Yeah, but then he stabbed you.”

“He left you in the jail cell.”

Saitou didn’t even bother trying to keep the amusement from his tone as he asked, “Can’t you idiots think of a better way to solve this than trying to determine which of you I’ve abused less?”

“Yeah!” Sano took another vigorous step forward, raising his fist as if for a fight rather than what he was about to suggest. “Yeah, I can! All we gotta do is each of us kiss you, and that’ll clear everything up!”

“You think so?” Now Saitou was on the verge of laughter, though he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the idea. Kissing he didn’t mind so much — he was lucky Sano hadn’t demanded, in that straightforward way of his, something far more inappropriately intimate to prove this point — but he couldn’t be confident the demonstration would have the desired effect.

But Chou was grinning, the expression devious and anticipatory. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Good idea, tori.” And Saitou thought he could read the true thoughts behind the approving words: Chou too doubted the efficacy of this plan for actually determining which of them Saitou liked better, but was totally onboard with any course of action that would win him a kiss he hadn’t otherwise expected to receive.

Saitou looked back and forth between their agitated but eager faces, and found a smirk growing slowly on his own as he thought he began to see the formula laid out before his mind’s eye. It was still a volatile situation, but he believed he knew now how to work his way through it. Finally he said, “All right.” Then he raised a gloved hand to stop Sano’s immediate impetuous advance. “On one condition.”

Sano and Chou shot each other an almost conspiratorially nervous look, then turned their eyes back toward Saitou in mute curiosity.

“For every kiss I give either of you,” Saitou told them calmly, “you to have to kiss each other first.”

Chou’s left eye popped open in astonishment, while Sano’s response was a hoarse, “…the fuck?”

Saitou’s smirk widened. “You heard me. Get to it.”

The immediacy and lack of complaint or question with which they obeyed was not only flattering — they wanted to get at him quicker — but also promising — they truly didn’t mind this. And he had to admit, it was even nicer than he’d expected to see them together like that. They seemed to fit remarkably well, and know instinctively what motions of lips and tongue — because, oh, yes, there was tongue involved — would be most enjoyable. It lasted a lot longer than even Saitou had anticipated, and certainly, based on their expressions when they broke apart, longer than its two participants had guessed it might. They stared at each other — Chou’s left eye, Saitou noted, still wide open — in bafflement and perhaps a growing mutual awareness for several long seconds after the kiss ended.

Saitou was more than satisfied. If they could get some of what they needed from each other and the rest of what they wanted from him, perhaps there was a solution to this problem after all. And perhaps they too were beginning to recognize that.

But they were also still desperate for the answer to the original question. In entertainingly similar movements, they shook themselves as if discarding, at least for the moment, the revelation that had just began to dawn, and turned toward Saitou almost in synchronization. “Well?” Sano demanded, and Saitou thought the redness of his face arose now from more circumstances than before. “That’s one! So who’s first?”

“Who, indeed?” Still smirking, Saitou reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10 sen piece. Without bothering to declare which of them he’d assigned to which side of the coin, he sent it spiraling into the air with a flick of his thumb. Three pairs of eyes watched it rise, flashing, and then begin to descend.

This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk because it was directly inspired by their ficlet Tough Love. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

The number of M&M’s in the bowl was nothing short of comic. It was Heero’s biggest mixing bowl, and barely fit anywhere in his kitchen cabinets to begin with, and here the M&M’s were heaped up above the top of the rim in a colorful mountain that occasionally suffered little clattering avalanches onto the counter or floor.

“How many packages is this?” he wondered in audible amusement.

“Is what?” replied Duo, then, turning, saw. “Oh,” he chuckled. “I dunno… like, eight?”

“How did I not notice you buying, like, eight packages of M&M’s?”

“You were too distracted by my butt.”

“That is probably true. But why did you think you needed that many M&M’s at once?”

“Why wouldn’t I need that many M&M’s all at once?”

Heero conceded the point by scooping up a large number (there was no need for moderation) and cramming them between his teeth. Some moderation might perhaps have been warranted after all, since he then found it rather difficult to chew the unwieldy mouthful, but after several moments of maneuvering he made a pleasant discovery. “Reefa awmun,” he said.

“Yeah, what did you think?”

Rather than attempt to speak again with a largely unusable tongue, Heero worked a bit, swallowed, and eventually said, “I thought they were peanut.”

Haughtily Duo drew himself up. “What kind of infidel do you think I am?”

Heero just took another handful of candy and, before leaving the living room, stepped close to Duo and pecked him on the cheek. “Well, don’t be surprised if I eat seven of your eight packages there.”

“You sure you’re not going to watch with us?” Duo wondered as Heero made his way around the couch. His unspoken thought on the matter was that he’d only asked out of politeness; of course he always wanted Heero with him, but, familiar with Heero’s disinterest in football, didn’t want to pressure him.

“I’m going to see what I can do about the computer.” This reply was somewhat grim, as it was far past time.

Duo laughed. “Good luck!” And even as he said this, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his guest.

Heero quickened his pace. It wasn’t that he had anything against Sano (or any of Duo’s new friends), but, since he wasn’t going to be actively hanging out with the guy, there was no reason to meet him at the door. He munched on his second handful of M&M’s a couple at a time as he took a seat at the desk, booted up the computer, and listened to the conversation in the living room.

“Hope you don’t mind expired Chinese food,” was Sano’s reply to Duo’s enthusiastic welcome.

“Expired like how?”

“Expired like we’re not allowed to sell it anymore, but it’s still just fine, so we all take it home for free even though we’re technically not supposed to.”

“I love that kind of Chinese food!”

“That is a lot of M&M’s there.”

“I know! I totally have dessert covered!”

“They’re so big, though… are they peanut?”

“Hah! Heero thought that too, but I am so much better than that. They’re almond.”

“Shit.”

The sudden sound of the TV drowned out whatever Duo said next, and the surface level of his head was mostly trying to remember what the channel number for Fox was, but Heero assumed he asked what had prompted Sano’s profanity. Next came a sense of disproportionate disconsolation when Sano apparently revealed that he was allergic to almonds.

Heero spent the following few minutes pondering whether he should head into the other room and grab some more M&M’s for himself. The discovery that Duo’s guest could not enjoy the snack he had so sanguinely provided had prompted such disappointment that Heero, in the hopes of cheering him, would love to prove the purchase of so many almond M&M’s not a waste… but to do so would also, quite possibly, indicate that Heero was aware of just how disappointed Duo was, which would, rather than lessening Duo’s disappointment, merely send it off in a different direction by reminding him that Heero could still, especially when they were at home, hear his surface-level thoughts.

This was excessively frustrating. He wanted to make a nice gesture for his boyfriend (in addition to his simple desire for more M&M’s), and it seemed unfair to have to waffle over it like this. He wasn’t even working on the computer as he’d planned, merely sitting idly debating the relative merits of fetching or not fetching another handful of candy from the next room.

Eventually kickoff provided what seemed a decent distraction. If Duo’s disappointment had faded a bit, he might not make the connection between Heero’s errand and the fact that Heero had just been reading his mind, and Heero might be able to send his boyfriend one message while avoiding another. It was worth a try. So from where he’d accomplished nothing so far Heero rose and went back in there.

Surrounded by the already-separated contents of a six-pack of Coke and Chinese takeout boxes whose multiform scents permeated the living room (though they had not yet crept down the hall), Duo and his young exorcist friend sat on the sofa engrossed in the first quarter of the Oakland Raiders vs. Heero was not quite sure whom. They both looked up as Heero rounded the TV.

“Hey, Heero,” Sano greeted. “Want some Chinese leftovers?”

“No, thanks.” Heero quickly scanned what was already more than a bit of a mess (and probably destined to expand as such), murmuring, “I really just wanted…” His eyes lighted on the colorful mixing bowl where it sat a complete arm’s length from Duo’s end of the sofa as if to keep it as far as possible from Sano, and he resisted the urge to laugh. He approached and bent to retrieve a very large handful of M&M’s this time, paying close attention to Duo’s thoughts as he did so. It seemed he’d succeeded in his purpose: all that crossed his boyfriend’s mind at this point was the somewhat mollified reflection, At least Heero likes them.

Returning to the computer room more or less satisfied, Heero sat down to work through his extensive collection of M&M’s and actually pay some attention to the computer.

One reason (among many Heero was trying to ignore) that Duo’s discomfort with Heero’s magical abilities seemed so unfair was that Heero was not and probably would never be able to control the aspect of it that bothered his boyfriend. He couldn’t stop hearing projected thoughts, especially of someone to whom he was so close, and everything he saw on the internet seemed to indicate this would always be the case. A communicator, it appeared, once his abilities had awakened, was always switched to receive, and the burden fell on others not to send. Heero definitely hadn’t asked for that, and it seemed unfair that Duo was so disturbed by something Heero couldn’t do anything about and had never sought. But Duo was probably just as unable to control his discomfort as Heero to control his communication powers, so there was no use dwelling on it.

At the moment, as he began a search about how he could improve the speed and performance of his computer without having to take too much trouble or spend too much (or preferably any) money, he was also, rather perforce, following the progress of a football game he wasn’t actually watching. The Raiders were up against the St. Louis Rams, who were playing a rookie quarterback that had already been sacked twice in a row.

As little interest as Heero had in football, he was yet familiar with the basics of the sport and had no active disliking of it; additionally, he found the sounds of a football game in progress within earshot cheerful background noise. Therefore, that the combination of announcers from the loud TV and reactions from Duo’s unguarded head were giving Heero a pretty good idea what went on in the game didn’t bother him much. It wasn’t as if the computer endeavor required undivided attention.

While he’d been a doll, Duo had only ever muted the television when trying to pay specific attention to some other aural stimulus, but as a human he had developed the habit of muting it during every commercial break. Heero thought this arose from Duo’s desire to exert his autonomy over as many aspects of life as possible: he wasn’t tied to the television for entertainment to stave off madness anymore, and therefore could be highly selective about what he paid attention to. Heero didn’t complain, as he found the advertising obnoxious in the first place — and in this specific instance, the muting allowed him to overhear more perfectly a conversation he couldn’t make much of while the noisy sounds of the game were mostly drowning it out.

Of course the first two or three commercial breaks were filled with football talk — how the Raiders were performing and which of their quarterbacks would end up the star of the season, the Rams’ status and whether or not their offensive line deserved excellent running back Steven Jackson, and other such relatively uninteresting topics — but eventually, when the TV went silent after Fox’s somewhat threatening-sounding commercial break music, Sano asked half idly, “So how’s your Quatre friend doing?”

“Oh, he’s getting better,” Duo replied. “He’s working hard on trying to make up for everything he thinks he did wrong. Too hard, if you ask me, but that’s what Quatre does.”

“Yeah, he offered to pay me and Hajime, like, double the usual price ’cause he felt so bad about it. Sounded good to me, but of course Hajime said no.” There was a wry grin in Sano’s tone as he added, “That’s what Hajime does.”

“What, turns down money?”

“Well, he’s a real professional, is all… he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a decent guy like that.”

Duo laughed. “So he’d take advantage of somebody who wasn’t decent?”

Sano joined him laughing. “He sure as hell doesn’t try very hard not to take extra money from assholes.”

“That actually sounds like pretty solid business to me.”

“Right?”

The conversation (at least that Heero could hear clearly) was suspended for a bit while the game recommenced, but it wasn’t long before a failed field goal attempt led to another commercial break and Sano resumed the same topic:

“So Quatre’s really OK, then? I know that kind of shit can really mess people up sometimes.”

“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in his head…” Contrarily, Heero could tell exactly what was going on in Duo’s head as he said this: he was thinking once more, as he had off and on ever since it had first been brought up so disastrously that one morning, about the possibility — the need, in fact — of therapy for more than one of his friends in addition to himself. The subject hadn’t re-arisen aloud, what with the Quatre business and its aftermath, but Heero thought he would have to prod Trowa about it again at some point.

“But I think,” Duo continued, “he really is getting better. He’ll probably be OK.” He clearly had no idea what he could possibly do if Quatre wasn’t OK, and was trying not to think about it.

“That’s good. Getting rid of the shade’s only half the job a lot of the time.” Interestingly, Sano’s tone sounded as if he felt much the same way Duo did — that, if the situation required more of him beyond the supernatural service already performed, he might be completely lost — and Heero had to appreciate his sympathetic interest.

“Trowa’s helping a lot, I think.” Duo said this not only because he believed it to be true, but because he was so amused at the effect the mention of Trowa had on other members of the magical community. “He knows about this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, I fucking bet!” Sano agreed heartily, after which it was time for more football. Soon, however, the end of the first quarter heralded a slightly longer break than the previous, and Sano proved that his attention to the as-yet-scoreless game had not driven the other interesting topic from his head: “How’d you get to be such good friends with Trowa Barton, anyway?”

Quickly Duo decided what to say. As far as he was aware — and it was something he could probably confirm through conversation this afternoon — Sano didn’t know his history, so he must be sure to break it to him in the most dramatic fashion possible. For the moment he went with simple truth. “We lived in the same city in Michigan for about fifteen years and kinda looked out for each other.”

“Shit, you must be pretty damn good if you were looking out for Trowa Barton! What are you, actually?”

From this Duo was almost certain Sano didn’t know about the curse, but he couldn’t be as intrigued by the fact as the listening Heero was. Because Heero knew that Hajime did know, and was fairly sure Hajime and Sano were dating and equally taken by the living legend that was Trowa Barton. How odd that Hajime hadn’t shared the interesting story with his boyfriend.

“I’m pure command,” Duo said. “Not too bad, but I’m just getting back into practice after a long time not doing magic.”

Heero wished, at least a little, that he could hear anything going through Sano’s head so he could determine how the exorcist had taken that statement, why he said nothing at the moment.

Duo went on, “But you’re a natural, aren’t you? That’s way way cooler than anything. I have literally never met a natural before.” Though Sano wouldn’t be able to appreciate appropriately that phrase with its term of emphasis.

“I don’t know.” Sano sounded annoyed. “Hajime thinks so, but I haven’t been able to get any specific reasons out of him. I thought I was just necrovisual, and then maybe a communicator since it turns out I can talk to familiar animals. I haven’t seen a damn thing to make me think I’ve got divination or command.”

“And command’s pretty hard to miss,” Duo mused. “Maybe there’s a test Trowa can do to find out for sure.”

“Ehh, I wouldn’t want to bug him about something like that.”

Duo jumped on this. “Why not? He helps people out with magic all the time.”

“Uh, I kinda already… think I kinda got on his bad side.”

With a loud laugh partaking of knowledge Sano lacked, Duo assured him, “Oh, believe me, if you were on Trowa’s bad side, you’d totally know it! You don’t even have any idea what that guy can do to you.”

Sano mumbled something to the effect of assuming Trowa Barton could do anything he damn well pleased to anyone he didn’t like, but his exact words were drowned out by the returning sound of the television.

Heero had found some recommendations online about various programs to clean up a hard drive, and was in the middle of reading about registries and what those affected, when he realized he was out of M&M’s. This time he didn’t even question the propriety of his actions, merely got up and headed into the other room. He was just in time to hear from the TV an update on a game in progress elsewhere, between the Broncos (who were winning) and the Seahawks, and Sano’s almost startlingly intense response, “Man, fuck Denver.”

