Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



Youma

Megumi wasn’t (quite) the only person to look at her like this, but she was the only one to inspire this reaction, this deep level of motivation, in Kaoru’s heart.

Two professional women prepare for their very first night together.

The rattling crack of contact between shinai filled the room along with the thump of feet and the controlled breathing of almost a dozen students and one instructor. The air smelled of clean sweat and bamboo and the soap that had been used earlier on the spotless floor. It all combined to form, without a doubt, Kaoru’s favorite ambiance.

This was the first of a new, experimental series of evening training sessions at the Maekawa Dojo aimed at accommodating those with daytime work that yet wanted to study kenjutsu. The latter could no longer be a full-time commitment for many, and Kaoru agreed with Maekawa-sensei that it was best to evolve with the changing era. They would just have to see whether the turnout in future was as good as tonight’s.

They’d made some excellent progress at this session, notwithstanding it was the first or the varied levels at which she’d found her pupils, and progressed along their numerous paths toward the multiform goals that swordsmanship would help them meet. Pleased, she moved among them, her sharp eyes seeking and never failing to find opportunities to offer suggestions for improvement regardless of the forwardness and enthusiasm of each man. They were learning, and she believed many of them enjoyed the process every bit as much as she did. For her the experience was short of perfect in only a single respect. She had hoped — it never hurt to hope — it might be different this time, but it had been a distant hope, a forlorn one, without much rationality or any precedent behind it.

These were professional men, modern men that lived in a new age and interacted with new types of women. Though the concept of yamato nadeshiko hadn’t lost its hold in society at large and still retained a certain degree of admirability, Kaoru had believed it not impossible that these individuals, unlike so many that had gone before them, might be able to reconcile their idea of what a woman was and should be with the skilled kenjutsu instructor they met at this dojo. She hadn’t felt any surprise when, like so many that had gone before them, they hadn’t been.

Someone simply could not be both a woman and a kenjutsu instructor. Therefore, most people she met tried to divide her down an impossible line, treating her as one or the other. If they saw her as a woman, they refused to acknowledge — in fact seemed utterly incapable of acknowledging — her adroitness with the sword and potential to transfer it to others. They were skeptical, even amused, or angry, or uncomfortable — or sometimes a fluctuating blend of the four — at any mention of what she did with her life or any behavior they considered less than perfectly feminine. This was the category into which most prospective students fell at first. It usually took little time and a very little effort (though admittedly some men were incredibly stubborn) to teach them not to underestimate her, to demonstrate the wrongness of their assumptions about her skills, and then invariably there would be an abrupt shift to the other end of the spectrum.

For when they saw her as a kenjutsu instructor, it was as if she’d been revealed as a sort of youma in human guise come to do them a favor for mysterious reasons of its own. They were happy to take advantage of the youma’s knowledge and experience, and even willing to be fairly jovial with it at the time, but at the end of the day the creature wasn’t a person, certainly not a woman, and no true companionship could ever be expected of it. As a female kenjutsu instructor, Kaoru inhabited a strange, lonely place in between the different things she was supposed to be — and not to be — and the people around her would never let her forget it.

That had been the problem with Kenshin, too, though his shift had been more gradual and his behavior toward her always much more sympathetic. He had started out on the kenjutsu side, and hadn’t really known how to deal with her femininity or any overtures of emotional connection she’d made. Eventually he’d come to see her as a woman, but in so doing had lost track of her strength and skill and the importance of teaching in her life. That was the reason, despite everyone around them taking it for granted they would eventually marry, they had instead finally, essentially, looked at each other and shaken their heads, recognizing that, though they would always be friends, their spirits just didn’t communicate on the level each of them needed for romance.

Because teaching kenjutsu was the most important thing in her life. To instill in students not only a knowledge of techniques and the physical discipline required to perform them well, but the determination to maintain a personal righteousness and the awareness that, by ordering their lives along the lines of a well regulated school, they could improve every aspect of those lives and progress toward the best version of themselves they could possibly be… she couldn’t conceive of anything more crucial, more meaningful, more fulfilling than that. And having the aptitude for it — to no small degree, she considered without false modesty — it was her duty and her pleasure to carry out this task left to her by her father, taken up out of love for him but continued with all her heart for its own sake. Anyone that couldn’t recognize and appreciate this side of who she was must be as alien to her deepest heart as if she had never met them. And on the other hand, anyone that considered kenjutsu as having somehow banished or eradicated everything womanly about her, leaving her less than a person, obviously could never hope to be her true friend, let alone something more.

Of course there were exceptions. Her aforementioned father had accepted and respected every aspect of his unorthodox daughter with love and pride unblinded (mostly) by his parental fondness — though admittedly her supposed eccentricities hadn’t developed fully by the time he left forever. Misao, whom Kaoru still saw occasionally but more often wrote to, would probably have understood and treated Kaoru rationally even if she hadn’t been in much the same dilemma herself. Maekawa-sensei, in their dealings together, had given every indication of considering her a talented protégé that was also female rather than some strange and incomprehensible entity to be made use of, perhaps offered joking and possibly offensive flirtation, but certainly never befriended. And of course the most important exception of all–

“Takani-sensei!” cried several simultaneous voices in greeting.

–had apparently just arrived on the scene.

The extent of Megumi’s celebrity was evident here, where she’d visited occasionally lately but not at this time of day with this particular set of men present. They knew her from various other encounters elsewhere, from instances of illness and injury and even circumstances during which she alone had stood between them and death, and they welcomed her now with an enthusiasm similar to the joviality with which they treated Kaoru. She, on the other hand, had to work to fight off a blush.

It was, in fact, the fourth time Megumi had visited her here near the end of a training session, all of those instances having occurred since the two women had come to an understanding concerning their mutual regard, and Kaoru mostly had her face under control by now. She wasn’t necessarily worried about betraying herself and her sweetheart — nobody in the room came even close to thinking of her in terms of romantic involvement with anyone, let alone another woman; they would never guess, no matter how red she turned — but Megumi had a tendency to tease her later with a mercilessness directly corresponding to the shade of her cheeks.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Megumi was saying with that complicated smile of hers that enticed even as it condescended. “I came to walk home with Kaoru-san when you all are finished; I’m happy to wait.”

Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her. She’d told the other dojo inhabitants (a phrase that referred technically only to Kenshin and Yahiko, but Sanosuke had been there too) not to wait up for her after this late training session, that she would get her own bath. And here instead was Megumi come to walk her home. It was such a delightful scenario, with so many happy little attendant thoughts, that, once a cushion had been found from which the doctor could observe the proceedings, Kaoru applied herself to the last of the night’s education with even greater vigor than before.

In part this was because she could now feel Megumi’s eyes on her, and she wanted to offer those eyes her best. This wasn’t merely out of a desire to impress someone that impressed her on such a regular basis; it also arose from the awareness that Megumi specifically admired, in addition to her physical form, both her combative and instructive abilities, so of course she must exemplify them as best she could here and now — as whenever Megumi was watching — just as she must also do her best whenever her sweetheart wasn’t observing her and live up to that admiration and her own potential as elevated thereby. Megumi wasn’t (quite) the only person to look at her like this, but she was the only one to inspire this reaction, this deep level of motivation, in Kaoru’s heart.

Once she had declared the training session finished, drilled everyone in a quick and efficient cleanup process, and tried her damnedest to extract promises of future attendance from all the men present — this last with an indifferent degree of success — she saw her pupils out the door with various levels of friendliness in their goodbyes, stepped into the chilly breeze of night with Megumi beside her, and locked up the building behind them. And as they headed off the property toward the street, Megumi immediately tucked Kaoru’s arm under her own and pulled her to walk close by her side.

“That seems to be going well,” the doctor remarked. “How many of them do you think will come back?”

“I don’t know.” Kaoru bit her lip. “It’s the usual thing.”

“But a lot of the daytime students respect you as a teacher.”

“And a lot of them consider me a mascot,” Kaoru sighed.

“I can’t imagine you aren’t getting through to at least a few of them,” Megumi said in that airy tone she sometimes used that belied the seriousness of her words. “And if you can change the life of even one of them, you’re already making the world a better place. That’s more than most people manage.” Her voice turned scathing as she added, “Those foolish men have no idea the opportunity they’re making light of.” And she squeezed Kaoru’s arm.

Succumbing to the blush she’d avoided inside — she was probably safe out here in the overcast night — Kaoru murmured, “Thank you.” Before she could continue on the same topic, however, she looked around in sudden puzzlement. “Where are we going?”

“My apartment is closer than your house, if you’d like to spend the night.” And it was remarkable how Megumi could make this invitation — presumably involving a step they hadn’t taken yet, though that would require further arranging — so calmly, so assuredly. Megumi was so rarely flustered about anything, so perfectly in command of herself under most circumstances; it really was wonderful.

Kaoru, on the other hand, whose passions often tripped up her poise, now felt the flush previously limited to her face spreading throughout her entire body, and couldn’t help stammering a bit as she answered. “I- I’d love to, but- but I don’t think you have a bath?”

“Oho, Kaoru-chan,” Megumi chuckled, squeezing Kaoru’s arm again, “you feel the need to take a bath before spending the night at my apartment, do you?”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Kaoru protested a little hoarsely. Then, realizing, she added quickly, “I could mean it that way, but what I meant was, I was planning to take a bath when I got home; I’m always sweaty and smelly after training.”

“I know you are,” said Megumi fondly. “And I’m glad you could mean it ‘that way.’ But there’s a bathhouse in my neighborhood, you know.”

“One that’s open this late?”

“It’s mostly working women who live on my street,” Megumi reminded her. “There are a lot of amenities in the area that keep unusual hours.”

“In that case,” Kaoru smiled, “let’s go take a bath.”

“‘Let’s?'” Megumi replied, teasing again as Kaoru had known she would. “I like the sound of that!”

As they moved on through the patches of light and shadow formed by streetlamps and the spaces between them, Kaoru’s neck tickled by Megumi’s swaying hair as it shifted her direction in the cool wind, she began to inquire about the doctor’s patients and whether her day had been as subtly frustrating (and perhaps simultaneously rewarding) as Kaoru’s had.

Swiftly it became evident that it had. Megumi’s withering commentary on her patients’ common sense, compliance, and hygiene was really just a (sometimes very amusing) veil across her frustration at their inability to treat her like a human being the way — the especially profound way — she treated them. As Kaoru listened to the description that was two parts bodily fluids to one part disrespect, she leaned her head fondly onto Megumi’s shoulder with a smile. The action called up an answering smile in the other woman, only briefly interrupting her flow of invective.

Though the thought had crossed her mind, Kaoru couldn’t bring herself to believe she had only become involved with Megumi because the doctor had been the first otherwise romantically attractive person to reconcile the various aspects of the Kamiya Kasshinryuu’s master that were seemingly incompatible in the eyes of the rest of the world. That had certainly been a huge inducing factor, but only in combination with such selfless and unwearying dedication to helping others, such never-ending engaging cleverness, and such overwhelming personal charms as Megumi also possessed could such a thing have made her more than a much-needed friend.

But the fact remained that they could connect on this level as Kaoru couldn’t do with many others. For Megumi too was a youma, someone never allowed to be both a woman and a doctor by those around her, and it made Kaoru want to cling to her — as she did now, but tighter, harder, longer — and declare that they monsters, they in-betweens, they women had to stick together.

Only then she would relent, as it were, and declare she liked Megumi for so many more reasons than that, and start enumerating… and, regardless of how much she did like her and what they might do tonight, that thought was still a little too embarrassing to be acted upon. So she just listened, with legitimate interest despite some portion of her thoughts having wandered, to Megumi’s tirade about her day.

The bathhouse was relatively new and consequently felt very crisp and modern, but no less convenient for that. Despite Megumi’s reminder about the primary inhabitants of this neighborhood, Kaoru was a little surprised to find two women already there — one, within ten years or so of them, soaking, while the other scrubbed with an energy and elasticity not suggested by her white hair and bent spine. If Kaoru and Megumi had hoped for the privacy to enjoy their first bath together as intimately as they would have dared in a public establishment, they were disappointed. And Kaoru thought she, at least, had been hoping for that, inappropriate as it might have been.

Whether or not Megumi was of the same mind, she could certainly detect it in Kaoru’s taut nipples and stifled reactions as, with sparkling, knowing eyes, she helped her clean up in motions that, if either of the other ladies happened to be watching closely, might have seemed just a little too enthusiastic and pointed. Then the instructor, far from the relaxed state this stage of the proceedings was supposed to induce, had to lounge in water scarcely hotter than her sensitized skin very near someone whose body she was trying not to study with blatant lust, had to try to deal with the pressurized throb in her groin. Needless to say, they spent as little time soaking as propriety would allow; Kaoru could never decide whether she was relieved or disappointed that the other women present seemed disinclined to chat.

Putting her sweaty kimono and hakama back onto her newly clean body seemed a crying shame, but it was one she barely noticed in the face of Megumi covering herself up again. But Kaoru managed to get tolerably in control of her feelings as they dressed, paid, and departed, and was able to begin the short walk to the doctor’s home with a rational response to her first remark outside the bathhouse door — and continual engagement in the conversation thereafter — with only a little clinging.

She’d been inside Megumi’s apartment twice before, and therefore was not forced to reprise her irrational astonishment that the doctor didn’t actually live at the Oguni Clinic, but those two instances (the second just barely) had been before they were together. Now the place appeared in an entirely new light. A surprising amount of clutter — not a horrendous mess, but somewhat more than Kaoru would have expected of her meticulous sweetheart — spoke of long hours with little energy left afterward for tidying, further proof of Megumi’s devotion to her profession and further reason for Kaoru to be impressed and attracted. But at the same time, the place felt deliciously welcoming and familiar, as if, instead of this being her first night over, she’d stayed here many times and was now returning after a lonely hiatus. It felt so much more like home than the dojo had in several years, in fact, that she had to fight off another blush in response to the sudden prickle of tears she was simultaneously repressing.

Why was she overwhelmed with such a sense of homecoming, such a burning in her chest — and not even of a sexual nature, which would be far easier to explain — walking into Megumi’s apartment after a mere three weeks together with her? How could there be this idea of truth, of rightness, as if pertaining to a moral conviction, about this scene so early in their relationship? She didn’t know… and, though she thought she must confide these unusual feelings in Megumi someday, she was too embarrassed at their seemingly inordinate intensity to do so now.

Once the door was locked, Megumi took Kaoru’s hands and smiled down at her. This expression on the doctor’s face was often so mysterious — part of an overall aura of private amusement and veiled contemplation that was very alluring — and Kaoru wondered what she was thinking. She couldn’t ask, though, since at the moment Megumi had a question: “I know it’s very late, but would you like some tea before bed?”

Kaoru considered briefly how to answer, enjoying the feel of Megumi’s hands in her callused own, smiling up at her with a certain amount of shyness she could never seem to overcome. Finally she said, “Only if you do. Otherwise I’m fine.”

“I’m glad,” Megumi confessed, proving Kaoru had said the right thing. “Because I don’t want any.” She released Kaoru’s hands and slid hers up the instructor’s arms, seeming to probe or search as she did so. Though it wasn’t an overtly sexual touch, it brought back very abruptly to Kaoru all the physical sensations she’d been gradually getting in order and under control since they’d been naked together, and her face was suddenly burning as red as it must have been then, much like the rest of her body.

Megumi hadn’t observed this yet, concentrating as she was on Kaoru’s arms for some reason, and presently she explained herself: “Your muscles are still so tense… There’s an ointment I’d like to try, if you don’t mind.”

“I usually soak longer after training,” Kaoru admitted, trying to sound natural but very conscious of the breathlessness in her voice. “I’ll try whatever ointment you’d like.”

Undoubtedly detecting how flustered she’d rendered her sweetheart, Megumi now drew back from her examination of Kaoru’s arms and regarded her face for a moment with the same twinkling eyes she’d used at the bathhouse. Then she let go completely and said, “Sit there, then,” indicating, and added with tellingly extreme casualness, “and strip down for me.”

Though this did nothing to decrease the redness of Kaoru’s face, she didn’t at all mind obeying. Embarrassed she might be (for now; she must eventually adjust), but never ashamed. She went to the adjured place and began, as Megumi busied herself somewhere behind, removing her clothing for the second time that night.

It wasn’t cold in the apartment by any means, but her skin prickled as it was bared as if she were still outside in that chilly wind, and her nipples — only barely settled after the relatively soothing walk — were immediately straining tensely outward again as she undid the sarashi (somewhat haphazardly wrapped for the short term in which she would need it) around her breasts. Her pony-tail fell wet against her neck and back as she finished her task and took her place, and that, at least, seemed significantly cool — though perhaps this was just because her entire body was so flushed.

“Mmm,” Megumi said from behind her, commenting on Kaoru’s only remaining garment as she hadn’t been able to at the bathhouse, “I love the fundoshi on you.”

Kaoru was very conscious of her bare buttocks, separated by the twist of cloth in question, against her heels, and could hardly manage to reply, “It’s… the most convenient… under a hakama…”

“Mmm,” Megumi said again. From the sounds of it, she was setting up their bed for the night before she came over, and there was something so inexplicably sexy about hearing but not seeing her carry out this mundane yet auspicious task that Kaoru had to repress a shudder of anticipation. She could no longer keep it in check when, a minute or so later, the rustling died away and she sensed Megumi dropping down just behind her. A couple of gentle taps on the floor suggested whatever she’d brought with her, but Kaoru couldn’t concentrate on guessing what that might be as the other woman’s breath warmed her neck where it curved to connect with her shoulder.

“You’re blushing like a camellia all the way down your chest,” Megumi whispered against Kaoru’s skin, her lips at last making contact with it before withdrawing slightly to add, “and you’re burning hot.” Tone growing more and more playful she finished up, “Shall I take your temperature? I have a mercury thermometer somewhere around here…”

“Megumi…” It was a very weak protest, since Kaoru couldn’t seem to draw proper breath to speak any more loudly or insistently.

“I really will have to give you a full examination one of these nights,” Megumi replied in a tone so businesslike that its tantalizing aspect was no more than a suggestive veneer, “but for now just relax and hold still.” And she began working the tie from Kaoru’s hair.

As she had her damp tresses combed, gently braided, and then retied, Kaoru really did relax — far more than she had in the hot bath earlier, anyway — and pondered the silence that had fallen around them. It was a wordless atmosphere both rich and comfortable, very much like a soak itself in that it was warm, welcoming, and tranquil, yet full of simultaneously exciting little currents and piquant emotions lacing through like minerals in the water.

Finished, Megumi set the comb back down with another soft tap on the mat, and leaned against Kaoru again, this time kissing her neck behind her jaw beside the fresh plait. The contact seemed to sap all strength from the point in question, and Kaoru’s head fell limply against Megumi as the latter’s lips picked a gentle path around to the underside of her chin before withdrawing. “Now…” the doctor said softly, puffing against her ear, and Kaoru felt hands slide purposefully up her back. Megumi massaged briefly, seeming to seek out the tensest spots, then pulled away again; when the strong fingers and palms returned, they were pasted over with some kind of cream they then set about rubbing into Kaoru’s skin just above the most overtaxed of her muscles.

Tonight had been a period of maddeningly fluctuating arousal, and now as it all came flooding back yet again Kaoru simply could not restrain a groan. The firm, quick, circular pressing movements sent shiver after shiver through her, little pulses of sensation that spread throughout her body and activated its every deep, fiery impulse toward the woman behind her. By the time Megumi had finished working all down her spine on both sides and begun branching out, Kaoru was panting uncontrollably and occasionally whispering her name in helpless appeal. And when Megumi let out a satisfied little chuckle at the effect her actions were having, Kaoru couldn’t stand it one moment longer.

It was true she found herself dismayingly easily flustered. It was true she, like most women, had been raised to be demure and retiring when it came to sex. It was true she had a tendency to freeze up under intensely emotional circumstances. But in the midst of all that, she had a will that drove her toward what she wanted with a powerful thrust if only it could circumnavigate those aforementioned hazards. Sometimes she floundered in her embarrassment or indecision or even fear… but sometimes she was able to strike out boldly toward her goal. And this was one of the latter moments. She rose up, twisted where she knelt, and, flinging her arms around Megumi’s neck, bore her to the floor on her back. Megumi barely had time for a surprised squeak before Kaoru’s lips and tongue were tangling with hers very much as their lower limbs became swiftly entwined in and around the pink kimono the doctor still wore. Kaoru squeezed one of Megumi’s thighs between her own and kissed her fiercely, breathing hard through her nose and writhing against her.

She drew her arms back, which rendered their kiss even messier but did not break it, and fumbled downward for some route — any route — inside Megumi’s clothing. The older woman, having almost instantly regained her presence of mind in the remarkable way she often did, seemed to chuckle again at Kaoru’s somewhat clumsy enthusiasm, though this was merely a vibration and a change in the tone of her heavy breaths against Kaoru’s face, and her hands rose, still covered in ointment, to caress the other’s sides in what felt like an encouraging gesture. And Kaoru had just squirmed and groped enough that she thought she could manage Megumi’s obi when a sudden noise completely alien to the throbbing, gasping world they were building around themselves staggered her momentum toward satisfaction.

“Sensei! Sensei!” The words were punctuated by an arrhythmic but insistent pounding at the door, uncomfortably like the hard flutter again troubling Kaoru’s groin. “Takani-sensei, are you there?”

It seemed the instructor was only able to withdraw her swollen lips and still-eager tongue from Megumi’s mouth in the slowest of motions, easing back as if her pelvis had fused to the other woman’s and there must soon be a crack and a stab of pain as she pulled away, and in the groan that broke from her this time sounded utter despair. Megumi’s expression was one of similar disappointment as well as pity for Kaoru’s thwarted hopes, but she propped herself up on an elbow as soon as the removal of weight from atop of her allowed her to do so. Miraculously and very impressively, her voice was entirely steady as she called out, “Just a moment.” And then she was climbing to her feet, straightening her attire and checking to be sure nothing untoward was exposed — a safe assumption, as Kaoru hadn’t quite managed to get in there yet. And as the doctor headed for the door, the very frustrated woman she walked away from ducked behind the changing screen and tried to calm her ragged breaths so they wouldn’t be heard. It was a small apartment, after all.

“Sensei!” came the relieved voice after the sound of a sliding panel. “Please, can you come? The horse went mad, and we tried– it kicked Watanabe in the chest and he hasn’t gotten up, and–“

“Of course,” Megumi interrupted. “Wait here one more moment.” And the door shut again, presumably right in the face of the distraught man seeking her assistance.

Kaoru, who felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest by a mad horse, stepped immediately out to find Megumi already washing her hands of the thick ointment that had been so pleasant and so inciting just minutes before. When the doctor caught sight of her — entirely naked but for the fundoshi she liked so much, nipples still taut and face presumably still that camellia-red she’d commented on earlier — she gave a sigh with a hint in it of the same groan Kaoru had recently let out. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Don’t be,” Kaoru replied, coming up to her and giving a smile half shy and half rueful. “Go save Watanabe. I’ll be here when you get back.”

Megumi bent suddenly and kissed Kaoru hard without touching her anywhere but at the lips — there was a lot of pasty mess around — then drew back with her own smile half appreciative and half rueful. “It may be quite a while.”

“You never refuse to help people who need you,” Kaoru replied. In an embarrassed whisper, wanting to say it but somehow finding it harder than it had been to initiate sex a little while ago, she added, “I really like that about you.”

Megumi’s smile turned entirely appreciative. She gave Kaoru one more quick kiss, seized the smock she’d draped over the clothes rack earlier, and turned to go.

Behind the screen again, Kaoru was unable to watch her all the way out the door. And it was with a striking blend of fondness and sense of letdown that she reemerged and looked around the empty room once the noises had faded of the man giving Megumi details of the situation in a voice loud with agitation and concern. This still felt like home, just a lot more lonely all of a sudden. She supposed she would don that yukata Megumi had obviously intended her to wear to sleep — there were two of them lying right up against each other like lovers themselves — blow out the lamp, curl up in a bed that would undoubtedly have the clean, womanly, only occasionally somewhat chemical smell of her sweetheart, and try to deal intrepidly with her disappointment.

She might have to touch herself under that blanket, thinking of the skillful hands and passionate lips that had been taken from her so inopportunely, but then again she might resist the urge and wait for Megumi’s return… for the moment when, in the darkness, she would perhaps be able to tell her just how proud she was of her doctor that put the welfare of the wounded and dying, even those that didn’t respect her as they should, above the consummation of a romance that had already taken her years to find and establish. How much she loved her for so unfalteringly maintaining the dignity and strength of the youma.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “fluff about Kaoru and Megumi getting ready for bed together??? Like maybe Kaoru brushes Megumi’s hair or Megumi helps take off Kaoru’s kimono.” It, uh, got a lot sexier than that prompt suggests, and a hell of a lot longer than I had planned. Like, it was November, and this is a fic, but there was nothing much ‘quick’ about it XD

For further thoughts on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Naked Rooftops

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanza probably deserved the truth.

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

*

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

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

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

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

Not that Tokio counted as a ‘friend.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Test (1/3)

Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

In response to Heero’s tendency to date the biggest jerks on the planet, his friends have developed a screening process for all potential boyfriends. This latest guy seems like he might be up to scratch, but only if he can survive The Test.



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“In eleventh grade was when I started pursuing art seriously.”

That’s where you’re starting with this?”

“Yeah… this is going to be a long explanation.”

“If you’re starting in eleventh grade it is!”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t worry about it! I’m totally fine hearing about eleventh grade. So you got into art seriously?”

“Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to. They said there was no future in it. And by ‘future’ I mean ‘money.’ They wanted me to — they still want me to get into law.”

“You know, I think you would make a pretty decent lawyer, if lawyers weren’t all so evil.”

“It would be a very practical way to fund my interest in art. If it were a field that interested me at all.”

“Well, I definitely won’t question you being more interested in art than being a lawyer. That’s like the difference between chocolate cake and stabbing yourself in the eye.”

