A Lois Date

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much.

Lois is too sick to join her boyfriends on the date she had planned. And though they, of course, enjoy each other’s company in any context, can they enjoy the type of evening she had in mind without her?

 

 

A Clark Date usually took place in some exotic locale that his power of high-speed flight made easily accessible: a picnic on the Serengeti with no worries about their safety in the presence of all kinds of wildlife; a swim in a secluded cove at some tiny tropical island followed by Lois and Bruce making love on their beach towel while Clark fondly looked on (or, rarely, joined in); a hike up a Tibetan mountainside with a gorgeous misty expanse beneath them and no concern about how much trouble it might take them to get back… In fact there was often a lot of nature involved in a Clark Date: aspects of a planet he was proud to call home.

A Bruce Date, on the other hand, tended to involve a lot of money: Bruce’s secondary weapon of choice. Galas, premiers, openings, exclusive red carpet events, and ridiculously fashionable private cruise ship parties off foreign shores where a third of the guests were royalty and the swimming pool was filled with champagne or something — Lois and Clark hadn’t even owned formal attire snazzy enough to hang out in the kitchen at such gatherings prior to Bruce’s buying it for them just so he could show them off at every rich venue he could think of and enjoy removing it in their private, unnecessarily opulent suite later.

(It was either this or downright stakeouts, waiting for some villain or other to show their face so it could be punched through a wall, with Lois almost frantically noting down details of the encounter for her write-up of it after the fact.)

But tonight… tonight was a good, old-fashioned Lois Date: rambling and casual. She very much enjoyed the other styles of romantic outing, but, unable to come close to matching either of her boyfriends in their chosen areas, had instead made her specialty the paying of homage to the long American traditional of cheap middle-class relaxation.

Of course it was difficult to get either of them to relax. Bruce’s definition of ‘casual’ was ‘going places as Bruce instead of Batman,’ and since Bruce Wayne was a high-society fellow, just convincing him to wear a polo instead of a button-up with a tie (and probably a suit coat) was an ordeal. And Clark’s idea of dressing down was a colored long-sleeved shirt instead of one of the improbably opaque white ones he usually favored — a style of garment he couldn’t abandon in public under any circumstances.

And both of them, no matter the context, spent their time subtly watching for signs of trouble. While in Metropolis, Bruce checked his phone for notifications from Dick or Barbara every five minutes or so; and Clark’s hearing spanned most of whatever area they happened to occupy, listening for someone to rescue or punch through a wall.

In fact Lois was certain they were doing exactly that right now.

*

“Stephanie didn’t react very naturally to the legal proceedings.” Bruce stepped aside after passing through the theater’s exit, pausing by the outside wall and a glowing movie poster advertising some nauseatingly bright computer-animated gimmick-flick, and pulled out his phone. “I’ve known plenty of spouses of accused criminals; they never act like that.”

Clark joined him with a smile, though it did turn a bit wry as he glanced at the poster against which Bruce was now silhouetted. “Not everyone is like…” His smile widened. “…some of the people we know.”

Bruce was not smiling. A frown was his typical reaction to updates from home.

“Besides, she knew all along he was innocent,” Clark persisted.

“Not all along. She had moments of doubt.”

“I don’t think so. I think she was just confused because she was so attracted to Roger in the middle of everything.”

Finally one corner of Bruce’s mouth curled up. “You always have to put a positive spin on things.”

“I believe the best of people,” Clark replied righteously, though his eyes twinkled.

Now that he’d turned the sound back on, Bruce’s phone chimed.

Familiar with Bruce’s various subdued text-tones, Clark said with some disapproval, “I thought she said she was going to take a nap.”

“She set it to send on a timer,” Bruce observed. “It’s instructions on how to proceed.” Again one corner of his mouth pulled up — the opposite corner, the Lois corner — as he added, “Looks like she’s not letting us off the hook for the rest of the evening either.”

“I’m game,” Clark declared. “Where to next?”

“Frederick’s,” relayed Bruce, “to discuss the movie.”

“It was a good movie.” Clark glanced across the parking lot, locating the restaurant in question without bothering to hone his vision for a closer examination of its distant sign. Lois had sent them with a gift certificate for the place, and it expired tomorrow — which (along with movie tickets purchased in advance) was the reason she’d insisted they go on this date without her.

Bruce raised a warning hand. “Don’t discuss the movie any more until we start dinner. Just talking about Stephanie’s attraction to Roger a second ago already put us off schedule.”

Clark laughed, and they started the relatively long walk from the theater through half a million parked cars over to Frederick’s.

There, they stood on the sidewalk and more or less gaped upward. Lois hadn’t mentioned this was a game-filled, child-filled arcade-style pizza restaurant with disquieting animatronic characters peeking around every corner.

“Bruce,” Clark said, watching colors race in a dizzying pattern around the neon letters of the sign, “isn’t there a heinous stigma that associates gay men with pedophilia?”

“I’m surprised you even acknowledge there are people so ignorant and cruel in this world,” Bruce replied dryly as three screaming children raced past them toward the doors they two adults hesitated to approach. “But, yes. I’m afraid it applies to bisexual men and panromantic asexual Kryptonians too.” Here Bruce’s phone chimed again. Not yet having returned it to his pocket, he was able to read out the message immediately. “Now that you’ve rejected Frederick’s, cross the street to Wild Burgers. Make sure one of you gets the Piggyback, because that’s my favorite.