Though Duo complained about the 49ers because they were so close, he’d evidently never bought in much to the real league rivalries, and thus protested now, “Hey, I lived in Denver for, like, three years!”

The look Sano threw him, which Heero caught because he was surreptitiously watching for it as he bent to retrieve his next supply of M&M’s, suggested he was adding up numbers. At the moment it amounted to about fifteen years skilled enough to be looking out for Trowa Barton in Michigan plus enough time to be out of practice in command magic thereafter plus, like, three years in Denver. But all Sano said at this point was, “Well, fuck the Broncos, anyway.”

Duo just laughed.

Heero returned to the computer and started downloading the first program he planned to try, listened to the disappointment in the next room when the Rams were the first to score, then cocked an ear with interest as two commercial breaks separated only by a brief punt provided plenty of time for conversation.

His boyfriend wasted no time jumping back onto the subject they’d left hanging before, since he wanted certain details and felt this was the best way to get them: “Seriously, there’s no way Trowa’s mad at you or anything. Like I said, you’d know.” Duo actually felt a little guilty painting this inaccurate picture, as he knew perfectly well that people Trowa found annoying tended to get avoided and ignored by him rather than made active targets of his malice; but he still wanted answers. “I mean, I know there was some kind of… incident? …at his house that one night…?”

“Heh… yeah… me and Hajime sorta… had sex…”

Duo choked loudly on whatever he was eating, and began to cough. Though Sano gave a sheepish laugh as if to express penitence for having caused this inconvenience, there was no feeling of accusation whatsoever in Duo’s head; he’d been longing to hear this gossip for weeks, and now it was getting started in an even more interesting fashion than he’d anticipated. Finally he managed, “Seriously? I had no idea that’s what it was! Trowa described it as a soap opera, not a porno!”

Again Sano laughed, and again it sounded chagrined — but there was, perhaps, a sly, almost smug edge to it as well, as if, though the circumstance did embarrass him, he also felt a touch of pride at having gotten away with something so audacious. “The part he would’ve overheard was actually all soap opera,” he allowed. “The porn didn’t start ’til after he left.”

“So you went to yell at Hajime,” Duo prompted, amused and eager, “for not telling you where he went, and ended up having drama that ended in sex?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“And now you guys are dating?”

“Yep. Finally.” Heero wasn’t sure whether Sano knew how much he was teasing Duo by not immediately pouring forth the entire story in all its gory details, but in any case Duo probably deserved it for the manner in which he was planning to make the best possible dramatic use of his own interesting experiences.

“How long were you guys not dating?”

“Like, six months,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Because he’s an asshole.”

“Then I can totally see why you’re going out with him,” Duo replied with mock seriousness.

“The thing about Hajime…” Sano’s statement disintegrated into a frustrated sound as the TV came back on and he apparently gave up describing his boyfriend for now. However, a few minutes later, during a quiet stretch of game where a potential foul was being discussed at length and even the announcers had little to say, Sano got started again with the air of one that has been organizing his thoughts for the last while and is now ready to present.

“The thing about Hajime is that he’s really bad at talking to anyone about anything serious in his own damn life. Like, I feel like getting to know him has been spywork this whole time, because he sure as hell doesn’t open up about anything about himself that isn’t completely shallow.”

Duo was thinking that, amusingly, the very fact Sano was saying this indicated something much the opposite about him, as well as that this didn’t really explain why Hajime was an asshole because they hadn’t been dating for six months. However, more curious than ever though he was, he was prevented from prompting for more details by the game’s resumption with the announcement of no penalty. The good news was that it didn’t take much longer for Oakland to call a timeout and commercials to reappear.

Sano hesitated not a whit to continue what was pretty clearly a rant. “Yeah, so I could never figure out whether Hajime was straight or what, because he never lets you know anything about himself if he can help it. Turns out he just isn’t really into relationships or something, but guys are fine? I mean–” he laughed a little as he reconsidered his tone and wording– “obviously guys are fine, but it took me fucking forever to figure that out. I still don’t know what his actual orientation is, and I’m sleeping with him now.”

Duo was starting to put together a hazy picture of Sano’s relationship with his boyfriend and the leadup thereto, and found it partially pathetic and partially amusing — and withal even more interesting than he’d been expecting. On his end, Heero was mostly entertained to observe what a gossip his own boyfriend was.

A sack against Oakland forcing them to punt distracted Duo somewhat, and, though Sano joined him in lamenting the circumstance, it clearly hadn’t been enough to distract him from the rant he still hadn’t fully vocalized. Heero, continually entertained, wondered if Sano complained about his boyfriend like this to all of his friends.

“It’s like he lives behind these walls that he just doesn’t let down for anyone, even his fucking boyfriend… and then at the same time he has this totally unfair advantage since he can read my mind, so I’ve had to practice my ass off learning how to not let him hear shit in there so he’s not a total dick about it, while at the same time all sorts of stuff about him is still this big fucking secret.”

And now, abruptly, the situation had gone from entertaining to extremely uncomfortable. Because there was no way Duo could hear a description like this without being pricklingly aware just how close it was to a description of Heero. ‘Walls,’ he was already reflecting, was even the exact term he’d used in his own assessment of Heero back when he’d been trying to figure him out. He recalled something Quatre had said at some point about how nobody had ever been able to get very close to Heero; he recalled his own surprise and happiness, at a later point, in realizing he’d somehow gotten past some of those walls without knowing how he’d done it.

You weren’t human at the time, Heero reflected with bitter nostalgia.

Of course, Duo’s thoughts went on — all at the same moment, really; it was more of that speed of mind Heero had admired so much in the past — Heero wasn’t like that Hajime guy in any other respect, the situations weren’t the same, and it wasn’t fair to Heero to compare them. But there were walls, and there was an unjust advantage of communication magic. It was close enough.

And Heero, Duo reflected further with a sinking of heart, had probably picked up on all of these thoughts.

Heero had stood from his chair almost without realizing what he did, looking around in something like panic. He and Duo were both suddenly agitated and upset, and the only thing he could think to do about it was leave the apartment. Duo probably couldn’t keep from having or projecting these thoughts, and Heero couldn’t keep from hearing them, so to separate for a little seemed essential. It might also benefit Duo to be free to discuss this with someone in a similar circumstance — one that was close enough, at any rate, to have prompted this unpleasantness in the first place — and he would certainly not be able to do so with Heero twenty feet away.

Hastily Heero went into the living room and, avoiding Duo’s eye, looked around somewhat frantically for his car keys. Finding them on the kitchen counter, he made for them with grasping hands and a stiff neck, saying, “I’m going to run get some groceries,” as he seized them and turned toward the apartment door. It was a stupid thing to say, since they’d been grocery shopping literally last night — when Heero had evidently been too distracted by Duo’s butt to notice the number of M&M packages he was purchasing — but Heero had finally come to accept the fact that inventing excuses was not a skill he possessed.

“OK,” said Duo hoarsely. He knew exactly why this was happening. What he didn’t know was how to feel about it, and his head was in turmoil.

Sano had still been speaking when Heero emerged from the hall, but had ceased abruptly at this exchange, and now silence filled the room as Heero plunged out the door; Heero didn’t think he was imagining the awkwardness and tension of that silence. What exactly they would talk about in his absence he could not guess, but at least Duo would be safe inside his own head for a while.

Whether this had been the right choice Heero had no idea, but he still saw no alternative. In nearly as much mental turmoil as that in which he’d left Duo, he made his way out of the apartment building without seeing it very clearly, heading for his car with no intention whatsoever of turning it on just yet. It was outside that he noticed his feet were clad only in socks, which killed whatever intention he’d had left of driving anywhere eventually. He probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with any groceries he needed anyway, and would most likely have ended up spending a silly amount of money on items randomly thrown into a shopping basket as he blindly walked the aisles of the store.

His thoughts were largely incoherent as he sat behind the motionless steering wheel struggling to become and remain calm and rational. Struggling not to feel bitter or annoyed about this. And eventually, perhaps due to the calming, enclosed atmosphere of the car interior or perhaps in the natural course of the passage of time, he did manage to subdue his agitation to a relatively manageable level. He leaned the seat back and tried to relax. That was frankly impossible, but he could at least repeat to himself for a while that he mustn’t be unreasonable about this.

Duo had been through so much — more than Heero could really comprehend at this point, communication magic notwithstanding. If his response to Heero’s abilities seemed like an overreaction, seemed unfair and even unkind, that was because Heero didn’t yet understand Duo’s frame of mind. Perhaps he would never understand, but that didn’t given him the right to be unreasonable, to be unfair and unkind in return. The thought of being unkind to Duo, whom he loved, after everything Duo had already suffered, made him almost sick — and that feeling must be his strength, must help him remember that Duo was not being unreasonable and that he, too, must not be unreasonable.

He had neglected to check the time when he left the apartment or began this shoeless vigil, so when he did look he couldn’t be sure just how long he’d been out here. In his agitation he felt as if it had been approximately forever, and he longed to go back to Duo and make sure he was all right; but he felt that not only would it be wiser to give his quest for calm and relaxation a little more time and effort, he also knew the game had started at 1:00 and it wasn’t even 2:00 yet. He should give them at least through halftime to discuss whatever they were likely to discuss in there.

It occurred to him that the game, being a local one, must be on the radio somewhere, and that if he could find it, he could gage his timing a little better than by merely watching the clock. So he turned the car halfway on at last and began cycling through stations. When he found what he believed — and after a few minutes confirmed — to be what he was looking for, he turned the volume up and attempted to find a comfortable position in which to listen for a while. This endeavor proved anomalously difficult. He’d spent quite a few lunch breaks sitting in the car alongside Duo with no problem, but apparently when Duo was removed from the equation, so was all comfort. Or perhaps that was just the awareness of the discomfort he’d come out here to escape.

He tried to let himself be distracted, tried to pretend he was an avid Oakland Raiders fan that really cared what was going on and how it would affect the season, but, even adjusting for his indifference to football, this was incredibly hard. He could only muster the mildest interest in the events of the game, and when anything unrelated interrupted to disconnect the tether of his attention, it was next to impossible to think about anything but Duo. He didn’t care about the new burger at Carl’s Jr., he didn’t care about the World Series coverage on this station, and he didn’t care how the Patriots were faring against the Jets. He did care about what might be going on in Duo’s head right now, and the effect that might have on their relationship.

Had he actually been an avid Oakland Raiders fan, he must have been disappointed at the score when, about a hundred years later, halftime finally rolled around. He was not cheated of unpleasant feelings, however, since he already felt mummified by sitting still for so long in a place he didn’t want to be, listening to content he less than half appreciated, and now he had to remind himself that the plan had always been to wait until after halftime — no matter how tedious was the radio announcers’ talk about names Heero barely recognized and assessing plays he hadn’t seen.

Despite how long it had seemed, in reality it had taken no more than about thirty minutes to get to halftime. Getting through halftime, however, a process whose finite span was dictated by the NFL and the same for every game, felt about ten times longer. Heero was reminded vaguely of the days he’d spent at work attempting to exercise even the smallest measure of patience waiting to go home to the doll he had a crush on. Except that in this instance he didn’t even have paying work to distract him — just a boring halftime show — and the concern and agitation he felt now was far different from the anticipation and curiosity he’d felt then.

But just as those long days apart from Duo the doll had each come to an end, so the overlong first half of this damned football game must too come to an end and the second commence. Heero didn’t even pause to reassess his situation, decide for sure whether he thought this was a good time to go back in; he simply turned the car off — and with no slow motions, either — and headed back into the apartment building.

He did give some thought to how he should reenter. Would it be better to pretend nothing untoward had happened, despite the total absence of groceries in his hands to bear out the excuse with which he’d left; or should he make it clear that he did not require any statement from Duo at this time but would probably want to talk to him about these events later? How curious was Sano likely to be, and to what extent should Heero humor that curiosity? Well, the former point probably depended most on what Sano and Duo had discussed in Heero’s absence, and the answer to the latter was, ‘None at all.’ What Duo chose to share with his friends was up to him; Heero didn’t feel like taking part in it.

So it was with a hybrid of the proposed attitudes, and a steeling of self to any possible negativity within, that he re-entered the apartment. There, he was infinitely relieved to receive a smile from his boyfriend along with the picked-up reflections that Duo appreciated the privacy Heero had so precipitously and clumsily offered him.

Whatever the conversation had been about during the bulk of his absence, it was now, for some reason or other, about Hugh Jackman and how hot he was or wasn’t. Heero might almost have thought they’d invented the topic at random so as to have something safe to talk about when he returned, but they’d seemed to be in the middle of it when he entered, and they couldn’t have known when that would happen. At least he thought they couldn’t.

As Heero moved almost automatically to grab some M&M’s, he gave Duo a look he knew could not possibly convey everything — I’m glad you seem to be doing OK; it’s fine if you guys gossiped about me while I was out there; I hope it helped; we’ll talk about it later; I love you — but that he hoped would get at least a little of it across; and received in return a widening of Duo’s smile with a sardonic dimple on one side of the mouth and a reassuring crinkling at the outer corner of each eye that seemed — Heero liked to think he wasn’t imagining it — to respond, Yeah, it’s fine, we’ll talk about it later. He also caught sight, beyond Duo, of an inquisitive expression on Sano’s face. The young exorcist was holding forth on what a perfect Wolverine Hugh Jackman had made, but very obviously couldn’t restrain his look of curiosity about Heero’s actions and attitude as he did so.

Heero too was curious, wanting very much to know what they had talked about while he’d agonized in the car, but with the unspoken promise of discussing it with Duo later for his reassurance, he just took his fresh batch of M&M’s into the computer room to resume his previous task. It actually seemed a little absurd how relieved he was to be back in here within earshot (and mind-reading range) of Duo, but finding it absurd didn’t lessen that relief.

The Hugh Jackman conversation, which had been taking place over the top of the game anyway, was cut off abruptly when something one of the Rams did caused both Duo and Sano to protest loudly. Evidently a penalty call satisfied them fairly well, for they then fell to discussing the quarterback the Raiders had switched to.

The atmosphere in the living room seemed identical to that of the first half of the game before snarls had arisen, and this continued or restored ease made Heero wonder even harder what they’d talked about during those forty-five minutes or so in the middle, but he would just have to find out later. At least that lengthy time away had been enough for the program he’d downloaded to run through an entire cycle of cleaning up his hard drive, so now he could reboot the machine and see what effect it might have had.

The conversation in the living room shifted to how many NFL games each had attended in person, which between them was not an impressive number, and the listening Heero considered that football tickets — especially when the Raiders had not (he believed) been a particularly good team for several years — could not be terribly expensive and might make an excellent gift for his boyfriend at some point.

The next commercial break was spent discussing whether or not the Rams’ offensive line was supporting Steven Jackson the way it should after some comment of the announcer’s that at least Sano seemed to take issue with; and, curious though he still was, Heero’s attention waned. The computer was taking just as tediously long as ever to boot up, and he wanted to know why. He did chuckle quietly a little later when, a touchdown having been scored and a lot of hugging and butt-patting apparently having been featured onscreen, Duo and Sano agreed happily that football was a really gay sport at times, but mostly he was focusing on the computer and its issues.