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

“I guess… maybe… that’s one way to describe it. Anyway. My parents have never been happy I wasn’t interested in law. Once my mother asked — as if she didn’t want to bring this up at all but I’d forced her to — if my interest in art had anything to do with me being gay. That was the only time they ever came close to giving me a hard time about being gay. The question confused me a little at first, but she explained she thought maybe I was getting into something stereotypically gay because I felt like I needed to reinforce that I was gay… or something.”

Is art stereotypically gay?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe? Gayer than law, I guess. Obviously she thought it was, since she asked. Of course I told her I was interested in it for its own sake. She didn’t ask again. I think they didn’t try to stop me from getting into the art club at school because they hoped I’d discover I wasn’t really interested. Or maybe that I wasn’t good at it. Then I could quit and do what they wanted me to do.

“But I was interested. And I was good at it. Good enough to keep going, anyway. I loved the art club. We met after school, and it was fun and educational. Then I would take the city bus home, and that was how I met Trowa. He was a junior at my school too, and he was taking an after-school guitar class. Since he lived out past me in the same direction, he took the same bus home.”

“Hah! So you were an art student hanging out with a beatnik guitar player who turned out to be totally insane; I bet your parents loved that!”

“I definitely didn’t mention him to them for a while, at least not specifically. They probably would have thought I was dating him if I had. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have approved.”

Did you ever go out with him?”

“No. He’s not really my type. Don’t get me wrong: he was my best friend for two years of high school, and he’s been one of my best friends ever since. But we were never interested in each other like that.”

“Maybe because he’s out of his fucking mind?”

“He wasn’t always quite so… enthusiastic… about things. Well, actually, he probably was. He just didn’t always have the funding. But the neighborhood he lived in was pretty rough. He grew up knowing how to fight and how to take care of himself, so I guess all of this was… inevitable…”

“And you were both out of the closet?”

“Neither of us had a big social circle. All right, that’s an understatement. We were each other’s only friends, and neither of us wanted more friends. So some people knew and some people didn’t. We didn’t try to hide, but we didn’t exactly broadcast it either.”

“That’s probably better than what I did…”

“What was that?”

“I actually came out by dumping my girlfriend — this was freshman year — because I was thinking I was probably gay when I found myself crushing hard on this one guy who seemed like he liked me back. It was a jerk thing to do to her without any warning like that, and even, like, fourteen years later I still feel kinda bad about it. Especially when I realized I was bi anyway.”

“Did this guy at least actually like you back?”

“Um, sort of… yes? but not in the right way. He had this idea somehow that I was really easy — probably the way I dumped my poor girlfriend didn’t help — and he wanted what he called an ‘open relationship,’ by which he mostly meant he would do absolutely nothing to keep up his half, but he would try to hit me up for sex whenever he felt like it.”

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

“Not going to pretend I wasn’t having sex my freshman year… just mostly not with him.”

“So you were cheating on him.”

“How could I? It was an open relationship! Though mostly he left me in this huge state of annoyance too constantly for me to be in the mood to find anyone else. He would never pay for anything. We’d go places, and he’d always just assume I was paying. God, he was such a jerk. We had so many loud arguments about everything we wanted each other to do before he finally ended it… if you can end something that practically didn’t exist in the first place.”

“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than my first boyfriend.”

“Oh, yeah?”

***

It was a Monday not quite halfway through the semester when the new and very interesting pictures turned up in the big room where Heero had his drawing class, and, as he’d arrived a bit early, he had a chance to look through them at his leisure. Not everything Ms. Hilde brought in was to Heero’s taste, but they were always worth glancing at, even if just to guess what artistic principle she would be using them to illustrate. These new pieces, however, were very much to Heero’s taste.

For his own part, he preferred to work in graphite or charcoal. Ms. Hilde had facetiously told him that his fixation on monochrome seemed a little psychotic, but he stuck to his guns. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate colors, though, especially colors like these; the artist seemed fond of brief lines of striking contrast, or bright streaks and swirls of opposites, and the effect was quite nice.

The subjects were all human and all moving, many of them athletes but some wearing street clothes and just randomly in vigorous motion. And nearly every one of them had at least one feature that was conspicuously distorted — an unusually shaped torso, a pair of oversized hands, oddly tiny feet — that helped the figure’s lines fit neatly into the overall composition or drew the eye where the artist wanted it.

There were seven pieces total, and they reminded Heero of nothing so much as Van Gogh, though the similarity lay in little more than a certain sense about the brush-strokes: convoluted, seemingly erratic, they invariably fulfilled their purpose and simultaneously implied a fair amount of insanity in the brain driving the brush. There was a strong sense of mobility — a wildness, almost — about each picture, which kept Heero’s gaze moving from one point to another and allowed little rest. It was almost tiring.

Although Heero guessed it had been laid in thin, diluted layers, the paint was built up thick and hard, and, given how it seemed the brush had moved and the little splattery trails in places, had probably ended up all over more than just the canvas. He imagined the unknown artist, a paint-spattered, off-kilter genius, standing in front of an easel — no, not standing: unable to stand still, dancing slightly in excitement — filling in the background in motions of arm and body far larger than the tiny, manic brush-strokes actually required. He smiled faintly to himself at the thought.

There was an artist’s signature on each of the wild paintings, but, though it looked very nice, it was distinctly unreadable. Curious, he tipped the canvases forward in turn, examining the backs for more information. Finally, on the second-to-last, he found, in a scrawl almost as messy as the signature on the front, the words Duo Maxwell. At least that’s what he thought it said. It didn’t make much difference, though, since he’d never heard of the person. Still, he thought that, as much as he would ever like to meet anyone he didn’t already know (which wasn’t generally a great deal), he wouldn’t mind meeting this artist.

As usual, the class began with an hour of work time. While they plugged away at the current assignment, which had to do with perspective and foreshortening, or caught up on unfinished previous pieces, the students chatted or just worked quietly and listened to the radio, and the teacher walked among them making comments and suggestions.

Despite how personable she was, Ms. Hilde had always intimidated Heero just a little. After all, she was in her late twenties, as was he, but she taught college-level art classes. It wasn’t the most expensive or venerable college in the world, but it was still a college. Beyond this, though modesty or something in her contract prevented her from mentioning it directly, Heero knew she had a relatively successful career as an artist outside this job. Still, these intimidating qualities were also precisely what made her a good teacher — that and her ability to give suggestions in a wonderfully friendly and encouraging manner.

Eventually they all put away what they were working on and sat back for the lecture portion of the class. Heero had been looking forward to this today, interested in the new pictures and what Ms. Hilde would have to say about them; it was always nice to have her point out aspects that he might have missed, to hear her perspective. Today her take provoked just as much thought as it ever did, but Heero had to admit to a slight amount of distraction as he took in once again the details of the paintings he’d been so admiring at the beginning of class.

“You’ll notice this artist is extremely skilled at human proportions,” the instructor was saying as she gestured with two fingers at various spots and along various invisible lines. “That way, when he wants to achieve some effect — like in this one where he sweeps the focus riiight around to here — he can include just a slight deliberate error, just distend the arms a little as you can see, and it’s much more striking in contrast with the rest of the body, which is portrayed entirely accurately; it draws the eye much better than if the entire body were out of proportion.

“With body proportions, just like with everything else we’ve studied, it’s important to have a solid knowledge and the ability to get it right before you deliberately start doing it wrong. Which is why we’ll be doing some figure drawing next. We’ll be mostly working from photos and from each other because of the usual budget nonsense, but — and this is extremely important, so listen up — we will have a real model next week. So you need to be here. If you miss Monday, you are going to be responsible for finding your own live model who’s willing to pose nude for you to draw. I know better than pretty much anyone in the world how awkward it is to ask people to do that, so take it from me: be here.”

There was some laughter, both at the reference to ‘the usual budget nonsense,’ which was a sort of running joke in this class, and at Ms. Hilde’s expression as she touched on the issues inherent in finding nude models. Then, after a few more announcements and one or two final points about the paintings she just couldn’t help making even though she had presumably finished talking about them for now (this was also a running joke), she dismissed them until Wednesday. And Heero wandered out toward his next class with a brain full of the bright colors and unquenchable motion of the unknown Duo Maxwell.

***

“I didn’t really go out with anyone before junior year. I just didn’t know a lot of gay guys.”

“And the one you did know was your best friend you were never interested in like that, and you guys didn’t bother telling people you were gay.”

“Something like that. But that year I met this guy named Evan who was friendly and funny and bisexual…”

“And hot?”

“Yes. I’m an artist. I can’t help it if hot guys catch my eye. Stop laughing at me. Evan was hot, yes, and he had that kind of bright personality that drew people to him. I got drawn. I’m not sure what made him notice me. I don’t think I was really his type. But pretty soon we were going out. I liked it at first… or at least I convinced myself I did… but I think I was lying to myself after not too long, for a long time.

“Trowa never liked him. I swear Trowa is loyalty made into a human being. He’s unfailingly steadfast about things, and he never quits once he’s made up his mind. He made up his mind about Evan, and he wouldn’t give up no matter what I had to say about it. He was constantly telling me I should break up with him. That I ‘deserved better.’ I figured that was the kind of thing a best friend would always say, and ignored it.”

“You must have had it bad.”

“What I definitely had was nothing to compare my relationship to. I guess I didn’t really know how bad it was. Evan… it seemed like Evan just wanted a trophy boyfriend.”

“I didn’t know you could have a trophy boyfriend in high school.”

“He looked better having a boyfriend. I guess having someone at all put him in a higher rank socially. If that person was a guy, it made him edgy or something. And I was a pretty good student who was in the art club, and most people thought I was pretty good-looking.”

“Um, yeah.”

“So I guess I made pretty good arm-candy for him. Looking back on it, I can see perfectly well now — though I never could then — that he was never really interested in me. He hardly ever bothered to hang out with only me. He pretty much just wanted me with him when other people were around, so they could see what a great couple we were. And at those times, the way he talked to me… well, it wasn’t even talking to me half the time. He would talk about me, as if I wasn’t there.

“He said all sorts of embarrassing personal things. We weren’t having sex, but he always made it sound like we were. He’d say things like, ‘And those rumors you hear about Japanese guys not being well-hung? Totally not true.’ Right in front of me, but without really acknowledging that I was there. Without noticing that it embarrassed the hell out of me.”

“Noticing or caring! Wow, I hope you eventually punched his lights out!”

“I’ve never been much for punching people. Not unless they hit me first. Trowa almost did, though. Six or seven times, if I remember correctly.”

“Good for him!”

“Evan would flirt with people right in front of me, too. With practically everyone, really. Looking back, I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t just flirting, but that’s all he ever did when I was around. Of course at the time I tried not to be hurt by it. I tried to tell myself that was just his nature and he didn’t mean anything by it. But Trowa insisted he was cheating on me with half the school. He was probably right.

“So Evan was using me for cred or whatever and not really bothering to hide the fact that he was cheating on me. But then he would have the nerve to get jealous if I talked to anyone in some way he thought meant I was flirting.”

“Even though you’re not really the flirtatious type.”

“Yeah. But he would get possessive, and actually get angry. And a couple of times he actually tried to fight people over it. Of course he didn’t dare try that with Trowa, because he knew Trowa would have wiped the floor with him. But Trowa was always a sore point. Actually it’s why we eventually broke up. He was trying to pressure me to stop hanging out with Trowa because he couldn’t be sure Trowa and I weren’t ‘doing anything.’ And that was… well, that crossed a line.”

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

“Well, he called it a party. But he’d been watching me get dragged out to real parties by Evan for eight months and secretly hate every minute of them. So his ‘party’ was just him and me and some very artsy horror movies and a lot of junk food.”

“Good for Trowa! But, god, you were with that guy for eight months?”

“Yeah, it was just a week before the end of our junior year that I broke up with him.”

“Somehow I get the feeling there’s more to this story once senior year starts.”

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

When Heero’s alarm went off the next Monday morning, he silenced it in an immediate practiced movement and buried his face in his pillow. He wasn’t sure how Sylvia had convinced him to watch that many episodes of whatever anime that had been last night, but at least three hours past the time he should already have been asleep had found him still awake and puzzling through the intricacies of some incomprehensible plot he’d come in on a third of the way through. He was going to be drooping throughout all his classes today.

Of course he could skip the first one and get some more sleep… but that was art, and he couldn’t forget Ms. Hilde’s admonishment of a week ago; how on earth was he supposed to get someone to model for him if he missed today? Quatre could most likely be convinced to do it, but that would open a can of worms for which Heero didn’t know if he was prepared. Trowa would undoubtedly demand to be present, and would look, and would critique Heero’s work with cruelly unfair bias; and Heero could already imagine himself, especially under Trowa’s lethal eye, giving only the most abstract attention to the groinal region, which, being that of a close friend, he wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to draw in the first place. No, no, he’d better go to class. This was just the price he had to pay for letting his curiosity about that weird show get the better of him.

Mostly because of the city bus schedule, Heero was usually about twenty minutes early to his drawing class. This gave him time to set up his workspace at his own pace and to look over any new pieces Ms. Hilde had brought in, or to step out to the coffee vending machine down the hall. Today was (like most days) definitely a day for coffee, but first he had to examine the setup they would be working from.

If he guessed correctly (and his awareness of the art department budget issues made him fairly certain he did), it was a recliner with the arms sawed off under that thin white blanket. He wondered how comfortable it would be for someone to lie unmoving on for two hours. He glanced around, looking for the model, and thought he’d found her upon catching sight of a figure inside Ms. Hilde’s office with extremely long brown hair and apparently wearing a bathrobe; it was difficult to tell through the warbled glass of the office door.

Having returned from his caffeine expedition, he sat down to wait for the overhot drink to cool enough for him to consume it, watching his classmates trickle in and set up their equipment. Another benefit of arriving early was that he always got the choicest spots and never had to crane his neck to see over or around someone else. He hadn’t realized just what a blessing that would be today until Ms. Hilde emerged from her office with the model and the latter became clearly visible for the first time.

It was not, in fact, as the long hair had led Heero to believe, a woman. No, it was probably the most attractive man Heero had ever seen. Bright, sparkling eyes, an even brighter smile, a level of energy that seemed to have some kind of magical draw — Heero, at least, could feel the pull of it! — and he was clearly about to remove that bathrobe. Good lord. Heero had never worked from a nude model before, and this was not the somewhat droopy and moderately, safely unattractive lady of a certain age he’d been expecting.

In addition to his breath, he found himself holding his coffee in two tense hands as the model very casually undid the tie and shrugged out of the white robe. What became of this garment Heero didn’t know, since his eyes were, at the moment, fully occupied. The figure, its back currently turned toward Heero, was long-limbed, almost lanky, but not clumsy in construction or in movement. The skin was uniformly fairly pale, but still had a tannish cast to it; this man would probably turn a brown darker than his hair with the application of some sun, but evidently that was something he didn’t get a great deal of.

The aforementioned hair obscured his entire back and gave only tantalizing hints at buttocks and upper thighs, but in itself was worth looking at. However, even as Heero was doing so, admiring its sheen and evenness, the man turned in order to assume his position on the covered chair, and the breathing Heero had just managed to resume caught and stuck again.

Scrawny was definitely a good look on this guy; the dip beneath his ribcage was, for a few moments, all-absorbing to poor Heero, followed by the region immediately beneath. An inner thigh in that impossible milky tan color couldn’t quite distract from well proportioned genitalia whose specific potential uses Heero could not possibly be ignorant of, but it was still quite a sight. And then the model was settling down onto his side, pulling one leg slightly up so as partially to hide the flaccid but still very inviting penis and at the same time give just a hint at the smooth curve and shadow rearward.

“Duo, did you want this?” Ms. Hilde held out an iPod with headphones dangling, which the model sat up again to accept from her with a grinning thanks as if he’d forgotten and would have regretted it. He had a voice almost glowingly warm, somehow simultaneously mellow but suffused with the same energy that directed his movements.

Heero, however, couldn’t concentrate properly on the voice, so dumbfounded was he by what Ms. Hilde had just said. Duo? Duo?? This incredibly gorgeous naked man he had a specific excuse to study was also the painter of those pictures Heero had been so enamored of last week? The artist he’d been specifically thinking he wouldn’t mind meeting in person? Well, it wasn’t a common name… it had to be the same guy. What a package! –not even euphemistically speaking, either (though that was perfectly true as well).

A ‘blessing,’ had he called his happening to be closer to the model than anyone else? It was a mixed blessing at best, and ‘curse’ might not have been the least appropriate alternate description. How was he going to keep his composure throughout this class? How was he supposed to keep his thoughts professional when he had that in front of him?

Well, by concentrating on technicalities. He was still an artist, after all, regardless of how red-blooded he might be. That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally stare a lot longer than he really needed to, and he wasn’t entirely sure he never drooled, and whether his finished picture would have any of the elements of the assignment in it was a matter of question, but at least he managed not to get an erection or anything. He wondered if anyone else in the class was having this problem, but didn’t dare look around to find out.

The modeling session seemed simultaneously agonizingly long and teasingly brief; Heero barely felt he’d gotten into the rhythm of the thing (as it were), found a workable plateau for his feelings, when Ms. Hilde was calling it to a halt. A glance at his watch revealed that not only was drawing time ending, the entire class was about over; Heero remembered now that she had said they wouldn’t be having any lecture today… had it really been that long? As his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the model, he realized in some dismay that it had.

His movements sluggish as he put away his stuff, he managed to be the last out of the classroom just as he’d been the first in. He didn’t bother trying to lie to himself about his reasons for doing so. He also didn’t bother trying to restrain his subtly searching eyes from following the model now that he was moving again. Duo had slid from the armchair in an ungraceful motion and reclaimed his bathrobe from wherever it had been; even as Heero watched, the glories between neck and knees were veiled. But if he’d thought this would release him from the spell of motionlessness that seemed to have fallen over him, he was mistaken; the hair Duo swept out from where it had been pinned by the robe, and even just the way he did it, were nearly as captivating as the other sights now hidden.

The model followed the instructor into her office, but didn’t close the door behind them, and Heero found himself shifting slightly, craning his neck so as to see inside. They were conversing cheerfully, but quietly enough that only the sounds of their voices rather than distinct words could be made out by the listener. Heero struggled to turn and walk away, but at first he couldn’t quite.

At last, as he continued to watch them surreptitiously almost against his own will, he saw Ms. Hilde rise partially onto tiptoe to kiss Duo on the cheek. Well, Heero thought, that explained both how she was able to use originals of his wonderful work in her classes and why Duo was willing to model for her. He wondered if she ever got jealous at so many greedy eyes all over her boyfriend’s fabulous body for so long, or if she was simply pleased with herself because, at the end of the day, she was the one that really got him.

Finally Heero tore himself away. The kiss had been the spellbreaker as the robing hadn’t, and now, in a mixture of disappointment and some annoyance at himself for having had any hopes to be disappointed in the first place, he headed for his next class.

As captivated as he’d been, on multiple levels, during his first few hours of school, it wasn’t as if he’d been abruptly and completely smitten with unshakable lust or an interest that overcame all other cognition. He was able, without too much trouble, to concentrate on taking notes in his next class and allowing his thoughts of the attractive artist and model to fade; and by the time he’d gotten through the third and last period of the day and headed off campus toward the bus stop, the circumstances of the morning, agitating as they’d been, had taken an appropriate place in the back of his head.

In fact, as he traversed the downtown sidewalks, he was thinking about an essay he needed to write for his American Art History class, trying to decide which of the prompt questions would be the most interesting to answer, and neither had any thoughts in particular about earlier events nor paid any attention to the car that pulled up to the parking meter beside him as he walked by.

But it became evident the next moment that they weren’t actually parking when a warm voice from that vicinity called out clearly to Heero, “Hey, excuse me! Do you know this neighborhood?”

He turned, prepared to give directions, and was startled to recognize the man in the car’s passenger seat through the half-rolled-down window.

“You’re Duo Maxwell,” he said, and continued before he could stop himself, “the one who did that great blue javelin piece.”

Duo’s fairly thick eyebrows rose in an expression of amused surprise, and, instead of answering Heero, he turned to glance over his shoulder at whoever was driving the car. “That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow.” This voice was familiar. Heero hadn’t been planning on rudely bending down to peer at whoever was in the driver’s seat, but at these words he did it anyway — and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ms. Hilde at the wheel, looking out at him with a thoughtful expression. She said something else to Duo that sounded like, “I say go for it.”

“Roger that,” Duo replied, with a grin to his tone, and turned back to face out the window once more. But again instead of saying anything else to Heero, he opened the car door and got out, stepping long-legged over the gutter onto the curb in front of him.

Fully clothed, Duo fit so perfectly into Heero’s mental niche of the artist that had come up with those images he admired that he almost couldn’t believe he hadn’t envisioned him specifically as he appeared now: unholy mass of hair pulled back in a long, messy braid; lively eyes sparkling over a slightly-too-wide lopsided grin; old tee-shirt bearing a faded and cracked Derain, a couple of holes, and a lot of dried paint; jeans and tennis shoes equally worn and spotted; and a demeanor of boundless energy bordering on wildness. And he was still the most attractive person Heero had ever seen.

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

Utterly nonplussed, Heero just stared at him for a long moment before shaking himself free of his mild stupor and replying, “Um, sure.”

Duo grinned even more broadly and shut the door he’d been holding open with a long arm. Immediately, Ms. Hilde drove off. Heero watched the car move away down the road and pause at the intersection before continuing out of sight. Then he turned back to his new and unexpected walking companion, and found he had no idea what to say.

Instead, Duo spoke. “So you liked my javelin piece, huh?” He thrust his hands into his pockets and started ambling slowly in the direction Heero had been going, and Heero, adjusting his bag strap on his shoulder, hastened to fall in beside him.

“Yeah,” Heero said, eyeing him sidelong. He’d been hoping Duo would have something to say about what the hell was going on, but at least this topic was one Heero could talk about with relative ease. “That was my favorite. I think it was just because those particular colors really clicked for me. But I liked all the ones Ms. Hilde brought in. You’ve got an amazing sense of movement and emotion.

“That guy throwing the javelin didn’t just look like some random athlete. He really looked desperate, as if throwing that thing was the most important thing he’d ever done. And the whole piece was so alive. The lines flowed so well from the immediate focal point out to the end of the javelin. I kept thinking it was going to fly out of his hand any second while I looked at it.”

Duo was beaming. “Well, thanks!” he said, sounding very pleased. “You know, people say things like that about my stuff sometimes, but I never think about it like that while I’m painting it… I just paint whatever I feel like, and then people read stuff into it after the fact.”

Heero gave him another assessing look, simultaneously considering this and enjoying the almost intensely casual way Duo walked. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said at last. “It wasn’t part of what I guessed about you when I first looked at your paintings last week — I was trying to guess what the painter must be like by looking at them — but it fits.”

“Were the rest of your guesses right?” Duo wondered, still grinning.

“So far I think so,” said Heero carefully.

“Except you didn’t expect me to be so young and hot,” declared Duo in a deliberately overdone tone of self-satisfaction.

Feeling himself blushing, Heero realized he was caught and decided not to try to deny it. “No, I really didn’t,” he confessed.

Duo withdrew his hands from his pockets and put them behind his head in an almost triumphant gesture. This meant one of his arms blocked his face from Heero’s view, which was disappointing. “I’ve been modeling for Hil’s art classes every semester for three years now,” he said cheerfully, “and there’s always at least one person who ogles the hell out of me. Not just studying like, ‘What’s the best way to draw this?’ but staring like, ‘Oh, god, I want a piece of that.'”

At this Heero’s blush deepened threefold, and he was torn between stammering out an apology and laughing at the touch of smugness in Duo’s tone.

“I mean,” Duo went on before Heero could resolve on anything to say, “you were pretty subtle about it, but Hil still noticed. She always notices. And that’s always when she runs The Test.”

Hearing the audible capitals Duo had given the phrase, Heero felt a stab of alarm. “‘The Test?'” he echoed, trying not to let what would certainly seem an unexpected and incongruous level of dismay sound in his voice.

“Yeah, the test to see whether or not you’re a creepy pervert,” was Duo’s disarmingly nonchalant explanation, “or if it’s safe to ask you out.” Stunned by these last three words, Heero couldn’t have interjected anything at this point even if Duo had given him time. “It’s usually what you saw — she tracks you down in the car and has me pretend to ask for directions, to see if you recognize my face with me dressed and my hair back and everything. Sometimes it’ll be someone who doesn’t walk much, though, and she has to do something else.”

Heero surprised himself by not asking the first question on his mind. Rather, he said, “But that doesn’t prove anything. Your face is just as–” And this many words were already out before he was able to stop himself.

Duo finally dropped his arms and let Heero see the face in question again. It was pleased and amused. “I’ll pretend you finished that compliment and say thanks,” he grinned. “And, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t prove much. But it weeds out the worst of the skeeves and makes Hilde feel better. She already feels a little bad about parading me around naked without paying me for it; I think she thinks she’s making it up to me by making sure I don’t pick up another jerk S.O. at the same time.”

Again, somehow, what Heero really wanted to say was not what came out of his mouth. “So Ms. Hilde is your…”

“Sister,” Duo supplied. “Step-sister, technically. And it’s so cute how you guys all call her ‘Ms. Hilde.'”

“She says ‘Ms. Schbeiker’ makes her feel old.”

Duo laughed. “Makes her sound old, too. She’s the same age as me, and nobody calls me ‘Mr. Maxwell.’ I think I’d have to smack them, actually, if they did. Anyway, her dad met my mom at a gallery opening when we were both eight, and now we’re a big happy artist family together.”

“And you model for her classes.”

“Hey, you draw… you know how expensive things are in the art world…” Duo gave a theatrical wincing hiss. “She’s pretty much right at the bottom of the budget list at that school, and if she doesn’t have to pay her model, she can buy an extra set of Prismas or something every semester.”

“That makes sense,” Heero nodded. “Everything in the art department is always falling apart, and I think the easels are from the 70’s.”

“Yeah, you know why she started bringing in original pieces by local artists for her lessons, right? Because the only projector they had broke, so she couldn’t even put art up on that crappy screen anymore.”