Both brows raised, Clark laughed incredulously, and Bruce even joined him for a moment. “She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much, then began scanning the even more distant shopping center across the street to find the new and hopefully much more appropriate restaurant. This time he was careful to study it in detail.

Bruce nodded, and with a half-reluctant gesture finally pocketed his phone.

A few minutes later, though, he was giving the menu at Wild Burgers a very flat look indeed.

Clark, probably examining the same item Bruce was, broke the silence with, “You know, I think she meant–”

“Yes,” Bruce said in as flat a tone as his gaze. “I know what she meant.”

“We have to do it for her,” Clark insisted, a grin growing, despite his best efforts, on his face. “If she were here–”

“But she’s not here.” It was impossible to best Superman in a contest of pointed gazes, but this wasn’t the first time Batman had tried. “Just doing her best to torment us from a distance.”

“It won’t be torment,” Clark assured him, getting to his feet. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Bruce snorted. “The more attention we draw to ourselves, the more likely we are to end up in the tabloids again.” But he followed his own advice and gave in without making a scene that would only render the entire ordeal even more eye-catching, standing also and dropping the menu that read, among other things, Give your dining companion a piggyback along Piggyback Lane and win a free Piggyback Burger!*

Naturally ‘Piggyback Lane’ snaked around and among tables throughout the entire restaurant. The latter, though not exactly packed, was full enough that a cheer and much applause and laughter broke out the moment Clark and Bruce stopped at its head, which was marked with a checkered flag pattern on the floor. Sighing, trying not to look too sour and give these people even more of a show, Bruce obediently jumped onto Clark’s back as soon as it was turned. All employees present began clapping rhythmically with a somewhat spooky spontaneity and unison, in the which they were joined by most of the diners, and the race for a free burger was on.

Oh, well. At least Clark’s hands were on his butt.

Of course Bruce’s weight was nothing at all to Superman, and hanging on for the duration of the ride was no trouble whatsoever for Batman, but Clark did pretend to lose his balance a couple of times and come close to failing the challenge like the superdork he was. And the moment they’d looped back around and touched the checkered spot on the carpet again, the entire room erupted into cheers. Bruce saw with resigned dismay that many of the other restaurant patrons were lowering cell phones; he wondered, as he hopped down and allowed Clark to lift his hand into the air in a signal of victory, if any of them had any idea how valuable their photos and footage might prove.

Next they had to suffer through congratulations from the staff and questioning on whether the documentation of their jaunt could be added to the Wall of Fame (which request Bruce managed to deny before Clark could good-naturedly agree), and their drink orders were taken and at last they were allowed to sit down again in relative peace. Then it was merely a question of who would be eating the Piggyback Burger and who got to order something of his own choosing.

“Lois doesn’t even like Canadian bacon,” Bruce complained as he examined the components of the sandwich they’d won.

“But you do,” Clark reminded him. Bruce pointed an accusatory finger at him, found he had nothing to say, and subsided.

Once Clark had ordered his meal, and some extra fries for Bruce that came to just about as much (which was how the place could afford to give away free Piggybacks), he sat back and remarked, still trying to restrain the same grin from earlier, “It was a good movie, though.”

Bruce pursed his lips and then admitted, “Yes. Lois would have liked it.”

“We’ll have to take her to it later on.”

Bruce nodded, and pulled out his phone. Honestly at the moment he rather hoped the Scarecrow had just broken out of Arkham again. No such luck. In reality, though, had he found an alert to that or similar purpose, he would have been incredibly bitter that it hadn’t come five minutes earlier.

“You know Lois might have made us do that anyway if she’d been here.”

The Lois corner of his mouth quirking again, Bruce acknowledged the point. “But it wouldn’t have looked quite so ridiculous if it had been clear she was prodding us into it.”

“You care about public opinion too much.”

“You only have the luxury of saying that because you’re everyone’s darling. Nothing spoils your reputation.”

Clark lowered his voice. “Am I your darling?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Does it feel nice to be able to win arguments that way?”

Clark grinned. “Back to the movie we’ve been instructed to discuss.”

“Yes, it was a good movie,” Bruce harrumphed, sounding, despite being glad to change the subject, as if Clark had dragged the concession from him with red-hot pincers. “I enjoy watching normal people deal with fairly normal problems every now and then.”

“And I like to see happy endings: good people getting what they deserve and living happily ever after.”

“You say that as if you don’t still believe in happy endings in real life.”

With a raised brow Clark replied, “It’s dangerous to imply that you don’t when you’re talking to your boyfriend.”

Bruce hmph‘d again. “I believe in happy middles; that’s all I’ll give you.”

“If Lois were here, she wouldn’t let you get away with saying that.” And Clark’s eyes had that sad slant to them that appeared there whenever Bruce’s fatalism reared its head.

Whatever each believed about the outcome of the endeavors and the course of the emotional fulfillment of sentient beings, they both liked Diet Coke, and once it had appeared at their table they turned their conversation back to specific events and character behaviors in the film.

Eventually, around the time their food came out, Bruce received another text from Lois: I hope the movie was good. And by now you better have scored a free Piggyback Burger. The next step is for Bruce to throw French fries and Clark to catch them in his mouth.

Appearing much more willing to throw food at his boyfriend than to be carried through a crowded restaurant to general acclamation and the clicking of cell phone cameras, Bruce nodded after he read this aloud.