After another commercial break’s worth of football talk that Heero didn’t really listen to, however, and when the announcers, upon returning, had started teasing a fellow sports analyst with pictures of his shag and mullet hairstyles of decades past, Duo caught Heero’s interest again by commenting with intense disgust, “I don’t even know what people were thinking in the 80’s with that kind of hair. Best decade ever not to go out in public much!”

“OK.” Sano had evidently caught the reminiscent tone in Duo’s expression of hirsute disapprobation, and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “How old actually are you?”

Duo muted the television for commercials before answering in a tone so studiedly casual that, to Heero at least, it stood out like a conversational beacon, “Hundred and eleven.”

Here was the first instance in Heero’s presence of Sano’s thoughts breaking past their usual restraints — restraints that, Heero now believed, had originally been put in place purely to prevent Hajime from reading Sano’s mind because there was at least a little of the same thing going on between those two as there was between Heero and Duo. But now Heero could easily detect the intense shock and curiosity in Sano’s head, even from the other room, as well as the sudden flood of theories that overtook him in a chaotic shambles. It never occurred to Sano to disbelieve Duo or take his words as a joke; he merely considered somewhat incoherently how it could have come to pass.

And at the same time, of course, he was expressing his astonishment and inquisitiveness aloud to his very tickled companion. “Fuck! A hundred and fucking what? How? Did Trowa Barton let you in on his big secret, or what?”

Heero knew very precisely the grin that was on Duo’s face now, and the exact degree to which Duo would have preferred to repress it in order to maintain the casualness he thought would play better into his desired delivery. And Heero had to smile too; even if part of today’s get-together had led to some unpleasant feelings, at least Duo had this to revel in.

“I was Trowa’s big secret, actually,” he was saying. “If I wasn’t immortal for a while, he wouldn’t have been either.”

“No fucking way.” Despite the profanity, Sano’s reaction to this was clearly positive. “You can’t tell me you’re stronger than Trowa fucking Barton.”

Duo laughed. He was having so much fun now. Heero’s smile, in the other room, had not diminished. “No, I can’t! And I don’t have crazy fans all over the place either!”

“I am not a crazy fan,” Sano protested. “I’m a totally normal fan. I have a friend who’s a crazy fan, though, and he’s going to flip the fuck out when I tell him this. Am I allowed to tell him this? What am I telling him, actually?”

Now Duo was laughing throughout much of what Sano had to say. “I don’t really know how much Trowa’d like you to tell your crazy friend, but I’m guessing ‘nothing.’ He’s pretty private about this stuff.”

“What stuff? How were you guys immortal?” Sano’s tone was buoyantly demanding, and Heero wondered if he was bouncing up and down on the sofa as he said this. His thoughts, however, after that initial burst of wonder that had broken down his barriers, were becoming more difficult to hear as the walls rebuilt themselves. This was interesting to observe, and somewhat promising in relation to Duo’s tendency to project everything that crossed his mind.

Finally Duo presented the meat of the story. “Trowa accidentally cast a curse on me in 1923 that made me a really sucky sort of immortal for 87 years. We only just managed to break it this May.”

“Holy shit! Does that — no, don’t turn that back on yet!” It seemed as if Duo, in his amusement, fumbled the remote, for it was a couple of seconds before the reinstated TV sounds disappeared again. “What really sucky kind of immortal? And why would that make — I know jack-shit about curses.”

“There’s always a kind of backlash to a curse, so the person who cast it is part of it until it’s broken. I couldn’t die because I was made of plastic, so Trowa couldn’t die that whole time either. He didn’t even age.”

“Made of plastic?” Sano echoed, and it was clear that any frustration Duo had felt earlier at Sano not pouring out gossipy details all at once was being amply repaid.

“Yeah, I was a doll.” There was a pause during which some facial expression must have asked the next question, for eventually Duo added, “Like a Barbie doll? Obviously I wasn’t an actual Barbie doll, but I was that same size. I could wear Ken clothes.”

At this statement Sano gave an incredulous laugh. “That sounds like… not a lot of fun.”

“Oh, you don’t even have any idea.”

Duo began to expound, with no great organization of topic, upon his trials as a doll over the many decades — how he’d lacked most physical sensation, the limitations to his personal movement, how he’d been considered a child’s plaything and passed from hand to hand with no stability of home or relationship. The sound on the television remained muted, and no thought of football crossed Duo’s mind; Heero, listening, wondered whether those two even remembered there was a game going on in front of them. Though admittedly the doll story was far more fascinating.

Of course the breaking of the curse had to be touched upon in greater detail as well, and Heero could tell Duo felt awkward talking about Heero’s part knowing Heero heard every word and probably more but wasn’t actually involved in the conversation. Hoping to assuage this, Heero got up and went into the next room under the pretense (and with the actual intention) of getting more M&M’s.

“So of course everyone else who worked there,” Duo was saying, “wondered what that was all about.”

“Yeah, I just fucking bet!” Sano chortled.

“Actually that’s an understatement.” Heero made sure to keep his tone light despite the sardonic nature of his comment, just to be sure Duo knew he didn’t mind the conversation being about him more or less in his absence. “People were visiting my desk nonstop for almost the entire month just to see Duo.” He smiled at his boyfriend as he lifted his fresh handful of candy, then turned to head back to the computer room.

More relaxed, Duo went on about the curse-breaking month. Heero, having been present for its telling once before in different company, already knew it made a pretty good tale — more engaging, at least, than trying to get his computer to run faster. And when it transitioned to a discussion of Trowa’s powers and the artifact — which Sano, of course, was somewhat familiar with after having extracted its leftover energy from Quatre just above a week ago — the talk did not become any less interesting.

The way Duo told the story — even the manner in which he referred to the misery of being a doll and the long years of suffering — made it seem light and funny, as if his tribulations had been no more than the ‘pain in the ass’ Sano remarked they sounded like, tedious and inconvenient and annoying rather than harrowing and traumatizing. Of the gregarious Duo Heero found this a little surprising, but at the same time thought it wise: Duo and Sano probably weren’t close enough yet for that kind of pain to be shared, no matter how (possibly inappropriately) open Sano was about his own relationships and experiences.

And Sano was open. Despite not being able to read his mind at this point, Heero judged him completely straightforward when he eventually remarked, “Shit. And I thought I was special just because I was possessed by a ghost one time.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to be surprised. “What? That sounds pretty special to me! Aren’t ghosts super rare?”

“Yeah, but not as rare as people who get turned into fucking dolls and then live forever!”

“Hey, the curse is broken,” Duo protested. “I’m not going to live forever. I wouldn’t want to!”

“My point is that your experience was really… one-of-a-kind, you know? I was thinking it was pretty cool that I got to do something most people will never do, but you–”

Duo interrupted with, “Hey, you’re supposed to not be a crazy fan, remember? Mine was not cool.”

Sano laughed. “Yeah. Right. Sorry. I wouldn’t want to trade or anything.”

“But how did you manage to get possessed by a ghost? You mean a real ghost, right?”

“Yep, a real ghost.” Sano seemed pleased with himself, and Heero believed he’d really meant that he wouldn’t want to trade, despite probably not fully understanding how not-cool Duo’s experience had been. “This poor guy got killed by — it’s really complicated.” Sano paused for a moment as if considering the best way to relate the information, and Duo waited eagerly for the story. Today was turning out to be a much more compelling and involved meeting with the exorcist than he’d expected, and the fun aspects of it were balancing out the uncomfortable pretty well.

“OK, someone was being threatened,” Sano resumed. “Did you know we have an actual yakuza right here in town?” Duo didn’t seem to know the word, and Sano said, probably in response to a confused expression, “You know, Japanese mafia?”

“Oh, is that the real way you say it?” Duo sounded enlightened. Heero’s laugh wasn’t quite loud enough for them to hear down the hall.

“Yeah, we’ve got one. And there was this… person… being threatened by this yakuza — some of them — and had to kill someone for them to save someone else from being killed.”

“O…K…” Duo thought he’d worked through that statement fairly well, but wondered why Sano was being so vague. Heero guessed it was because murder and other criminal activity had been involved and Sano didn’t want to implicate anyone. In this context it was probably even a client confidentiality thing.

“So this guy who got killed really wanted to make sure the person who killed him knew he wasn’t mad about it. He understood they did it under duress to save someone else’s life.”

“Wow, that’s really big of the guy.” Duo was thinking uncomfortably of the circumstance as he imagined it. “I don’t think I’d be looking out for the person who killed me like that.”

Heero wondered whether that was true. Duo had, after all, always been looking out for Trowa, who had, if not killed him, done about the next best thing. He remembered Duo telling Trowa that he’d forgiven him ‘back in, like, the forties.’ It might take some time for Duo to forgive, depending on the provocation, but he would probably always do so. Proportionally speaking, the twenty or so years that had passed before he’d managed to forgive Trowa for cursing him might translate into a matter of weeks to ‘forgive’ Heero for being able to read his surface-level thoughts. It was an unexpectedly reassuring idea.

“Well…” Sano sounded a little uncomfortable right alongside Duo, though probably for different reasons. “I’m… really oversimplifying here. The point is that he really, really wanted to talk to the person who killed him, which is why he became a ghost, but he couldn’t talk to them because they weren’t necrovisual.”

“So you volunteered, like a badass, to help him.”

The grin was audible in Sano’s tone as he replied, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Was it scary? What does it feel like?”

“It was pretty easy, actually. I mean, I collapsed afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t a lot of work for me. You sort of get… pushed back… like you’re in another room… The ghost just sort of takes over, and you don’t really have to worry about anything that’s going on. Actually it took some effort if I wanted to know what was going on.”

Heero was reminded by this description of the Imperius Curse, but Duo hadn’t read Harry Potter yet and would not, of course, make the same connection.

“So afterwards,” Sano went on, “a lot of the stuff he said I had a hard time remembering, even though he was talking through my actual mouth.”

“Which I guess didn’t matter so much, since it wasn’t you he was talking to,” Duo speculated, “but I bet it was pretty weird anyway.”

“Yeah, it was like some movie I watched forever ago… or more like some movie someone else watched in another room, but over and over and over again so it’s like, ‘I should remember this really well, but I don’t.’ Or maybe–”

At this point, both Sano and Duo interrupted the meandering description to give the first indication since the long-term muting that they were still aware of the television. Their sudden, simultaneous reactions to the body-slamming of a Ram by and over the shoulder of a Raider were loud and enthusiastic; apparently some things were every bit as cool as the details of ghostly possession. Heero gave a rueful smile and shake of head as he listened to them go on about it for a bit.

He’d set the hard drive to defragmenting, a process that would undoubtedly take longer than the rest of the football game and probably Sano’s visit. He sat back in his chair and ate some M&M’s as he listened for further interesting conversation in the next room.

Eventually the body-slam evidently ceased to engross, for when the sounds of exultation had faded Duo finally asked, “So did you get to find out all sorts of interesting stuff about ‘Heaven’ or whatever?”

“You know, I was more interested in getting the guy to move on, because he was haunting me for weeks and weeks and it was a pain in the ass. But Hajime had a long talk with him about that kind of shit, and I don’t think he really learned all that much. I mean, somebody becomes a ghost by not going to the afterlife, so he couldn’t really know all that much to tell Hajime about.”

“But there is an afterlife of some sort.”

“There’s something.” By the sound of Sano’s voice Heero was reminded of Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, and was given to believe that this subject didn’t interest the exorcist much. “Hajime said the ghost said something was ‘pulling him’ or something. And I know a good medium who likes dead people better than he likes living people. So it’s not like people stop existing when they move on… but that’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Now Duo sounded unusually pensive, and it seemed that most of what interested him about this lay somewhat deeper in his mind than the superficial level Heero could pick up on. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess some kinds of magic kinda answer some questions about how the world works…”

“Not the really big questions, though,” Sano shrugged. “You still have to decide for yourself about God and shit.”

“Right,” Duo snorted. “God.” There was an unaccustomed bitterness and derision to his tone that made Heero prick up his ears even more than he yet had.

Sano, for his part, chuckled, with just a hint of the same sound to his voice. And Heero found himself slightly jealous that, however little they’d actually touched on the topic, they were in there discussing something he and Duo had never really talked about. He could guess, but he didn’t know precisely what had caused that tone in his boyfriend’s voice — but Sano seemed to understand it. Which of course was a normal and acceptable thing for a friend to do, though Heero had just been thinking Duo wasn’t close enough to this one yet to be sharing a number of personal feelings. But maybe Heero’s ideas of closeness were less than entirely applicable here and in many social situations. He tried to quash his jealousy.

There was little else to incite it. After the nearly shared feelings on God, enough moments of silence passed that apparently both men in the living room thought it appropriate for the television sound to come back on. And though at first they didn’t seem much given to discussing the game or even reacting audibly to it — in fact, Heero could hear Duo in his head turning over the information he’d received today — eventually, gradually, they seemed to grow more and more engrossed. By the time the two-minute warning rolled around, they were enthusiastically discussing football again, assessing the Raiders’ eventually satisfactory performance and the near guarantee of winning at this point.

What currently worried Heero most was that Sano might want to hang out for some indefinite period after the game talking football or curses or possession or whatever. He chided himself for being so selfish, for wanting the guy out of the way so intensely, but that didn’t change the feeling of pre-emptive annoyance at the basically hypothetical thought of not being able to talk to Duo about personal things for so much longer. He would never have guessed Sano’s appearance here could possibly raise such emotional topics that would need to be covered after his departure.

The level of celebration when the Raiders took a knee and the game ended at 16-14 was no more than expected, and there remained only the question of when, now the purpose of hanging out was fulfilled, Sano would get up and leave and Heero could have a nice private chat with Duo. And at first it did seem that what Heero feared would come to pass, for both speakers in the living room sounded relaxed and complacent, as if ending their conversation and their continual snacking on leftover Chinese food was the last thing on their minds. And though after canvassing the Raiders’ prospects for a while they went back to discussing magical experiences, a topic not entirely uncompelling, Heero couldn’t rouse the same interest within himself for eavesdropping as he had before.

Every bit as anxious and impatient as he’d been in the car around halftime, he sat drumming his fingers almost audibly at the computer desk, wishing Sano gone, longing for the intimacy of aloneness and a conversation that would mean a lot more to him than this one did. Eventually he started responding to every statement Sano made with a semi-sarcastic but silent response such as, “Yes, that’s a lot of fun; why don’t you go think about it at home?” or, “Why don’t you go tell your boyfriend that? I’m sure he’ll be interested,” or, “Don’t you have homework to do?”

And at that point he heard Sano say, “Well, I got homework to do, so I better get out of here.” And Heero, recalling what he was and what Sano supposedly was, blushed at the thought that the statements he’d intended as entirely silent and private could possibly have gone out and been heard. No worse than rude they might have been, but still he wouldn’t have said any of them aloud. Attempting some sort of apology would be far too awkward, though, so he planned to stay firmly put in this room until Sano had gone.