“I bet she was always using yours, though,” Heero guessed.

“Well, yeah. Actually, she sometimes asks me to do something specific — like, ‘I need a piece with a really strong complementary color scheme’ — and I try my best, but I told you how I work.” Duo laughed. “Going into something trying to deliberately use a ‘really strong complementary color scheme’ is like working backwards for me.”

Heero was prompted to smile at this, and reflected that it would be an experience worth having to watch Duo work. And here he finally managed to pose the question he’d been wanting to — just as the conversation had moved completely away from the subject, naturally: “Did you say you’re asking me out?”

“Yep.” Duo evidently didn’t mind at all that Heero had brought them wheeling back around to the earlier topic; in fact, he seemed to have been waiting for it. “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” His tone was perfectly unabashed, and Heero simultaneously wondered at and admired his cavalierness — especially when Duo was the one that had been naked under two dozen eyes only a few hours ago. Of course, that had just proven that he had nothing to be ashamed of, hadn’t it?

“Yes,” Heero said without any hesitation, then added, “if you’re satisfied I’m not a creepy pervert.”

“Not really,” Duo grinned. “But you did say all that nice stuff about my paintings. If you’re a creepy pervert, you’re at least a smooth one.”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little at this. “I’m not going to pretend your paintings were the only things I saw that I liked,” he said with a certain measure of caution. “But they definitely got me interested before I ever saw you in person.”

“There, see?” said Duo, sounding pleased. “Smooth.”

‘Smooth’ wasn’t something Heero was used to being called, but he had to admit that there was an unaccustomed amount of smoothness to this discussion. He was attributing it to Duo, however: something about Duo made conversation remarkably easy, even when Heero was inclined toward discomfort and uncertainty. Something about Duo made him feel as if they were long-time friends rather than just meeting today under somewhat unusual circumstances. Something about Duo was… welcoming.

Which probably attracted exactly the wrong sort of people, especially if Duo was naked when they first saw him. No wonder Ms. Hilde ran that Test of hers. To Heero, who was no stranger to Tests, it made sense.

He cleared his throat. “Do you know Perk Up on Meridian?”

“I’ve seen it,” Duo replied. “Don’t think I’ve ever been in there, though.”

Heero gestured to the bus stop they were approaching. “This bus stops pretty close to it, if you want to…”

***

“Senior year was when Quatre transferred to our school. That’s Quatre Winner, if that means anything to you.”

“Not really.”

“Well, his family owns probably three quarters of this city. A lot of their money comes from being mafia in the 30’s and 40’s.”

“Oh, that kind of Winner! Whoa. Yeah, I’ve heard they were gangsters back in the day — is that really true?”

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

“So why did he come to your school? Didn’t he have some rich fancy private school, or just an army of private teachers or something?”

“Yeah, he was at a private school before — all the way up until twelfth grade, actually. But he was getting bullied because he was gay, and he was tired of it.”

“A Winner was getting bullied? And the best thing the Winners could come up with to do about it was transfer him to a public school?”

“There were more reasons than just that. He was getting a little tired of that school anyway. He didn’t like the teachers much. Also, at a private school where everyone comes from an influential family with money, I guess being a Winner doesn’t mean the same thing it means around here. He’ll tell you all about it if you ask. All we knew at the time was that this gorgeous blonde guy showed up at our school, and Trowa was… yikes…”

“Love at first sight?”

“I’m pretty sure it was, but it didn’t have to be, since Quatre gave him plenty of chances. We used to eat lunch in this little alcove at the top of the stairs between two buildings. Quatre walked by there right at the beginning of lunch every day. You should have seen it. Trowa’s eyes were glued to him. It was totally unsubtle. He was practically panting.

“That was my first hint that Trowa might be a bit of a… spy, I guess is the nicest way to put it. Because as soon as Quatre was out of sight, Trowa would turn to me and start telling me whatever he’d found out about him lately. It was a little creepy, actually. I’d usually change the subject — a little — by telling him he needed to go talk to him. But he never would, because he was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood who wanted to start a punk rock band that would probably never make him any money.

“And I’d try to talk sense into him and point out that Quatre had come to our school. So obviously he couldn’t care about that kind of thing too much. I remember one time Trowa responded with something like, ‘Did you see those shoes he’s wearing? Those are Brunomaglis!’ I had to look up the brand name. Then I was shocked Trowa knew what it was. So eventually I went and talked to Quatre myself.”

“You did not!”

“Of course I did. Trowa was going crazy.”

“Crazier, you mean. But, seriously, you? The guy who couldn’t break up with his jerk boyfriend for eight months even when your best friend was threatening to kill the guy?”

“If I’ve learned anything about relationships by now, it’s that it’s a lot easier to mess around in other people’s than fix your own.”

“OK, you have a point there. So what did Quatre say?”

“He admitted that — after the first few times — he’d been walking by at lunch every day on purpose. Just out of curiosity whether Trowa would ever do anything besides staring at him. I told him Trowa was afraid of his shoes, and he laughed. But then they’d hooked up by the end of that day.”

“Trowa wasn’t mad at you for going over his head?”

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

“Probably not a good idea when he’d just started going out with someone else.”

“Heh. No. Quatre’s not really the jealous type, but that still probably wouldn’t have been the best way to start their relationship.”

“Speaking of which, who were you dating all this time? I think you’ve been deliberately talking about Quatre to hide things you don’t want me to know!”

“Well, it’s important you know about Quatre. Besides, what about your next boyfriend? Was he as bad as the first one?”

“Yes! I don’t know where they kept getting the idea from that I was just easy sex for the asking. Do I really come across that way?”

“To a jerk, sure.”

“Yeah, well, they’d always act nice at first, like they wanted something real, but pretty soon it would be, ‘So when are you going to put out?’ Usually not quite that polite, of course. I had a whole string of those. I had to take some self-defense classes eventually to keep grabby hands off. But you changed the subject! What are you hiding??”

“Hush. Yes, I had a boyfriend senior year, and I’ll get to that. But Quatre… you have to understand Quatre.”

“OK. He’s gotta be at least as crazy as Trowa.”

“They’re certainly a well matched pair. But the thing about Quatre is that he’s… he loves people. He has an endless supply of love. And once you’re his friend, you’re in. There’s no getting out. At first I was just his new boyfriend’s best friend — though, honestly, that was close enough — but eventually he became one of my best friends too. And Quatre loves people aggressively. He makes friends with you, and then he fixes your life up.”

“That sounds… creepy.”

“It’s… it gets a little stifling at times. I won’t lie. And with Trowa backing him — like I said, Trowa is loyalty incarnate — they’re a force to be reckoned with. But you can’t help loving Quatre back. You can’t not love Quatre once you get to know him. He’s always so genuinely concerned for everyone. He always really wants to solve your problems.”

“And I take it your next boyfriend was a problem.”

“Yeah.”

***

Toward the relatively familiar table alcove behind the fireplace in Perk Up, the big front window beside the ugly mural, the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and the small dark area with pretensions to arcade status with its four standup video games, Heero was already throwing paranoid glances that he hoped he was able to conceal adequately from Duo’s notice as they entered the cafe and moved toward the counter.

He tried to tell himself there was absolutely no way anyone could know he was on a date; he’d only first seen Duo a few hours ago, and it had been practically a chance encounter that had led them to make the arrangement… but he knew better, by now, than to underestimate his friends.

He wondered if he should warn Duo. He generally didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, but Duo seemed so nice. Of course, they always seemed nice at first. That was precisely the problem.

“Ooh, a raspberry lemon muffin?” Duo noted with great relish as they drifted to the end of the short line and he looked up at the hand-chalked menu on the board above the bustling service area. “This place looks great!”

Heero glanced sidelong at him (not that he hadn’t already been doing so whenever he wasn’t glancing openly at him), wondering whether Duo was one of those high-metabolism energy people that endlessly stuffed face without gaining any weight. Why that idea should be attractive at the moment was a mystery; was he really crushing so hard already that random insignificant unconfirmed theories were suddenly cute?

Then Duo threw him a sidelong look and asked, “You’re not one of those anti-cofficionado snob people who’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not a Starbucks, are you?”

With a slight surprised laugh at the term ‘anti-cofficionado,’ Heero shook his head. “No, I’m fine with Starbucks. I understand they treat their employees very well. They try to stay environmentally friendly, too.”

Duo’s brows were raised, and on his lips was a skeptical smile. “Those are such unselfish reasons to like Starbucks that I kinda feel like you’re protesting too much.”

“A couple of my roommates are anti-Starbucks snob people, whatever you called them.” Heero smiled sheepishly. “So I’ve looked up some things. Just in case they ever give me a hard time.”

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

“Well, it has an ugly mural…” Though he gestured at the wall in question, Heero had no time to explain further, as it was now their turn to order. But Duo was chuckling throughout that process, perhaps at the idea that Heero liked this place specifically because it had an ugly mural.

Not far from and commanding a good view of the latter was where they settled down with their coffee and pastries, and Duo sat staring at its brilliant hues and unusual stylistic choices for a minute or so before turning to face Heero. “Yep, it’s ugly,” he pronounced, and lifted his muffin. Before taking a bite, he glanced back at the colorful wall, then shook his head. “If you base how much you like a coffee shop on how ugly its mural is, I can totally see why this place wins.”

Heero chuckled in return, and took a temperature-testing half sip of his coffee.

“But Starbucks usually has ugly murals too,” Duo pointed out, words muffled a bit by his mouthful of muffin.

“Yeah, but they’re corporate ugly murals. Pre-printed on wallpaper or something.” Again Heero gestured to the nearby monstrosity. “Somebody stood here and painted that. Somebody put their whole heart into that thing.”

“That’s true… it feels a lot more personal when–” here Duo lowered his voice and leaned forward– “whoever did something so terrible might be sitting at the next table or something.”

Again Heero chuckled. “I just like the feeling I get from it. I appreciate it when someone does something so whole-heartedly. So intensely. You can really tell how much of themselves they put into it.”

Duo’s eyes roved across the mural once more, then returned to traverse Heero’s face just as intently. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I can see how that could be pretty attractive. You don’t really get much of that at Starbucks.”

Heero found himself blushing, as if he had been the subject of assessment even more than the ugly mural. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved when Duo removed his intense gaze from his face to look at the painting again.

“I can’t decide whether being commissioned to do a mural in a coffee shop is particularly pathetic or really means you’ve made it.”

“I guess it depends on how you feel about the finished work,” Heero said thoughtfully. “If the artist ended up thinking it was as ugly as we think it is…”

“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”

“When you put it that way…”

Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”

“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.

Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”

Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”

Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”

“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.

When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”

Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.

“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.

Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”

Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”

As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”

At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.

Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.

Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.

Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.

“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.

“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.

Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.

Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”

“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.

Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”

Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.

Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.

Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.

Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.

“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”

Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.

“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”

In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.

Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.

Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”

Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”

“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”

Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”

“How long were you with him?”

“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.

“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”

“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”

“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”

“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”

“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”

Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”

Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”

“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”

“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”

“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”

Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”

The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



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

Last updated on August 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

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

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

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

“What did you find out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

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

“You will when you hear my message!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

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

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

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

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime snorted derisively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Prevention of Gross Injustice


During the deep winter, having the wood stove on the arbiter’s platform was a distinct blessing. In late autumn, however, with a temperature chilly enough for a fire but not nearly low enough to justify the remarkable level of heat the stove produced in the immediate vicinity of Kenshin’s entire right side, he could never determine whether too hot or too cold was the better option. But since he now approached his fifth anniversary as an arbiter for the sovereignty and his requests to rethink the arrangement of the assessment hall had consistently been ignored, he doubted anyone would jump to accommodate him any time soon.

Too hot or too cold, he would cease to be bothered by the uncomfortably fluctuating temperatures the very minute this assessment became a little less tedious — that is, if they ever managed to get through the small fry. These consisted of acquaintances of the accused — from household slaves to employees of the young man’s father to ‘friends’ probably better described as ‘convenient drinking companions with no real depth of attachment’ — and Kenshin couldn’t think very highly of any of them.

Of course the avowal of slaves at an assessment wasn’t worth nearly as much as that of any person at liberty, since, caught between potentially vengeful masters and the law, they tended to say what they believed would best benefit them (or at least stave off punishment); but even the free and supposedly honest people that had been offering information thus far hadn’t struck Kenshin as particularly reliable. Half of them had sworn up and down that the accused was buried to the eyebrows in his father’s treasonous dealings, while the rest had maintained he’d taken no part whatsoever in them and was, in fact, the best guy in the world.

Kenshin found each style of avowal suspicious in this situation, and reflected wryly that liars would always lie. Respect for truth, most likely, would not be found among the undoubtedly numerous reasons any of them might want this assessment to go one way rather than another. Some of those reasons would probably come to light, bidden or unbidden, during their assessments, many of which Kenshin would also have to arbitrate. He didn’t greatly anticipate that.

This assessment, however, teased interest despite the frustrating tangle of dishonesty that had comprised its first hour and a half. The accused had a very handsome and honest face and a lively, compelling manner that could have predisposed anyone in his favor; his air of mingled annoyance and concern was understandable at the moment, too, given that, whatever his state of innocence or guilt, it must be disconcerting and worrisome to hear half the people he knew painting him as a saint while the rest decried his many evil deeds.

The queue of liars seemed, thankfully, to have come to an end with the latest one, whose earnest statement that, “Nobody who buys everyone drinks as much as he does could be a bad guy,” had the ring more of rote practice than of genuine feeling. As this particular young man was not in custody, he could go about his business freely when dismissed, and he gave the accused a casual encouraging wave on the way out. Neither circumstance forced Kenshin to rethink his opinion that the avowal had been more than a bit of an act aimed at freeing the frequent buyer of drinks.

Kaoru, overseer of assessments, watched the last of the riff-raff allowed out the exit, which was relocked behind him by the sentinel there, then glanced back to where a messenger had been waiting, patient and silent, beside the door near the back of the hall that led deeper into the building. At her movement, the man shook his head. She gestured her thanks, and the messenger imitated the latest witness by leaving the room and having the door locked behind him. Then Kaoru turned toward where Kenshin sat on the arbiter’s platform. “Looks like the father of the accused continues to refuse to avow.”

“All right,” said Kenshin. None of them could be happy about this, but unfortunately no inference could be drawn from it; conceivable motives came to mind in droves for someone to refuse to avow, whether the accused was innocent or guilty. It did decrease the amount of information the arbiter had to work with, but there was nothing to be done about it. The accused, Kenshin noted, merely appeared to have been expecting this; there was no guessing the exact significance of the deep breath he drew and released at hearing the news.

Again Kaoru glanced around the hall, a somewhat unnecessary movement as she stood at its head beside the arbiter’s platform and therefore had a clear view of everyone present. “The last witness will be here as soon as possible; there’s no telling how long it may take. Do you want a break, or would you prefer if Megumi questions the accused out of order?”

Kenshin’s eyes were drawn to the accused, who, where he waited in the care of a two-person armed escort, had twitched visibly at the mention of ‘the last witness.’ Evidently the final participant’s avowal would be the most important — or, at least, the information that had the accused most agitated. Curious and wishing to proceed, Kenshin said, “I would prefer to hear from the accused.”

With another nod, Kaoru also fixed her eyes on the young man. “Sanosuke of lineage Shishio, please step onto the witness’ platform.”

Unlike Kenshin’s platform, which was reached by a small flight of stairs in order that the arbiter might observe the proceedings from an elevated angle, that from which witnesses avowed was a single step up from the floor and mostly surrounded by a plain railing as if the witness were in a cage. This cage Sanosuke now entered, moving with a vigor that matched the energy of his gaze and general bearing, seeming somewhat loath about the upcoming questioning but with an evident determination to get this over with.

“Megumi,” Kaoru said, “the time is yours.”

The questioner had been availing herself, in between witnesses, of the drinking water on the table where the hall scribe sat recording what was said. Now she turned with her usual impassive gaze and began the traditional reiteration of the initial statement of the accused: “At the beginning of this assessment, you maintained your innocence of the accusation of complicity in the treasonous activities of your father Makoto. After the avowals we have heard from the previous witnesses, do you wish to change this statement in any way?”

Sanosuke scratched his head and appeared a little annoyed. “I don’t see why I’d want to change what I said because of any of that bullshit.” Then he threw a quick look, half penitent and half concerned, with an overlay of sheepish joviality, up at Kenshin. “Guess I shouldn’t swear in an assessment, huh?”

The young man was so winning that Kenshin couldn’t help a somewhat indulgent feeling as he looked down at him. It was Kaoru, however, as overseer, that replied: “You may not abuse anyone present, but otherwise we’d prefer you to speak as naturally as you can.”

The grin Sanosuke returned for this seemed relieved he hadn’t landed himself in trouble with almost his first statement, but still far more determined to get this over with than in any way happy to be here. Then he turned back to the questioner and said squarely, “So, yeah, I don’t want to change what I said. Still innocent of that.”

“Very well,” Megumi replied. Kenshin didn’t think he imagined a slight smile, if not on her face, at least in her bearing. It took a lot to compromise Megumi’s professionalism, but Kenshin knew her well enough that he could tell when she was hiding amusement. “If you are willing to avow on your own behalf, you will need to take the Oath of Honesty.”

Over the years Kenshin had seen many witnesses — even some he’d eventually declared innocent — display reluctance or discomfort regarding the Oath, so he knew the signs. And if Sanosuke had any problem repeating the ritual words after Megumi, swearing to speak the exact truth to the best of his ability and belief, he certainly hid it well. He was either completely ingenuous or an extremely convincing actor.

Megumi’s first question once the formalities had been seen to was, “If you were not involved in your father’s treasonous activities, surely you must at least have been aware of them?”

“Uh, not exactly,” Sanosuke replied. “I wasn’t really surprised when I heard what the accusation was, but I didn’t realize before that’s what he was doing.”

“So you always knew your father didn’t have the most solid moral code regarding business?”

“Regarding anything. ‘Always’ might be an overstatement, but, yeah, I’ve known that for years.”

“But you were not aware specifically of any criminal activity.”

“That’s right.”

Megumi excelled at her job of drawing from witnesses as much information as she could so the arbiter of the assessment could make the fairest judgment possible. And it not infrequently happened that she got a hint of some crime additional to or separate from the one in question; in such cases, she strove to clarify the situation as far as she could. Here, Kenshin could see, she was working to differentiate between the stated accusation ‘complicity in treason’ and the unspoken possibility ‘failure to report criminal activity,’ of which Sanosuke might still be guilty even had he never taken part in his father’s misdeeds.

“Would you tell us,” she requested, “what details you know about your father’s business?”

“Um, sure.” Sanosuke sounded a little skeptical, as if Megumi was asking for either a large amount of or some particularly dull information. “His main job is — I guess was — working with different factions all over the kingdom negotiating accords and shit. I always thought it was the most boring job I ever heard of, but I guess if he was secretly working with enemies of the sovereignty, that makes it more exciting. Probably more money in that, too… not like we ever needed more money.”

As Sanosuke went on in a very rambling fashion to describe his father’s work as he understood it, Kenshin was hard-pressed to restrain blatant laughter. Very little of what the accused had to say contained any significant detail, and some of it seemed so improbable as to suggest Sanosuke either knew next to nothing about the actual workings of Makoto’s employment or was, once again, an extremely skilled — and entertaining! — dissembler.

Megumi was a bit too deadpan as she asked her next question for Kenshin to believe her unaffected by Sanosuke’s amusing account. “You just recently turned nineteen, I believe. As a legal adult, how is it that you know so little of your father’s business?”

Sanosuke’s straightforward gaze strayed from Megumi’s face for a moment as if he didn’t want to meet her eyes. Tone equally abashed as he eventually looked back at her, he said, “Well, you know… up until just this last month or so, I never really cared about… serious shit. I mostly just fucked around and enjoyed myself. Dad’s been trying to get me into the business for years, but that was just so boring…”

“But I understand that changed when you turned nineteen. Your father finally managed to force some responsibility on you.”

“No!” It was the vehemence of annoyance. “Well, he tried, but that’s not what made me start thinking about things more seriously and shit. He just sat me down on my birthday and said it was time — ‘long past time,’ he said, asshole — time for me to start taking responsibility and learning how to run things and whatever, and said I was going to have to start doing some shit around the estate if I wanted to keep doing everything I liked doing. So all that did was make me really pissed at him.”

“And your new duties included the purchase of domestic slaves?” When Sanosuke replied in the affirmative, Megumi pursued, “And that was how you first encountered the sovereignty agent?”

It was the same discernible twitch as before. Evidently Sanosuke really did have some significant agitation relating to this person, who must be the final witness they were waiting for and was probably delayed on official business. Kenshin congratulated himself on having been correct about the interest level of this assessment, and waited in great anticipation, rubbing at his overheated right thigh and shifting slightly away from the wood stove, to hear the rest of the story.

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said. “Yeah, that’s how I met him.”

“Describe how that happened, please.”

“I went to the slave market looking for a kitchen girl, but I saw this guy — Saitou, the agent, who of course I didn’t know was a sovvie then — and I decided to buy him instead.”

“Why did you decide to purchase someone completely different from the type of slave you needed?” Megumi asked.

“I really didn’t want to be there,” grumbled the accused, “especially since the slave market’s open so damn early so you have to go first thing in the morning to get the really good ones. But dad made it pretty clear I wouldn’t get any more money or get to do anything I wanted ever again if I didn’t do what he wanted. So I was really pissed at him. I figured if I bought some slave who was totally not what we needed, it’d show him I wasn’t the right choice for that job and he’d let me off it. Plus it might make him mad, so it was sorta revenge too. Also the slave was really fucking hot, so, you know…” Sanosuke cleared his throat, blushing, and his eyes strayed from Megumi’s face again.

“So you purchased what you believed to be a slave” — Megumi was shifting smoothly onto a new track, Kenshin could tell, though Sanosuke probably couldn’t — “with the express purpose of raping him.”

Sanosuke’s hands had been lying on the railing in front of him, occasionally sliding idly from side to side, but now they jerked back toward his body as he stiffened upward, looking appalled. “What?! No! Of course not!”

“You did just say,” Megumi pointed out calmly, “that one of your reasons for buying the slave was that he was ‘really fucking hot.'” Her coolness made the quoted profanity sound very childish indeed, and Sanosuke flushed a deeper shade of red from an apparent combination of emotions.

“I don’t rape slaves, all right? That’s something my asshole dad does, not me! I mean, I know it’s something a lot of people do, but not me!”

This, Kenshin reflected, though it could not be entirely verified, was consistent with the attitude the Shishio household slaves had displayed toward Sanosuke in their avowals.

“I won’t say I didn’t totally want to have sex with him or that wasn’t part of the reason I bought him, but I always ask. I’d never force someone — I told him he could say no and it wouldn’t be a problem.” Sanosuke’s voice dropped to a mumble as his hands came down on the railing again and his gaze fell to the floor. “And he seemed like he was totally fine with it.”

“In what way did Saitou indicate he was engaging in sex willingly?”

Pensiveness now seemed to overcome Sanosuke’s chagrin, and he appeared, as he slowly drew breath and opened his mouth to answer, as if he wasn’t sure his explanation would make sense to his listeners. “He seemed so strong and so in-control…” Distinct admiration rang in his timbre. “It felt like, if he didn’t want it, he would’ve definitely said so. He didn’t really seem like a slave at all, and after a while I couldn’t even think of him as one. Sure, I gave him a job to do, but he was more like… I don’t even know. I didn’t know he was a sovvie, but from the way he talked I did get the feeling there was something else going on — like he had a reason to be there besides just that I bought him and brought him there.”

“And since you’ve discovered he did have another reason to be there, have you considered that Saitou might only have accepted your sexual advances because he believed it would endanger his position or even his personal safety to refuse you?”

Hotly Sanosuke replied, “I told him he could say no!”

“You were in a position of absolute authority at the time, and he was in the position not only of a slave and someone who needed to maintain cover, but someone who had never met you and couldn’t be familiar with your personal policy regarding slave rape. Did that never occur to you?”

Sanosuke looked stricken. “I… no. Shit. No, I… never thought of that. I really… really… didn’t feel like it was… I thought it was all just fine at the time, but… shit…” His eyes broke from Megumi’s again, fixing on the floor, and in this instance they did not re-ascend.

With a tone infinitesimally more gentle than before, Megumi shifted the subject slightly. “How did your interaction with Saitou proceed from there?”

“I… well, I had no real job to give him,” Sanosuke told the floor, “so I made him just a sort of odd-jobs man to do whatever muscle-work anyone needed. There wasn’t a lot for him to do, so mostly he just ended up… in… in my room.” He hastened on in a faintly defensive tone, “But we talked a lot! It wasn’t like we were just having sex all the time.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“He would never want to talk about himself. Obviously that’s because he was a secret agent all along, but at the time I just figured a slave didn’t have a lot of interesting stuff to say about his own life. So we mostly talked about me, and how I grew up, and what I liked to do. Oh, and about dad and his work.” Sanosuke’s mouth tightened into a frown before he went on more slowly, “I guess…” This point seemed to be novelly occurring to him here and now. “I guess he got a lot of information out of me, actually. I couldn’t have helped him with details, but what I said probably told him what to investigate and where to look and shit.”

Kenshin repressed another smile. If the vague and rather hilarious information Sanosuke had given earlier about his father’s business was typical of his elaboration on the subject, it might not have actually been remarkably helpful to the sovereignty agent.

Megumi suggested next, “You seem to regret these interactions.”

With a faint sigh Sanosuke admitted, “Yeah, I guess I do. I was thinking before that we had some good times, and he had some important stuff to say to me, but I guess I was… always kindof a dick to him. I didn’t think it was rape, and I thought it made sense he didn’t talk about himself… but I was always the one in charge, and he probably couldn’t say no, and I just talked about myself on and on like a total ass.”

“You say he had important things to say to you?”