“I should have seen that coming,” Clark said with some regret. “She always picks bits of pickle out of the relish and flicks them at me when we grab hot dogs on the way out of the Planet. I have to catch them, or else they’ll stain my shirt.”

“Sounds like ketchup is in order this evening, then,” Bruce murmured, pouring a generous helping into the basket next to his fries.

“But my shirt today is red,” Clark announced in triumph.

“Better catch anyway to protect innocent bystanders.” And Bruce lobbed the first missile.

It came as no surprise whatsoever that, as longsuffering as he’d sounded describing the recurring hot dog debacle, Superman was ridiculously, effortlessly good at catching food in his mouth no matter how clumsily or with what attempt at a curve it was thrown. Beginning to see why Lois enjoyed this so much, Bruce continually widened the radius of his attacks and the spin he put on each fry, until finally Clark had to jump to his feet to snag one that had flown upward at a dangerously acute angle. At this point he noticed more definitively how many eyes were on them and his uncanny skills, and he cleared his throat and leaned forward as he resumed his seat.

“Stop,” he admonished quietly, perhaps regretting showing off his preternatural fry-catching abilities to the uninitiated masses. “Too many people are watching.”

“You do care about public opinion,” was Bruce’s wry reply.

“Only because…” Clark let out a defeated breath and smiled. “All right, point taken.”

The Clark corner twisted upward in minor triumph, though Bruce reflected that Lois had really been the one to make the point.

*

How she had timed these messages so precisely neither detective Bruce nor superhuman Clark had any idea. The message that came in just as they left the restaurant said, Now if you head south on that same street, there’s a park you can walk through. Don’t forget to stop by the car for gift cards. And Clark was once again shaking his head in admiration.

“Lois thinks you’ve cleaned up these streets a lot better than you have,” Bruce muttered, “if she’s walking through parks in this part of town at night.”

“Lois goes wherever she wants to go,” Clark said ruefully. Bruce nodded with an expression matching the tone.

As they moved down the line of shops in the little strip mall approaching where they would cross the street back toward the movie theater parking lot, Clark paused. “Isn’t Lois a fan of that series?”

Bruce looked where he pointed. “Yes. I often question her taste.”

“Dangerous territory again there, babe.” Clark approached the crane game that stood in the entry of the store they’d been passing, and examined the stuffed characters within. Bruce, who loathed being called ‘babe’ or any other twee little term of endearment (as Clark well knew), followed.

“Yeah, I think that’s from that awful Netflix superhero show,” Bruce said with distaste. He glanced at his phone again and added, “And she wants us to hold hands.”

“Not yet.” Clark was digging through his pockets. “She’s sick; I want to bring her back something.”

“We’ll stop on the way home and pick her up something better than that,” Bruce insisted. “These games are mostly unwinnable anyway.”

Clark gave him a stubborn look. “For me? You really think so?”

It was in situations like this that Bruce outright grinned. Clark always wished it could happen at less sardonic moments and be a more straightforward, happy expression, but in any case liked to see his boyfriend smiling. “Go ahead. It’s your…” Bruce studied the machine. “…dollar-fifty a try.”

It turned out to be Bruce’s dollar-fifty a try, since Clark had no cash but the machine did take cards. Displaying a clear lack of confidence in Clark’s crane game skills despite his ability to catch ketchup’d French fries flawlessly no matter how they spun, Bruce loaded the machine with $30 — which Clark was certain was $28.50 more than he needed to get Lois a tacky little present as a memento of the date she’d been too sick to accompany them on except in uncannily accurate spirit. Oh, well; at least it would be a nice surprise for the next kid that came along and wanted to play.

Yet he found it took three tries simply to get a feel for the jerky, irregular controls, and thereafter another couple to sense the heft of the stuffed toy, which was lighter than he’d expected. Then, despite his minutely fine muscular regulation capable of far more crucial tasks than this, he just couldn’t manage to put together the three process components of aiming the crane correctly at the desired target, grabbing the stupid thing without it slithering free, and keeping it in the crane’s grasp while the arm stuttered its way back to the drop point. And he didn’t think it was his reflexes that were suffering in this instance.

“This is a very Lois Date activity,” Bruce commented after while, that sarcastic grin still on his face.

“It’s not responding right,” Clark groused. “It doesn’t react the same way every time.”

“I told you these games are mostly unwinnable.” Bruce shifted to peer down through the glass, trying to get a glimpse of the machine’s internal workings. “Would you like me to hack it for you?”

That was Bruce’s version of sweetness, but, while Clark appreciated the offer, he had to refuse. “I don’t like cheating.”

“I know you don’t,” Bruce replied with a shrug and then a clap on Clark’s back that turned into a brief warm rub of hand down his boyfriend’s spine. “Even when the game is cheating you. I hope you like giving up better, though, since I’m not putting more than thirty bucks into this thing.”

“As if you’d ever notice it was gone,” Clark murmured.

“No, I wouldn’t. But according to Lois’s plan, we should be holding hands by now, and instead you’re holding that stupid joystick.”

Clark threw him a smile, but kept trying at the game. And eleven attempts later, his patience paid off: the rigged device relented long enough for him to deliver the prize into the plastic shaft that led to the collection trough. There was a breathless moment wherein they feared it might rebound off the shaft’s wall and fall back into the sea of stuffed animals, but a jolt to the machine that definitely wasn’t caused by Bruce leaning hard against it at exactly the right place at exactly the right instant forced it the correct direction, and Clark was able to extract it at last.