The process of Sano getting gone was progressing apace. Often with Duo, a goodbye conversation was really just a continuation of the previous conversation in a different, last-minute-addendum sort of tone, so technically they were discussing football yet, but Heero could sense the goodbye coming. Eventually, though still on about quarterbacks and stats and such, they even removed from the sofa and toward the door. Restraining any further sarcastic remarks, Heero listened intently until finally he heard actual goodbyes and the opening and closing of the egress.

Then he took a deep breath and stood. It was funny how much he could long for something he doubted could be terribly enjoyable. At least there was still approximately a ton of almond M&M’s waiting for him out there.

Duo was waiting for him out there too, staring straight into the hall from which Heero emerged as if, though lacking any mind-reading abilities of his own, he knew perfectly well what Heero was thinking now. Wordlessly they moved into first a hug and then a kiss, then separated; Duo went to flop back down onto the couch, Heero to move the M&M’s bowl onto the end table whence it could be easily reached from the spot beside Duo.

Mostly empty Styrofoam boxes of expired Chinese food stood open here and there on the floor in an arc between sofa and television, and Coke cans were taking up more space than Heero would have thought a six-pack could account for. It would all need to be cleaned up… but not yet. For now he just sat in awkward silence next to Duo and ate M&M’s. He was starting to feel he’d had a few too many M&M’s today.

Duo was reflecting that, if Sano’s conversation about magic and magical experiences was going to lead to uncomfortable topics and panicky tension between him and Heero, maybe Sano, harmlessly fun and amusing as he seemed, wasn’t the best person to be inviting to the apartment.

With great effort, Heero restrained himself from responding to this, waiting for Duo to bring it up aloud so they could hold the conversation properly. But Duo’s thoughts then shifted to how uncomfortable it still was to be aware of Heero reading his mind, and with a sigh and a bit of a frown he said, “I’m starting to recognize the look you get when you’re hearing something in my head but not saying anything about it.”

And there it was again: the unjust resentment. All Duo disliked was the combination of Heero’s ability with his own lack of control, but it sure sounded as if he was complaining about something Heero actively chose to do. Heero didn’t quite know what to say, since much of what he was thinking would have come out sounding bitter and combative if he’d attempted to arrange it in words.

When Heero thus remained silent, Duo continued, “So you might as well just say whatever you wanted to say. About Sano, I mean.”

Struggling to put unpleasant thoughts behind him, Heero did as he was told. “I don’t think you need to keep Sano away. Stuff like that’s probably going to keep coming up until we get this fixed, so there’s no reason to cut yourself off from something that will make you happy.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to see you freaking out.”

“It’s… OK, though.” Heero dropped his head onto the couch cushion behind him, unwilling for the moment to look at Duo. “You weren’t being unreasonable or anything…”

“But why should you have to hear that kind of thing at all? It’s not fair!” Clearly Duo meant this was unfair for both of them, but the reasons he felt this way that flashed across the surface of his mind were so tangled that Heero could barely understand any of it. But he definitely caught a hint of the involuntary mistrust he’d sensed in Duo before; Duo obviously felt, whether he wanted to or not, that Heero spying on his private thoughts — even if Heero received his own punishment in so doing — was a big part of the unfairness of the situation.

Heero wondered whether if, instead of their powers being one-sided, they could each read the other’s mind, all these problems would be alleviated… or doubled. He was certainly glad that just at the moment he was able to hide his resentment at Duo’s feelings. He felt something that echoed Duo’s words somewhat, though — why should he have to feel this resentment at all? Why should this situation exist? It seemed pointless and foolish.

Duo took a deep, frustrated breath. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind I told Sano about — a little bit about it. I didn’t want to — I mean, it’s funny the way he talks about his boyfriend, but it seems pretty awful too, and I didn’t want to be like that…”

Hastily, looking over again at where Duo was staring down at fidgeting fingers in his lap, Heero assured him, “No, that’s fine. That’s why I left — so you could talk about it with someone who might understand.”

Duo nodded. “I just told him I didn’t like you being able to read my thoughts either, but I haven’t figured out how to control my thoughts to keep them private.”

Heero mirrored the nod. He appreciated Duo’s restraint in this matter, agreeing that, while he truly didn’t mind Duo discussing their issues with someone that might understand, and while there was a certain entertainment value to the way Sano talked about Hajime in the latter’s absence, he wouldn’t like to think Duo was quite that open about him.

“And he said Hajime can probably help, at least a little. If I hang out with Sano and Hajime’s around, Hajime can let me know every time I’m projecting thoughts, so then I can get a feel for how to… not do that.”

It seemed that Sano, when presenting this informal and rather uncertain-sounding plan, had done it as casually as he did most things, and Duo, though he’d accepted the offer and thanked him, hadn’t given it much real thought at that time. Now, in repeating the idea to Heero, though his words had been somewhat listless with lack of investment, he began to reflect upon it properly at last… and, in so doing, awakened in himself that remarkable optimism that carried him through so many trials. All of a sudden he was considering the plan in greater detail and with a growing feeling that it was a really good one. And abruptly he was filled with a hope that was easily — indeed, almost overwhelmingly — detectable in his head.

He didn’t need, after all, full and proper communication training working one-on-one with someone devoted to teaching him everything a non-communicator could possibly master of that branch of magic; he just needed to learn how to stop shouting out his thoughts all the time. And if he could do that without inconveniencing Heero, without constantly reminding Heero of this problem, that would be great. And if he could do it while making a better friend of a sympathetic fellow magician? It sounded perfect.

Duo’s optimism was catching, and in addition to simply feeling better about the entire situation, Heero was, almost against his better judgment, inclined also to think this a very good plan. In fact, beyond some possibility of jealousy on his part that was in no way a deciding factor (nor even something he would ever bring up), he couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea except for one particular. “I don’t know Hajime well,” he said carefully, disinclined to mention this at all in the face of Duo’s (and his!) sudden optimism but feeling he must, “but is he really likely to want to help you with this?” Heero specifically remembered one conversation in which Hajime had made it pretty clear, without actually saying so, that he wasn’t interested in teaching random people about communication magic.

The grin Duo’s mouth spread into was as infectious as his optimism. “Sano said he’s sure he can convince him.”

And Heero, grinning back, had the sudden amusing mental image of Sano and Duo watching football over at wherever Sano and Hajime lived (in Heero’s imagination it was a mirror image of this apartment), with Hajime sitting in the next room at the computer totally disinterested in the game but occasionally poking his head out to let Duo know he was projecting. There would probably even be Chinese food in Styrofoam all over the floor… but certainly no almond M&M’s.

“It sounds great, then,” he said.

Duo reached for Heero’s hand. He was reflecting on how much he wanted to get this problem solved, and Heero thought Duo’s determination toward that end was even greater than his. It seemed to sting Duo even more that he felt this irrational mistrust and irritation than it did Heero to be the victim thereof. But Duo was also still filled with hope and cheer at the thought of a plan that might — that he was sure would — help. And in light of that, though he knew it must be impossible to banish completely from his mind an issue so recurring and provocative, he wanted to try to think about something else. So he said, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Read Oz.”

That was true. Though they’d read far less together since the curse broke, they had managed to get through a few more installments of the Oz series… but they’d finished the latest one in August and never started the next. And beyond an inherently entertaining and bonding experience, pressing onward would be an excellent method of distraction from anything they might not want to think about — allowing them to share reactions and opinions about story and characters that, though casual and perhaps frivolous, were genuine and often reflected deeper feelings.

It occurred to Heero, as he considered this suggestion on how they should spend their next few hours, that perhaps Duo’s growing autonomy, for all Duo wasn’t as sure of it yet as he would like to be, was to some extent the source of his optimism. As a doll, he couldn’t have had much he could use to reassure himself and maintain his sanity, and therefore his optimism, though a crucial resource, couldn’t have been more than blind, unsubstantiated, ephemeral. But now, as a human free to move and choose, making money and again a part of society in a meaningful way, his optimism could be based in the knowledge that he had the personal power to effect change in his own life — that things could be better because he could work to make them better. Even when his personal power had nothing to do with the situation in question, when he seemed every bit as powerless to deal with some problem as he would have been as a doll in that same situation, the mere knowledge of how much more effective he was overall must boost his optimism regardless of the specific circumstances.

And at the moment, when he had a plan for the future and a plan for the present, it was no surprise he was beginning to feel unstoppable and almost ecstatically cheerful.

“You’re right,” Heero said, smiling and squeezing Duo’s hand. “And we only have four books left, I think.”

“Which one’s next?”

“I think it’s The Lost Princess.” Heero rose and pulled Duo after him.

“Ooh, sounds like more Ozma stuff.” Duo was very fond of Ozma. “Or… maybe not, if she’s lost.”

Heero, who couldn’t quite remember what happened in this particular book, said nothing to confirm or deny, only pulled Duo in a stumbling sort of near-dance across the minefield of food boxes and empty soda cans that was the living room floor toward the computer room and the bookshelves.

“It’ll probably still be awesome either way,” Duo added cheerfully as they went, demonstrating yet again his admirable, semi-inexplicable, to some extent sharable, always wonderful power of, even in the face of frustration and disappointment, becoming and remaining happy.

I’ve rated this story .

Commonality

Commonality

Kaoru had just started on lunch, dropping a few grumbling hints that Sano could get up and help rather than lying around waiting for her to do all the work on a meal he was only going to complain about eventually anyway, when Megumi appeared.

After greeting the doctor, looking immediately back to the seasonings she was measuring out, Kaoru added, “Kenshin’s not here right now.”

“Jou-chan sent him out for the usual shit-ton of groceries she doesn’t actually need yet,” Sano elaborated from his prone position on the floor.

“I see!” Megumi gave that amused-with-everyone-for-no-reason-she-would-ever-divulge smile, and, stepping to the stove, lifted the lid on the rice just a fraction and peered in. Expression unchanged, she said, “I might as well give you a hand with this, then,” and crouched to poke at the fire with an immediacy suggesting she thought dire things were or would be happening to the rice at the current temperature.

Appearing somewhat torn, Kaoru said nothing. Sano continued to lift no finger to join in the cooking endeavor.

Finally, after a lengthy silence during which the look on Megumi’s face had gradually shifted to one more pensive as she kept it mostly hidden from the others in attending to the stove fire, she remarked in a tone lighter than her expression, “It’s a shame Ken-san isn’t here… I was going to ask his opinion on something.”

In concert the others protested that this comment seemed to dismiss their opinions as not worth the asking, and Kaoru went on with, “And it isn’t as if you can’t stay until Kenshin comes back!”

Megumi laughed. “I feel so much more welcome around here than I used to!”

Perhaps Kaoru appeared torn again, but she’d bent so far over the fish she was seasoning that it was impossible to tell. At any rate, she said nothing.

“Well, I suppose I will ask your opinions, then,” Megumi said. She went on at once as if it were no great matter, “I feel like someone has been watching me lately.”

Not only did Kaoru’s face snap up in response to this, but Sano propped himself onto an elbow to look at Megumi. Their expressions were startled, but where Kaoru’s had also a touch of concern, Sano’s seemed more annoyed or even angry. “Seriously?” he wondered, in a dark tone as if this confirmed some fear.

“Are you sure?” Kaoru said at the same time.

“No,” Megumi admitted, answering one rather than the other (and possibly ignoring the other entirely, for all the attention she paid him). “I’m not a warrior of any description, of course, but I’ve had a… unique living situation for a while now, and…” She shrugged, still easy even if she had become a little more serious. “You start to pick things up. Or maybe just become paranoid. That’s what I wanted to consult with Ken-san about.”

“But I’ve thought the same thing!” Kaoru gripped the board before her knees as she stared up at Megumi intensely. “That someone’s spying on me or something… I never actually see anyone or anything suspicious, but I can’t shake the feeling!”

Megumi returned her surprise, and now there was some of the same concern in her eyes that already lay in Kaoru’s.

“Me too,” Sano put in before either of them could say anything more, sitting up completely and adding the concentration of his gaze to the one they were sharing. “I’ve been having that same experience for the last week or so.”

Megumi let out a breath. “Then I suppose I haven’t been imagining things.”

“But who is it?” Kaoru demanded. “And why? What do they want? Does Kenshin know? Is he being watched too?”

“I hate to admit it–” and, indeed, Sano sounded reluctant and irritated to be doing so– “but Kenshin would have noticed way before we did.”

The others nodded. “And done something about it,” Kaoru added.

“It could be the type of thing he might not have said anything about to the rest of us,” Megumi mused, “but he would certainly be aware of it if someone were spying on him.”

More nods. “I think he’s gotten over that not-including-us-in-important-dangerous-shit bullshit, though… Seems more likely we’re being spied on and he’s not.”

There was a moment of silence before Kaoru said, “The biggest thing the three of us have in common is…”

“…Ken-san himself,” Megumi finished. “Our friendship with him.”

“Um, and maybe more specifically…” Now Kaoru was visibly flustered as she again stared down at the fish and herbs on the preparation board in front of her. “I think maybe all three of us…”

Another brief silence passed before Sano, clearing his throat, took his turn finishing for her: “…thought we were in love with him for a fucking long time? Uh, yeah.”

Without bothering to deny it, Megumi said, “I doubt that has anything to do with whoever’s spying on us, though; I think it’s common enough among Ken-san’s acquaintances.”

“Do you?” Kaoru looked relieved at this, as if it at least began to lessen the embarrassment of having misunderstood her own heart for, as Sano put it, ‘a fucking long time.’

Appearing a little embarrassed herself, Megumi sought out the vegetables lying nearby, then began looking for a knife. “Ken-san has a tendency to rescue people from whatever is the worst thing in their lives when he meets them.”

“Or at least he’s so damn different from everyone…” Sano scratched his head as if struggling to put his thoughts into words. “People just get this kick in the balls all of a sudden — not literally, I mean — by this guy who’s like nothing they’ve ever met before.”

“He makes such a profound first impression,” Megumi went on, once again almost as if she hadn’t heard Sano’s input, “that I think nearly everyone who becomes his friend believes themselves in love with him for a while at first.”

“I don’t think they even have to become his friend. You guys’ve probably never heard houki-atama over at the police station talk about him.”

Kaoru broke in to clarify. “You mean that Juppongatana guy with the silly hair?”

“Yeah, him. Every time I’m at the police station — I mean, not like I’m there a lot or anything; I just sometimes happen to wander over there for no reason, you know? Anyway, houki’s always talking about Kenshin like… well, he’s always acting all pissed that Kenshin beat him so hard, and going on about how he’d love to have a rematch some time… but it’s totally obvious that Kenshin impressed the hell out of him, maybe even more than he annoyed him… and maybe he wants to meet up with Kenshin again way more than makes sense for just a rematch.”

“He can’t have much hope, though,” Kaoru said dubiously. “Kenshin would never look twice in his direction! Would he? Do you think?”

“Hmm,” was Megumi’s ambiguous opinion.

“I don’t know…” Again Sano sounded reluctant and even annoyed to admit this. “Chou’s a fucking idiot, but the police investigation shit is pretty cool. Something you can admire, you know? He’s on the right side now, doing a job that helps people and shit…”

“Hmm,” said Megumi again.