“It seemed important at the time.” Sanosuke shrugged, and the casual gesture did not nearly suffice to downplay words he obviously meant very intensely. “When he got to know what kind of life I always had, he had things to say…” He chuckled faintly and with a mixture of bitterness and appreciation. “He was fucking rude about it, but he always got his point across. He just made me kinda realize how I was wasting my life. I was already not really thinking of him as a slave, so that’s probably why I didn’t notice how weird it was that this supposed slave — who’d been a slave his whole life, supposedly! — knew so much about… life stuff.”

So that was the real reason Sanosuke had started ‘thinking about things more seriously and shit.’ Even from the brief description of their interactions, Kenshin could see what an impact this Saitou agent had made on the young man.

“Was it your inability to see Saitou as a slave that kept you from determining he was a spy?” was Megumi’s next question.

“Yeah, that was probably part of it.” Sanosuke scratched his head, appearing a little easier now they’d left behind the question of whether or not he had committed rape — especially on someone he obviously admired. “But also I didn’t want to ask him a bunch of questions in case I blew his cover. I knew he was up to something, and I kinda really wanted to see him do whatever he was there to do because I figured that’d be one in my dad’s eye.”

“So your attitude toward your father had not changed?”

“Actually it did change.” The young man’s brow furrowed as he recollected. “I kinda went from thinking of him as this mean old dad who was forcing me to do work and threatening to take away my allowance and shit to thinking more about how I grew up with this terrible person who probably kept me from being… something better, you know?”

Kenshin had a feeling he could guess at the origin of this alteration in attitude. It was a stroke of luck Sanosuke had run into someone that could cause that revolution in him when he had. Really, it was a stroke of luck that laziness and thoughtlessness were (to all appearances) the worst of Sanosuke’s bad traits, given the circumstances of his upbringing.

“But, yeah, as far as wanting to get back at my dad for whatever I was mad at him for? That didn’t change.”

“But you still didn’t question Saitou about his intentions?”

“Yeah, like I said, I didn’t want to ruin the plan. Whatever the plan was.”

“I wonder if you didn’t want to ruin your sexual arrangement with Saitou as well.”

To Kenshin, an experienced arbiter that had worked extensively with Megumi in the year and a half she’d been questioning at his assessments, it was obvious why she returned to this topic: though slave rape was a matter of hazy legality and Sanosuke had been unaware of the true identity of this supposed slave, still sexual assault of a sovereignty agent was serious — another potential crime for which Sanosuke might be condemned — and it was essential the issue be examined thoroughly.

But to Sanosuke this probably wasn’t nearly so evident. His eyes had previously, gradually returned to the questioner’s face and his expression had cleared somewhat, but at this latest statement his brows drew back together as his gaze fell once more. “Yeah, there was probably some of that too. I didn’t want to change things with him. I didn’t want to scare him off.”

“Given the way things turned out, do you wish now that you had questioned him?”

Sanosuke scraped a foot, at which he stared fixedly, back and forth on the wooden flooring of the platform. “I don’t really know. I’m afraid shit would have gone down just the same even if I had.”

“So you don’t consider yourself in any way responsible for your father becoming aware that Saitou was a spy?”

“He didn’t know Saitou was a spy–” Here Sanosuke interrupted himself impatiently in order to answer the actual question right in the middle of his protest– “no, I wasn’t responsible for that! — but if dad knew Saitou was a spy, I bet he would have just killed him right then.”

“Are you aware of your father having committed murder in the past?”

“Not for sure, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Sanosuke’s voice grew somewhat distant. “Actually I always wondered, when my mom died… not right at the time, but later I wondered… did she maybe cheat on him, and he…” His shoulders lifted somewhat helplessly, and Kenshin guessed this dark speculation was one he’d never been able to put into words before. The most lazy, resentful teenager had certain lines he might not want to cross, even in his own mind, about his father.

“You may want to hold onto that thought,” Megumi remarked somewhat sardonically, “for when it’s your turn to give avowal at your father’s assessment.”

Sanosuke scowled, and, forcing the scribe to lean forward abruptly to catch what he had to say, grumbled something about maybe just completely refusing to show up, then fell into an unhappy silence. Kenshin doubted the young man looked forward to the referenced event, even if he knew the assessment of Makoto would be little more than nominal, a last courtesy offered to someone already condemned in all but the final legal sense and doomed to high-security imprisonment for the rest of his life.

“But to return to the compromise of Saitou’s situation,” Megumi went on. “How exactly did that happen, if you had no part in it?”

“‘Exactly‘ is tough,” Sanosuke admitted. “I just noticed one morning that I couldn’t find Saitou anywhere, and I kinda wanted… to find him… so I was wandering around looking, and my dad noticed and called me into his room. He asked me what I knew about Saitou — called him ‘that slave you’ve been fucking’ all annoyed — so I told him — and it was totally true! — that I didn’t really know anything about his past. Of course I knew a lot about Saitou personally by then, but I knew that wasn’t what dad wanted, so I didn’t bother saying that. Anyway, dad said he noticed Saitou could read (which I never noticed because I was too busy ordering him around and talking about myself like a little shit), but of course dad got suspicious.”

That such a revelation would render a person like Makoto suspicious made sense, Kenshin reflected. In a house-slave, a certain degree of literacy might not be totally unheard-of; but in the type of person Kenshin was envisioning based on the description given of this agent thus far — probably someone, in the eyes of a slave-owner, pretty distinctly intended for manual labor — the ability to read would seem decidedly out of place. And anything out of place might set off alarms in the head of a paranoid traitor to the sovereignty.

“He said he wanted to question Saitou — whatever that actually meant — so of course I was starting to freak out a little bit on the inside. But he was going away on business for a couple days and couldn’t put it off, so he couldn’t get to questioning Saitou right away. He said he already had him locked up, and he needed to stay that way — with a guard — and I wasn’t allowed to see him.”

Just as locks and guards came up in the avowal, Kenshin noticed the sentinel at the inner door step aside and allow a man to enter the room. At Kaoru’s nod of acknowledgment Kenshin had to assume this was the agent, Saitou, their final witness and a significant part of this interesting drama; so he said nothing as the newcomer silently passed rows of benches standing empty at this private assessment and took a seat at the end of one in front. Sanosuke, his back to the door and apparently having missed the overseer’s nod, had noticed none of this.

Megumi was asking, “Do you believe your father ordered you not to contact Saitou while he was gone because he was suspicious of you as well?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. Dad was just trying to get back at me for having Saitou around in the first place. We’d already had this big argument about me buying a slave just for… uh, personal reasons… instead of what we actually needed, and he wasn’t any less pissed about it at this point… but I think it was just the usual ‘why can’t you take life seriously?’ bullshit, not him thinking I was working with Saitou on some secret mission or something.”

“And did you obey your father in this instance?”

“Hell, no! The second he was gone, I went straight to see Saitou. I was trying to think of a way to get him out of there, but I didn’t have any ideas that weren’t totally crazy, and he didn’t have any ideas either, and I was really frustrated… I told him I was sorry, since it was basically my fault for buying a slave just because he was really hot and to annoy my dad… Saying sorry didn’t fucking help, but it was all I could do for him right then. Well, I mean, besides…” Sanosuke cleared his throat.

Kenshin rather expected Megumi to probe further into this latest implication of sexual activity, but what she asked instead was, “Your father had left him under guard?”

Sanosuke scowled. “This guy Usui, who’s worked for my dad for a while — he’s this asshole thug — he was guarding the room when I got there, and even though I supposedly wasn’t supposed to see Saitou, Usui let me in pretty easy. I didn’t think that was weird at first because I was distracted, but later I did wonder why he did that. Only then, as soon as his guard shift was over, he showed up in my room saying he wanted to make a deal.”

Sanosuke’s lip curled in distaste and discomfort. “He knew me and Saitou were fucking. I mean, it probably didn’t help that… Well, anyway, he figured I might be willing to do something for him if he agreed to help Saitou escape.”

“Do what for him?”

“Um, basically… fuck him too.”

Megumi looked a little taken aback. “Why?”

Sanosuke flushed. “You don’t have to make it sound like it’s impossible to imagine or something.” At these words, one of the guards that stood a couple of steps behind the witness’ platform was forced to turn an inadvertent laugh into a cough. Kenshin noticed Kaoru giving the man a reproving look.

“What I mean,” Megumi said composedly, “is that allowing a prisoner to escape would be a dangerous risk for this Usui to take. Why would he jeopardize his position working for your father for the sake of sex?”

“You have to understand…” Again Sanosuke looked as if he feared this explanation might be a little beyond him. “Usui’s always wanted dad’s business. Not just like he wanted to work for him; he wanted to take his place. He probably knew my dad was doing illegal stuff, and he wanted to be doing it himself, I guess. Anyway, the weird thing was that dad always knew what Usui wanted, so I never could figure out why he kept him around — friends close and enemies closer and all that, I guess? So Usui could never do anything open to try to get some advantage over my dad; he had to do sneaky shit.”

“And he would have believed sleeping with Makoto’s son would give him leverage in the future?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.” Megumi nodded her understanding. “But why would you believe such an obviously untrustworthy person would keep his end of any bargain?”

“I didn’t really have any choice!” protested Sanosuke. “I couldn’t just let my dad do whatever he was going to do; I had to try something. And, I mean, I have… a lot of sex… most of the time, so what was a little more if it might help with something? And, hell, it did end up working, didn’t it?”

“Did it?”

“Well, yeah, he did keep his end of the deal, didn’t he?” Sanosuke’s expression gradually became pensive. “Actually that’s kinda weird, now I think about it. He really isn’t the kind of guy to keep a deal like that… but since he did, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

In order to allow her to draw out information as effectively as possible, Megumi, like any questioner, was given an overview of events relevant to an assessment prior to interrogating witnesses. And Kenshin could tell now that what she’d just heard did not entirely tally with what she’d known before entering the hall today. As usual, however, surprise was absent from her voice as she wondered, “Usui himself told you he had released Saitou?”

“Actually I haven’t seen Usui since then. I figured he was keeping his head down until after dad got back so one of the other guards could take the blame for Saitou escaping. They were really freaking out, too, when it turned out Saitou was gone — one of ’em ran away, and I really couldn’t blame him. And then the second dad came home, the whole place was just suddenly swarming with sovvies, like they knew exactly when he was going to be back, and we were all arrested. But, yeah, if you need me at Usui’s assessment — he is getting assessed, right? — I can tell you everything I know about him.”

In direct contrast to how he’d reacted to the idea of making avowal at his father’s assessment, Sanosuke seemed to be taking a grim pleasure at the thought of disclosing everything he knew about someone he disliked so much more straightforwardly. And there was a touch of tightness around his mouth, a tilt to his brows, a fleeting haunted look in his eyes that he seemed to be trying his best to hide, indicating (to Kenshin, at least) that, no matter how bravely he’d implied this encounter had merely been an additional instance of something he had quite a lot of, he was more distressed about his interactions with Usui than he was letting on verbally.

If Megumi had also noticed how much Sanosuke had really suffered by fulfilling his part of the bargain he’d made, still she chose to wrap things up and not pursue the matter. And when the questioner had declared herself finished with the accused, Kaoru took over by wondering whether the arbiter had anything to ask.

Kenshin smiled at her. Both she and Megumi could probably tell how engrossed he was in this assessment — for one thing, he hadn’t made a single request regarding the nearby overhot stove — just as he could read Megumi’s little reactions of surprise and the outrage Kaoru had been subtly evincing about the Usui business. He shook his head.

Kaoru nodded again, then turned back to Sanosuke. “The sovereignty thanks you for your avowal, Sanosuke of lineage Shishio. You may take your previous place.” She gestured to where Sanosuke’s escort still stood behind the platform.

Though he’d clearly been depressed by several items brought up during his avowal, and though he appeared understandably wearied by the ordeal, the young man’s energy of movement didn’t seem to have decreased; he hopped down the single step and turned with alacrity to face the guards that had come to meet him. Kenshin had been watching meticulously for how Sanosuke would react to his first sight of Saitou since before his arrest, what might happen when their eyes met, but the seat Saitou had taken was to the right of the platform, and Sanosuke had stepped down on the left and again entirely missed his presence in the room.

He could not long remain in ignorance, however, as Kaoru next said, “Our final witness will please step onto the platform.”

Even had Kenshin not been specifically observing, he doubted he could have failed to catch sight of Sanosuke stumbling abruptly on his way back to the open space where the accused and his escort stood and then turning in a movement that incorporated a deep breath and a significant stiffening of spine. Sanosuke still could not meet Saitou’s eyes, however, since the agent, having taken his place on the witness’ platform, now faced away from him.

As the assessment proceeded, Kenshin divided his attention between the final witness and the accused. Saitou took the Oath of Honesty, and in doing so immediately displayed a disposition seemingly the polar opposite of Sanosuke’s: perfectly composed, with no emotions tied up in this business whatsoever. And he wasn’t what Kenshin would have described as ‘really fucking hot.’ Of course Kenshin had little interest in men — the elegant questioner or the lively assessment overseer were more his speed — but even by his admittedly vague standards of what made a man attractive he found this one a little too harsh. But there was no accounting for taste.

“To begin,” Megumi was saying, “for clarity: you are an agent of the sovereignty transferred here from another location in order to investigate Makoto and his business dealings.”

“That is correct,” replied Saitou.

“You had arranged to pose as a slave in order to enter Makoto’s household, because you had some information that led you to believe he would be inclined to buy you.”

“Yes. The scar on my chest, which would be visible on a slavers’ platform, would draw associations with an old enemy of Makoto’s. We believed he would not be able to resist purchasing me.”

Kenshin noticed Sanosuke nodding slowly as if this information, though he hadn’t put its pieces together before, added up to a reasonable conclusion.

“But in fact,” Megumi pointed out, “it was Makoto’s son who purchased you. Do you believe it was a coincidence that Sanosuke had taken over the task of buying household slaves just at the time you were planted in the slave market?”

“Yes, I do.” Saitou’s demeanor made Megumi’s seem warm and casual by contrast.

“Sanosuke tells us that when he brought you home and sexually propositioned you, he indicated you had the option of refusing. Is that true?”

With a curt nod Saitou replied immediately, “He made it as clear as someone in his position at the time possibly could.”

“Would you have felt safe rejecting Sanosuke’s advances?”

Here, Kenshin was interested to note — though he couldn’t be entirely sure he wasn’t imagining it — Saitou hesitated briefly before answering, “No. I would have believed doing so would endanger my position in the household.”

A quick glance at Sanosuke showed a stricken expression so poignant as to infect Kenshin somewhat with its sudden misery. And guaranteeing the continuance of that unhappiness, Megumi persisted on the dreary topic by asking Saitou, “Do you believe Sanosuke took advantage of you?”

Saitou frowned, and spoke in a pensive tone that, though as cool as before, held a touch of darkness. “Slavery has allowed mankind new and more incisive ways to objectify and abuse each other. Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not. No one who has not acted as a slave can realize the layers of oppression that can be inflicted on one human by another, nor how humans change when they are put into the positions of master and slave. It’s a system the sovereignty would do well to examine closely in the near future.”

It was such a lengthy and unexpectedly moralizing answer that everyone stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Megumi gave her head a tiny shake and said, “I wonder if you aren’t trying to avoid the question.”

“I apologize,” Saitou replied dryly, “if I got a little too philosophical.” Much more bluntly he continued, “I believe I took advantage of him by cultivating a relationship under entirely false pretenses and using him for information.”

Watching Sanosuke, Kenshin believed he could pinpoint the exact instant of heartbreak — during the last syllable of ‘entirely false pretenses’ — and felt his own heart go out to the young man. It was a shame Saitou never looked around and saw the face of the accused, on which rampant emotions played as openly as children on a lawn.

Kenshin also noted, however, that Saitou, for all his cool bluntness, had still avoided the actual question Megumi had asked. He probably did believe some advantage had been taken, and now had deliberately eschewed specifically saying so — Kenshin didn’t think it was mere wishfulness on Sanosuke’s behalf that made him believe it — in order to spare the accused the pain of the admission. Whether that would have hurt more or less than ‘entirely false pretenses,’ Kenshin wasn’t sure.

Megumi seemed satisfied, at least for the short term, on the point of whether or not Saitou had been sexually assaulted, for she moved on to another part of his interaction with Sanosuke. “Is it true that Sanosuke was not responsible for the betrayal of your intentions to Makoto?”

“Yes, it is true. That was a slip of my own.”

“And did Sanosuke contact you during your imprisonment in an attempt to determine a way to free you?” When Saitou confirmed this as well, she went on. “Sanosuke reported that neither of you had any idea how you might be able to escape your confinement; yet you were able to escape soon thereafter, so clearly you did have some idea.” Saitou nodded. “Was it because you didn’t trust him that you didn’t confide your plans in him at that time?”

Kenshin, accustomed to seeing the story of events twist and evolve as it passed through various witnesses at an assessment, was not disturbed or surprised at hearing a slightly different account of Saitou’s escape from the Shishio estate than Sanosuke had presented. But Sanosuke was looking distinctly confused, and that expression only intensified as Saitou answered, “No, not because I didn’t trust him. It was because I believed it would be safer if he were not involved in my escape attempt.”

“Then you were unaware,” Megumi suggested, “of the bargain Sanosuke was making with Usui.”

“I was unaware.” Now there was a discernible, if still minimal, hint of emotion, of tightness, in Saitou’s words and bearing. He had never once looked around at Sanosuke, but at this moment Kenshin believed a certain muscular tendency indicated he would like to. “I was unaware of that,” he repeated stonily, “until just now at this assessment. If I had known of Usui’s intentions, I would have escaped and killed him much earlier than I did.”

Abruptly Sanosuke seemed to understand how things had really happened, and it might only have been possible to detangle the mess of emotions on his face with a decent stretch of time and some fine tools. It looked as if he might burst out with some surprised and unhappy exclamation, contrary to the rules of the assessment hall that forbade witnesses not on the platform from speaking, but he managed to control himself, and the mouth he’d opened snapped back into miserable closure.

Kenshin got the feeling Megumi wanted to be done with this; she probably felt the dreary atmosphere emanating from Sanosuke as well as the arbiter did. “You spent nearly a month in the Shishio estate,” she said to Saitou, “and must have become fairly well acquainted with Sanosuke and his lifestyle. Do you believe Sanosuke had any connection with his father’s illegal dealings?”

“No, I don’t believe it. Sanosuke has merely been lazy and useless and a waste of significant potential for most of his life, not actually criminal. In fact, whether he intended it or was even aware of it, he assisted in my investigations and should be commended.” Though this statement was spoken with the same lack of hesitancy as most of Saitou’s statements, it was also even more coldly professional, and Kenshin could tell Sanosuke drew very little comfort from the proposed commendation. It was evident, moreover, that Sanosuke believed Saitou had no personal interest in him and regarded him only as a facet of a job he’d been busy with that was now about ready to wrap up.

Whether or not Megumi, like Kenshin, remained far less convinced than Sanosuke was, she now turned to Kaoru and declared herself finished questioning this witness. And Kaoru wondered formally, as before, if Kenshin had anything he wanted to ask.

Kenshin stared at Saitou for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it was unlikely he had any clearer idea of the situation that Sanosuke did. He hadn’t been present for the more emotional parts of Sanosuke’s avowal, hadn’t even looked him in the face this entire time; and Sanosuke’s described behavior during their near month together had been very… frivolous… certainly nothing to indicate his interest in Saitou had been anything beyond physical, casual, transient — and that in a context of master and slave not easily translatable into normal interaction.

Saitou didn’t know what a difference he’d made in Sanosuke’s way of thinking. He didn’t know that what Sanosuke had done in an attempt to free him had been a real and deliberate sacrifice rather than the throwaway action the young man had implied it was. He didn’t know Sanosuke had never really been able to see him as a slave — especially given that, based on Saitou’s comment, ‘Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not,’ that perception of Sanosuke’s had not been strong enough to be plainly demonstrable.

Kenshin, having leaned far toward ‘completely ingenuous’ and away from ‘extremely convincing actor,’ fully planned on declaring Sanosuke innocent of the crime of complicity in his father’s treason. He wouldn’t even need to spend his mandatory ten minutes considering the matter; rather, he could concentrate on cooling down his right side for a bit. He did consider Sanosuke guilty of some misconduct in his sexual relationship with Saitou, but that behavior, Kenshin was sure, arose from an ignorance and thoughtlessness that Sanosuke was at least on his way to relinquishing. Besides, Saitou had clearly reached a philosophical breakthrough regarding the system of slavery and the treatment of slaves during his time posing as one, so it wasn’t impossible that Sanosuke might have some assistance in considering matters of authority and consent.

And Sanosuke would need assistance in more than that. He’d just had his entire attitude about life turned upside-down, been arrested for and accused of treason and displaced from his longtime home in the process, had his father (whatever his father might be to him) exposed as the worst of men and finally come to terms with his own suspicions about him, and discovered that he himself might be a rapist and was probably at least, as he’d put it, ‘a total ass.’ He needed someone strong and steady and wise in his life right now, and Kenshin had a pretty good idea who that person could be.

If those two ever actually spoke to each other again. Given the level of misconception Kenshin believed he currently observed between them, he wouldn’t be surprised if they went their separate ways from this hall and became little more than bitter memories in each other’s lives.

But what was an arbiter for if not the prevention of such gross injustice?

“I do have a question for you,” Kenshin said, fixing Saitou with a calm but penetrating gaze. “And I would like to remind you, before I ask, that you have taken the Oath of Honesty.”

Saitou looked wary. “Of course.”

“What,” Kenshin wondered in a friendly tone, “are your precise feelings toward the accused at this time?”

There was a long silence during which Saitou’s narrowed eyes remained locked with Kenshin’s, and the arbiter feared the witness might attempt to refuse to answer. Of course if Saitou believed Sanosuke had been doing nothing more than enjoying casual and convenient sex with a perceived slave, he would feel pathetic admitting to any deeper sensibilities. No one liked declaring unrequited love, and the strength to be completely open about something so personal, something that could be turned so easily into a weapon in callous hands, was not one everybody possessed.

But Saitou rallied with a nearly invisible breath and squaring of shoulders. He kept hold of Kenshin’s gaze with his eyes as if it were a lifeline and stated, in just as indifferent a tone as he’d used for anything else he’d said here today, “I have developed an emotional attachment to the accused that, though I can’t call it ‘love’ at this time, is more than friendship and certainly more than I would feel for someone I was merely using to further my investigative efforts.”

A choking sound issued from where Sanosuke stood, but Kenshin was not looking in that direction; he’d felt it more courteous to maintain that eye contact Saitou so clearly needed to make his declaration. Now he gave a slight smile. “Thank you,” he said, and stood, making an automatic and almost unconscious movement away from the wood stove as he did so. “I will withdraw to deliberate, and return with my arbitration in no less than ten minutes’ time.” As Saitou twitched slightly toward the step down from the witness’ platform — on the side away from Sanosuke, of course — Kenshin added, “Please remain where you are until I return.”

Saitou nodded, and stood very still and stiff where he was without looking around. Kenshin met first Megumi’s eye and then Kaoru’s as he turned for the door into his cloister, and each gave him a subtle smile of her own. They knew him too well; they must be aware both of what he’d been aiming for out here and what he planned on saying when he came back.

The arbiter’s cloister was normally unpleasantly chilly at this time of year, but today it was a nice change after the wood stove. Kenshin closed the door behind him and stretched his arms and back, rolling his shoulders and yawning. Then he drew out his pocket-watch to begin counting down.

He hadn’t arbitrated such an interesting assessment in quite a while; and he felt that when, ten minutes from now, he returned into the hall and declared Sanosuke innocent of all criminal behavior at this time, and dismissed both the accused and the final witness to go about their business simultaneously, he would have done a good day’s work.


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His Own Humanity: Get Used To That

He supposed he could safely say he felt a bit nervous. These sensations weren’t precisely what he would have called nervousness, under most circumstances and especially if taken out of context; but the fact that sensations existed at all, that his mind kept returning to the project throughout the day, seemed a positive enough sign that he was, in fact, nervous.

Not that Quatre had never before had a day during which he thought more about Trowa than about work; but he had considered himself mostly on top of that by now. It was June… he and Trowa had been together for more than two months… all that new-relationship distraction should be about over.

But this relationship had so many steps to be taken. And just as he sometimes found himself, at home, unable to escape what occupied him at work, it wasn’t really too surprising to find something that meant so much more to him so fixedly on his mind at moments when it probably shouldn’t have been.

He’d planned today carefully, or at least with a great deal of anticipation. Though he hadn’t quite been able to bring himself to enter it in his calendar, the app for that purpose on his phone had a ‘sticker’ function he didn’t frequently use that allowed him to put a little heart on the day without affixing any sort of label and thereby putting his intention in writing. Not that he wasn’t committed; it just wasn’t the type of thing he could stand to have spelled out staring him in the face every time he checked his schedule. And what if someone else had seen it? Impossible.

Having thus been looking forward to this for quite a few days prior, he felt he had prepared about as well as he could for what he planned. The problem was that little could be done to prepare Trowa. The best Quatre could hope for was trying to keep Trowa comfortable and at ease during all their interactions that evening, being sure to ask of him (or even hint at) nothing difficult or intimidating.

Upon his arrival shortly after work, he made it casually clear that he planned on staying the night, in order that, though this was nothing unusual on a Friday, any lingering awkwardness Trowa might feel about such things — and Quatre knew a touch of that remained — would hopefully have faded by the time questions came up. Then, instead of inflicting something microwaveable on his boyfriend, he’d called a relatively nice restaurant for take-out and stopped for it on his way home. This was no time to ignore potential snags, and Quatre admitted to his culinary weakness. Trowa knew that weakness as well, but, ever the gentleman, made no fuss about it… but if he didn’t have to suffer a mediocre dinner tonight, so much the better.

The stage thus set, Quatre had a pleasant meal at his boyfriend’s 50’s table and pleasant conversation with his much more extensively decaded boyfriend, and only hoped he spoke naturally and engagingly and not like someone with a devious scheme for later that night. Then, as a sort of final preparatory touch, he brought up a couple of specific questions about magic that necessitated a lecture and a demonstration — which had the dual benefit of making Trowa feel like the confident expert he was, and being something Quatre happened to enjoy quite a bit for its own sake.