And then…

“Actually I think that’s not from the show we were thinking of.” Bruce was peering critically at the outfit the super-deformed character wore. “That’s… from something different… I don’t know what.”

“I think you’re right,” Clark replied. And they both started to laugh.

“Now you have a story to go with the gift,” said Bruce, and, after a quick glance around, pecked Clark on the cheek. “Speaking of which, let’s go get those gift cards.” He was obviously tired of hanging out beside a gerrymandered game he wasn’t allowed to render more winnable.

Not long after, Clark sent his gaze through the thick layer of spray paint across a tall wooden sign to determine the name of the park they intended to enter. Apart from this graffiti, the place didn’t look too bad; a second sign, also unreadable to those that didn’t have x-ray vision, mentioned the name of the organization that had most recently volunteered to help keep the place clean, and it appeared the group was doing its job. A third sign, half of its letters peeled off and others painted in to change its meaning entirely, had originally begged park-goers to clean up after themselves and their dogs.

“Looks promising,” Bruce remarked.

“I’m not sure if I should ask ‘for what?'”

Bruce gave one of his sardonic grins and took Clark’s hand. They’d forgotten as they walked this direction that they were supposed to be doing this, and now needed to make up for lost time.

Like so many Metropolis parks in the evening, this one was dotted with homeless people settling down for the night or already resting on or under benches and trees. Some had ragged sleeping bags, some rickety shopping carts filled with all their worldly goods, and some slept curled up as tightly as possible with no particular means of warmth. The weather was mild, but that didn’t make it comfortable at such late hours not to have a wrapper of some sort.

Which was where the gift cards came in. If Clark remembered correctly, they were up to $150 each by now, their value having elevated significantly when Bruce had found out about this little hobby of Lois’s and insisted on joining in. That could buy someone a decent blanket, some new shoes, some non-perishable food… or several twelve-packs, if they so preferred. Bruce always anticipated the latter, Clark the former, while Lois maintained a position in between and added it wasn’t their business anyway what someone did with a freely given gift.

Stealth was one area in which Batman consistently bested Superman. They took turns trying to sneak the gift cards onto the persons or into the personal effects of the homeless occupants of the park as they passed them, but, though Clark could fly noiselessly, especially sans cape, he often couldn’t render his steps nearly so devoid of sound, and he certainly wasn’t a trained pickpocket. It didn’t help that Bruce could not, at times, entirely restrain his snorts of laughter at the startled reactions of the recipients Clark disturbed with his overly straightforward attempts. Meanwhile he slipped in and out without the rustle of a hair, leaving a little prize that would hopefully be surprising and gratifying when its beneficiary eventually awoke without his assistance. And every time they regrouped on the path, they joined their hands again before moving on.

They’d nearly used up the stock of gift cards they’d retrieved from the glove box of Clark’s car (in which Lois had insisted they come because Bruce’s was too nice for this kind of date) when footsteps that had been moving quietly behind them ever since they’d passed a dark set of bathrooms abruptly took to a run. There was the snicking sound of a switchblade opening, the faint prick of its point against Clark’s back, and a foul-breath’d voice mumbling, “Give me whatever you got.”

Clark started to look around in preparation for reaching around and defusing the situation, but Bruce, with a tired expression, lifted a hand. “I got this one.”

This was Bruce being sweet again: he knew how much it pained Clark to have to be harsh with misguided youth. And the undercover Batman had the guy on the grass beside the path in a move so quick and smooth it was nearly invisible, pinning him in an easy wrestling hold with one arm and a knee and pressing the would-be mugger’s own knife to his neck.

“Kid, this is stupid,” he said quietly in his Bruce voice but with the tiniest hint of Batman laid over the top. “Say you successfully robbed us — say we each had a couple hundred dollars. What then? A few grams of whatever you’re on and a pizza, and then you’re right back out here trying this again. And I don’t think I need to tell you that I could kill you right now.” This completely false threat undoubtedly rang entirely true with that blade pressing into his skin.

“So you’re out here running the risk that you’ll pick the wrong target every night for what? A couple of highs, a little bit of food? If you’re going to put your life on the line, do something big. Rob a bank; make a hundred thousand. Steal a really nice car and sell it. Genetically engineer your face onto all the fish in the harbor and trademark it.

Or–” here Bruce produced a gift card out of nowhere and tucked it into the back pocket of the young man’s ragged jeans– “go to Wal-Mart, get yourself some clean clothes, and some deodorant, and a toothbrush, and then head over to the rehab center on Patriot Avenue. Tell them Bruce Wayne sent you.” In a light motion he was off the kid and standing straight again. “It’s up to you,” he finished, and tossed the assailant’s knife straight down so it stuck, quivering, into the turf just in front of the kid’s wide, terrified eyes.

Bruce’s own eyes were dark as the night as he turned away and rejoined Clark on the sidewalk. Clark took his hand and held it tighter than ever, but said nothing. Sometimes there was nothing to say.

After they’d walked on for a minute or two, Bruce reached across his body to extract his cell phone without giving up Clark’s grip. It had chimed around the time when he’d first jumped the kid, and now he finally checked what Lois’s next instructions were. “By now you’ve probably had an attempted mugging,” he read out, “so you should call it a night.

*

The timed text messages had allowed Lois to nap with a clear conscience, knowing her men would dutifully follow her orders; but the laptop on her nightstand had continually awakened her again, knowing her story for tomorrow wasn’t getting done. What she needed was a stronger cold medicine that would knock her out reliably.