“No, I just can’t see it,” Kaoru decided, returning to her fish-seasoning endeavor with vigor as if to make up for time lost staring and being surprised. “Not a murderous jerk like that guy. But I think you’re exactly right, Megumi-san–” with a quick and perhaps somewhat appreciative glance in Megumi’s direction as if to congratulate her fleetingly on her excellent assessment– “about people getting the wrong idea about how they feel about Kenshin.

“I never thought about it before, but now that I do… It does seem like everyone who meets him kinda becomes obsessed with him. It’s easy to mistake that for love, especially if he lives with you…” Again she bent her head over her work, possibly to hide a blush, and her next words came out hastily as if she wanted to segue quickly. “Even his master, when we met him in Kyoto, acted a little like a resentful ex… like Kenshin had dumped him and he’d nobly forgiven him but was still a little bitter about it.”

“He did, didn’t he?” Sano gave a surprised laugh, then grinned widely as he evidently thought back to what memories he had on the subject. “He fucking did!”

“I didn’t spend much time with Hiko-san,” Megumi said a little doubtfully. “Do you think he and Ken-san ever did actually…?”

“I don’t know.” Kaoru’s quick statement was accompanied by a definite blush this time. “Kenshin would have been awfully young…”

“I could see the attraction,” Megumi admitted. “Someone who teaches kenjutsu, who works with students and prepares them for the future, is much more impressive than just some brute warrior.” Now she was perhaps coloring a bit herself as she continued with the vegetables. “But, yes, Ken-san would have been very young, wouldn’t he?”

Sano coughed. “Normally I wouldn’t say it’d be a big problem a guy in his teens with a guy in his thirties, but with Kenshin I kinda can’t picture it.”

“And I think Kenshin was fourteen,” Kaoru grimaced. “That’s a little different from seventeen or nineteen…”

There ensued an awkward wordless period wherein total silence was prevented only by the chopping and crunching sounds from the boards. Finally, as if reminded by food and wanting to shift the subject again, Kaoru said, “You know, Tae-san has always been kinda silly about Kenshin too… and she never came to gossip with me nearly as much at the Akabeko before he showed up.”

Megumi appeared happy to have something new to talk about. “I haven’t seen that Ken-san has ever taken any particular notice of her, though.”

“Well, she’s so…” Sano seemed to consider this dangerous territory, and to be wording his sentiment with appropriate care. “Normal, I guess? Don’t get me wrong — she’s a nice girl, and she’s got good business sense and all, but if Kenshin’s going to go for a lady, he’s got you guys around, and you’re way more interesting.”

“Sanosuke!” Megumi’s surprised pleasure might have been genuine, but the degree to which she displayed it was certainly deliberately exaggerated. “That sounded like a compliment!”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get used to it,” was the gruff reply.

“Tae-san is an excellent cook, though,” Kaoru said, blushing harder than before. “And she’s good at that right in the middle of the other work she does… That’s certainly attractive…”

“Well, I don’t think Ken-san is aware of her in that light.” This veto from Megumi was just as decisive as Kaoru’s of Chou had been earlier. “But as long as we’re on the topic of the Akabeko…” Abruptly, startling the other two a bit, she raised her voice. “Yahiko! Yahiko, are you inside?”

Footsteps pounded along the passage, and Yahiko appeared with evident haste. Kaoru looked as if she didn’t know whether to be more resentful that Yahiko was so much more attentive to Megumi’s call than her own or admiring that Megumi commanded her recalcitrant pupil so well.

“Yeah?” he asked as he came in. “What’s up?”

“Hey, kid.” Sano got bluntly to the point before the women could approach the issue with any sort of tact. “Were you ever in love with Kenshin at all?”

Yahiko’s face, ears, and neck went far redder than anyone’s in the room had been thus far, and he stiffened as if someone had run a cold finger up his spine. “What?!”

“Sanosuke, is that any way to ask?” Megumi demanded. “You’ve just lost any credit I gave you for complimenting us before.”

Sano stuck out his tongue. “I don’t talk to get credit from you, you know!”

“Yahiko,” said Kaoru, turning from her work to face her student, “what we mean is… well, actually, what we mean is exactly what Sano said, but… I’ve noticed you and Tsubame-chan definitely like each other, and it’s been a really long time you haven’t done anything about it, and I thought maybe there was some reason for that–”

“Wh-why should I ‘do anything about it?'” Yahiko broke in, still blushing as if his nose might start gushing red at any moment. “Tsubame and me are none of your business, and neither is anything else like that — why would you even ask? What a stupid question!” His fists were clenched, but his entire reaction seemed far more embarrassed than angry. “Kenshin’s a-a hero! He’s someone I want to be like, not– You guys are the ones who– I’m not even old enough for stuff like that! Why would you ask me something so stupid?!” And abruptly he spun and ran from the room as quickly as he’d entered it.

“Well, I think we have our answer there,” said Megumi into a silence that, this time, wasn’t even broken by cooking sounds.

“I’m afraid he’s going to feel a bit betrayed by us for a while,” Kaoru said with some apparent regret, “for prying like that.”

“He may say it’s none of your business,” Megumi replied critically, “but you’re like a mother to him — of course it’s your business!”

“I might have said a sister,” mumbled Kaoru, blushing yet again.

I was the one who asked, anyway,” Sano reminded them.

“Yes, like a complete lout!” Megumi shook her head with an annoyed sigh and went back to dicing vegetables. “Kaoru-chan, you were much kinder, but you were right… Yahiko hasn’t gotten involved with the girl at the Akabeko, and I think there is a specific reason for it.”

Kaoru nodded. “It’s… it’s really hard to consider even trying to get involved with someone… even admitting there might be someone, after…” And she trailed off.

“Hell,” Sano picked up in a tone of agreement, “it was hard enough thinking for a while you wanted Kenshin and wondering what the hell to do about it, and then realizing that wasn’t true and trying to be just friends with Kenshin after you thought you were in love with him. The whole thing’s just really, really…”

“Awkward,” Megumi finished, summing up the group predicament.

After yet another long pause in the conversation, it was Sano’s turn to shake his head as if shaking off the previous subject. With a wry grin he said, “Wow, we really got away from the point, didn’t we? Who the hell is stalking all of us? That’s what we were talking about, wasn’t it?”

Megumi laughed. “Well, we’ve at least determined what we have most in common… and I think it’s been good to get this all out into the open.” She gave Kaoru a smile that looked almost shy, and another touch of color came into her cheeks — a rare look for her — before she reached for a pan and some oil for the final stage of lunch preparation.

“Y-yes,” Kaoru stammered. “I agree. I mean, who the hell is stalking all of us? It can’t have anything to do with us all thinking we were in love with Kenshin, can it?”

“Seems as likely as any other reason…” Sano scratched at the back of his neck. “People either want to kill Kenshin or fuck him.”

Kaoru tittered at the blatant sexual reference. Megumi said sardonically, “Usually both. Not necessarily in that order.”

“But if someone is spying on us because they want to–” Kaoru proved unable to repeat Sano’s wording– “to be with Kenshin, and they think we’re in the way or something… that could be anyone! We just went over a few people off the top of our heads who probably think they’re in love with him, and there could be dozens more!”

“Or it could be a totally different reason,” Sano reminded.

“Yes, it could be the ‘kill’ option,” agreed Megumi. “This could be someone trying to gage the strength of his allies before they attack.”

“Dammit!” Kaoru cried. “I may not be in love with Kenshin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Kenshin! I don’t want to see him attacked again!”

The other two nodded.

At this moment the door into the room slid open, and Yahiko reappeared. Everyone gave him a startled look — they hadn’t expected to see him again so soon — especially as they noted his face hadn’t really returned to its usual color.

“Um, this guy…” Yahiko muttered, and stepped aside. From the shadows of the hall another figure emerged, greatly increasing the surprise of everyone present.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Sano demanded, jumping hastily to his feet and taking a step forward. The two women, though they did not speak and their demeanors were not as completely innervated as his, seemed to be wondering the same thing.

“I came to discuss something with Himura,” replied Saitou, tone mild and bearing entirely noncombative.

“He’s not here,” said Kaoru warily.

“So the young man told me.” Saitou gestured briefly at Yahiko, who had retreated into the shadowed doorway. “It may actually be more convenient this way,” he added with a faint smirk, “since the three of you may be better able to decide what to do with this information.”

“You know who’s stalking us,” Megumi guessed.

“Well done, doctor.” Saitou stepped farther into the room (causing Sano to become, evidently, even more tense and energized than before) and glanced at the lunch preparations as if assessing the Kaoru-Megumi teamwork based on what he saw around the kitchen. “Yes, an old acquaintance, after spying on a number of people in Kyoto apparently to his satisfaction, according to my sources there, has traveled to Tokyo to keep up this antisocial behavior. His targets here are you three and a few random others that nonsensically include myself and my assistant. What his reasons for this or his specific choice of victims are, I can’t begin to guess–” Here Saitou looked back and forth between Kaoru and Megumi, then transferred his sardonic gaze to Sano, where it remained– “but the only person he does not appear to be taking any interest in is your Himura Kenshin.”

“Shit, it’s Aoshi, isn’t it,” Sano muttered, half at a growl, as if trying to decide whether he thought this news was acceptable or something to get angry and worried over. “Shinomori fucking Aoshi.”

“A spark of deductive reasoning.” Like Megumi’s surprise earlier, Saitou’s was clearly deliberately exaggerated.

“We were just talking about this. We knew someone was– wait.” Sano, whose eyes had fallen from Saitou’s, now met his gaze again with a look in which suspicion was trying to deny the presence of concern. “Did you say he’s been watching you?”

“Again, I can’t imagine why,” Saitou replied blandly. And again, when he denied having any idea what might be the motive for Aoshi’s strange behavior, it seemed like a blatant lie. “But since everyone he’s been spying on is either a friend of Himura’s or someone Himura has fought sometime in the last year or so, and since it’s impossible to believe that’s a coincidence, I thought it best that Himura — or at least the inner circle of his fanclub — be apprised of the situation.”

The silence that now fell was more awkward than any previous, probably because of the presence of Saitou, who watched them all with a surface impassivity that didn’t entirely mask his amusement and disdain about the entire situation.

“So, what,” Sano finally demanded belligerently of the cop, “are you waiting around for us to thank you?”

Some gesture of thanks might be appropriate,” replied Saitou easily, “but a police officer learns not to expect it — especially from an idiot like you.”

“Well, thank you anyway.” There was a lilt of amused appreciation in Megumi’s tone, as if hearing Sano insulted lifted her spirits. “We will certainly put this information to good use.”

“I’ll leave the matter to you, then.” With an ironic smile, Saitou turned to depart without any further goodbye. It was probable he would have to escort himself out, since Yahiko was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Sano made a jerky movement toward the door and opened his mouth as if to protest, but eventually said nothing and stopped himself short; so the officer went unhindered.

Presently, “Aoshi…” Megumi murmured. “We should have seen that coming.”

“Yeah, we really should have.” Sano sounded annoyed as he tore himself from his scrutiny of the recently closed door. “He was obsessed with Kenshin from day one. And I could see him taking this long to decide to do something about it. Figure out who his real rivals are and shit, you know?”

Suddenly Kaoru started making an almost frantic gesture of hand as if to request silence and attention for what she was trying to find words to say. “And… and… and you know what?” she finally managed. “I never thought about it before, but Kenshin talks about him more than — more than anyone else I can think of. Definitely more than he talks about anyone else he’s defeated who isn’t around. Like Aoshi is more than just someone he had a conflict with for a while.”

The other two seemed to be rethinking memories, sorting through scenes with Kenshin seeking confirmation of Kaoru’s words. Sano was still frowning. “You know, I think you’re right.”

“Ken-san is so subtle about this sort of thing, but… yes…”

“And it wouldn’t be totally stupid… Aoshi does have that tall, dark, and handsome badass spy thing going on.” With this reluctant statement Sano glanced into the shadows of the doorway again, perhaps expecting to find Aoshi hiding darkly and handsomely there.

“He does have beautiful blue eyes…” Megumi sounded dubious, as if this concession was the greatest she was willing to make.

“I guess I can see it… a little…” Kaoru frowned. “I don’t know him very well, but while we were in Kyoto, he made it obvious that he was going to try to follow Kenshin’s advice and work to atone for what he’d done by living in the best way he could from now on — like Kenshin does — instead of dying, like he’d planned before. That kind of strength is definitely… something I could see being attracted to… But, even so, in Aoshi’s case, he’s tried to kill Kenshin twice!”

“That’s not exactly…” Sano shrugged a little awkwardly, reaching a hand into his gi to scratch an itch on his shoulder. “You live in a warrior’s world, you get used to things like that. It’s not such a big deal anymore, you know?”

“No, I don’t know! Kenshin may have forgiven him, but that should always be a barrier between them!”

“Nah, not really… I mean, I don’t think Kenshin would think of it that way. You get into these big conflicts and shit, and… suddenly it’s like… someone stabbing you or whatever? It’s less serious than it would be otherwise. Like you’re all on a different level, so that kind of shit just doesn’t count like it would for anyone else.”

“I guess you can’t really hang onto every time someone tries to hit you,” Kaoru murmured thoughtfully, as if lost in a memory. “And just because you were rivals at one point doesn’t mean… And with Kenshin… you’re right, I guess he does operate on a more serious level…”

“No, don’t put the vegetables in just yet,” Megumi advised. “Wait until you’ve turned the fish a few times.” She guided Kaoru’s hand — perhaps somewhat unnecessarily — toward the action specified, and remarked as she did so, “There’s one area where Ken-san is on exactly the same level we are — he isn’t pursuing any romance either.” When Kaoru remained uncharacteristically silent in response to this, she went on, “If he is interested in Aoshi, he’s done absolutely nothing about it.”

“That’s ’cause he’s too damn nice,” grumbled Sano. “That’s always been his problem. He probably knows — at least on the inside, even if he doesn’t know consciously or whatever — he knows how people around him think about him, and he feels like it would make him a total asshole to everyone who thinks they’re in love with him if he went and found someone of his own and crushed all their hopes.”

“That does sound like Ken-san…” It was possibly the most seriously Megumi had taken any statement of Sano’s during this entire conversation. “He grasps so firmly at the first decent, unselfish response he sees to a problem… He doesn’t realize there might be a better way.”

Kaoru, having recovered her tongue, agreed critically, “He always thinks the best solution is whatever’s the most inconvenient for him. It would be like him to just assume that denying himself his own romance is doing what’s best for everyone else.”

“…not realizing that if he were to find someone of his own, he would set the rest of us free to do the same.”

“Yeah, that would make things way less awkward, if Kenshin got with someone finally.”

“But…” Kaoru took a deep breath, and her face, in contrast to its previous redness, now paled. “Isn’t it maybe a little selfish to wait around for Kenshin to set us free? When the whole problem came from the fact that we were wrong about how we felt in the first place?”