The grandfather clock in the entry declared it just past midnight when, the interesting magical discussion finished, they settled into the ugly chair as they so often did, and their talk became aimless and diffuse. This stage of proceedings often lasted for an hour or more before bed finally called them, especially if Quatre dozed while Trowa got distracted by the various engrossing things in his study, but tonight Quatre simply awaited his moment. And when he judged it had come, he didn’t hesitate to make his move:

“How would you feel about topping tonight?”

“About… what?”

“Being on top. Penetrating. Fucking me.”

In no way could he have missed the abrupt stiffening of Trowa’s entire frame in response to the question, but what he caught less easily (though still in time to see it) was the look of near-panic that briefly crossed Trowa’s previously complacent face. However, all Trowa said, in an admirable imitation of calm, was, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be any good at it.”

‘Afraid,’ Quatre thought, was the key word. Trowa feared hurting him, feared doing something wrong that might push Quatre away, feared not being spectacularly good at something for once and losing something he cared about as a result.

“And I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” Quatre replied, in a tone he hoped would reassure despite its lightness.

“I wouldn’t have any idea how.”

Quatre restrained himself from laughing. “It isn’t difficult,” he said solemnly. “I promise.”

Hesitantly Trowa smiled a little. “No, I suppose not. But…”

“And I know you’ll enjoy it.”

Trowa’s smile, though still reluctant, grew. “It isn’t my enjoyment I’m worried about.”

If it hadn’t been for that little smile, or if Trowa had made any more serious objections, Quatre wouldn’t have pushed — all careful forethought, calendar stickers, and anticipation notwithstanding. As it was, he believed only Trowa’s self-doubt stood in the way here and only needed to be brazened through.

Trowa had been improving in recent weeks at taking initiative — quite a bit, in fact: ever since the curse had broken, Quatre might have been able to chart a steady upward line on a graph to represent his progress. One day recently, in fact, Trowa had taken him completely and beautifully by surprise when out of the blue he’d suggested a walk through his own town, where he’d kissed Quatre almost three times in relatively public places of his own volition. But he’d never indicated interest in any sort of role reversal in bed, or even seemed to be aware such a possibility existed. And while Quatre was perfectly happy to do all the penetrating if Trowa preferred him to, he feared Trowa was missing out on that enjoyable experience simply because he hesitated, for various reasons, to make any kind of change in arrangements.

“You’re worrying over nothing,” he said, “since I’m pretty sure I would enjoy lying still and watching paint dry with you.”

“I’d be a lot more sure of myself watching paint dry,” replied Trowa. “I could make paint dry by–”

Quatre cut him off with a laugh, which made his, “Seriously, Trowa,” seem a little incongruous. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Trowa didn’t look entirely convinced, and Quatre decided to pull out the big guns. Not the puppy-dog eyes this time, either; he would skip that and go straight to what he hoped would put a quick and decisive end to the debate. Shifting in the chair, running one hand up Trowa’s neck and into his hair and putting his lips against Trowa’s ear, he murmured, “You know, ever since our first time, I’ve been dying to feel you inside me.” Briefly he mouthed the cartilage and closed his teeth gently on the lobe before applying his final persuasive statement: “You don’t even have to use a condom.”

Trowa’s eyes were wide when Quatre pulled back far enough to see them. “You always use a condom.”

“Yes, but I just got tested, and everything’s fine… and I was your first.”

“You’re sure I wasn’t lying about that?”

Quatre raised an eyebrow. “Why would you lie about that?”

Even in the midst of his continual wide-eyed state at Quatre’s epic pronouncement, Trowa looked thoughtful. “I can think of half a dozen reasons offhand.”

“And I’m sure they’re all very silly.” Annoyed that his big guns hadn’t been as effective as he’d hoped and expected, Quatre yet attempted to keep it out of his voice. If Trowa really didn’t want to try this tonight, there was nothing Quatre could do about it. Not that he would give up in the long term… but he would be disappointed this evening.

Faintly, perhaps a little nervously, Trowa chuckled. Then, after several silent moments during which he took as many deep breaths impossible to hide from Quatre, who’d settled down against him again, he said all at once, “I’ll do whatever you want. Whenever you want me to.”

Again Quatre sat up, drawing back and looking into Trowa’s face. He’d learned not to question his lover’s made-up mind, but he couldn’t help searching the now-relatively-impassive features for signs Trowa might already be regretting those words. He found none; he hadn’t really expected any, but still he’d had to check.

“Well,” he said, licking his lips as he pulled back a little in preparation for moving from the chair, “let’s go.”

“Now?” It wasn’t the same level of panic as before, and Trowa quelled it much more quickly, but it remained quite visible.

“You just said, ‘whenever I wanted you to,'” Quatre replied, both smile and tone a mixture of kindness and suggestivity. “And the truth is, I always want you to. It’s just less likely to happen, say, at work, or while I’m out jogging, or something.”

“Always?” At this, Trowa seemed slightly less intimidated, and even moved more or less willingly when Quatre pulled him to his feet out of the chair.

“Always,” reiterated Quatre into his ear. “You have no idea how much I enjoy prostate stimulation.” It was, quite possibly, his favorite physical sensation, but he would save that revelation for next time.

With a blush that turned his freckles a deep burgundy, Trowa admitted, “I certainly won’t deny that I enjoy that…”

Quatre raised a brow. “Then don’t you think I deserve a turn?”

And that did it. Though Quatre’s voice had been facetious, still definitely in the realm of flirtation and lightness so as not to make Trowa feel unduly pressured, even just the hint of an accusation of unfairness apparently tipped Trowa’s mental scales.

“Yes,” Trowa said determinedly, “you do.” And he didn’t even add, as Quatre had been more than half expecting, some nonsense about Quatre deserving it better than Trowa could give it to him. He only accompanied Quatre into the bedroom with the air of one ready to do his best regardless, at least for the moment, of whether or not it would be good enough.

*

Trowa had a fairly rigid set of superlatives, and felt himself in a decent position to consider them unlikely to change. Having lived over a hundred years, having endured decades of crushing remorse and despair, having felt that burden lifted in a blinding moment beyond all hope, it was no difficult task to assign best and worst to various experiences he’d had. And therefore he couldn’t say this had been the best night of his life, or even the best hour of his life.

But it had been pretty damn close.

After a period much longer than usual of sweaty entanglement and calming breaths that in their turn retained a hint of voice much longer than usual, Quatre had risen for his accustomed tidying and preparations for sleep, and Trowa watched him with a greater or at least more minute attention than on most nights. He couldn’t help noticing Quatre moving differently, walking perhaps a little stiffly; and that couldn’t be anything but Trowa’s fault. Quatre had promised it wasn’t difficult, which had turned out to be essentially the case, but perhaps Trowa had done something wrong after all.

But a tight and anxious expression had barely begun to elbow its way past what he’d been wearing (‘dazed euphoria’) when he also began to notice that Quatre’s altered movements included a sort of continual stretching or shifting seemingly aimed at recapturing certain lost or fading sensations; and that his face, when visible between having his back to the bed and having turned off all the lights, bore an intense look of weary ecstasy, even triumph, that seemed to declare inarguably all was well.

Despite this, Trowa couldn’t be certain what he should say as Quatre returned to his side and started arranging bedding and body parts to his own satisfaction and comfort. Something should be said to let Quatre know he’d been right, that Trowa really had enjoyed this as much as Quatre had believed he would… and if Trowa could work up the nerve, there was even some teasing he’d like to enact… but how to begin?

Quatre, however, didn’t give him time. “Normally,” he started before even completely settled against Trowa, “I don’t take things guys say in the middle of sex too seriously, especially that particular thing, but I can’t help asking…” He finished in a quieter tone that sounded simultaneously pleased and hopeful, and yet surprisingly questioning and tentative: “You said you love me?”

“Was that a bad moment for it?”

Quatre seemed to be attempting to restrain his laughter, but it didn’t work. Finally he remarked, “You know, sometimes I’m pretty sure at least some of your lack of self-confidence is put on, because I think that’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever asked me.”

It interested Trowa to hear his lover laughing at him, essentially making fun of him, and to have it be nevertheless so completely without sting. And Quatre had such a pleasant laugh… Trowa smiled a little as he began sheepishly, “Well, I haven’t–”

But Quatre interrupted him with, “Did you not notice that orgasm I had because you said that? Not that I wouldn’t have come eventually — because damn, Trowa — but, yes, I’d say that was a very good moment to say it.”

Trowa liked all of that very much. “‘Damn?'” he said. “Really?”

With grinning impatience Quatre replied, “Yes, damn, but don’t change the subject. You said you love me.”

“I did,” Trowa agreed gravely. He was teasing Quatre by hedging, but he was also giving himself time to think.

He saw the wisdom in disregarding, to some extent, something someone said during sex. His statement had indeed been born of physical ecstasy, and his mind had been more than a bit of a jumble at the time. However, it took only a moment’s uncomplicated reflection to decide it hadn’t been at all inaccurate. Of course he loved Quatre.

“And I do.” He would have thought it might be difficult to say aloud, this statement that bound him so much more closely to another person than he’d ever been, this declaration he had never made to anyone, even back when it might have been called for; but it turned out to be remarkably easy. “I do love you.”

“Oh, good,” Quatre breathed, sounding for a moment very childlike and squeezing Trowa tightly. “I don’t know what I would have said otherwise. It’s always awkward to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.”

The multiform implications of this statement at first too greatly overwhelmed Trowa for him to say anything, but since one of them was that Quatre loved him in return, he tightened his embrace and buried his face in Quatre’s hair. He knew by now precisely what kind of hair products Quatre used, since various bottles had aggregated in his bathroom for those times (more and more frequent) when Quatre didn’t feel like going to his own house… but he was never prepared for the way they mixed together with Quatre’s natural scents. And that lovely smell combined with the headiness of the exchange they’d just had — not to mention the afterglow nowhere near fading yet — rendered Trowa about as dizzy as he thought it possible to be while lying flat and still. Here was, perhaps, another superlative, though he wasn’t in any state to categorize it at the moment.

Quatre murmured something incoherent against the skin of Trowa’s chest, sounding very content.

After a short period, however, another implication of the latest statement prompted Trowa to ask what he’d been wondering since: “How often, exactly, have you been in love with someone who didn’t love you back?”

“Only a couple of times,” Quatre said, and faint suspicion sounded in his tone. “Why?”

Trowa still felt nervous at the thought that Quatre had been with many other men in the past and could at any given moment be comparing his current boyfriend unfavorably with previous, more experienced lovers — but he planned not to admit it. Even if Quatre didn’t already know about this insecurity in him (and Trowa was sure he did), Trowa didn’t want him to have to deal with it. He wanted to move beyond needing Quatre’s reassurance on every little thing, wanted to be able to overcome emotional failings on his own. Quatre had given every indication of being perfectly satisfied with the current arrangements, so why should Trowa assume any kind of unflattering comparison was or would ever be occurring in his head?

So Trowa gave a much more light-hearted answer in response to the question. “Maybe I’m a little jealous of anyone else you’ve ever been in love with.”

“Mmm,” Quatre said, “jealous, are you?” He sounded unexpectedly pleased with this. “Even after the way you blew my mind a few minutes ago?”

Trowa blushed.

Quatre went on more quietly, more seriously. “You might like to know, though… this isn’t like any relationship I’ve been in before, and the way I feel about you isn’t like how I’ve felt about anyone else.”

Blush growing hotter, in conjunction with a burning sensation in his chest and an increase in heart-rate he believed Quatre must also be able to feel, Trowa shuffled vaguely through a number of responses that came to mind. Most of them were self-deprecating, and perhaps he didn’t entirely believe those anymore, so he just said, in perfect honesty, “Thank you; I do like to know that.”

After nuzzling Trowa briefly with face and shoulders, Quatre lay still, and neither of them said anything for a while. Trowa didn’t think they were making any significant progress toward sleep, though; there was too much to ponder. Too many thoughts that set him on fire for sleep. He was in love, and, as far as he could tell, doing it right this time — or, at the very least, better than before (though, honestly, it would have been difficult to do it worse than before).

And he also hadn’t lost track of the need to give his boyfriend a hard time on one particular subject.

“Now you can check this off,” he finally said into the darkness.

“What?”

“‘Have Trowa say he loves me.’ I’m sure it must have been on your list.”

Quatre gave a very sheepish laugh and cleared his throat. “Actually it wasn’t. You took me completely by surprise.” And without bothering to deny that he did, in fact, have a list, he added, “But ‘Get Trowa to top’ definitely was.”

“You could add it just for the sake of checking it off. Or are all the list items sexual in nature?”

“Only some of them. The real problem is that it isn’t a written list, exactly.”

“I’d like to know what’s on it, though,” Trowa mused, “if only to brace myself for what else I have to do.”

In a tone that clearly said, I can’t believe you’re teasing me about this, Quatre replied, “I’ll try to give you fair warning. We can discuss items when they appear.”

“In scheduled meetings,” was Trowa’s solemn elaboration on this formal-sounding idea, “where hopefully I’m allowed to make suggestions as well.”

“Of course you are!” Quatre seemed simultaneously embarrassed that he’d been called out on having an active list of ways to improve Trowa and their relationship, and appalled at the suggestion Trowa might not be allowed to contribute.

“Then how about ‘Have Trowa say he loves me twice in one day?'”

Sounding suddenly very relieved, though not yet entirely free of guilt, Quatre said, “That one I would be happy to put on there just for the sake of crossing it off.”

“Well, I love you.” Not for the first time, Trowa wondered at the circumstance of being the one to offer rather than receive reassurance, regardless of the fact that he’d been the one to bring up the troublesome topic. “Even if you’re trying to run my life. Perhaps because you’re trying to run my life.”

“I do that to people,” Quatre half sighed. “It’s a good thing I’m a manager at work, because otherwise I’d be fired for trying to act like one anyway.”

“Please don’t change on my account. In fact, just don’t change. I think we were in this same spot when you told me not to change certain things you liked about me, so let me return the compliment: you’re wonderful exactly as you are.”

Quatre laughed and rubbed affectionately against Trowa again, but there remained some protest in his tone as he said, “But it’s a little unfair.” Then after a moment of thoughtful silence he added, “Maybe you should have a turn at that too.”

“At trying to run my life?” Trowa wondered, surprised and amused. “Or trying to run yours?”

“I expect you to run your own life,” Quatre said sternly, “with or without my meddling. No, I meant mine. Why don’t you suggest something? Right now. Tell me something to do with myself.” Though these last few statements sounded mostly playful, an underlying sincerity to Quatre’s tone indicated Trowa shouldn’t dismiss this as meaningless banter.

So he made the first suggestion he could think of: “Why don’t we take a cooking class together?”

There followed a longer period of differently flavored silence, as if Quatre had been completely blindsided by the idea. Of course this raised immediate consternation in Trowa; it had been a dangerous position Quatre had put him in, and he should have given more consideration to how he responded. But then Quatre rolled over and started laughing uncontrollably into the pillow.

This muffled uproar didn’t last very long, but it was enough for Trowa to relax and smile. Quatre truly had a charming laugh, regardless of how much bedding it was filtered through.

Then Quatre turned again and slid right up against Trowa, wrapping his arms back around him. “Yes,” he gasped, “yes, I think we should definitely take a cooking class together. I love you. Heero will be jealous.”

Assuming he meant Heero would be jealous about the cooking class, not that Heero would be jealous because Quatre loved Trowa, the latter nevertheless replied a little aloofly, “Heero can find his own.”

“Mmm,” said Quatre appreciatively. “So authoritative of you.”

“Hmm,” Trowa replied, pulling Quatre closer in his appreciation of Quatre’s appreciation. “Maybe I could get used to that.”

“I know I could.” Now Quatre’s tone had changed, and the motion of the hand that had previously lain still on Trowa’s chest indicated the direction things would go if he had his way. Against the skin just beneath Trowa’s ear he murmured, “What about ‘Have Trowa top twice in one day?'”

Loving both the vibrations of Quatre’s voice and the movement of his hand, but not entirely sure about the words, Trowa hesitated. “Go ahead and add that to the list,” he said slowly. “But don’t count on crossing it off right now.”

“Well, it’s always nice to have something to work on.” Quatre didn’t sound at all perturbed, despite the obvious interest with which he’d made the proposal. “It keeps away boredom.”

Perfectly recognizing the facetiousness of this statement, Trowa absolutely refused to grant entry to a sudden new worry that Quatre might get bored with him. There, he really was improving. A month ago, that thought would have haunted him all night.

Tonight, as they moved away from the cerebral exchange toward a more physical one, and in so doing essentially managed to confirm or at least supplement everything that had previously been said, Trowa couldn’t help thinking — when he could think at all — that Quatre, as usual, was right: things didn’t have to be perfect yet; just having something to work on was nearly as satisfying as a superlative.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this story .



Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on May 12, 2019

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.


As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.


When I originally started writing this story approximately forever ago, what are now odd- and even-numbered parts formed the halves of chapters. Eventually I decided I liked it better this way, since previously there was some implied connection between the specific events in the halves of each chapter, and I didn’t like giving that impression.

The idea to have the modern parts in present tense was also a later decision. I think it’s an interesting way to differentiate the timelines and the narrating voices.


Eloquent



I would get naked for Heero Yuy anytime, anywhere, no matter what was going on. Back alley? Sure. Open street? Why not? Fire fight? Bring it on. Space battle? Well, you get the picture.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a little. I might have to give him an I.O.U. if I was on a mission at the time. But you’d better believe that when he comes in, dirty, ragged, sweaty, tired, to the motel room we just happen to be sharing (absolute coincidence, I swear) and gives me that look, I’m not about to hold back.

Just because I’ve finally managed to get him to open up to me in certain ways doesn’t mean I can usually get him to talk about whatever this is that we’ve got going here, and it’s a little frustrating not knowing whether or not there’s actually an us in this situation because he always avoids the subject. He’s very good at avoiding subjects. But then sometimes he gives me that look, and there’s no need for words.

I hustle him out of his clothes and equipment and into the shower, mostly just because I don’t know what he’s been crawling through, but I can’t even wait for him to half get started cleaning up before I join him. It’s probably a good idea anyway; the hot water available in this place is limited, so it’s better for us both to get clean at the same time before it runs out. Not that I’ve really got anything ‘clean’ in mind at this point. This braid can last without attention for another couple of days.

Despite the fact that he gave me that look, really the only way I can tell he doesn’t mind what I’m doing is the lack of any actual objection. If he didn’t want me putting my hands all over him, if he didn’t want me pushing him up against the plasticky shower wall and sucking on his neck, if he didn’t want my fingers wandering quite so far down his body, he’d tell me, undoubtedly by means of a bullet or two.

I haven’t been able to decide whether I like it better when he tops or when I do. I know that what I like best is both in a row, but that’s not a frequent occurrence. We just don’t have that kind of time, even when we do happen to, absolutely coincidentally, be sharing a motel room because we’ve both got missions in the area. We need sleep — actually, I should have been in bed hours ago, but I was waiting around for him — so there’s no opportunity for doing things the way I’d really prefer.

I don’t have the faintest clue which he likes better either, but usually when he gives me that look, it means that he wants to take it from me. OK, I don’t really know that it does mean that; just that’s how things end up, and he doesn’t complain.

In fact I never get any feedback on this from him. Slower? Faster? Harder? Softer? Different angle? Different position entirely, maybe? It seems like it’s all the same to him, and if I ask, he just turns red and mumbles something I can’t understand; if I insist, he gets angry. But I must be doing something right, since he spreads his legs a little wider and shifts his hips with just the faintest groan of pleasure, and over my hand that’s braced against the wall he puts his own, his fingers pressing at mine as if he wishes they could be interlocked.

If only I knew, though, whether he really likes it like this or if there’s something else I could be doing. I’d do anything he asked, if he’d just ask. I mean, I’m noisy as Hell when he’s the one taking the lead, and he tends to do whatever I ask… I’d love to return the favor… But maybe he really is OK with it like this. I just wish I knew.

He doesn’t seem to have any problems orgasming, anyway.

And, God, neither do I, when he tightens up around me like that.

So afterwards there actually does turn out to be some real getting cleaned up. I just can’t help lavishing attention on my beautiful Heero, even if it is only with this crappy little hotel soap and a tiny travel bottle of shampoo that I could have used on myself but would rather use on him.

And sometimes… sometimes… I even get the feeling that he likes it. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though, since I don’t really know how I ever manage to get that impression. Not that Heero isn’t extremely good at subtle cues; I just never thought I was all that good at picking up on them.

I still don’t bother with any washing of myself beyond just the basic standing under the spray, since I’ve spent my entire allowance of hot-water-time on Heero; anyway, since I’ll be the one crawling through mud and God-knows-what-else in the morning, it doesn’t really matter. And I’d much rather get to the toweling-Heero-off phase quicker anyway.

Even when he’s tired out and obviously not terribly happy, there’s only so much coddling a guy like Heero can take before he pushes my hands away with a grumble and does the rest on his own. I don’t mind; actually, I think I would seriously worry if he let me do too much for him. But he doesn’t object to me checking the bed for parasites, turning off the lights, and half tucking him in before I lie down beside him. And then we sort of sink into each other in this nice kind of melty way where our breathing is almost synchronized and we are, if not totally relaxed, at least fairly comfortable together.

I love this more than anything, and it’s not just that the sex is incredible — though it definitely is. For a few hours in a cheap motel that thinks we’re a couple of illegal immigrants trying to keep our heads down and find work and a more permanent place to stay, before we have to go separate ways that are pretty much guaranteed to lead to gunshots and explosions and mobile suits battles, I can pretend to forget about the rest of the sphere.

I can pretend to forget that I have no idea who’s going to suffer because of what I’m doing, and the fact that nothing’s going to change that; Hell, they might be suffering already as I’m doing it; innocents might be hurting right now, and I can’t even offer them a quick death, because I have no idea who or where they might be. And at the same time, the fighting is so often invigorating and fun, and maybe it really shouldn’t be; maybe I’m turning into someone who enjoys hurting other people; maybe I’m not doing any of this because I think it’s going to help, but how the Hell can I even tell? Is the specific destruction I cause going to do any good, short-term or long-term? Maybe this whole damn plot is just an insane and pointless string of terrorism that’s actually just making everything worse… and maybe I don’t care. I don’t even know anymore.

But in here, things are different. Here, I can be with someone I definitely do care about, and concentrate on the good feelings between us. Here I know for a fact that I’m fulfilling a need of someone I maybe kinda sorta love. The simplicity and positivity are so totally opposite everything else I have to deal with in this shitty Hell of a war, it’s like we’ve shifted into another dimension entirely.

He’s clinging a little tonight, and I cling right back; we huddle together in the bed more like a couple of kids protecting each other from the dark than a couple of soldiers who happen to be ambiguous lovers taking a momentary break from a war. And, really, I guess that’s what we are… just kids who don’t know what we’re doing. But at least we have each other. I think.

“So what brought this on?” I wonder eventually, so quietly that he probably feels my words through his skin more clearly than he hears them. “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

Heero takes an almost inaudible deep breath and actually answers the question, which is a bit of a surprise. In that forced tone he sometimes uses when (I’m fairly sure) what he has to say isn’t something he’s reluctant about, necessarily, but something he’s not entirely certain how to articulate, he murmurs, “Out there, everything is… twisted. Here, with you, it’s right.”

I wonder if he can feel my increase in heart-rate as he says it. Miserable as the sentiment itself is, at least in part, it’s fucking glorious to realize that he was thinking the same thing I was, even if he took about two hundred fewer words to express it.

“Yeah,” I whisper. “You’re absolutely right.” And I hold him tighter.

It’s funny how just a short little phrase like that can make me feel so much better about everything. I still may not be entirely sure about the degree of us I’ve got to work with here, I still definitely have to go back out and play Death God tomorrow, and, really, nothing in the world has changed… but somehow this kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing is suddenly a little less afraid of the dark. And I fall asleep relatively content, thinking that, for all I complain about the amount of effort it sometimes takes to get things out of him, at other times Heero really is every bit as eloquent as he needs to be.


Holy Tolkien, did I write something in the canon setting? It looks like I did. It’s a fairly generic soldiers-comforting-each-other-with-romance-or-the-next-best-thing kind of plot, but everyone has to write at least one of those, right? I think I’d read one of those in the GW world before I’d even ever seen the series XD I’ve rated this story .

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


Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
33-
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm


Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after t
he next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if there turned out to be one.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt, jerking the equipage to a similarly precipitous stop, as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the latter neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” This was obviously untrue — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion were actually from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she was with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying harmlessly high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He was now holding a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised that they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, really didn’t do much for him; it wasn’t difficult to be brave facing a man on foot when you were on a horse.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The swordsman swept the weapon in his hand at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the bandit’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow did not break all the way through, but there was a loud cracking sound as the blade made contact, and a second similar noise as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter was now even angrier than before and ready for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, the fact that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it was a little more difficult to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife that the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic was standing and looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. “I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not realizing that he was inadvertently complimenting Seijuurou with his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

“How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou mildly, entirely ignoring the young man’s second question. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded. “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Divine lady Tomoe. The black lotus represents death, which Tomoe (among other things) does as well. Here’s the full-color version too:

Why is she in a yoga pose? I’m not entirely sure. Just what I thought looked cool back when I drew the picture, I guess XD

Divine lady Misao. Her symbol is a rabbit because she is, among other things, particularly fond of small, quick animals. Here’s the full-color version as well:


Prescription

“As a doctor, I cannot recommend strenuous sex so soon after an injury.”

Sano is closer to recovering from his recent wound than Megumi thought to find him, and Saitou is curious.

Unique to this story: something like voyeurism.

“Oh… oh… oh…”

Megumi’s raised hand paused near the doorframe and did not knock. She’d thought to check on Sanosuke and that wound of his she’d dressed the other day — not that she had any reason to concern herself particularly over an idiot that never went to a doctor except when he was dragged in unconscious, but he happened to be on her way home this evening. But it was evident from the noise within that he was in something like decent shape by now anyway.