At about the time she expected Bruce and Clark to be done with their date, she gave in. She wanted to see them when they got back anyway, so she might as well work on her story until then. Seeking a comfortable angle at which to use the computer from bed for more than a minute or two proved futile, so she carried it into the office and sat down at her desk. The room was a little chilly, despite her fleece pajamas, but she shouldn’t have to wait too long.

“Why am I not surprised to find you in here?”

She looked up from her typing, a little startled that she’d lost track of time, to find Clark and Bruce in the doorway appearing handsome and (at least Clark) not too disgruntled after the outing she’d sent them on. “Because you–” But she was unable to finish her suggestion as she turned to her sleeve for a fit of coughing.

“You’re shivering,” Bruce added, coming around the desk to shake his head at her. When, trachea clear for the moment, she looked up at him, he bent down to steal a kiss.

“Yes, I’m shivering!” she said in a tone of protest, pushing his face away. “I’m undoubtedly contagious too!”

“Lois,” he chided. “I’m Batman. I’m not going to catch cold.”

“That’s not true and you know it.”

“It is for me,” said Clark from her other side, and leaned over for a kiss of his own.

Lois laughed, which turned into another cough, which pushed Clark’s face away in turn. “It is not,” she insisted when she could, “because you’re not Batman.”

“Semantics.” Clark waved a hand, then swept Lois up out of the chair into his arms.

“My story–” she said, reaching futilely for the computer.

“I’ll finish it for you,” Clark assured her. “You weren’t thinking of going in tomorrow, were you?”

She sighed and laid her head against his chest. “Well, I was, but now I think I see how this is going.”

“We followed your instructions all night,” Bruce pointed out, “so now it’s your turn.”

“I guess that’s only fair,” Lois mumbled into Clark’s red shirt. “As long as your instructions are for us all to cuddle up together tonight.”

“I was–”

She lifted her head and fixed him with a glare. “Bruce, if you say you’re planning to go back to Gotham and leave us here with me sick, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Bruce gave a defeated sigh, but smiled as he did so. “I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he said, instead of arguing, “and you can take some of the cough syrup we brought you.”

She returned his smile.

Soon Lois was sipping honey ginger tea that Bruce always made surprisingly well, while her boyfriends changed into pajamas in preparation for the cuddling she had more or less demanded in exchange for her calling in sick to work in the morning. She was pleased to see them putting on the matching sets she’d bought them when (after her initial exploration of each) she’d realized they were just about the same size; it was so cute to have them both in the striped pants and tops with the monogrammed pockets.

“We brought you a few things besides the cold medicine,” Clark told her, setting a shopping bag down near where she sat in bed. He began lifting items out of it. “A book if you’re up for reading tomorrow… this stuffed thing… a warm pack for your throat if you need it… and some animal crackers.”

Lois’s eyes widened covetously when she saw this last offering, and she grabbed the package without yet paying much attention to the other gifts. She hesitated before opening it, though, and finally said with a sigh, “I don’t want to eat these in bed and then roll in the crumbs all night.”

“I’ll catch them for you,” promised Clark. “Go ahead.”

Before she could do anything else, Lois had to cough and clear her throat several times, and decided to deal with the tea and the cold medicine — the really good stuff; these guys knew what she needed — prior to opening the cookies. Then, with Clark and Bruce right up against her and encircling her back with their near arms, she dug in. “I love these,” she mumbled as she began shoving pink- and white-coated animal crackers into her mouth, always selecting the ones with the most sprinkles first.

“I know,” Clark said, darting out a hand to catch the first of the crumbs (so small she couldn’t even see them) and a few dislodged sprinkles that fell. “Bruce wanted to get you some kind of expensive cherry cordials with rum in them, but I thought these were more appropriate for the kind of date we were on.”

Lois groaned. “Cherry cordials with rum in them sound amazing,” she said through a full mouth. And when Bruce made a triumphant sound and kissed her on the cheek she added, “But I think you were right, Clark. Besides, that cough syrup already has alcohol in it.”

Bruce sounded a little grumbly as he said, “He did let me choose the book.” And he too bit into a cookie, with perhaps just a little more force than necessary, sending a spray of crumbs out into the air for Clark to catch in a movement quicker than sight.

Turning her attention to the rest of her gifts, Lois picked up the book. Then she gave Bruce a skeptical smile and a raised brow. “And you chose a romance novel?”

“The guy on the cover looks like Clark,” Bruce defended his choice, his deadpan marred somewhat by his own full mouth.

Lois peered closer. “He does.” She looked over for comparison and found Clark blushing a little. She poked at his chest and yawned, “All right, I’ll read it tomorrow and see if he acts like Clark too. What the hell is this, though?” She’d dropped the book and picked up the stuffed character that appeared to have come right off a carnival barker’s wall.

The men glanced at each other behind her head; of course she couldn’t see their expressions, but she got the feeling there was a tale to be told here. “You’d better hear all about the evening,” Bruce said.

“Yes, tell me.” Lois leaned back, settling more comfortably into their arms, and ate another animal cracker. “Did I time my texts right?”

“All but the last one. That was a little early.”

“Oh?” she wondered sleepily, and rolled her head back and forth to look at first Clark and then Bruce. “Did he get the ‘What would your grandmother think?’ lecture or the ‘I can kill you fifty ways with my pinkie’ lecture?”