Sano stared at her, parts of his face shifting in and out of a variety of expression components so that no single emotion showed clearly. “Are you saying we should all go after — I mean, not saying there’s necessarily anyone to go after — but if there was, you think we should all go for it so Kenshin will get the message?”

“It might solve the problem…” Megumi’s voice, which was directed toward the frying fish rather than either of the other two, was quiet and a little hoarse. “It probably couldn’t,” she added, lifting her eyes at last and looking steadily at Kaoru, “have any negative effect.”

“It would show Aoshi-san we’re not his rivals.” Kaoru’s voice was just as hoarse as Megumi’s as she returned the intent gaze. “And it would show Kenshin he wouldn’t be hurting any of us if he went after his own happiness…”

“And our happiness… if we were brave enough to reach for it…” Megumi didn’t seem to intend this as an immediate continuation of Kaoru’s thought, but rather as the beginning of another she didn’t need to finish.

Watching Kaoru’s paleness after her daring suggestion darken back to its prior redness, Sano didn’t bother to point out that the fish seemed to be crackling rather alarmingly in the pan during the wordless few moments that followed. He just waited out that time with his expression still shifting as it had before until finally it settled into one of determination. “I’ll leave the matter to you, then,” he eventually said, and, without further goodbye, headed for the dark doorway behind him with a speed and vigor of movement probably a little excessive for simply vacating the room and perhaps the dojo.

And the two women remained behind in silence, but for the sounds of their lunch starting to burn, staring at each other, wondering whether they had the courage to reach for their own happiness.

I’ve rated this story .

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

Substantiated


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then neither’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

“I asked first!”

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu snorted again.

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

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

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

“But how can you–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Also?”

Sano made a dismissive noise.

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

Sano snorted.

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré

Even from a huge distance — nearly from space, seemingly — it was obviously a great collection of objects, like a vast landfill where only one specific type of item was allowed. What type that was he didn’t know; though he could see they were all similarly shaped, he wasn’t close enough yet to identify them. But he was nearing, gradually, inexorably, like something floating on an incoming tide. All he had to do was wait patiently, and after not too long he would see…

Cell phones. It was an unthinkably huge collection of phones stretching into infinity and piled to oceanic depth. They were all different brands and models, showing a wide variety of conditions and levels of use. Their one feature universally in common was their stillness and silence. No light shone from the face of any; they might all have been dead, headed for recycling or an actual landfill or whatever heaven existed for cell phones.

But as he drew closer, close enough to make out the numbers and letters on each visible keypad and the staring blank expanses of the touchscreens, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a message somewhere for him, specifically for him. He looked around. It should be easy enough to spot in this desolation.

It was. Like some great mythological creature deep beneath the sea opening a thousand eyes at once, the phones abruptly lit. There was no wave of sudden power and reception spreading from one point to another; it was a spring to life so simultaneous it was as if a new image had been inserted in front of his eyes, obscuring the old, and beneath the new one still lay the dark, powerless expanse. And yet the light was so bright from the combined faces, though there was nothing to illuminate, that it was difficult not to believe in it. Besides, when he caught sight of the origin and purport of the message blazoned across the face of every phone from here to infinity, he had no choice but to believe.

It was from Quatre.

It said simply, Help.

Heero awoke to feel arms clinging to him violently, tight enough almost to hurt; and he found himself nestling against Duo and petting his hair in what he must subconsciously have thought was a soothing gesture before he was even fully awake.

“God dammit,” Duo murmured brokenly as his clutching hands moved desperately, convulsively, across Heero’s body almost as if checking him for injuries.

“I’m sure this will stop eventually.” It wasn’t the first time Heero had offered this reassurance recently, since this wasn’t the first time Duo had awakened like this in a panic. “Just give it time.”

Duo clung tighter. “I’m sorry.”

Heero shifted so as to put both arms around Duo and pull him close. “It’s OK.”

“I don’t want to feel like that again,” Duo whispered harshly. “I can’t do that again. I can’t–”

“You don’t have to. You’re not a doll anymore, and you never have to be again. See?” Heero ran a hand up and down Duo’s back, reminding him that he was here, that Duo could feel him, that this was real. “Never again.”

With a very deep breath, Duo forced himself to calm down, continuing to draw air into his lungs in a slow, deliberate pattern and closing his eyes. Finally he chuckled weakly. “How many times do we have to go through this?”

“As many as it takes,” Heero replied.

He could see only the faintest glint of light from outside the bedroom door on Duo’s eyes as they opened again, but he could hear an equally faint grin in the reply, “I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be comforting or what… but don’t think I don’t appreciate that you’re offering to be there.”

“I always will,” Heero promised.

They lay in silence for a while, the tightness of Duo’s arms around Heero the only indication that he hadn’t gone back to sleep. Finally he said, “I was a doll for a long time, you know.”

“I do know.”

“Longer than I’ve been human, actually.”

“Yeah, it’s going to take some doing to beat that.”

“It’s…” Duo’s voice lowered to an unhappy murmur. “I think it’s possible that I’ll never really get over it. We may have to go through this three times a week for… ever…”

Heero shrugged against the pillow. “As many times as it takes,” he reiterated. Inside, though, he was reflecting that if what Duo feared really did turn out to be the case, some manner of professional assistance would seem advisable. But what kind of counseling did you seek for someone whose issue was that he’d been a doll for eighty-seven years? A therapist that was aware of magic, obviously… in this crazy world with its dangerous hidden facets, such people must exist; it would just be a matter of finding them. He would have to talk to Trowa about it.

In the meantime, he might as well do what he could to try to work through Duo’s worries on his own. So he asked, “Are you nervous about starting work on Monday?”

“Yes,” said Duo emphatically. “I’d be nervous about that even if I’d grown up like a normal human and gone to real schools and everything.”

Though Heero didn’t know if he believed this of the confident Duo, it wasn’t a point worth arguing. “You know you’re going to do fine, though, right? You’ll have training first, so you’ll know exactly what’s expected of you and how to do it.”

“Will you be training me?” Evidently this topic change was working, for Duo’s tone was now, in addition to the concern and agitation Heero was seeking to calm, part wistful — since he knew the answer was no — and also just a little playful or even suggestive.

“I’ll certainly be there if you have any questions. You already email me twenty times a day half the days of the week; you can keep doing that if it’ll make you feel better. But they’ll get you a company email address, probably Wednesday or Thursday… I’m sure it’ll be dmaxwell@winner-plastics.com.”

“Ooh, that sounds so official! And I can send you completely sexually explicit emails from there, at work, with my work email, with both of us at work, and I won’t get in trouble for it?”

“You will get in trouble for it if anyone but me sees them.” Heero’s attempt at sounding severe, battling his urge to laugh, was losing badly. “But PG-rated flirtation should be fine.”

By now Duo had loosened up and stopped clutching at Heero so fiercely, and his voice as he said, “I’ll have to think up some good stuff that won’t get you fired,” had returned to something like its usual level of casual sanguinity.

Deeming it safe, therefore, Heero said, “And I think once you’re working full-time, it’ll be a pretty constant reminder that you’re human.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” Duo’s nod made a rustling sound against the bedding. “And it’ll give me more stuff to think about, so maybe it’ll distract the dreams away.” Despite his obviously greater amount of hope and calm, he still sighed as he added, “Maybe.”

Heero leaned forward with a kiss aimed at Duo’s forehead, but in the darkness found an eyebrow instead. “I can work harder at distracting you, too,” he murmured. “Make sure you have more stuff to think about.”

The warm breath of a faint, appreciative laugh touched Heero’s neck, against which Duo, yawning, then nestled his head. This resulted in his next statement coming out a bit muffled. “You know what? I love you.”

Heero kissed the top of Duo’s head and then rested his chin on it, pulling him closer once again.

After a few more comments against Heero’s skin, increasingly incoherent, Duo fell silent and started breathing deeply and evenly. Though he would eventually, Heero didn’t release him just yet. He liked to imagine that, holding Duo, he could hold off the dreams as well, hold at bay everything that troubled his lover, protect him from a world that had already been unusually unkind to him. If only it were that easy.

Despite this, however, Heero was actually rather pleased with himself. Maybe it was arrogant, but he thought he’d done quite well at helping Duo recover from his nightmare relatively quickly and smoothly. Once again, if only it were always that easy to help Duo in dealing with the aftermath of the curse. The problem was that the damn thing only struck at dark moments when Duo was most vulnerable, usually when Heero couldn’t help him. It didn’t seem fair that sleep, something Heero knew Duo had missed intensely while he’d been a doll, had been tainted by this recurring experience.

Heero would definitely have to talk to Trowa about the possibility of some kind of magical counseling.

For now, though, he just tried to get back to his own sleep and not think about bad dreams or the very high probability of their return, since there really was nothing he could do to stop them. This had been happening fairly regularly for almost two months now, after all, and Heero didn’t know how much he believed the proposed job/distraction theory they’d just discussed. The good news was that he was becoming more and more adept at damage control… he’d gone from the startlement and nearly ungovernable concern of the first few instances to a response so quick it seemed to begin even before he awoke; by now he tended to start attempting to calm and comfort Duo before he’d consciously registered what was going on.

Tonight he’d even been dreaming uncomfortably himself, hadn’t he? –possibly in subconscious response to the signs Duo had been giving. He was reacting more and more quickly, becoming more and more in tune with Duo. Maybe that really would lead to a heightened ability to help one of these nights.

And yet… the specifics of the dream he’d been having were niggling at him, trying to make themselves heard above his other thoughts. The memory of exactly what he’d seen in his sleep was gaining clarity, and Heero found himself frowning in the darkness as he ran through the events — if they could be called that — in his dream. In fact, he was waking again, increasingly worried and perplexed, and he had to struggle not to tense up and squeeze Duo awake as well. It hadn’t begun to occur to him while he’d been busy with his unhappy boyfriend, but… this wasn’t actually entirely about Duo, was it? It couldn’t be.

Because if it had been prompted only by Duo’s distress, to which he’d been responding even before he’d awakened, why had his dream centered around a request for help from Quatre?

Trowa was still a much earlier riser than his longtime best friend, so Duo found it no surprise, when Trowa put his head into Heero’s apartment late Saturday morning, that it looked as if this wasn’t the first time he’d done so. On previous in-peekings, Trowa had probably heard signs first of Duo letting Heero know exactly what he thought of a boyfriend that was so steadfastly comforting and supportive during a period of stress and nightmare, and second of a vigorous shower, but this would be the first time he’d actually seen anyone up and about.

Duo, who was very helpfully helping Heero in the kitchen dressed only in pajama pants, caught the motion of Trowa’s door opening and glanced over in time to see his friend step slowly inside, close the door behind him, and stand somewhat disconsolately against it.

“Hey, Trowa!” he greeted. “Come in and have breakfast!”

“Come in and distract Duo so I can actually make breakfast,” Heero amended quietly.

“I’ll put a shirt on, even,” was Duo’s generous accompanying offer.

When he returned from this errand wearing one of Heero’s tees, he found that Trowa had wandered over to the sofa and sat down somewhat stiffly. His friend was now involved in an unnecessarily arduous discussion about whether he wanted breakfast, how likely he was to suffer if he skipped breakfast, and what, in the event he did want breakfast, he would like for breakfast. Heero was very patiently wringing answers out of Trowa, who was being far more unresponsive than usual; it was a little odd.

“You know Quatre will get on everyone’s case if you don’t eat,” Duo said as he flopped down on the couch.

Trowa stiffened even further at the mention of Quatre’s name, and this was the last sign Duo needed that something was wrong. Normally that sort of remark was everything required to get Trowa to shape up and act like a human being.

“So, what’s going on?” Duo wondered, hoping to spare Trowa’s feelings by letting him be the one to introduce whatever was bothering him. “Planning anything super exciting for your birthday?”

Trowa just shrugged.

“Birthdays count again,” Duo reminded him. “That’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?”

Faintly Trowa smiled. “You’re right about that.”

This wasn’t getting anywhere, so Duo decided to repeat the only word that had gotten a specific reaction thus far. “You and Quatre heading out to someplace extremely romantic?”

Simultaneously Trowa repeated his shrug, sighed a little, and looked away at nothing. “I thought we were,” he said, “but I think plans may have changed.”

This was enough to catch whatever portion of Duo’s attention hadn’t already been riveted on the conversation — not merely because Trowa was unhappy about something, but because words like ‘think’ and ‘may’ had just been applied to a plan involving Quatre. There might be times when Quatre’s plans weren’t entirely certain, but that was generally months before the event in question… and Trowa was turning 112 (or perhaps 25) tomorrow. “What happened?”

Trowa was consideringly silent for a moment. “He was in a bad mood last night.” Clearly he was trying to downplay this, but it wasn’t working.

Thinking back over the five months in which he’d known Quatre, Duo was having a hard time finding any memory to supply the information he wanted. Finally he asked in some interest, “What’s that like?”

“Not very enjoyable for me.”

This, Duo thought, answered his question: Trowa and Quatre had had a little tiff, and Trowa was here to pout and be petted about it. Doubtless Quatre would call or show up later, apologetic and full of plans for tomorrow, and everything would be fine. For now, it was probably best to let Trowa get everything off his chest in his own time.

“I’m worried,” was how Trowa began, in a tone of confession — as if worrying about his boyfriend after an argument was a sign of weakness or something; poor Trowa. “He isn’t answering my phone calls, and he isn’t in his room at his house.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be, if he’s annoyed and off somewhere,” said Duo reasonably. “Heero! Where does Quatre go when he’s annoyed?”

“Swimming,” Heero replied, so promptly that it was obvious he was listening intently to the entire discussion.

“See?” Duo gave Trowa a comforting pat on the shoulder. “He’s not going to answer his phone if he’s in a pool, but I’m sure he’ll call you when he gets out.”

Trowa was still staring blankly at a point halfway up one of the apartment’s largely empty walls. Duo had been meaning to talk to Heero about putting something interesting on some of them… if there’d been a picture there, Trowa would have had something real not to look at instead of having to make do with cream-colored nothing. As it was, Trowa was silent for the moment. Duo was itching to know what he’d done to irritate Quatre, but didn’t think asking — which would be tantamount to accusing — would be terribly kind.

Finally, “He called me a coward,” Trowa murmured.

“What?” This startled demand came from two voices, and suddenly Heero was standing just behind the couch looking down at Trowa with constricted brows and worried eyes.

Now Trowa’s gaze shifted to the floor, as if he couldn’t stand to meet the gaze of either of his friends. “I made him do something I couldn’t do myself. I didn’t force him to — I didn’t even ask him to; he volunteered — but the fact that I couldn’t do it, and that he feels the need to take care of me, made it equal to forcing him. He probably thought he didn’t have a choice, and that’s my fault.”

“And it was so bad that he called you a coward to your face,” Heero said. His face had gone hard, as had his tone, but he spoke softly. Duo had been surprised and concerned at hearing a report of Quatre using such negative language toward Trowa, but at the sight of Heero’s expression and the sound of his voice his concern grew significantly.

Trowa nodded, and said heavily, “He told me I’ve been under the backwards impression that being a powerful magician was all I had left of myself that was worthwhile… and that I was afraid to let that go and live like a normal person… and that was keeping me from fully recovering after the curse. He said that if I’m going to keep being a coward about things, he’s not going to be able to help me.”