A moan sounded clearly through the thin door, and Megumi found herself blushing fiercely. From what she remembered of the single other time she’d visited Sanosuke’s apartment, there wasn’t too much further inside to go… but it really did seem like they’d gotten down to business immediately within the entrance.

Megumi moved to depart, to the sound of, “I’ll try, but if you keep doing that I’m gonna come right now,” but then as Sano cried out more loudly, “Oh, god, Saitou!” she stopped and with wide eyes turned back. The moaning within continued, for a while entirely inarticulate.

She knew she shouldn’t be listening, but that unexpected name held her. She would have thought that for those two to become involved was an entirely hopeless business, something she would have bet money against; indeed, only proof such as this would have convinced her of it at all. Which didn’t justify her eavesdropping, but she was too overcome with curiosity to move.

“Stop teasing me,” Sano was gasping; “just put it in already!”

Accompanied by some thumping, the sounds of pleasure intensified. So did Megumi’s blush. She really should go.

“New hobby, sensei?”

She jumped, squeaked, and spun to face the very last person in all existence she could possibly have expected to catch her at this. As she stammered and blushed, quickly rethought her assessment of things, and tried to get hold of herself, Saitou glanced at the apartment and asked with a smirk, “And who are we spying on?”

The doctor, as was her talent, was swiftly recovering her presence of mind, and the amusing fact that Saitou didn’t even know where Sano lived, let alone… well, that helped. “Sanosuke,” she replied almost calmly, though the blush had certainly not gone. But her growing entertainment as the reality of the situation struck her more thoroughly added a whole new dimension to her reflections — especially as she saw Saitou, at her answer, throw another glance, seemingly inadvertent and much more interested, at the run-down building.

He gave a brief, disdainful laugh.

“I was going to check on his wound from the other day,” Megumi continued with composure, “but from what I’m hearing, he’s better than fine.”

At just that moment, as if in deliberate support of her statement, a rapturous groan burst out that must have been loud enough even for Saitou, not nearly as close to the door as Megumi was, to hear. His eyes narrowed as he took two steps forward, regarding the entrance, and he murmured darkly, “They should wait until they’re out of the doorway to do that.”

Megumi noticed he didn’t step back. By now completely in control of herself and thinking she comprehended well enough how things stood, she restrained a smile and said, “It isn’t a big room.”

Saitou shook his head and muttered, “Ahou.” He still did not step back.

Nodding, Megumi agreed gravely, “Yes; as a doctor, I cannot recommend strenuous sex so soon after an injury.”

She drew extreme satisfaction from the expression he could not quite keep off his face. All he said, though, in a slightly forced tone of sarcasm, was, “And therefore you feel vindicated listening at his door.”

“Of course,” replied she in the same serious manner. “I need to know what to prescribe when he hurts himself in there.”

“You must be an excellent doctor –” the sarcasm coming more naturally this time — “to determine that much just from listening to something like this.”

“Oh, I know exactly what he needs,” she said blandly.

Just then they were startled by a much longer, louder moan — almost a wail — from within. Megumi blushed again, and Saitou growled, apparently without even realizing he was saying it, “Who is he with in there?”

Megumi smiled wickedly. “Let’s find out,” she said, and, raising her hand once more to the door frame, knocked loudly.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #26, “If only I could make you mine.”

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


You Won’t Regret It 1-5


Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?


Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.



Two figures trudged silently up a long, gentle, brush-covered hill that was dotted with small trees on either side of the dirt road. There were no clouds that day, and the burning harvest sun never ceased its barrage of scorching rays despite its near-hidden state behind the forested horizon. The young men were covered in dirt the same color of dark brown as that beneath their bare feet, and sweat ran over round muscle in bright lines through the grime they’d accrued from their day’s work. Their plain, sleeveless shirts, rumpled and filthy like their equally plain, baggy pants, were balled in their hands, baring the tattoo that each bore on his right shoulder-blade: a simple logo consisting of two fisted hands pressed knuckle-to-palm and the letters ‘KL’ above a ten-digit number.

The more muscular of the two was brown-haired and brown-eyed, his locks shorn close so they prickled in every direction. He was tall and lanky, his frame filled out with muscle and perfectly trim, his skin golden. His name was Sanosuke.

The other was only slightly shorter, stockier and less well-developed but still undeniably strong from the huge amount of hard labor he and his fellow slaves performed day after day. His long black hair was tied up to keep it out of his face, which visage was somewhat gaunt and tired-looking. His skin was darker than his friend’s, his eyes clear blue. This was Katsuhiro.

As they began to speak, it was with perfectly mixed accents; they had lived in the slave complex for so long that their national origins could no longer be determined; it was possible that they themselves did not remember what those were.

“I know what you’re thinking about.” Katsu was looking anywhere but at his friend — at a lizard skittering across a rock nearby, at the half-obscured tire tracks in the dust beneath their feet, at his own work-hardened hands as they swung beside him.

“Fuck,” was all Sano replied. His gaze was steadily forward, but he didn’t seem to see anything — at least, not anything actually ahead of him.

Katsu sighed. “I know it hurts you to watch her like that, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Throwing him a dour look, Sano replied, “So I should just forget it, huh?”

Katsu’s eyes fell again to the ground they walked. “I don’t know.”

“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”

“Did what?”

“They told him Kaoru was Kenshin’s woman, and he bought just Kenshin on purpose to hurt them both.”

“He did seem pretty cold-hearted,” Katsu admitted.

“Cold-hearted? The man was a fucking sadist!”

Katsu sighed again. “Sano, this isn’t helping.”

“I’ve gotta do something, though… she’s still sick, and now they’re making her work the fields already!”

“Sano, I told you, there’s nothing you can do!”

Sano seized his friend by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell are you saying, man? What would Souzou think to hear you say that?!”

“Why do you think Souzou’s dead, idiot?” replied Katsu in a defensively loud tone, pain filling his eyes.

Sano’s face contorted in an angry growl. “Coward!”

“Is there a problem?”

Both slaves turned to look at the source of the deep, Sorratian-accented voice, and observed a guard watching them. He’d obviously been heading down to the fields from the barracks for the night watch, for the crisp cloth of his uniform was as yet unmarred by any of the dust that would certainly stripe it by the end of the night. He’d apparently come upon them just as the shaking and yelling had begun; fights between slaves were absolutely not tolerated, and the guard was touching his holstered gun, slung left-handed, in silent warning.

Slowly the two calmed and shook their heads, resuming their steady pace toward their sleeping quarters. But as they passed the grey-clad enforcer, Sano could feel the guard’s eyes carefully and approvingly traversing his body before the man chose to walk on.

Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.

Their brief argument was forgotten. “Hey, he was looking at me too,” Katsu reassured him. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I’ve never seen him around here before.” Sano fought the urge to look back at the tall, unfamiliar figure. “Suppose he’s new?”

“I guess.” Katsu gave in to the temptation Sano had resisted and turned his head to glance at the man. He snorted. “If they’re going to let their guards use us as their personal whores, they should at least get good-looking ones.”

Sano was startled. “I thought that guy looked pretty good; you didn’t?”

“He was freaky… didn’t you see? his eyes were yellow.”

Sano had seen, and shrugged. “Not like it matters much once they’re fucking you.” And he thought no more of it, for his mind had returned to the disturbing matter of Kaoru.

His heart ached for her, seeing her weakening daily from her mysterious illness. The doctor hadn’t been able to give any real diagnosis, which was why the slavers were forcing her to continue work, but Sano knew exactly what she was suffering from: a broken heart. Ever since that white-haired bastard had shown up looking for a strong but pretty man and taken Kenshin away from her forever, Kaoru’s spirit was entirely broken. Sano knew she couldn’t last long. He’d seen it before, in the years he’d spent here, but it had never hurt him like this. Kenshin had been a good friend to him, and Kaoru was like a sister, despite the fact that he’d only known the two of them for just under a year. It was difficult that no matter what he did, Kenshin was destined to live out a life of slavery to some rich sadist somewhere never knowing that his lover had wasted away without him.

Today she had collapsed in the field shortly after noon, and though they had not feared for her life — she’d been open-eyed and relatively lucid as she’d been helped back to the quarters by a couple of grumbling guards — naturally Sano and Katsu were worried that her condition was worsening. And of course there was no communication between slaves in one part of the complex and those in another, so they had no idea how she’d fared for the rest of the day.

As they drew nearer to the cluster of slave quarter buildings that semi-circled the mess hall, their pace subtly increased as they threaded their way through the influx of people to the latter and headed for their own quarters instead.

The building, identical to the other four, was a plain rectangle divided into two long rooms succeeding a small set of chambers that belonged to the quarter-warden. The main rooms contained little more than the rows of cots on which the slaves slept; as nobody stayed in the complex long before being sold, there were few belongings to be seen, and no personalization whatsoever. And everything, even what had started out another color, had faded to the same uniform grey.

Against this, Kaoru’s dark hair and pale skin stood out, as did the similarly dark hair of the stranger that sat beside her on the cot. Sano and Katsu slowed momentarily as they entered the room, surprised. Kaoru looked up at them and smiled slightly. Deciding for the moment to ignore the unfamiliar young man at her side, the two hurried over to her.

“You’re sitting up; you look OK,” Sano said as they reached her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “It was just the heat, I think.”

“I hope you’ve been drinking lots of water,” Katsu said.

She nodded, and gestured to the stranger, who, they noticed, was holding a half-full glass bottle. They both took the time now to study the fine features and short, even black hair of the young man that looked to be about their age. He must have been well-treated, wherever he came from.

“You new?” Sano asked him.

“My name is Soujirou,” the newcomer replied with a nod, and even in these few words his Touschan accent was clear. “I just got here today, and they didn’t give me anything to do, so I’ve just been sitting with her since she came.”

“Thanks for helping her,” Katsu replied seriously. “I’m Katsu and this is Sano.”

“You feelin’ up to supper?” Sano asked Kaoru after he’d completed his half of the introduction with a nod to Soujirou.

“I think I could manage it,” she said softly, the only problem with the statement being that she didn’t seem to care whether or not she ate that night or ever again. Sano, deciding to ignore this and how helpless and miserable it made him feel, extended a hand to help her up, and at her side Soujirou also stood.

“Anyone show you the way to mess hall yet?” Sano asked as he started toward the door.

“They pointed it out to me,” Soujirou admitted, “but I’m a little disoriented now.”

“You must have come from someone nice,” Katsu commented as he fell into step at Soujirou’s side.

Soujirou nodded. “Actually, I’m a little nervous about all this… I never had to do much hard work…” A slightly shaky laugh accompanied this statement, and Sano couldn’t help pitying him. He’d find out soon enough what real slave labor was.

There wasn’t a day when the topic of escape didn’t come up at some point, facetious, sardonic, or hopeless as such conversations usually were. The mess hall was usually the setting of this, and, despite having a new addition to their little circle, tonight was no exception. This discussion was led, as was quite often the case, by Yahiko, a boy that usually shared their company and always had a grand scheme for getting out.

“No, I swear it would work,” he was insisting, emphatically waving a piece of bread at the skeptical Katsu beside him. “All we’d have to do is get to the top of the windmill and–”

“Listen, kid,” Sano interrupted him with a shake of his head, “don’t get your hopes up with crazy plans like that. Unless we come up with something that would actually work, we’re not likely to ever escape from here, and that’s reality.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Kaoru chided, observing the eleven-year-old’s downcast expression with pity. “I’m sure there’s some way out.”

Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.

Yahiko was determined not to despair even in the face of jaded discouragement. His was a strong spirit that had yet to be broken, he having been here only a few months or so after the relatively kind owner he’d been born serving had died. He idolized Sano, for some reason, to the point even of trying to imitate his hairstyle, though his locks were black. And he was determined to escape. “No, seriously, hang-gliders work really good — you strap it to your back and glide for a mile or something.”

Sano smiled wanly. “Don’t you think they’d notice if we took all our blankets outside and started tying them onto sticks and stuff?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaoru said.

“See?” Yahiko demanded.

Soujirou, who had been listening in intent silence, now joined the conversation. “If you could escape, though, where would you go?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.

“Back to Touscha, of course,” said Yahiko hotly.

“How would you get there, though?” Soujirou pursued. “This place is in the middle of nowhere between Touscha, Baiza, and West Sorrat, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Katsu confirmed, a little surprised; most slaves didn’t have any clear idea of the complex’s geographic location.

“Wouldn’t it be a long, hard hike, then?” Soujirou asked. “And what would you eat? And what if something ate you?”

Seeming a little dismayed at these questions, Yahiko struggled to find answers.

“And if you got to Touscha,” Soujirou pressed on, “what then? Do you know how to live like a free man? Could you blend in well enough that when Ketterect Labor came looking, they wouldn’t suspect you were an escaped slave?”

This was another surprise; few slaves knew what the KL on their backs stood for.

“And how would you support yourself? Touschans don’t hold jobs until they’re eighteen, you know.”

“Is this really necessary?” asked Kaoru quietly. Katsu noticed absently that she hadn’t eaten much.

Sano sided with Soujirou. “No, he’s just being realistic.” And though it did seem odd that Soujirou could play devil’s advocate so persistently with that mild smile on his face the entire time, Katsu had to agree that realism shouldn’t be argued against. A lot of the time — as in this situation, evidently — those that had just arrived were the most pragmatic; anyone that lasted longer, went through a couple of dealer cycles without being sold, often had their perspective skewed. As for Katsu and Sano… he didn’t know whether their history at this place rendered their perspective dead-on, or skewed even worse than most.

Yahiko was staring at his plate unhappily; Katsu found his eyes lingering on the boy for quite some time. The prudence of practicality notwithstanding, maybe the newcomer had been a little too blunt. Katsu’s gaze rose to find that young man, and discovered Soujirou looking similarly at Yahiko. The smile was gone from his face, and the expression there in its stead was one of sorrow and pity that Katsu couldn’t help but appreciate; maybe Soujirou also thought he’d been too hard on the kid.

As if feeling Katsu’s gaze, Soujirou looked up and caught his eyes, and the light smile returned, the sadness vanishing as if it had never existed. Katsu thought this odd, but there was no use staring any further; he was finished eating and had somewhere to be.

“Well,” he announced as he stood and picked up his tray, “I’ve got barracks-call.”

“Oh?” Sano looked up quickly. “That guy?”

“He was on night-patrol, remember? It’s Akamatsu, of course.”

“Oh,” Sano glowered.

“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”

After tubbing his dishes, Katsu headed for the doors, glancing back at his friends as he exited. He found Soujirou watching him very steadily, and gave a little wave. Soujirou didn’t seem to have any idea what he’d meant by ‘barracks-call,’ and waved back with that same smile. Katsu sighed as he trudged away from the mess hall up the hill toward the guards’ quarters. He’d find out soon enough.


The next day, Sano couldn’t help thinking a little wistfully about Yahiko’s hang-glider plan as he walked with Katsu and Soujirou past the windmill on the way to the fields in the clear dawn. The kid was always thinking up crazy ideas like that; in some ways it was refreshing, and in others terribly frustrating.

Yahiko was also constantly talking about the outer world as he’d known it. Sano had never been to Touscha, at least not as far as he could remember, and therefore those stories were interesting almost to the point of being painful. For what was the likelihood of Sano’s ever being able to find out for sure whether or not Yahiko was making them up?

It didn’t make matters any better that Soujirou was new to the complex and had all sorts of nosy questions. Some weren’t so bad… the ones about how the farming here worked and whether KL sold the grain to anyone or just used it to feed the slaves and the guards, and whether they knew which country KL bought the commodities they couldn’t produce from (incidentally, Katsu did know, because he had a seemingly superhuman ability to pick things like that up and remember them), and whether there was ever any recreation for the slaves, and all sorts of other irrelevant things… Sano just listened as Katsu patiently answered it all, in between the comings and goings of guards, until Soujirou happened upon a subject neither of them were going to want to discuss.

“Your friend Yahiko seems hell-bent on escaping. Has anyone ever escaped from here before, that you know of?”

Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.

“In Touscha, slavery is a very touchy issue,” Soujirou remarked. Sano found his smile, at such a moment, almost uncanny. “It’s technically legal, but lots of people are against it… if something big were to come up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned. That’s why I was wondering — if there were to be a mass break-out, it would stir things up there and might accomplish something… Has anyone ever tried anything like that?”

“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.

Soujirou paused, looking at them. Sano only saw this out of the corner of his eye, as he’d become very intent on his work and guessed Katsu had as well. Undoubtedly they were both trying to keep their faces from betraying the pain that still lingered.

“What… happened?” Soujirou wondered a little hesitantly. He was obviously no fool, and had read enough in their mutual tone, even in that single syllable of affirmation, to make him cautious.

Neither of the others answered for a long moment until finally Katsu said briefly, “Almost everyone involved was killed.”

“Oh.” Soujirou cleared his throat and then made a slight and obviously deliberate change of subject. “Lately — before my master went bankrupt, anyway — I was hearing about some anti-slavery groups doing things like kidnapping slaves and supposedly taking them to West Sorrat and conditioning them for free life. He worried about sending me on errands outside his property!” he added with a slight laugh, clearly unaware that a guard had appeared not far off, that he was talking too much. “I heard that not much was being done about these people because–”

“Would you shut the hell up already?” the guard said as he stepped forward and gave the cheerful young man a rough shove. “You new fucks with your stupid chatter. God.”

“Sorry, sir,” Soujirou said unnecessarily, turning his unfaltering smile toward the guard.

“Yeah, yeah, just get back to work.” The guard was perhaps taken somewhat aback by that incongruous expression — which, Sano thought with a faint touch of amusement, was maybe its point — and only eyed Soujirou a bit more before continuing his walk of the field.

Soujirou, still smiling, did as he was told. Sano was a trifle relieved.

Like all newcomers, Soujirou would undoubtedly become accustomed to this place very quickly, Sano reflected, and not by asking a lot of questions — just because no day was ever any different from any other, and the nights were similarly all the same. Week after week it was nothing but work while the sun was up (Soujirou had proven today that he was capable of that); get fucked by some guard at night (Soujirou undoubtedly had the face and figure for that); and hope to survive to see the next season roll in.

Soujirou, in that last area, was a matter of question. He was too obviously accustomed to being treated well, and was therefore a little too flippant toward the guards. Not that slaves were routinely killed by guards, but the enforcers would go out of their way to make sure they didn’t get any attitude from those they ruled. Sano had seen some slaves die of pure indifference as their spirits were thus broken. He wasn’t to that point yet, though he didn’t know why — his must have been a stronger spirit than most — but he could see the day coming. And he wasn’t looking forward to watching it happen to yet another person that had joined their little group. Soujirou had better smooth himself out before someone else did it for him.

Kaoru seemed worse than usual that night, and Sano fervently hoped that the guards would forget about him for just this evening. Just let him sit by her side a little longer. If he couldn’t bring Kenshin back, the least he could do was try to fill the void, however inadequate he was. Yahiko seemed to be out of ideas for the moment, Soujirou was weary and quiet on the cot behind Sano, and silence reigned in their part of the room.

Kaoru was very pale as she lay curled up on her side in the little cot, eyes open but unmoving, and she shivered occasionally. Sano and Katsu had given her their own thin blankets, but she never seemed to be warm enough at night, even in these sweltering months. Sano’s face was blank as he stared down at her, but his mind wasn’t. Thoughts raced through his head like suicidal flying creatures — crashing into each other, into the ground, into trees, until he thought he was going crazy. Just like every night.

His reverie was broken when Kaoru sat up slowly. “Water?” she mumbled a little blearily.

“I’ll get it,” Katsu replied, stilling Sano and rising. He walked down the long line of cots past other slaves, who ignored him, to the end of the room. Pausing for a moment to stand directly in front of the electric fan that was all the ‘air conditioning’ they were allowed, he then moved on to where a few buckets sat in the corner full of water for their use. Sano watched him tiredly, for no particular reason, and when Katsu held up an empty bucket for him to see and headed for the door, he nodded absently.

“Katsu’s going to the pump,” he assured Kaoru. “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Thanks,” she replied, and her vision seemed to drift away to something she couldn’t actually see. He was sure it had something to do with a red-haired, violet-eyed man with pale skin and a gentle demeanor. Tears slowly filled her eyes as she closed them, and she brushed fitfully at the few that slid out down her cheeks.

Sano took her hand and squeezed it, knowing he could give no real comfort but wanting her to feel his presence. It was awkward and more than a bit painful watching a woman cry when there was nothing he could do about it, though, and he let his eyes drift around the room.

As it generally did at this time of day, the false serenity of weariness lay over the slave quarters — over the small group of companions as well as the others that sat massaging their feet or lay exhausted on their cots. The noise level, as always, was low; conversation during the work-day was discouraged, and the fear of reprisal carried even into the night when no guards were present. There were a few children in one corner carrying on some kind of quiet activity with their backs to the adults, but even their game — or whatever it was — was nearly devoid of energy.

Katsu, stopping just inside the doorway to set down his burden and observing the subdued scene, reflected that, in his eyes at least, his friends were the only part of the room that had any color; everything else appeared hopelessly dull. He wasn’t sure what he would do in a place like this, would have done all these years, without those he’d become close to — even coming and going as they always did — and especially Sano.

He transferred the big metal drinking ladle from an empty bucket to one of those he’d just filled, and went over to Kaoru. She accepted the ladle gratefully and drained it slowly. When she was finished, she sighed and returned the utensil to Katsu. Glancing from his face to Sano’s and then down to Yahiko, she remarked, “You all take care of me so much. Thank you.” Sano nodded, but couldn’t say anything. Yahiko, sitting on the floor, was looking down, sad and awkward, at his crossed legs and feet. Katsu nodded, like Sano, and went to put the ladle back in the bucket.

“I heard some guards talking,” he said quietly when he was seated at Kaoru’s side again, “out there. There was water in the trough, so I didn’t have to use the pump and they didn’t hear me. They were on the porch, and didn’t know anyone could hear them.”

They waited for him to continue, Kaoru easing herself down onto the cot once more and Yahiko watching him curiously.

Katsu looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Soujirou was evidently not paying attention (though Katsu felt fairly sure he could trust the newcomer anyway), and nobody else was within earshot. Finally he continued. “I didn’t hear everything, but they did say something about a break in the perimeter — out across the east field.”

Sano’s brow furrowed. “What do you think?” he asked.

Katsu shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous, but it could be our best chance yet.”

Yahiko opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but then didn’t say anything.

Sano was nodding slowly. “But we’d have to do it soon… they won’t let something like that sit for more than a day or so.”

“Oh, I forgot…” Their attention was all drawn to where Soujirou had stood up abruptly. “A guard told me to come to his room after dinner. I guess I’m late.”

Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.

Soujirou’s own face went slightly pale at sight of that. “I heard what you were saying yesterday… Does that mean…”

“Yeah,” Sano said quietly. “Sorry, man.”

“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.

“No choice,” Katsu said darkly. “Hopefully it was one of the nicer ones, and not Akamatsu.”

“I heard you say his name last night too,” Soujirou faltered. “Is he…”

“He’s a horny pervert and a complete bastard,” Sano said.

“Gets off on making our lives hell,” added Katsu.

“What does he look like?” Soujirou asked, even more faintly.

“He’s short, kinda big,” Sano informed, “got all kinds of scars on his face.”

The young man let out a breath of relief. “It wasn’t him, then. But… what happens if I don’t go at all?”

“You’ll probably get beaten then raped,” Sano told him grimly. “Best to just go and get it over with.”

Soujirou took a deep breath, then nodded. “Good night, then,” he said in a tone that was evidently struggling to sound strong as he turned for the door and headed off to face his doom.

“Poor guy,” Katsu muttered. “Second night here, too.”

“At least he’s old enough…” But despite the pity in his tone, Sano evidently couldn’t keep his mind on that matter. “Anyway, what about that break? Do you think we should go for it?”

“Yes!” Yahiko said, a little too loudly. His eyes were sparkling. “We could get out and make a run for it!”

“You should,” Kaoru agreed, and Katsu saw that her wide-open eyes were clear and filled with some emotion he hadn’t observed there for some time.

“We’ll go get help,” he said. “Soujirou was saying earlier–” He didn’t have time to explain it, though. “Well, we’ll find something, come back, and get you out.”

She smiled. “I don’t need your promises,” she said softly. “Just get yourselves out.”

Sano frowned. “No, we will come back for you.” But she shook her head. His frown deepened at that, and Katsu thought he was slightly hurt. “Fine, don’t believe it. But we will.” Turning to Yahiko then he said, “I’m sorry, kid, but we can’t take you with us.” He continued swiftly, not allowing the protest to make its way out of the boy’s mouth. “You know if we get caught trying to escape they’re likely to kill us, and I refuse to have your death on my conscience, even if I’m dead too. Plus, you’re not strong enough or fast enough to keep up with us.”

Yahiko gritted his teeth with an angry blush, abruptly fighting back tears. But not only was there no argument against Sano’s blunt points, he probably believed the insistence that Sano and Katsu would return to rescue them — maybe even more than either of them did. Finally he nodded.

Sano pulled him against his chest in a sudden hug. “I’ll miss you, kid,” he said.

“If we get out, it’ll be worth it,” Katsu nodded, reaching out to ruffle Yahiko’s hair.

“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.

Sano then leaned down and kissed Kaoru on the brow. “Goodbye,” he said.

“We’ll be back,” Katsu promised again, squeezing her hand.

“Goodbye,” she replied, and closed her eyes so as not to see them rising and heading for the door… given that she obviously believed she would never see them again.

They planned quietly as they made their stealthy way across the dirt yard between the slave quarters and the guard barracks and onward. Heading north, they determined that they would cut through the orchard and come onto the field from the south, crossing it at the lower end where they would less easily be seen by patrols. Thence it was into the thick, hostile forest that surrounded the complex, and hopefully they could find the break in the perimeter fence soon enough to slip through and start running before someone realized they were gone.