“The second one.” Clark, in the midst of extracting some animal crackers of his own, tried not to laugh. But he added loyally, “And Bruce delivered it very well.”

“We’re starting at the end,” Bruce complained. “That wasn’t exactly my favorite part of the date.”

This is my favorite part.” Lois’s head was beginning to feel very fuzzy indeed, and, despite the continual sore throat and pressure in her sinuses, it was in general satisfaction that she closed her eyes.

The other two made noises of agreement. “But the movie was good too,” Clark said, and began to tell her his impressions as best he could without spoiling it. Bruce joined in with his more cynical take, arguing against Clark’s opinion in places, and their voices started to blur together into a pleasant, incomprehensible lullaby. Lois wondered in drowsy contentment how long it would take them, after a few minutes, to notice that she’d fallen asleep.

The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

Could she tell them? Would they believe her? Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Three lonely years after returning to England, Jane Porter longs to find Tarzan again. And though she’s able to set out as a consultant to Elsa and Anna of Arendelle, who plan to search the same area for any news of their long-lost parents, will she be able to explain to them what she believes is the missing piece of the puzzle that brought them together on this voyage?

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

Fog sneaked among masts and rigging, pier supports and walls, hats and umbrellas and even legs, very much as the African mists had sometimes done among the mighty trees and world of dangling vines and the subsequently obscure items of their own camp three years before. Each did unforgivable things to her hair, but whereas in Africa she’d been free to keep her pith helmet on as long as she felt the need — and beyond that hadn’t exactly had any social engagements — here the drooping locks that never failed to get down into her eyes would be visible not only to every passerby on the street, but also to the delegate she hoped to impress.

Beyond that, the fog chilled her to the bone despite the layers she’d donned against it, while the African mists had been a pleasant contrast to the hot equatorial atmosphere. She adjusted her hat, took a firmer grip on her closed umbrella, and pressed her unoccupied hand into a coat pocket. The crinkle from within as glove closed on paper acted as a sort of warmth, anyway.

She’d lost count, in recent days, of how many letters she’d received beginning with some approximation of, My dear Miss Porter, though I have the utmost respect for the scientific achievements of your eminent father, it is with deepest regret I must inform you… Just to have one that started differently, however desirable its proposal might or might not turn out, had lit a fire of hope in her breast as nothing else had during these increasingly bad years.

She would not, she believed, have received so many denials of her request for sponsorship if she could have said — or even in good conscience implied — that her father would once again be heading the proposed expedition. But his health had grown poor enough of late that she didn’t want him to risk the long voyage, even back to an area she believed had been especially salubrious for him, until she was certain it would be a one-way trip. And how could she know that without making a preliminary survey herself? How could she dare believe in the possibility? Was it within her conscience?

In any case, even with suffragettes becoming increasingly vocal in England and elsewhere, scientific expeditions headed by single young women did not raise much confidence — or money — with the various stodgy men of the Royal Society, or even the BA. And there was another reason the letter in her pocket warmed her heart: it was signed by a woman.

Though relatively uninitiated in the functionality and visual design of sailing ships, with or without supplemental steam engines, Jane believed the one to which she’d been invited today had a subtly affluent and dignified look while also appearing sturdy and practical. Her green and purple paint was subdued, and the carved crocus that formed her figurehead was a subtle rather than a glittering gold that didn’t immediately draw the eye. For her own part, Jane preferred bright colors, but for the conveyance of a delegation from a small norther country, this seemed properly unobtrusive.

The gangway stood extended and ready for her, and a figure, appearance blurred in the fog, waited at the top. As Jane climbed the oblique walk and kept her eyes steadily forward and upward, she took in more and more details: the stranger was a plump, fit-looking woman in her forties wearing a braided crown of red hair striped with grey and one prominent patch of pure white. This tight coiffure, along with her modish green coat over a short split skirt and neat tall boots, suggested an active person and an active function in the delegation.

The woman held out a hand as Jane drew near, and her pleasant face seemed to take the edge from the air around them with a welcoming smile and the wrinkled pattern of many such gone by beside her eyes. And there was something in those eyes — medium blue with just the slightest touch of green, the passion and energy behind them increasingly visible as Jane drew up to her — that thoroughly and abruptly engrossed her.

Jane had always been easily distracted. It wasn’t that she hadn’t spent her entire childhood taking lessons, tacit and overt, in proper behavior and social consciousness; it was just that as soon as she encountered something that grabbed her interest, she forgot herself. Staring silently between the delegate’s dark lashes, standing stupidly still without taking the last step off the gangplank, not reaching out to shake the offered hand, was patently rude, but so caught up was Jane in the seeming familiarity, the almost enchanting familiarity of those eyes that she didn’t even recognize the extent to which she’d lost her head until the woman spoke.

“You must be Jane Porter.” The delegate took that last step forward in Jane’s place and reached out. She did perhaps appear a little curious as to what had stopped her visitor so short, but only added, “I’m Anna of Arendelle,” as she shook Jane’s hand.

“Oh! Oh, yes, of course, good morning.” Fidgeting in response to her own behavior, Jane brushed a strand of damp hair out of her face, pushed her hat up by half an inch, and released both Anna’s hand and Anna’s eyes seconds too late to avoid awkwardness. “We’ve corresponded. I’m very happy to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m so glad you were able to come on such short notice,” Anna replied, taking Jane’s elbow and leading her onto the ship and across the foggy deck. “Though I guess it wasn’t such short notice for you, since you were already looking for a sponsor, but since we only determined on this voyage a few weeks ago, it seemed like a miracle when we came across your name. Come inside!”