It sounded… well, it sounded, Duo had to admit, perfectly accurate. It didn’t sound like anything Quatre would say. Duo remembered comforting himself once with the thought that Quatre was too compassionate ever to be unkindly blunt… but perhaps Trowa had somehow pushed him farther than Duo had ever seen Quatre pushed. Or had Duo simply been wrong in his assessment? In any case, the statement Quatre had made didn’t sound like anything someone merely ‘in a bad mood’ would say.

“He was right,” Trowa said simply, “but normally he’s so much more kind about things like that.”

Duo nodded inadvertently as Trowa essentially verified everything he’d just been thinking. Trowa didn’t even sound petulant now — he wasn’t complaining or looking for sympathy; he was uncomprehendingly hurt.

“I think I apologized for being so much trouble… I barely remember what I said… because he interrupted me and said, ‘You know, Trowa, we spend an awful lot of time talking about you and your problems. It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but it gets overwhelming sometimes.'”

Trowa quoted as if he would never forget the exact words, and Duo simply stared at him. Once again it seemed completely accurate… and completely out of character for Quatre. Of course dealing with Trowa’s issues must get overwhelming at times… but Duo wouldn’t have thought Quatre would ever actually voice that sentiment aloud to Trowa.

“Then he said he was tired, and he went home. I thought he was going to stay,” Trowa added with a slight blush, “and be around today… we hadn’t quite decided between a couple of different options for tomorrow… but he seemed like he was angry with me all of a sudden. And now he won’t answer my calls.”

“It is kinda early still…” Duo offered this excuse only half-heartedly, since it wasn’t actually all that early and he knew Quatre to be a morning person.

Something on the stove was crackling alarmingly, but Heero remained motionless beside the couch. He looked even more worried than before, and Duo thought there was a deep pensiveness and perhaps a touch of anger to his expression as well — and some disapproval, even accusation such as Duo had earlier eschewed, in Heero’s tone as he asked, “What exactly did you have him do for you?”

Sounding even more miserable than before, Trowa ranted quietly. “He’s been bringing it up regularly for months, and I kept putting it off… if I’d just done it myself, this wouldn’t have happened, since I’m sure that’s what caused this. He saw I couldn’t do it and offered to do it for me… I shouldn’t have let him; I should have done it myself… I shouldn’t have been such a coward.”

Silence followed this minor outburst, and Trowa seemed to realize that he hadn’t actually answered the question. With a glance that was unexpectedly expressive of helpless guilt, he finally told them. “The artifact. He destroyed it for me.”

Oddly enough, the tension in the room seemed to lessen a little at Trowa’s pronouncement. He had anticipated anger from his two friends on hearing that he’d allowed Quatre to undertake something so magically involved and potentially dangerous — just as he’d been angry at himself for it ever since last night — but apparently his words had had a different effect.

“So this is a magical thing.” Duo actually sounded somewhat relieved. “The artifact did something to him, and you should be able to clear it up and everything should be fine.”

Not so sure, Trowa said nothing.

Heero, apparently sharing Trowa’s doubts, wondered, “But what did it do to him? I’ve never seen Quatre behave like you’re describing.”

“Yeah, Quatre’s so… nice…” Duo’s expression, at the sound of Heero’s voice, had slowly changed back to a frown.

“He’s not just nice,” Heero said fiercely — a very unusual tone for him. “He almost never speaks without thinking, and even if he has something difficult to say to someone, he says it as kindly as possible. And it takes him forever to say that kind of thing to his boyfriend, even–” here Trowa could feel cold eyes burning the back of his neck– “when his boyfriend deserves it.”

“I know I deserved it.” The slight defensiveness in Trowa’s tone, the fact that he was standing up for himself (in a way) would have pleased Quatre the day before yesterday, Trowa thought. Today? Who knew? “He didn’t say anything that wasn’t perfectly true. It’s him I’m worried about.” Well, there was a touch of us he was worried about too — which, he felt, also would have pleased the normal Quatre. But when the normal Quatre wasn’t around, it seemed almost meaningless. “And he’s not answering his phone.”

Abruptly Heero moved around the sofa and down the hall. For a few moments there was no sound but that of whatever he’d been cooking, which was now beginning to smell a bit smoky. In response to this, Duo reluctantly stood and went to deal with the probably ruined breakfast. Trowa thought there was very little appetite left among the three of them.

“Trowa…” Heero had returned with his cell phone, on which he’d fixed a very odd, pensive look. “About what time last night did this all happen?”

“Early morning.” Wondering why Heero wanted to know, Trowa tried to narrow it down. “Probably around three.”

“Which time zone?”

“Mine. So, midnight here?”

In the kitchen, Duo’s sudden audible shifting suggested this meant something to him. But Heero said nothing, only nodded slightly and turned back to walk down the hall again. Another silence settled, but for Duo rattling cooking utensils, finally followed by the muffled sound of Heero talking to someone on the phone in his bedroom. It didn’t seem a very promising conversation, though — too many questions and long pauses.

This was confirmed when Heero returned, still eyeing the device in his hand strangely, and eventually looked up at where Trowa remained on the couch. “No answer,” he said, stopping in the entry to the hall and pocketing his phone with a reluctant slowness. “I called his house too, and Darryl said he’s still not there. Something is definitely wrong.”

“Why do you say that?” It was actually a little annoying that, after it had already been established that Quatre wasn’t answering Trowa’s calls, Heero would come to the conclusion something was wrong only after he tried and failed to reach his friend.

“Because,” said Heero slowly, still frowning, “last night at 12:15 or so, I woke up from a dream about Quatre asking me for help.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to emerge, startled, from the kitchen, abandoning whatever cooking endeavor was going on there. “You woke up from a dream?”

Heero nodded. “It was a message. I didn’t quite realize that last night, because…” His eyes flicked to Duo and away. “I got distracted. But it wasn’t a normal dream.”

Mimicking the nod, Trowa said wearily, “You’re a communicator.”

“What?” Duo wondered, pulled momentarily from his concern for Quatre. “Is he?”

“I’ve thought so for a while, but I never got around to running a test. Now I don’t have to. The type of connection with a friend that brings dreams like that is one of the definitive signs.” Trowa would be very interested in this at a later time, but at the moment he barely cared. “And you’re right, Heero: it’s also a definitive sign that something is wrong.” As if that weren’t already obvious.

Heero too set aside, for now, the question of his area of magical talent. “And I assume you can’t jump to him, or you would already have done it.” His tone was even, and Trowa got the feeling he was also setting accusation aside in the interest of helping Quatre.

“I haven’t tried jumping anywhere,” Trowa replied, “but I’m sure it will take some time and practice before I can do it again at all… and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use Quatre as a destination again.” And that prospect had been not the least of the reasons he hadn’t been looking forward to giving up the largest portion of his power. Quatre had been right about his cowardice, but at least some of it was specifically related to Quatre himself. The reminder that normal people got around by non-magical means all the time could do little to console Trowa for the loss of the ability to go instantly to his boyfriend whenever he wanted.

“You haven’t tried yet,” Heero murmured very quietly, almost as if to himself. Then, more loudly and very flatly he wondered, “Why are you here, Trowa?”

Trowa opted for complete honesty. “I wanted to see if I was overreacting.”

“If you haven’t tried jumping to him yet, I’d say you’re underreacting.”

“Maybe not, maybe not,” said Duo placatingly from where he’d returned to the kitchen. “We don’t know for sure yet exactly what happened.”

“I,” said Heero, in the same absolutely flat tone as before, “have known Quatre for ten years. And I am telling you both that something is wrong. Trowa, I think you should try jumping to him. If that doesn’t work, I think you should look through those books of yours and see if you can figure out what might have happened to him.”

The I think‘s didn’t make these statements any less commanding, but any sting Trowa might have felt at being ordered around by Heero was drowned in the concern he felt — an emotion he’d been holding back all this time but that had been let loose by Heero’s steely pronouncements. He nodded and stood. “Let me know if you get ahold of him.”

Curtly, Heero returned the gesture.

Duo’s tone in the goodbye he called out as Trowa headed for home was somewhat forlorn. “Good luck!” Trowa heard him add as his door closed.

It didn’t entirely close before it opened again, and he turned, a little surprised, to find that he’d been followed. Heero still looked grim, but something about the grimness had altered slightly. Silently he let the door fall shut behind him as he faced Trowa across the entry, and Trowa waited in equal silence for whatever Heero had remembered or thought of to add.

“This isn’t the best moment to ask,” Heero began slowly, “but I don’t want to wait. Do you know — or could you find — a good therapist who knows about magic?”

Trowa blinked in surprise, but the explanation for the incongruous request presented itself almost immediately: Duo needed help. Professional help. It was in no way any wonder, regardless of how happy Duo seemed in general. And he certainly did seem happy to Trowa… Heero tended to know these more personal things long before Trowa did these days, an idea to which Trowa still hadn’t entirely reconciled himself. Not that now was the time for that.

“I’ll look for someone,” he assured Heero seriously.

“Thank you.” As this evidently formed the completion of the intended exchange, Heero turned and moved to go back to his apartment.

But Trowa couldn’t let him leave without saying something that, he hoped, would reassure (or at least remind) Heero that they two were still friends despite any coldness resulting from odd and uncomfortable circumstances, that Trowa returned concern for concern. It was a little difficult to drag his mind away from the worrisome mystery of Quatre’s behavior, and the next subject in line would certainly be this new suggestion that Duo was still traumatized by the long cursed years, so his words were a little halting as other thoughts continually dragged his attention away from them. “Heero… if communication is your primary skill…” Trowa was fairly sure he was right about that, and even without the artifact, Trowa’s surety was worth quite a bit on magical matters. “If you’re a communicator, and your abilities have awakened… you’re likely to start hearing people’s thoughts.”

“What?” Heero sounded surprised and not entirely pleased.

“Only louder thoughts, in general.” Though it wasn’t Trowa’s main area of talent, so he’d never had this problem, he knew how it usually worked for communicators. “But if you spend enough time with someone, you’ll start picking up anything on the surface of their mind they aren’t actively trying to hide from you.”

“In other words,” Heero muttered, “get ready to start hearing all of Duo’s thoughts, and probably Quatre’s, and maybe yours.”

“Not mine.” Trowa’s tone was a bit dry as he recalled just how much time and power he’d had backing his practice even of skills that were technically secondary to him, little proficiency as he’d still gained in some of them. “And I think Quatre’s… natural organization… may keep most of his thoughts exactly where he wants them.” Just mentioning Quatre’s name distracted him from this topic, but Trowa forced himself to finish. “But Duo… yes, I think you should get ready to start hearing Duo’s thoughts. Surface-level thoughts, at least.”

Heero had turned to face Trowa again, and now he nodded slowly, his pensive expression bearing traces of reluctance. Finally he smiled grimly and said, “I guess that’s the price I have to pay for hanging around you magical people. There’s nothing I can do about this, is there?”

Trowa shook his head. There certainly were options to make Heero’s talent easier for him to deal with, but Trowa was at the end of how far he could discuss this subject right now; having alerted him to the somewhat inconvenient early indications of a communion skill was all he could manage at the moment.

“Well, thanks for the warning.” Heero turned back toward the door once more. Before he opened it he added in a friendlier tone than he’d used to dismiss Trowa from his apartment, “Good luck today.” And once Trowa had returned his thanks, he left.

Trowa sighed as he glanced back and forth between his study and his computer room, trying to decide whether magical experimentation or research (and, if the latter, which branch of research) would be most likely to produce quick and positive results. Eventually he headed into the study with a good deal more to think about than he’d had when he left it earlier — assuming he was capable of thinking about anything besides Quatre.

Duo was examining the outcome of all their diffuse breakfast endeavors with a contemplative frown as Heero came back into the apartment through Trowa’s door, and the most worrisome part was that Duo looked like he was seriously considering eating it anyway. In celebration of the fact that he could eat anything now, Duo would eat anything now.

“I hope you following him in there means you thought of something that explains everything,” he said without looking up.

“No,” Heero half sighed. “I wish it did.”

The expression Duo now turned up toward him was sympathetic, but pretty clearly showed that he wasn’t yet convinced of the full direness of the situation with Quatre. There was some curiosity in it too as he said, “Why’d you go after him, then?”

“Trowa says he’ll look around for a therapist who knows about magic to help you with… your…” Heero found his voice failing at the change that occurred during his words: Duo had stiffened, stilled, and given Heero his complete attention — and none of this in a good way.

“Did Trowa bring this up,” Duo asked quietly, “or did you?”

“I did. Because of your dreams.”

Tightly Duo nodded, and his voice was quiet and nearly emotionless as he said, “Please don’t just go over my head like that.”

“I didn’t sign you up or anything; I just asked Trowa if he knew anyone you could go to.”

Duo moved his attention back to their breakfast as Heero approached somewhat warily. “Well, talk to me first about things like that. Then Trowa.” Actually it didn’t look like he was examining the food at all; he obviously just didn’t want to look at Heero.

In response to Duo’s pointed turning away, Heero stopped at the edge of the kitchen and tried to explain. “I knew you’d just say that no psychiatrist could possibly know what you’ve been through, so I thought before I brought it up I’d check–”

“Please,” Duo reiterated with a firmness that was almost desperate. “Talk to me first.” He gripped the oven door handle tightly as his gaze seemed to be pointed toward the contents of the stove without really seeing them. “You don’t know what I’ve been through either; you don’t know what it’s like to have everyone do everything for you because you can’t do it for yourself.”

Heero couldn’t help being a little hurt by “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” but he struggled not to say so. It was true, after all, at least on a certain level: he had been informed of much of Duo’s history, and had himself been part of Duo’s last month as a doll, but that wasn’t the same as knowing. Even if he’d been there for all of it, he couldn’t really have known what was going on in Duo’s head, how the curse affected Duo on the inside rather than the outside. Of course Duo had shared some of it with him, and there was more Heero could guess at just by interacting with him, but that still wasn’t the same as knowing. And even the knowledge he claimed to have — that therapy would help — was in actuality only a guess.

But if what Trowa had warned him about did come to pass, he might eventually no longer need to guess what was going on in Duo’s head. He might eventually know what Duo had been through. But he pushed that thought away for now.

“Of course. You’re right,” he said at last. “I should have realized.” He meant it as an apology he didn’t quite have plainer words for, and Duo seemed to accept it as such.

“It’s…” Duo released the oven with one hand and swung around, pivoting on the other wrist, still hanging on but looking now at Heero with a serious expression. “Not like I don’t appreciate the thought. OK, well, I don’t really like the thought much either, but…”

Heero winced. Of course Duo wouldn’t enjoy having his boyfriend suddenly suggest that he needed counseling, even if Heero had managed to suggest it in a manner that didn’t tread heavily on Duo’s toes.

“But I appreciate that you’re trying to look out for me,” Duo finished. He gave Heero a smile that, though genuine as Duo’s smiles always were, wasn’t as happy as it could have been, and turned back to the stove. Now he focused properly on the remains of their intended breakfast, and said more or less cheerfully, “I think I’m not hungry enough anymore to eat this. What do you think?”