After that, they had no idea what to do. It was only logical to assume that, as the complex lay at the juncture of three nations, whatever direction they chose to take would eventually lead them to one of those… Touscha would be preferable, given what Soujirou had said about slavery there, and they understood that it was to their northwest — but while northwest was easy enough to find in a place they’d known for a decade, things would be very different in a dark forest with many hours before dawn. With this in mind, they resolved not to be too particular about where they ended up, as long as it was somewhere other than here, and not dead.

But as Soujirou had pointed out last night, what then? Ketterect Labor Complex had been their home for ten years, and of what lay beyond they really had no concept other than what they’d been told and what they vaguely remembered from their childhood. Would they be capable of blending in, coming up with some way to support themselves, and finding help for their friends here in time?

They could not allow themselves to doubt that somewhere in the great beyond would be help for Kaoru. At the very least, if they could raise enough money somehow, they could buy their friends and bring them to freedom. And perhaps someone would have heard of a mistreated red-headed slave that pined for a love lost at the hands of a cruel white-haired man. Or even if that could not be, if they could get her out, Kaoru could receive better medical attention. The taciturn doctor that tended to the slaves was gentle and fairly adept, but cold and distant, wrapped up in thoughts no one could guess.

They had one close call as they scaled the orchard wall and Katsu nearly fell, but the guard below merely walked on without noting them. “This would be a lot easier,” Sano grumbled a bit later, when he could without being heard, “if they didn’t wear dark grey and we could see them better.”

Katsu shook his head with a wry smile. “Idiot.”

They crossed the orchard with little trouble, and darted across the dirt road between it and the sunken level of grain that was the east field. This was going to be a bit more difficult, as guards actually patrolled up and down the lanes between the plots, and it was there Katsu and Sano also had to walk — as going through the grain itself would make too much noise on this windless night and could not be risked. By the time they made it to the ditch that separated the field from the forest, they were sweating as much as if they’d been working in the field, not sneaking through it, but they remained unseen.

Clambering across the ditch, they took one last look around before plunging into the forest.

“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?” Katsu asked when they were a few minutes into the dense foliage, fighting their way forward with determination.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, looking for a path through a particularly nasty tangle. “But I’ve gotta try. For Kaoru. And Kenshin.”

“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.

Sano nodded.

The perimeter was drawing nearer, and the frenzy of Katsu’s heart spread to a flush throughout his entire body. This could be the moment he’d dreamed of his entire captive life, the amazing moment when he looked for the first time beyond the pale of slavery into freedom. Of course, all he was likely to see was forest, but that was immaterial. Now, if only they could find the break!

The tall, imposing barbed-wire electric fence appeared suddenly in front of them, the trees cleared away around it and the foliage hacked back. They peered cautiously out from the forest’s shelter, and saw what they were looking for off to their right: a tree had fallen into the fence, snapping wires and creating a bridge to freedom. It wasn’t obvious how the tree had been tipped, but they weren’t about to argue with such good fortune. Scanning the area for any sign of life, they both looked again at the fallen trunk, then at each other, and slowly moved forward.

“Did you two idiots really think there wouldn’t be a guard here?”

The unexpected sound stopped them short just a few yards from their destination. They might have risked the chance that the speaker was armed and run onward if the voice had not come from in front of them — indeed, from exactly where they were heading.

The guard stepped casually from behind the fallen tree, where boughs and shadows had combined with his dark uniform and black hair to render him completely invisible.

“Shit,” Sano growled.

It was the same guard that had been admiring them yesterday. Despite the blackness, his golden eyes glowed with a deadly gleam. He stood nonchalantly regarding them, a cigarette marking the darkness in his right hand, his left lying lightly on the holster at his hip.

Sano didn’t waste time between his next phrase, “Let’s take him down!” and his sudden sprint toward the man, but neither did the guard waste time in drawing and calmly firing a single perfect shot that flew straight into Sano’s shoulder.

Katsu was less inclined than Sano to physical combat, and so had held back at first, but upon seeing his friend fall to the ground in a burst of blood he leapt forward. However, the guard had, with the same calmness, pointed the gun directly at him, and was advancing slowly.

“K-katsu…” Sano choked out, grimacing as he clutched at his shoulder and tried to rise. “Run… get out…”

“Idiot!” Katsu replied in a desperate hiss, falling to his knees at his friend’s side when he saw that attacking an armed man was futile. “I’m not going without you!”

The guard loomed over them, a tall shadow stretching up to two amber points. What little light there was in the lee of the great trees gleamed off the barrel of his gun as it was leveled at Katsu’s head. “Get away from him,” he commanded.

“If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first,” Katsu replied, leaning over Sano protectively.

“That would be easy enough,” the infuriating voice drawled out of the dark. “But if I wanted to kill him, don’t you think I might have aimed for a more vital area?”

There wasn’t really a logical answer for this, and the next moment a long arm snaked around the obstruction Katsu presented to seize Sano’s shirt and pull him all at once out of his friend’s clutching grasp. The guard lifted Sano easily and slung him over his shoulder. Sano must have blacked out, for he made neither protest nor attempt to escape, and his arms hung limp.

“What are you doing?” Katsu demanded, jumping to his feet.

The man looked at him briefly. “He’s bleeding; he needs to be treated. What do you think I’m doing?”

Katsu stared at him, baffled. “But… what should…”

The guard gestured at the fallen tree. “You’re free to continue your escape attempt if you wish to do so without your companion. Otherwise, I would advise you return to your quarters before dawn.” And with these words he turned and walked away calmly into the trees, carrying Sano with him.



The pain was terrible, and in large part, he thought, stunting his progress toward full consciousness. Combined with this, the other sensations of soft bedsheets around him and something grazing the bare skin of his chest left him at a total loss as to where he was or what was happening to him. The last feeling, as if someone’s hand were slowly running over him in a light, almost absent caress, he dwelt on longest; it was soothing, especially compared to the agony in his shoulder.

Wait… he’d been shot, hadn’t he? Because… because he’d been trying to escape, and Katsu…

Sano sat up, giving a grunt at the increased pain and surprise at suddenly being completely awake, his hand flying immediately to his wound as a soft blanket slid down his body and a set of infinitely familiar objects came into focus: the plaster ceiling and walls, plain light fixture, and brown door of a barracks interior. “What the…? Where am I?”

“In my room.”

Sano started away from the guard that was seated immediately beside him on the bed, leaning against the wall behind them and barely looking up from the magazine he was reading. The startled motion nearly made Sano fall to the floor, and preventing himself from doing so caused him quite a bit of discomfort. “Ow… shit…”

His first thought was that the guard must have brought him back here to have his way with him before he turned him in for trying to escape, but it was obvious that he hadn’t been raped in his sleep. Beyond that, as he took stock of himself, he found that his gunshot wound had been cleaned and bandaged. For all the pain he was in, the way his shoulder and arm were moving led him to guess that the bullet had missed everything vital and left him to heal back to what would probably be a normal muscular condition. It must have been an amazingly precise shot to do so little damage.

Dizzy and confused, he lay down again, flat on his back, looking up at the other man. “Why?” he asked softly.

“Because I didn’t feel like treating your wound outside on the ground in the middle of the night.” Once more, the guard didn’t even look at him as he answered.

“Where’s Katsu?”

“If your friend has any sense, he’ll have gone back to his quarters long before this.”

It felt like a stupid thing to ask, but, given the circumstance, Sano couldn’t forebear — “Are you gonna turn us in?”

“No.”

“Why?”

The man put his magazine down at last, and regarded Sano with his uncanny golden eyes. “I’ve been watching you and your friend for several days now,” he said, but his words didn’t seem to be meant as any sort of answer to Sano’s question. “How did you come to be here?”

Although confused, Sano saw no reason not to tell him, so he replied, “Katsu and I were living on the streets in LeMere in Baiza, and these guys picked us up.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I find it hard to believe than a strong and attractive young man wouldn’t have been sold in such a length of time.”

“Those are the exact reasons I wasn’t. I’m strong, so I’m useful for all kinds of work…” Sano’s eyes flicked up toward the ceiling rather than the man’s face as he blushed. Why exactly he was blushing, he couldn’t be quite sure; it might have been because of what he was about to explain, but why that should be, when it was something he basically took for granted, he didn’t know. “And I’m attractive, I guess, so I’m useful for all kinds of other stuff too. I’ll never get sold. Matter of fact, somebody always locks me and Katsu up when the dealers come by, just to make sure we don’t. I don’t think the higher-ups know they do that, though.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen, I think.”

There was a brief silence, and Sano was almost afraid to look over again, but did so anyway. He found the man staring down at him with a piercing gaze that he did not understand. “Are you saying,” the man asked, with peculiar emphasis, “that these guards have found you ‘strong and attractive’ since you were nine years old?

Sano was blushing even more than before. Maybe it was just that no one had ever really talked to him about it like this; it had always just been… the way he lived. “Yeah. Well, not like it’s been the same guards all this time. You guys come and go too.”

More silence. Then finally, “How many slaves would you say there are here?”

“About a hundred.”

“And how long do they usually stay — the ones who don’t routinely get raped?”

“I’ve never known anyone to stay more than a year, but sometimes they go after a month even. The dealers come all in a group once a year and pick out lots of people, but sometimes individual ones come some other time when they’re running low or whatever.”

“Do you know anything about where the slaves get sold to?”

“Nah… usually the buyers don’t come up here in person. The dealers take the slaves they pick back to wherever they do whatever they do, and the buyers get what they need from there. Every once in a while a buyer wants more selection, and’ll turn up here looking for something specific, but that doesn’t happen much.” He thought of the asshole that had bought Kenshin.

The yellow-eyed man was nodding. “And when do most of the dealers come?”

“After harvest. Won’t be more’n about a month now.” Sano, by this point, was really at a loss to explain all these questions, which reminded him vaguely of Soujirou’s endless curiosity earlier this very day (for all it felt like weeks ago)… didn’t guards get briefed on all this stuff when they took the job? Maybe not. Maybe he was just too accustomed to the ones that had been here long enough to figure it all out.

“Do you know the date?”

“It’s just… after harvest…”

“I mean, do you know today’s date?”

“Um, no…”

The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.

Abruptly the man stood and set his neglected magazine down on the table, then reached up to tug on the chain that turned off the light. The interrogation was probably over, then, and it was time to get on with the reason Sano was sitting here naked. A strange feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach at that thought, a sensation he didn’t quite recognize. It was almost as if he didn’t feel ready for it, despite the fact that he was as ready as he ever was any night.

But all the man said next was, “Go to sleep.”

Sano blinked several times into the darkness, recognizing by the shifting of the bed and the blankets that the man had lain down beside him. “What?”

“I said, go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but…”

“Or stay awake all night, if you think that will help you heal quicker.”

“I thought… Aren’t you going to fuck me?”

He might have been imagining things, but it seemed there was a pause that felt almost indecisive before the man replied in a tone half amused and half… something else… “Why; do you want me to?”

“No!”

“Why would you ask, then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do it; I just figured you were already going to.”

“Why?”

“Well, you obviously want to…” At least, that was how Sano was reading the man’s expressions and tones.

“So?”

Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.

“You’re injured,” the guard said, as if that explained everything.

Sano was motionless with shock. No guard in the history of the slave complex would have cared that he was injured — indeed, to some it would have been an added bonus. And this one, while not bothering to deny that he wanted it, didn’t plan on taking him just because of a clean and well-treated wound in his shoulder?

“Who are you?” he managed to ask at last.

“A guard, idiot.”

“Yeah, I know that, but when did you get here? I never saw you before yesterday. What’s your name? Why did you ask me all those questions? Why didn’t you turn us in?”

“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”

But Sano, feeling strangely fearless, was not going to relent just yet. “If you didn’t plan on fucking me or turning me in, why did you stop me escaping?”

The guard said nothing; it seemed he didn’t intend to answer.

Finally, despairing of finding out what he wanted to know, Sano lay down with a slight sigh followed by a grunt of pain. He was acutely conscious of the warmth of the man immediately to his left; the guard still wore a robe and had his back to Sano, yet the arrangement felt very… intimate… and without the activities that generally preceded going to bed thus side by side, that intimacy was disconcerting. Sano wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep like this. He couldn’t even turn away from the other man, as that would put him on his hurt shoulder.

It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.

Why was he naked, if the guard hadn’t planned on fucking him?

This question nagged at him until he was forced to ask it aloud.

“Your ratty clothing was covered with blood,” was the reply whose tone seemed to suggest that the answer was obvious and Sano should really shut up.

“But they won’t issue me any more clothing until–”

“I’ll make sure they do,” the man interrupted. “I’ll tell them in the morning that my gun went off by mistake and wounded you.”

“You really aren’t going to tell anyone that we tried to escape, are you.” Sano hadn’t been aware, up until this point, that he hadn’t really believed it up until this point.

“No, I’m not. It would be a good idea for you not to mention it to anyone either.”

“No shit… But I still don’t get why you stopped us. It doesn’t seem like you care whether we escaped or not.”

“Maybe I just wanted some company for the night.” By now the guard sounded exasperated.

“You could have had anyone!” Sano’s tone was very similar, but his was tinged with desperation, maybe even anger.

“I wanted you.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But you could have had someone who wasn’t trying to escape, dammit!”

“I told you; I’ve been watching you for days. I didn’t want anyone else. I wasn’t going to let you escape.”

“What the hell kind of motive is wanting my company for keeping me from my freedom?”

There was a long silence, and Sano thought the man was once again not going to answer him, until finally the reply came out of the darkness in the softest tone the guard had yet used: “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

The words made him shiver, for some reason, and that strange sensation in the pit of his stomach was growing. “Why?” he wondered, almost in a whisper.

“You ask too many questions.”

Sano had to give a snort of laughter. After the day he’d had… “I ask too many questions?”

But this time there really was no answer.

Once he’d resigned himself to the conversation’s end, he found discomfort, irritation, curiosity, and confusion fading, or at least going temporarily dormant, as he drifted away from consciousness much sooner than he’d expected.

The pre-dawn wake-up siren brought him to his senses in an empty bed; reflexively he sprang up before remembering the events of the night, then sat down again abruptly with a combination sigh and moan. His shoulder roared with pain, and his entire body felt stiff. He wondered if he’d moved even once the entire time he’d been asleep.

He looked around, but the guard was gone. Back to Sano came the oddly serious and almost gentle words that had been nearly the last thing he’d heard before going to sleep: “You won’t regret it. I swear.” Logically, he should be feeling regret, should be bitter or irate… but, besides the pain of his wound, the only sensation of which he was conscious was a strange sort of coldness that was more like an emotional void than anything brought on by the chill of morning. He touched the bandage on his shoulder gently and wondered where he would be by now if yellow-eyes hadn’t stopped them. He didn’t really know how to feel.

But the sun was certainly rising, and he would have time to think as he worked. Not that he was particularly looking forward to harvesting grain with this throbbing pain. He stood again, slowly, moving his arm a bit to test the muscles and grimacing at the result. No, not looking forward to it at all.

At that moment, the door opened, and a blank-faced girl entered without preamble. She didn’t seem to care that Sano was totally naked, only held out the bundle she had brought. “Here,” she said emotionlessly.

Sano knew well the look in the kid’s eyes, having seen it many times in countless faces since he came here: total, soul-deep apathy. He didn’t have to know her personally to be aware that she always did exactly what she was told, rolled with every blow, and could not care less where her life was going. It was the ultimate face of slavery: the death of all that was human in an individual.

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Yeah, buddy, you’re gonna hafta work pretty damn hard to live up to that one, Sano reflected harshly as he looked at the girl and thought of so many others like her, not to mention those that hadn’t yet reached this point, whose wills could still be saved, that might have been helped by his escape. He thought of Kaoru…

“Thanks,” he said, taking the clothes, old and used but clean and new to him.

“Coord’ told me to tell you to work in the wash-house ’til you’re OK.”

Sano nodded and began to dress as the girl turned and left.

As he stepped from the room and closed the door behind him a few minutes later, listening to the click of the latch with an indescribable rising emotion, the first of the morning, stretching out his healthy arm with a yawn, his attention was drawn to movement at his left. A guard had been standing very still close by and was now approaching.

“What’s your name?” the man asked in a flat tone; his accent was Sorratian like that of the other guard.

“Sano,” he replied promptly, puzzled and a little worried. Was he in trouble after all? He refrained from searching the man’s face, as guards generally didn’t like that, but from the short dark hair and cold blue eyes he’d taken in with his first glance he knew he’d never seen this man before.

“Quarter 4-12 tonight,” the stranger informed him in the same tone.

“Yes, sir,” Sano said dully, and watched in minor stupefaction as the guard turned and walked away without another word. They’re lining up for me outside each other’s doors now, he was reflecting, not without a touch of weary amusement, but how the fuck did he even know I was in there? He would have had to… well, maybe yellow-eyes told him this morning… Even with this explanation, though, it was disconcerting. But he’d deal with it as he always did.

Noting that the sun was by now risen, the slave made haste away from the barracks and down the hill toward the wash-house, hoping the excuse of having been wounded and needing to wait for new clothes would be enough to keep him out of trouble for being late.


Katsu’s endless horrified conjectures about what had happened to Sano last night, and what might happen to both of the would-be escapees today, were to a certain extent interrupted by a very pale Soujirou joining him on the way to the fields just before sunrise. Looking a little lost and a bit the worse for wear, he fell into step quietly at Katsu’s side.

The latter was far too inured to the way they lived here to feel any intense remorse for Soujirou’s plight, but that didn’t make him totally unsympathetic. “Good morning,” he offered softly. “Are you all right?”

“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.

Katsu put a hand on his shoulder, knowing full well that there was nothing he could say that would really mean anything.

Apparently attempting to rally his spirits, Soujirou managed a faint smile and, “Where’s Sano?”

Katsu tried not to frown. If Soujirou had been three minutes earlier, had come to the quarters, Katsu could have told him. Out here, however, with more guards around and so many slaves moving in the same direction, it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t listening. “A guard came in for him right after you left last night,” he lied. “He’s probably already in the field.”

“So, how often should I expect… that…?” Soujirou wondered in response to this, trying to keep his voice even.

Katsu had to admit that he was somewhat glad of the distracting conversation. “Sano and I are their favorites,” he replied, “and we don’t usually get called up more than about three or four times a week during warmer parts of the year.”

Soujirou looked away with wide eyes, and Katsu, glancing over, could see him mouth the words, ‘four times a week’ with an air of disbelieving stupor.

“That’s actually not all that often, if you think about it.” Katsu tried to reassure him a little by explaining the system as he understood it. “There’s about forty guards, so it could be a lot more. But most of them don’t like men, I think. So since sex between women and men isn’t allowed here — because pregnant slaves don’t sell as well, and it isn’t like there’s a shop around the corner selling condoms — those ones don’t bother us. And except for Akamatsu, the rest of them don’t all feel like fucking every night.”

Whether or not Soujirou was reassured, he did seem a little calmer. “You really know how this place works, don’t you?”

“I have been here most of my life.”

“Most of your life?” Soujirou echoed in surprise. “How can you have gone so long without being sold?”

“I told you Sano and I are their favorites,” Katsu replied a little grimly. “Like they’d ever let us go.” Though that could have been subverted last night if not for that strange guard. And where was Sano? Katsu was scanning the field for him without any luck.

Soujirou, who hadn’t had any reply to Katsu’s last statement (for what was there to say?), followed his gaze across those that had already started working, then those just arriving, and shook his head. “I don’t see him.”

Tried to sound casual, Katsu agreed and added, “I wonder where he is…” And he continued to look.

“Katsu, the guards are watching.” Soujirou tugged on his arm. “Let’s go.”

Katsu couldn’t think that Soujirou’s indifference toward the guards’ influence had been completely reversed already, but evidently the barracks-call had taught him something. He allowed the younger man to pull him away from his search.

Once they were safely working and no guard was immediately nearby, Soujirou asked, “Why wouldn’t he be here?” Of course not knowing the story of the previous evening, his tone was nothing more than curious.

The only answer Katsu could come up with was that Sano was in bad enough condition that he couldn’t work the fields — but he couldn’t say that to Soujirou without explaining everything that had happened and risking being overheard… “I don’t know,” he replied at length, not bothering to hide his concern; Soujirou should be able to understand it, if he picked up on it, even without all the details.

Katsu caught a glance from the other slave that suggested he had picked up on it. “How long have you known him?” Soujirou asked deliberately, perhaps attempting to cheer Katsu up or at least distract him.

“As long as I can remember.” Katsu was not averse to being cheered up or at least distracted. “We met as orphans in LeMere and watched each other’s backs for a few years before KL found us.”

“You were homeless, then? Without any living relatives?”

“I see you know how it works.”

Soujirou smiled and rolled his eyes. “If the laws are the same in Baiza as they are in Touscha, yes. They claim anyone would rather be a slave than be homeless with no one to go to.”

With a shake of his head, Katsu remarked darkly, “I wonder if any of the people who make laws like that have any idea what it’s like to be either a slave or homeless. Anyway,” he continued, “Sano always claimed he had an uncle somewhere, but we were kids… even if he wasn’t making it up or remembering wrong, we didn’t have much of a chance at finding the guy. We were barely just staying alive.”

“And given the choice between barely staying alive and slavery, what would you take?”

Katsu had to smile a little, wryly, as he answered. “That isn’t a fair question to ask me. It may not look like much of a life I’ve got here, but compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from so many people–” He cut himself short and turned wholly to his work as a guard went slowly by.

As soon as the grey figure was gone, Soujirou broke into protest with a skeptical smile: “Katsu, men like that rape you three or four times a week. How can you say you have a better life than anyone?”

With a sighing laugh Katsu replied, “I can tell you came from a nice master who let you do things like not get raped, easy work, and keep up with national politics, so you obviously don’t know what it’s like for most slaves. Sure, I’m a free whore, but I don’t get beaten much, I don’t get starved, I’m capable of the work I’m assigned, my ownership isn’t going to change hands once every sixth months when my master gets tired of me… Most of the slaves I meet here can’t say any of that.”

“But wouldn’t you like to take a chance at finding a good master?”

“I don’t want any master.” He said it more fiercely than he’d thought he would. “I’d take a chance at freedom — nothing less.”

“For some reason, that’s exactly what I expected from you,” Soujirou said thoughtfully.

Katsu turned to find the other slave regarding him with a pleased smile, and somehow felt like he’d just received a flattering compliment; he returned to his work unexpectedly gratified.

Sano never appeared. Katsu hadn’t really expected him to, after the first half hour, but couldn’t stop watching for him. Soujirou didn’t miss this endless, worried impatience, and succeeded in distracting him from it yet again by asking sometime in the late afternoon completely out of the blue, “Is Sano your lover?”

“No!” said Katsu in surprise. “No… we’re really more like brothers.”

And Soujirou nodded, still, of course, smiling. Katsu spent the rest of the workday wondering why he’d wanted to know.

He was more anxious than usual to get back for dinner, as he anticipated answers there, good or bad, to the day’s questions. Soujirou hurried along at his side without a word as he strode through the twilight in that direction.

“Katsu!” Yahiko cried from where he waited on the mess hall porch. He didn’t shout anything further, as the door guard turned to glare at him just for the name. As the two field-workers joined the boy where he stood, Yahiko said quietly, “Sano’s not in there, and I haven’t seen him.”

“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.

“Do you think he’s–”

“Are we eating tonight,” the guard interrupted almost at a growl, “or having a party on the porch?”

At this insistence, they all turned reluctantly to enter the building. Soujirou was inside and Katsu was just about to step through the doorway when Yahiko looked back over his shoulder, then hurled himself from Katsu’s side with a cry of “Sano!!!

Katsu whirled at the name to see Yahiko hugging the person in question, who looked as if he hadn’t even known the kid was there until just now. Sano’s shoulder was bandaged, and other than that he seemed unharmed.

“Where the hell have you been?” Yahiko was demanding.

Sano hugged him back, looking to Katsu and then to the door guard. “Come on,” he said. “I’m starving, so I’ll tell you inside.” The armed man, though glowering, was looking simultaneously curious, so Sano continued over-loudly, “Some guard’s gun went off and wounded me, so I got treated last night and worked in the wash-house today.” And pulling Yahiko off him, he moved from the post-dusk darkness into the dimly-lit interior of the mess hall.

“What did he do?” Katsu asked immediately when they were inside and making their way across the crowded room. Soujirou was already several spots ahead of them in the line, and gave a smile and a shrug when Katsu caught his eye.

“He did this,” Sano was answering, pointing to the bandage on his shoulder. “Then he asked me a bunch of questions, mostly… about this place and the people here, and me…”

“But why didn’t he…” Katsu began in a marveling whisper, cutting himself off before saying anything possibly incriminating in a crowded room. “If he just wanted information, he could have gotten it from any other guard, or the staff.”

Sano shook his head. “I have no idea. It was confusing as hell.” And, indeed, he had an air about him of underlying perplexity like Katsu had never seen.

Once they had their thick bread and thin soup, they made their way over to where Kaoru sat at the end of a bench saving places for them; Soujirou had found a spot across from her, and the two were conversing quietly. Katsu still couldn’t help but appreciate the concern Soujirou seemed to show for Kaoru. She looked paler than usual this evening, but her unhappy face took on an amazingly relieved expression when she saw Sano.

“Hey, missie,” the latter said softly as he took his seat beside her.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” she remarked. “I was getting ready to go find that guard and beat him up.”

Sano smiled. “Getting some of your spirit back, I see,” he said amusedly. “But he really wasn’t so bad.”

“I missed what happened,” Soujirou said with a smile of his own. “What guard are we beating up?”

“The one Sano spent the night with,” Katsu said quickly. “His gun went off by accident, and you can see the result.” He jerked a thumb at his friend.

Sano took the hint that Soujirou was not in the know and added, “But it’s really OK. I get to work in the wash-house for a while instead of baking in the sun.”

“The wash-house…” Soujirou said thoughtfully. “So you’ve been doing laundry all day? Please tell me they don’t make you do it by hand.”