Jane smiled to find her new acquaintance so chatty already, and allowed herself to be led out of the greater chill of the morning. “It seems we may be able to help each other,” she agreed as they went.

Inside, under a low ceiling in what nevertheless appeared a relatively comfortable cabin — the captain’s, perhaps — two more women sat behind a table covered in charts, with a man standing straight-spined nearby, his grizzled head brushing the beam just above him. Anna moved forward after closing the door behind them, gestured at the central figure, and said, “May I present Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”

Jane nearly choked. She’d taken a confident step or two behind Anna on entry, but halted as if on a sixpence at these words and gaped. Any other potential source of distracting interest — and she felt immediately there might be one or two before her — immediately slipped her mind, but that didn’t stop her from gawking at the indicated woman for at least one impolite second.

Not one tiny hint had been dropped in Anna’s correspondence that this was a royal delegation, that Jane would come face-to-face with the ruler of a nation aboard this ship. A drawing-room-sized nation, granted, consisting primarily of uninhabitable mountains and which she’d barely even heard of before looking into it on receipt of Anna’s first letter, but the fact remained that Jane’s preparations for this interview — credential, sartorial, and emotional — would have been significantly different had she known this in advance.

Queen Elsa said Anna’s name in a fondly reproving tone, and the likeness between the two struck Jane even through her haze of astonishment and agitation. This combined with the previous introduction ‘Anna of Arendelle’ rather than Christian name and surname struck Jane with the sudden realization that they were sisters. Anna too, informal and personable as she’d shown herself thus far, was Arendelle royalty.

“I thought she should know before we begin,” Anna said with a twinkle in those compelling aqua eyes. “This is Jane Porter.”

With a monumental effort, Jane got something of a grip and made her curtsey, first toward the queen and then, more shallowly and belatedly, toward the princess or whatever Anna’s official title might be. “Your majesty,” she said. “Your highness.”

“Please, Miss Porter,” the queen replied in a firm but gentle voice that mixed formality and welcome in a manner striking Jane as quite regal, “this expedition is a private undertaking; I’m not here in my capacity as Queen of Arendelle, nor my sister Anna as Princess.” She gestured elegantly to her right with one pale hand. “Neither is Duchess Judith Feinberg here in her capacity of royal advisor, but rather that of personal friend. I didn’t plan on mentioning our official ranks to you until we’d made all our arrangements, but–” shooting her sister a wry look– “Anna obviously had other ideas. I hope you’ll be willing to call us by name rather than title, or ‘ma’am’ if that makes you more comfortable. And naturally our good Captain Bengtsson–” with another wave– “prefers to be addressed by that title.”

While she spoke, Jane examined her more closely than she’d been able to while overcome with confusion and surprise. Queen Elsa of Arendelle appeared to be a little older than her sister, with the same slender figure filled out by middle-aged solidity, and hair gone entirely silver — on which she wore no crown — pulled up into a practical arrangement similar to Anna’s. Her clothing represented equal functionality in a coat of the same cut, hers of a deep purple with blue and green scrollwork in shining thread, and Jane had no doubt she wore, beneath the table unseen for now, a split skirt and stout boots like Anna’s. The only concession her garments made to her position was the embroidered crest of Arendelle on her left breast.

But her eyes…

They were the same as Anna’s, which Jane was beginning to think were also the same as…

It was that slightly greenish blue again, pure and clear, but more than the color it was the intensity that took Jane dizzily back to hot jungle days and a family of (mostly) gorillas. The depth of emotion, the penetrating energy of the spirit behind the startling irises and pupils… Jane knew it. There was little more resemblance in the soft, feminine features to the ones she recalled so clearly, but the expression in those eyes was the same. She would rather have liked to look over at Duchess Feinberg or Captain Bengtsson and take in what she could of their appearances, but couldn’t break away from Elsa’s face. She couldn’t stop the series of shivers that ran, one after another, up her spine.

Just as when she’d been connected to Anna’s gaze as if by a bar of steel, she only realized the queen had stopped speaking after some undetermined period of time had passed. She shook herself, glancing at last toward the princess and finding her watching this time with open curiosity. Fidgeting with hair and hat for a second time in five minutes, untying the latter somewhat absently, Jane took a breath and managed, “Of course, ma’am.”

“Please have a seat–” Elsa gestured at the cabin’s vacant chairs– “and we’ll discuss particulars.”

Jane obeyed, drawing up to the table so she could easily see the charts and other documents thereon, while Anna and the captain did the same at opposite corners. She hoped she could keep her gripping distraction under control and have a professional conversation.

The queen next swept her hand across a map showing the west coast of central Africa, a section of the world Jane was very accustomed to seeing on paper like this. “Our voyage, as Anna informed you by letter, is to the Kingdom of Loango, here, and, if necessary, the surrounding area. We understand your scientific expedition a few years ago was to that area as well.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Here Jane was on far more solid footing, and spoke without hesitation. “Our expedition to study western African gorillas, which was largely funded by legatees of the African Association, took place on the coast here–” she drew her finger along it– “about seventy miles north of the mouth of the Congo River. On our way there, we stopped in a European port in Kakongo — a dreadful place; full of slavers, you know — and stayed there for some time planning and making arrangements and gathering supplies. We stopped in the same area on the way back, and that was an even longer stay. A lot of the locals speak an Africanized French, which I can communicate in tolerably. I know a little about some of the local customs as well, though I’m afraid most of their dialects are beyond me. I am aware that Loango often resists European landings, but there are go-betweens you can procure without much trouble.”