Heero moved forward to join in the examination, and shook his head.

Wordlessly they set about cleaning up, discarding ruined food and washing dishes in a silence that was like Duo’s smile — not tense or angry, but neither as easy or happy as it could have been.

Finally, scraping the frying pan somewhat over-vigorously, Duo said abruptly, “I don’t need therapy.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero replied. It was an automatic and somewhat defensive response, but at least he’d gotten the words out.

“I made it through eighty-seven years as a fucking doll without going crazy.” Duo, whose voice told what he was feeling far more often than Heero’s did, sounded much more defensive than Heero had. “I don’t need to see someone about a couple of little bad dreams.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero repeated, this time at a murmur. He thought Duo was very specifically incorrect in this instance — Duo’s almost desperate defensiveness spoke pretty eloquently that there were mental issues in there that could use some professional help — but Heero was sorry he’d made him unhappy with his suggestion and his thoughtlessness, and he wasn’t going to press the issue at the moment. He would have to bring it up again eventually, but right now he just wanted Duo to smile properly.

What Duo did instead was drop what he was working on in the sink and fling soapy-handed arms around Heero unexpectedly from behind. “It’s OK,” he said. “Stop sounding like a kicked puppy! How could I be mad at you for doing something you thought was just to help me?”

“Because I did it all wrong?” Heero suggested. Whether or not he still sounded like a kicked puppy — and he had some doubts about having done so in the first place — he couldn’t guess, but he was certainly happier with Duo’s arms around him, even if he was going to have to change his shirt.

Duo nuzzled his face into Heero’s back, and, though he said something muffled about learning from experience and not doing it again, he seemed to be seeking comfort all of a sudden. As if he were asking Heero — the one that had introduced the idea — to reassure him that he wasn’t broken. It didn’t shake Heero’s conviction that counseling would do his lover good, nor did it make him feel less guilty about how he’d botched things; but he did raise a hand to clutch at Duo’s, disregarding suds and char, and squeeze it.

Eventually Duo stood straight, pulling away and clearing his throat, and turned back to the sink as if nothing had happened. “Besides,” he said in a brighter tone than before, which didn’t entirely match his words, “you’re distracted worrying about Quatre.”

This tense little scene with Duo had actually driven thoughts of Quatre far into the rear of Heero’s mind, but it was true that his best friend had been almost the center of his thoughts when he’d followed Trowa. That didn’t excuse having done something he should have known would be hurtful to his boyfriend, and he would have brought this up had he not believed Duo’s mentioning Quatre was a signal that he wanted to talk about something else.

Heero located a towel to run over the front of his shirt and his hands, and then brought out his phone to try Quatre again. This time it went straight to voicemail. Though Heero wasn’t generally one for leaving messages, he was tempted in this instance. That he hadn’t the faintest idea what he could say kept him from doing so.

What next? Conceivably Heero could call the club and see if he could wheedle them into telling him whether or not Quatre was there, but, even if he managed that, what then? It was pretty obvious that Quatre wasn’t interested in talking to anyone right now, and, worried as Heero was, such wishes should be respected. And yet, if there was magic at work, such wishes might have to take lower priority than expedience. But, as with a message, what would Heero say? Very specific concern was sometimes a little difficult for him to convey; something this uncertain would probably be even harder to put into words. But he would definitely feel a lot better if he could talk to Quatre — about anything. Just to hear his voice at this point would reassure Heero, even if it reaffirmed the current bad situation.

He supposed he could visit in person the places he thought Quatre might be… but he couldn’t get into the club except as the guest of an actual member, who had to be present at the front desk; and anywhere else Quatre might go in a particularly and possibly supernaturally bad mood — the office, out jogging, or to Cassidy’s bar downtown — were hit-or-miss at best.

“You’re really seriously worried, aren’t you?” Whether the darkness of Duo’s tone was in response to the referenced worry or a lingering result of the previous conversation, Heero didn’t know. In any case, he was finished scrubbing the frying pan (or at least finished with all the work he was willing to put in on that endeavor at the moment), and wrapping arms around Heero’s chest again. He hadn’t washed his hands, but it didn’t much matter.

“I’m really seriously worried,” Heero confirmed. And perhaps it was impetuous, but he decided suddenly, “And I’m going to go look for him.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Duo at once.

“Thank you,” Heero replied. “Let me change shirts, and we’ll go.” As he left Duo’s arms and headed across the living room toward the hall and his bedroom, he added with a sigh, “This may be completely useless, but it’ll feel better than doing nothing.”

This was like an echo of those long years when he’d been unable to find Duo or get any idea of what he should do once he managed to: he had huge amounts of knowledge and decades of experience, but in the specific area where he was being challenged he was ignorant and powerless.

He’d never been very good at divination, and now, without the artifact to boost his personal power, he was barely getting answers at all. This, he believed, probably arose from having grown too accustomed to that extra power, and that he would, in time, be able to benefit from that branch of magic again… but ‘in time’ didn’t help with figuring out what had happened to Quatre right now.

In the area of communion he’d likewise never been very skilled, and the telepathy that was the hallmark of a communicator’s powers was something he’d never mastered. Good communicators could, with practice, even speak telepathically over a distance, but Trowa didn’t think any amount of practice would allow him to do so. So reaching out mentally to Quatre was out.

Command magic, therefore, was his only option in this situation. Thinking back on how skilled he’d become in this area was reassuring, but his drop in raw power was still a concern, and not a small one. He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to use the artifact as a crutch — even to the point where he’d developed a certain attunement to it that had allowed him to access it from a distance almost without realizing he was doing so — until he was forced to go without it. Once again, however, he believed it was just a matter of time before he learned to look at magic from the different angle of having an almost perfect knowledge of how to work it without the practically unlimited power he’d once commanded.

The last couple of hours, spent first exploring his options and then trying to jump to Quatre, had obviously not constituted the time that it was only a matter of. In teleportation, there was no prior connection to the destination; you only knew you had properly specified the desired location by arriving there. Therefore, there was no scale to measure how well you had a destination in mind: you either arrived at it, or you went nowhere. In this case, it was like reaching, while climbing blind, for a handhold that turned out not to exist. And then the energy already built up for the spell had to be expended, either by initiating the weightlessness of jumping to no purpose where he stood or as a burst of undirected power that threatened destruction around him.

In part for this reason, he’d been attempting this experiment outside in his back yard. Up almost to his knees in weed-choked grass, breathing deeply, eyes often closed, sometimes raising his arms in a gesture meant to focus his energy in the direction he wanted, he would have presented quite a picture to anyone able to see over the six-foot fences, but for once he was completely ignoring the old paranoia about his neighbors.

He was also out here because he suspected a few of the objects in his study of having become artifacts. Because they had formed in conjunction with his use of the lunar artifact, they had previously been merely satellites to it, attuned to it from their inception, and unlikely to interfere with any magic he performed using its power — but now, with the candlestick destroyed, they were free to progress along their own paths and develop their own wavelengths that might interact badly with each other and have unforeseen influences over his attempts at spellcasting. Eventually he would test the items he suspected, and others, to determine which were artifacts and what their nature might be, and decide what to do with them all, but at the moment, not having time for that, he was simply working outside their presence.

Well, it was clear that using Quatre as a destination was simply not going to work. Whether it would at some point in the future, after more extensive and leisurely experimentation, Trowa did not know; right now he had to move on. The next step seemed to be, more simply, jumping to a destination that demanded less focus, less precise conjunction of multiple branches of magic. And the choice of destination wasn’t terribly difficult, given that there were only a few places Quatre was likely to be that Trowa knew well enough to jump to. It was Saturday, yes, but he’d known Quatre to go to work on weekends for reasons less pressing than being magically irritable and wanting a distraction.

From many instances of picking Quatre up after work (whether because he’d taken him there in the first place and Quatre had no other way home, or in preparation for an evening together, or even just, on a couple of occasions, to surprise him), Trowa knew Quatre’s office well enough by now to be confident in his ability to jump to it if he could manage the teleportation spell at all. He tried not to imagine Quatre there, practically waiting for him to appear, with an explanation for his strange behavior and a reassurance that he wasn’t actually angry at Trowa at all. He tried not to picture them making up tenderly and then heading off — after, of course, a reassuring call to Heero — for a birthday celebration that would last the rest of the weekend. He knew he would only be disappointed.

Even as he cast the spell, he felt how extravagant he’d become. He never would have noticed before, with the artifact, but now when he had a much lower level of power it was obvious that he was expending far too much of it on this task simply because he’d never had to worry about conserving energy before. But now, as he landed in the office lit only by the big wall of windows on one side, he actually stumbled as he came to rest, and had to catch the desk to keep from falling. Exhaustion slammed into him along with the realization that he’d used the better part of his power on this one jump, that he certainly wouldn’t be leaving this place magically until he’d had a rest and probably a good hard reflection on how more economically to cast this spell.

And of course Quatre wasn’t here. Despite having striven to avoid getting his hopes up, Trowa was still bitterly disappointed.

After a glance around and coming to the decision that the very comfortable-looking leather chair at Quatre’s big glossy desk would be the best place to regather his strength and give his mind to what needed to be thought about, he moved first, slowly, toward the office door (at what might be considered a hobble) in order to poke his head out into the hallway to ascertain whether he could hear anyone moving around in other parts of the building. And though he thought the fact that lights were on was a good sign that someone else was probably here, he didn’t hear anyone immediately nearby, which was for the best. Then he took a seat, swiveled to face the windows, and stared blankly out at the parking lot and other nearby businesses.

It was strange to feel so drained so abruptly. It was novel, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He felt as if he’d just run a marathon and come in last. Never in his life could he remember being so worn out, and though the bulk of the sensation was not physical, yet a certain measure of physical weariness was dragged along in the wake of his magical depletion. It was depressing and embittering.

The sound of the office door opening startled him enough that he jerked in his seat, and several thoughts went through his head in split-second succession: first, that it must be Quatre; second, that, as it obviously wasn’t Quatre, it was odd that the door should be unlocked for anyone else to get in; third, that he’d probably unlocked the door himself by opening it from the inside; fourth, that his presence here was going to seem strange no matter who it was and why they were entering.

Even as he turned, he heard a woman’s voice begin, “I didn’t know you were here today, but I’m glad–” But she cut off when she saw that it wasn’t her manager in the chair behind the desk.

“Pardon me,” Trowa replied wearily. “I know I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“No,” she said, advancing. “I thought Quatre must have come in without me noticing, and it was a stroke of luck he was here on a Saturday just when I was.” She smiled a little as she approached the desk, and it was obvious that she did think it odd — and probably a little suspicious — to find this stranger here.

For a moment Trowa didn’t know what to say. Not that coming up with excuses for the magical happenings in which he was often involved (indeed, which he often caused) was at all foreign to him; it was because he was momentarily captivated by her face.

It was the strong nose, he thought, and something about the corners of the eyes. She didn’t have freckles, but he thought hers was the type of complexion that might develop them under the correct atmospheric conditions. And the big curls in the reddish-brown hair were certainly part of it.

Not entirely sure what prompted him to do so, he stood up and reached out across the desk, just as if this were his office and he was introducing himself to a co-worker or something, to offer a handshake. “My name is Trowa Barton. I’m Quatre’s boyfriend.” And though simple truth such as this was something he greatly preferred to tell where possible, it was a little surprising even to him that he’d given it so readily here and now.

He thought her eyes were studying his features with just as much interest as his had studied hers, and at the sound of his name her brows went down slightly — not, he thought, with any negative emotion, but in an expression of interest and curiosity. She accepted the handshake with a firm grip and replied, “Well, I’m Catharine Barton. Good to meet you.”

What were the chances, Trowa wondered, of a second child of his mother also having deliberately taken her last name, and both that name and his mother’s features having been carried down several generations and across the country to manifest in a co-worker of his mother’s first child’s boyfriend a century later? Could it be just a coincidental resemblance and sharing of name? He had no idea.

He realized he’d expressed himself equally pleased to meet her almost without knowing he spoke, and now she was asking him, “So is Quatre here after all?”

With a shake of his head designed also to shake himself out of his distraction he replied, “I don’t think so. I came here looking for him, but it seems I’m out of luck as well.”

“That’s too bad,” she replied. Her stance had shifted slightly, and Trowa realized that she was settling in. She probably wasn’t quite sure yet that she believed he was who he said he was, and felt she couldn’t leave the room until her mind had been eased on that point. That was fine — Trowa needed to rest before he could go anywhere anyway, and he might as well do it in someone else’s presence as out of it — but he wanted to sit back down, and felt it would be discourteous to do so with this woman standing across the desk from him; at the same time, it would be awkward to invite her to sit down when this wasn’t actually his office.

The slight awkwardness of the situation was clearly felt by Catharine too, and was probably what prompted her question, “Can’t you call him?”

“He’s not answering,” Trowa replied. “We had a fight.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her sympathy sounded genuine, and also seemed to break the ice a bit; glancing around, she pulled one of the other chairs in the room closer to the desk and sat, much to Trowa’s relief. But she still sounded as if she was floundering a bit for things to say when she added, “You’re lucky you ran into me and not anyone else from sales with that news. I’ve never met a team more gossipy than ours.”

“I’ve heard stories,” Trowa nodded as he too took his seat. “Apparently everyone believes Quatre is dating Heero.”

She gave a smile of regretful amusement, and seemed to relax a bit; Heero’s name (and this bit of gossip) was obviously a password of sorts. “It’s gotten a little confused lately, because–” She lifted her chin and a pointed finger as she interrupted herself: “Now, I want it understood that I don’t work the gossip mill! But it’s impossible not to overhear just about everything.”

Trowa smiled a bit at the mixture of pride and playfulness in her demeanor. “Understood.”

“Well, some people know Heero’s actual boyfriend, and half the building still thinks Heero and Quatre are dating. There’s a lot of whispering about who’s cheating on whom.”

“I wonder how Duo coming to work here will affect that.”

“Duo — that’s Heero’s boyfriend, right? Is he coming to work here?”

“He starts Monday, I believe.”

“It’s going to turn everything upside-down for a while. Always a fun time for those of us who are here to work, not stick our noses into other people’s business.”

The fact that she was here on a Saturday was all the confirmation Trowa needed that she was one of those here to work.

“And even having said that,” she added, leaning forward a bit, “I can’t help asking… where are you from?”

Evidently the family resemblance was not, as Trowa had half thought it might be, a figment of his imagination, if the way Catharine’s eyes were roving his face was any indication. She looked mostly relaxed and unsuspicious now, and would probably be all right leaving him alone in Quatre’s office — but there was no reason they couldn’t try to figure out for sure, first, whether or not they were related. The possibility of his having living relations, whatever their precise degree of connection, was not one Trowa had ever given any thought, and he found that it interested him more than he would have expected. And a distraction from his concern about Quatre, during these moments when he was forced to rest and barred from action, was not unwelcome.

So, falling back somewhat on the old genealogy he’d built for himself to fill up believably the years between his parents and himself, and setting forth his own history in the early 1900’s as that of his great-grandfather, he started to explain where he’d lived and about his family line.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.