“Nah, there’s machines in there,” Sano assured him. “Just no dryers. We gotta hang out all the clothes, with clothespins and everything, only it’s inside so nobody steals ’em, and the whole place smells like… well, wet laundry. Then we take the dry stuff down and fold it and organize it by size in this huge wall of compartments. It’s boring as shit, and I was getting my ear talked off all day too.” He gave a slight chuckle at the end of this explanation, but Katsu thought his mind was not entirely on this conversation, that something was wrong.

“By those nice old ladies, right?” Kaoru asked, looking amused in her turn.

“Well, yeah, and there’s some new girl too who just went on and on the whole day.” Sano started to reach up with his right hand, winced, and switched to his left to scratch his head. “She wasn’t actually talking to me, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear her.”

“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about,” Yahiko put in. “I saw her the other day when they were assigning her — the one with the long black braid?”

“Yeah, that’s her.”

“Well, I’m done,” Soujirou declared suddenly, standing and stepping back over the bench, then looking down at Katsu. “You coming?”

“You eat too fast,” Katsu replied with a slight grin. “We’ll be there when we’re done.”

“OK.” Soujirou leaned over suddenly and kissed Katsu on the mouth before turning and walking away.

Katsu was speechless for a very long moment while that brief pressure seemed to linger teasingly, worrisomely on his lips and the others stared at him, their previous conversation entirely forgotten.

“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.

“I…”

“Katsu, don’t,” Sano said. “You know what’ll happen.”

“It was just unexpected, that’s all!” Katsu protested. “And he’s only been here a couple days! It’s not like…”

“Yes, it is like,” Kaoru contradicted. “I can tell.”

“You know what’ll happen,” Sano repeated darkly. He did not add what Katsu knew he must be thinking: Don’t make me watch another one of my friends go through that.

“It’s nothing,” Katsu assured them, especially Sano, attempting at the same time to assure himself of the same thing. “Don’t worry about me, OK?” And he turned his full attention to eating as silence fell heavily among them.

Eventually they all finished, and with very few words rose together and left the hall — each of them, from what Katsu could gather by furtive glances, pensive with a different emotion: Yahiko seemed to feel awkward at that last exchange, not knowing what to think or say on the subject; Kaoru appeared very sad, even paler than before and moving at a slow pace — she understood better than anyone why Katsu should be careful; and Sano still looked confused, maybe a bit angry on top of it, and rather worried.

Katsu went to walk at his best friend’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low tone. “You seem…” But he didn’t quite know how to describe it.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Katsu thought Sano’s reply was a little absent.

“Are you sure? That weird guard… did he rape you?”

“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.

“But..?”

“But nothing. It was just strange and confusing is all.” Sano seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, for a few moments at least, long enough to reiterate his warning. “You just worry about yourself and pretty boy over there.”

“I told you, it’s nothing,” Katsu said with a slight frown. “You notice I didn’t tell him about last night.” OK, so that was a misleading statement, but if it made Sano feel better…

It appeared to. “Yeah. Good.” Sano had slowed, and now as Yahiko and Kaoru caught up with them he stopped walking entirely. “I’ve got call tonight, so I’ll see you all at showers tomorrow. Well, except you,” he added with an emotionless smile at Kaoru. “You I’ll see at dinner.”

Katsu shook his head sympathetically. A barracks-call was going to be even worse than usual for Sano with a shoulder he could barely use. “Good night,” he said.

As the other two echoed the goodbye, Sano turned away in the direction of the guards’ quarters while Katsu continued toward his own. It was troublesome that so few of the questions he’d awakened with today had been answered… not only that, but a new and totally unexpected issue had come to light: on top of being worried still that the guard might report what they’d been trying to do, now he had to figure out whether Soujirou might not already have led him onto the road to heartbreak.



The blank door opened at his knock to reveal the equally blank face of the guard within.

“Hey,” Sano greeted him, trying not to sound too unenthusiastic. The guard gestured him inside without a word, then returned to the task of undressing in which Sano had apparently interrupted him.

There was always a tired, almost morbid curiosity in Sano’s mind regarding the sexual organs of a good-looking guard that hadn’t fucked him before, so he waited in watchful silence to find out how well this one was hung. But for some reason, the man stopped at his boxers and turned to the slave. “Sit there,” he said in an emotionless tone, pointing not to the bed as Sano had expected but to the chair that every guard had in his room and few seemed actually to use.

“OK,” he replied, obeying.

The man looked him over slowly, not a trace of what he was thinking evident on his face. Finally, just when his scrutiny was beginning to make Sano a bit nervous, he spoke again. “My name is Aoshi. I expect you to do everything I say.”

Sano nodded. That was normal.

“You can sleep in that chair,” Aoshi continued, reaching up and turning off the light. “Just stay quiet.”

Sano blinked. That was not normal. He opened his mouth to question as he heard the unmistakable sound of the guard getting into bed, then forbore. It seemed as unwise to go against what Aoshi had just commanded as it seemed completely illogical for the guard to have called Sano here for no reason in the first place.

As he adjusted his position in the uncomfortable chair, his head was slowly starting to ache. Up until twenty-four hours ago, his life had been so straightforward… he hadn’t been confused about anything since Yahiko had tried to explain triangle geometry math to him a couple of months ago. And now…

He’d spent the day trying to ignore both the pain in his shoulder as he worked and the chattering braid-girl, and the whole time a wheel of confusion had been endlessly turning, endlessly repeating, in his tired mind:

Why would a guard that was willing to shoot him casually through the shoulder, willing to prevent him escaping this whorehouse of a life, hesitate to fuck him, though obviously wanting to, just because he was hurt? There was always the possibility that yellow-eyes found injuries or blood a turn-off, but he hadn’t seemed the squeamish type to Sano… and otherwise, such consideration seemed so nice… or at least reasonable…

But wouldn’t it also have been nice or at least reasonable to let him escape? Or if he wasn’t going to allow that, wouldn’t it have made sense to turn them in like a normal guard would? Well, some normal guards… Akamatsu wouldn’t have turned his favorite sex toys in to be executed. But yellow-eyes hadn’t wanted sex. No, even less comprehensibly, he had wanted it — as if Sano couldn’t tell after all these years when somebody did! — just hadn’t taken it. It really didn’t add up.

The answer, he thought, lay in that impossible promise. But that was as easily decoded as the rest of the man’s behavior. Why wouldn’t Sano regret it? What lay in his future important enough that it was worth shooting him to be sure he was here for, and not turning him in to be sure he was alive to see? Something that yellow-eyes knew about and would swear by, as if he, a mere guard, could personally guarantee it? Something better than freedom? And why, if it seemed so offhandedly impossible, was Sano inclined to believe it? He had no reason to trust the man, and several reasons to be suspicious of him…

But what exactly was there to suspect him of, when he’d done no worse than any other guard would have done, and in at least one respect better? Maybe Sano just wanted to believe, because it was better than the despair he might have felt at having been thwarted three yards from escape. But how could he believe something that he didn’t even understand?

He started to sigh, but then, remembering his situation, restrained it. Why the hell was he here, anyway? Of course Aoshi probably had no idea that Sano had already had one inexplicably sex-free night in a guard’s room and more than enough confusion for one week… but what in the world was the point of calling him here and then telling him to sit in a chair all night anyway? Did that turn him on or something?

This was an unpleasant way to try to sleep. Sano couldn’t say he’d rather have been raped, and at least in this case it wasn’t totally nonsensical — as Aoshi had shown no signs of actually wanting him — but still he could have done without additional strange behavior after last night. For a few moments he toyed with the notion that there might be some connection between the two circumstances, but abandoned it when he couldn’t come up with anything logical. Of course, none of this was logical…

Aoshi had probably just changed his mind about finding Sano attractive. But that wasn’t logical either, for not only had no other guard ever done so (or at least bothered to tell him, or not fuck him, if they had), but wouldn’t it also have made more sense to send Sano back to his quarters at this point?

If they’d been successful in escaping, Sano wouldn’t have had to puzzle over Aoshi’s behavior. He wouldn’t be desperately confused about anything. He wouldn’t be in quite so much pain; he wouldn’t be brooding in the dark over, of all stupid things at this moment, whether he was becoming less attractive and was that good or bad? and he certainly wouldn’t have a hole in his shoulder. But, then, he wasn’t going to regret all that.

Sitting like this really wasn’t the best way to encourage his wound to heal, and besides, he’d love to spend a couple of nights with his friends just to keep an eye on things. He restrained another sigh. This timing…

He’d seen the attraction between Katsu and Soujirou yesterday, but hadn’t really recognized it as such until today when Soujirou had startled him into looking back a little more critically. And though he should trust his best friend not to make any stupid mistakes, Katsu seemed to be in denial about it. Sano wasn’t sure what there was to be done, especially as Soujirou was in their quarters, but he just couldn’t let Katsu get attached to someone that was going to be sold in a month. It was as much for his own sake as for Katsu’s — how could he watch another friend break and fade away?

Of course, if they’d managed to escape, that wouldn’t have been a problem, now, would it? They would be on their way to Touscha or something, and Soujirou would be forgotten. Guess I’m not supposed to regret that, though, he reflected bitterly, ’cause you’ve got something better than not watching my friend get hurt, right?

“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.

In the darkness, Aoshi stirred, but whether he was actually awake and disturbed by Sano’s comment, the slave could not tell.

With yet another stifled sigh, he rearranged himself again and wondered for the second night in a row if he was going to get any sleep.

This question was answered when for the second morning in a row he awoke to the siren alone in the room. He groaned as he stood, for his shoulder was in agony. Today was a bathing day, and after that he thought he should go see the doctor again. He’d gone yesterday — she’d taken a quick look, applied some desperately painful alcohol of some sort, and changed the bandages — but he thought it was actually hurting more now than it had before. “Thanks a lot, Aoshi,” he grumbled.

The showers building adjoined the wash-house; it was a noisy, wet facility that always smelled of soap and mold and was a pain in the ass to clean if you happened to be assigned to it. Sano usually enjoyed bathing, which only happened every three days, but today he was uncertain about what to expect. What he found, though, wasn’t too surprising.

“Good morning, Sano!” Why did Soujirou have to be so damn cheerful? Especially when he was making no visible effort not to ogle Katsu?? The latter greeted him with a nod as Sano deliberately stood between them. Sano couldn’t help noticing that Katsu’s glance strayed more often than not in Soujirou’s direction as well.

Damn naked bathing was going to fuck everything up. Sano couldn’t help noticing also that Soujirou, though he finished cleaning up about twice as quickly as the others, stuck around for no apparent reason other than watching Katsu. Of course Yahiko was relatively oblivious to what was going on, but even he could sense the tension, and didn’t say much.

It was difficult for Sano to clean his shoulder without getting the bandages soaked, so he was doubly frustrated as well as in pain by the time he was finished. Well, at least he knew what he needed to do. Not that the doctor was likely to lessen the pain, and not that letting Soujirou know exactly how things had to be was likely to lessen the frustration… but it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?

It was a relief when everyone was dressed again, and just as they were all leaving the building was Sano’s moment. “Soujirou.”

The latter must have recognized the trouble in Sano’s tone, for his smile was worried as he turned toward him.

Sano gestured him three steps back into the entryway, making sure Katsu and Yahiko were out the door before speaking. “I like you, OK? But you’re exactly the kinda guy who’s gonna get sold first the next time there’s a dealer up here. So I want you to leave Katsu alone. See, I’ve already got one friend who’s dying from being lonely. I don’t think I can handle two.”

Soujirou nodded with a very serious expression. “I understand. All I can tell you is that you’re going to have to trust me.”

“What?” Sano glowered.

“Trust me,” Soujirou reiterated. “There’s no way I’m letting Katsu get hurt.”

The really strange thing was that with the way the guy said this, Sano had this uncanny urge to believe him. That actually made him angrier. “I don’t know where you came from and what kind of freedom you had there, but around here you ain’t in charge of whether or not someone else gets hurt. There’s no way you can promise not to let him get hurt and make it mean anything to me.”

Soujirou’s face did not change. “I’m sorry, Sano,” he said softly. “You really are just going to have to trust me.” And with that he turned and walked away.

“Soujirou!” Sano growled. “Who do you think you are? Dammit, Soujirou, come back here!”

When he did not find his order obeyed, Sano ran out the door after him. He came up short just outside, though, finding Katsu there and Soujirou standing with him. Well, it was no good continuing now; it would only start a fight for which he had neither the energy nor the heart. He merely let out an angry breath and hastened heavily away.

Katsu watched him head off toward the other side of the building with a frown, his heart heavy. He’d heard everything that had just been said; he wasn’t sure Sano had even attempted to keep it from his ears. And now he found he couldn’t quite turn toward Soujirou.

“Let’s go,” the latter said, taking a few steps in the direction of the fields.

The long-haired slave was torn between following Sano and following Soujirou. It didn’t help that either choice would end in awkwardness. He just didn’t know how he felt about this. On the one hand, he perfectly understood Sano’s reasoning and appreciated his concern; on the other, he also perfectly understood how things worked around here and wished Sano would have a little more faith in him. He wasn’t sure where the fact that he did like Soujirou fit in…

Finally, with an unhappy shake of his head, he joined Soujirou.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made things difficult for you,” the latter said after several silent paces.

Katsu sighed. “It’s OK. Sano always gets — Sano and I both always get pretty protective of each other.”

“I do like you a lot, you know,” Soujirou smiled over at him.

Was it a good or a bad sign that this made Katsu’s insides feel so damn warm? He cleared his throat. “That’s kind of… sudden.”

“We’re slaves,” Soujirou replied. “We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.”

“Sano’s right, though… you’re sure to get sold after harvest. Not falling in love at all is a better option.”

“And if we could escape?”

Katsu had to laugh, bitterly, at this unexpected and absurd question. “Don’t you start with that too. It doesn’t work. Period.”

With a return of that careful tone that suggested he wanted to know but wasn’t going to push too hard for it, Soujirou remarked questioningly, “You’ve had some kind of personal experience with that.”

Not sure he’d rather be discussing this than the philosophy of romantic attachment between slaves, Katsu was silent until they were safely working and he could make a reply with his back to Soujirou and no guards immediately present.

“When Sano and I first came here, we didn’t want to trust anyone. We’d been on the streets with only each other for so long… We were miserable and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us, and we had this attitude that anyone around us was out to make things worse for us somehow. But there was this man in our quarters named Souzou… He was just a slave like everyone else; I think he was from West Sorrat, and he’d been a slave all his life like most people… he wasn’t better educated than anyone else… didn’t have any particular abilities more than the rest of them…” Katsu trailed off with a slight shrug, feeling the ache that always accompanied this subject and surprised he’d even managed to get this far.

“But he was special somehow,” Soujirou prompted after a few moments, “right?”

“Yeah.” Katsu struggled to continue. “He didn’t seem like a slave. When you were around him, you didn’t get the sense that he belonged to someone, that his whole life had to be directed by a master of some kind. It was like he was a free man who was putting up with slavery, for now, for some very good reason of his own. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was just the way he was. Of course we couldn’t stay away from a guy like that.”

“Of course,” Soujirou echoed. “And he gave you the same attitude.”

“You think so?”

“You and Sano don’t seem so much like slaves either, you know.”

Katsu smiled faintly. “I don’t know if that’s because of Souzou or just because we’ve been here so long. We’re practically part of the staff these days.”

“True,” admitted Soujirou. “But go on.”

“Well, Souzou sort of took us in. He was like a father, almost, though as old as we were it really would be more like an older brother, I think. He helped us adjust, made us feel like part of a family with him and his friends. You wouldn’t think you’d want to feel like part of a family at a place like this, but it turns out it’s better than feeling like everyone you see is out to get you. Anyway he was better family than anything Sano or I had had, and we loved him like we were really related to him. We weren’t the only ones, either.”

Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.

“Eventually,” Katsu continued, steeling himself for the rest of the account, “he and some of the other adults started making plans to escape. A lot of them were thinking what you were talking about the other day: if there was some kind of mass break-out, the governments wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue anymore, or people would speak out against slavery, or something. A lot of the people in the quarters were going to go along with it, and it seemed like it was going to work pretty well… until we got near the main entrance and…” Even if a guard hadn’t passed by at that very moment, Katsu would not have been able to articulate the rest of those events.

“So you were actually there,” Soujirou marveled pityingly, quietly. “When you said before that almost everyone involved was killed, I guessed it must have been somebody close to you, but…”

“Yeah, we got to watch.” Katsu wondered if this pain lingered so much because of that — the first and most traumatizing event in his life — more than any other reason. He couldn’t say another word for a while, and Soujirou did not make any further inquiries.

“The only reason we survived,” continued Katsu at last, figuring he might as well finish the story, “is that Souzou sent us off into the trees when he realized what was about to happen. We didn’t want to go — Sano especially didn’t want to leave him — but what could a couple of kids do? It would probably have been better if Souzou hadn’t let us come along in the first place.” He added quietly, “Or maybe if we’d been shot along with him.”

“You don’t really think so,” Soujirou answered immediately in the same quiet tone. “You don’t really think you’d be better off dead, or you wouldn’t be here.”

At this assessment Katsu gave a wry smile. “I can’t say that for sure. It’s possible I just never thought about it enough to know one way or another.”

“Or maybe you live for people like Kaoru and Yahiko.”

This idea was a slight surprise that Katsu had to ponder for a while. And into his thoughtful silence Soujirou continued, “Because you must realize that you’re doing the same thing for Yahiko that that man did for you…”

Right down to trying to escape and getting shot, even. But things had gone better for them than they had for Souzou; did that mean there was more hope for Yahiko? It was a fanciful idea that smacked of some kind of silly karmic theory or other, and yet it was, strangely enough, vaguely comforting.

“Maybe,” Katsu admitted with a smile as he continued working in an oddly improved mood. “Maybe.”


And the Moments Drift Like Snow


Three. Hours.

Three hours, consisting each of sixty minutes, for a total of one hundred and eighty, which was ten thousand eight hundred seconds if you wanted to calculate that out — which Saitou didn’t need to, as he’d counted each as it passed. For three long hours he sat in his room, scarcely able to breathe, cold, silent, still, struggling against a deadly pattern of thought from which a brief, inadvertently well timed visit had pulled him for the course of the morning. As he found himself slipping back into it in the afternoon, he fought. Now that he had a weapon with which to combat it, the battle was fierce and attenuated.

Although he wasn’t sure exactly what he would do, he knew survival would be part of it. Now that his world had in some measure regained its wholeness, or at least now that he was seeing things in less of a miserable haze, he wondered for a second time if he’d really been serious about suicide. He believed he had, but didn’t know if even before the visit it would have been right. He didn’t quite know how he felt about anything at this point, and he hated not knowing.

But he had to see him again. It seemed he would be allowed to associate with his ex-lover, and he knew he needed to contact him as soon as possible, if only to prevent himself from going crazy or sinking back into the suicidal mindset. He wasn’t sure how he would make this happen, but he knew he must.

To court Sano before, he’d merely made a point of showing in places the roosterhead went, knowing Sano was interested in him already, counting on the combination of constant proximity and previous desire to do the trick. That wouldn’t work this time, as Himura was still likely — indeed, more likely than ever, and with good reason — to frown upon his seeking Sano’s company.

He didn’t know what to think of Himura. He knew exactly how he felt about him — he hated him, and that wouldn’t be changing any time soon — but wasn’t sure how he should react to the choices that man had made. Naturally he couldn’t be pleased with the seemingly selfish decision to withhold from Sano the entire truth about their relationship — but how much that decision pleased Saitou was not the issue; whether or not it had been the right course was the important thing. Just because Himura had probably jumped at the chance to keep Saitou out of Sano’s heart, in order to attempt to put himself there, didn’t necessarily mean he had the wrong idea about Sano being better off without Saitou in his life.

The officer still wasn’t sure who had informed his former lover of their previous ‘friendship,’ but, given his belief in Kenshin as the mastermind behind the neat deception currently being inflicted on Sano, Saitou had to think that half-lie, like the rest, had had at least its origins with the rurouni. And why? Himura must disapprove, and to give his rival such a second chance… why? Saitou doubted it was out of kindness toward him, but perhaps it had been out of kindness toward Sano. Did he dare hope Sano missed him somehow, perhaps not knowing what he lacked, and that Himura had been driven, eventually, to that carefully curated form of the real story in order to placate him?

More likely it was a reminder from Himura to keep quiet about the truth.

And maybe he’d jumped to a false conclusion anyway in assuming Kenshin wanted Sano. Maybe he’d been thinking too jealously, had misread the looks, had attributed to desire what was merely natural protectiveness. Perhaps the rurouni’s motives were purer than Saitou thought, and his discernment should therefore be lent that much more credence — certainly more than Saitou’s heavily biased judgment. He didn’t know. Normally he would trust his instincts in such a matter, but he found he couldn’t bring himself to rely on his own understanding at the moment. He just couldn’t be sure.

That was what it came down to: he didn’t know that Himura wasn’t entirely correct in the way he was handling this. And as Saitou had turned Sano over to Himura’s care in the one hour when Sano had been unable to care for himself — that is, the one hour when Saitou, as his lover, might have been justified in making decisions on his behalf — he felt he’d waived his right to protest. A lover’s rights would not ordinarily be so lightly repealed, but he’d given up that status as well when he’d put Sano into Kenshin’s arms.

Eventually it seemed best to let Himura have his way — at least temporarily — and to keep up with the deception that catered to Sano’s repression. If Saitou could spend some time with Sano, as it appeared he would be allowed to, he could hopefully, through observation, form a less clouded opinion of the rightness of the situation and plan his actions accordingly.

And meanwhile, at the very least, Sano would still be a part of his life, something he’d feared was impossible. At least he had that to keep him alive.

This same life, he was reflecting in response to a sense of duty that at the moment he found almost painful, was something he should really be getting back to… now he’d decided he was definitely going to be living it.

They rarely questioned his actions at the station. As a matter of fact, though they unfailingly greeted him when he entered and said goodbye when he left and jumped to answer any question he might have or follow any order he might give, few of them there were even willing to look him in the eye. So his return to work, even after so many days’ absence, went unchallenged. Two or three gazes followed him into his office, but nobody said a word.

“Hey, boss, where you been?” Chou greeted him, glancing up from whatever he was doing, which looked to be essentially nothing. “Chief told me to send you his way whenever you showed up.”

Saitou nodded, casting dull eyes around at the room. Rousing himself after several long moments, he asked, “Any progress?”

“Actually, maybe yes,” Chou replied, beginning to dig through a nearby stack of papers.

It was with unexpectedly engaged attention that Saitou stepped forward to see what Chou might have found, and he realized he had subconsciously been steeling himself for a future devoid of all interest consequent upon the loss of Sano. The discovery that he was still intrigued by, still felt a sense of purpose concerning the issues he dealt with in his job was both reassuring and painful. On the one hand, the fire of Aku Soku Zan, whatever color it burned these days, was gratifying and familiar heat. On the other hand, Sano had meant more to him even than that, and it felt like betrayal to be taking comfort in another pleasure, to find something else meaningful, however important it had always been and still was to him.

Eventually, as he started to fall back into the customary pattern of work, Chou’s initial statement — that the chief wanted to speak to him — registered in his mind. This was something he would not so easily have forgotten had he been mentally on top of things, and he wondered how long it would take him to get it together. He wouldn’t lie to himself; it was entirely possible that would never happen.

The police chief was merely suffering from acute curiosity about Saitou’s orders concerning the arsonist. Considering the situation’s less-than-brilliant resolution and Saitou’s disappearance in the midst of the action, this was understandable. With forced composure and fighting off desperate unhappiness Saitou informed him it had been in pursuit of a lead regarding his current case. That was enough for the chief, who knew full well Saitou had duties separate from and often superseding precinct business, and it was also the truth, but Saitou still didn’t like to be reminded of the fact that everything had been his fault.

Moving slowly back to his own office from that unpleasant interview, wherein his conscience had berated him while his superior had not a word of reproof, it occurred to him it would probably be wise to tell Chou at least part of what had happened. With the broom-head’s tendency to run his mouth, Saitou couldn’t count on chance to keep Sano away or the secrets safe. Even if he did decide Sano needed to be told the truth, he wouldn’t want it done haphazardly by Chou.

Then, maybe he just wanted to talk about it with someone. He didn’t like that thought — it made him feel very weak — but he wasn’t going to deny the possibility. And maybe he was weak. He wouldn’t deny that one either.

Weeks were passing with their usual quickness, hastening toward winter, and Sano was dissatisfied with his life. At times he even felt downright unhappy. He supposed this was natural for someone with as large a memory gap as he had, but (also naturally) he didn’t want to accept it at that and just continue placidly living on the border of sorrow.

He’d sensed all along, and far from indistinctly, that there was something his friends weren’t telling him, but his brain had exhausted itself trying to guess what kind of thing it might be. Kenshin had absolutely refused to open up, maneuvering his way out of every conversation on the topic with a slickness Sano would not (but probably should) have expected of him. So continuing to conjecture that this big secret was something of which Kenshin did not approve seemed to be a good line of thinking.

But what could it be? He’d already logically ruled out nearly everything he could come up with. So, since the only thing Kenshin made any overt signs of disapproving was Saitou, Sano assumed the secret pertained to him — or at least that Saitou also knew what it was, and Kenshin worried he might reveal it.

Therefore, sensibly, Sano spent as much time with the police officer as he could.

It was a little amusing and a little disturbing how startled Saitou seemed the first few times Sano showed up — amusing because he’d rarely seen Saitou startled, disturbing because, damn! had he really been sick enough that for someone to see him walking around alive and well could be consistently shocking? Other than that surprise, Saitou didn’t seem to mind Sano randomly appearing at his side at any given time; and that Saitou made no discernable objection stood as fairly convincing evidence they really had been friends before (which Sano at first couldn’t quite bring himself to believe): there was no way the man would put up with Sano’s near-stalking if he regarded him with nothing more than tolerance.

Yet Saitou was different than Sano remembered him. His previous intensity was… not gone, Sano had corrected his initial assessment after a few meetings, but restrained somehow. This, even when Saitou was at work or tossing unusually mild insults in Sano’s direction, left him with something like placidity, even gentleness, that seemed un