When she looked up, she found both royal sisters as well as the captain nodding, as if this matched what they understood of the area. Elsa discontinued the gesture and stared down at the map with a furrowed brow. After a moment she sighed, looked up, and said, “During the reign of my father, Arendelle imported copper and a few other goods from Loango. Thirty years ago, disputes arose that threatened to break off all trade between our nations, and grew so involved that my parents felt the need to make a diplomatic voyage in person to settle them. They landed in Kakongo in order to approach Loango by land from the south, and dealt with their business there successfully over the course of several weeks. Then something delayed them. I’m sure you know how difficult communication is over such a distance and across such uncertain territories, so you’ll understand that we never knew what it was. But for some reason they only set out several months later for the return voyage, and the confused report we received after that was that their ship had gone down with all hands somewhere off the west African coast.”

Jane’s attention had been seized again by intense aqua during this speech, and as she found herself unable to look away for the moment, she also found herself thinking, I know exactly why they were delayed: they realized your mother was pregnant. Of course they wouldn’t risk the return voyage with her in that condition. And I know just about where their ship must have gone down. And I know your brother.

She couldn’t speak, not to acknowledge what she’d just heard nor to offer her condolences on the loss of three decades before. The shivers up her spine had grown so strong she was almost tempted to call them shudders, and she simply couldn’t manage a single word. Was it true? Could it be true? The phenomenal improbability of this coincidence, if it were, deafened her with the shout that it couldn’t possibly be… yet how did the saying go? Il est impossible que l’improbable n’arrive jamais? Science was full of improbabilities, and so, perhaps, was life.

That didn’t mean she could say a word, however. How could she tell them this on only the evidence she had? An area of the world, a timeline clicking into place, a color of too-familiar irises… Every moment her belief grew stronger, but with no other proof than a collection of impressions. No, best to hold her tongue on this matter until she was more certain. Especially since her own long-term plans remained hazy in the extreme.

Finally Elsa, seeing Jane did not intend to speak, finished her tale. “Events in Arendelle after our parents’ death led us to drop the connection with Loango as inconvenient, and we never renewed trade with that area of the world.” As a sort of aside she added, “We agree with you that slavers are simply dreadful. In any case, just a few weeks ago, a trader brought us what he considered an antique clearly of Arendelle design but which we recognized immediately as having belonged to our mother. It was just an old trinket, but it was our father’s gift to her, and unmistakable to us. There was a story connected with it of a sailor having survived a shipwreck and salvaged what he could on the west coast of Africa somewhere in the Loango area.”

Jane’s heart clenched. That they’d essentially taken one look at the trinket that had made a five-thousand-mile, thirty-year journey into their hands and immediately planned to trace that long course back could only mean they harbored some hope that one or both of their parents, even in old age, might yet live — and Jane knew full well they did not. And yet there was a relation for them to find down there, a brother so full of life he might almost put paid to those three decades of sorrow. But did Jane really want to find him again? And what would she do if she did? And why couldn’t she say his name even in her private thoughts?

Tarzan. Tarzan of the apes was an unknown Prince of Arendelle, secret brother of Elsa and Anna, son of the late king and queen. Tarzan was the trace of their lost parents these women were seeking.

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Rallying herself once again with great force of will, she managed at last to express her understanding of and engagement in the story, her condolences on the apparent loss of their parents, and her continued interest in joining their crew. She emphasized her qualifications and the manner in which she could be of assistance to them in an area with which she was somewhat familiar but they were not, and produced what letters of recommendation and credentials she’d brought with her.

As she went through all of this, she tried very hard not to get lost once again in Elsa’s eyes, and as part of that effort bestowed her glance equally upon everyone that sat in a convenient position to be looked at. And she was surprised and a little dismayed to find that there was another source of distraction in the room, as she’d suspected earlier, in the person of the duchess to the queen’s right. This was a thin, dark woman of about Elsa’s age, her bearing as upright as the captain’s but seeming nevertheless at ease. Still, from the fringed scarf covering her hair, to the coat as elegant and fine as those of the royal women yet cut to a completely different design, to her slightly but discernibly dusky coloration and the very features of her face, she did not appear someone Jane had not expected to find as a ‘royal advisor’ and ‘personal friend’ of the pale northern Elsa.

The latter took no exception to any evident distraction on Jane’s part, but seemed satisfied with her qualifications as stated verbally and presented in writing. She only regretted, she said, that they had not the means of financing a proper expedition such as Jane had been hoping to conduct; but she would be glad to take her back into a part of the world that clearly greatly intrigued her, and hoped the salary they offered would represent some advancement of her goals. Jane certainly wasn’t about to tell her that the first expedition had represented thirty years’ worth of savings on the part of her father and, before an untimely death, her mother, and the salary provided by one voyage, generous as Elsa’s offer was, seemed unlikely to make much of a dent in the sum necessary for a second. Elsa’s other point still stood, and it relieved Jane significantly to have secured a position on this ship.

Thereafter, a more technical description of the intended journey was given by Captain Bengtsson, and Jane, after sorting through the nautical terms she didn’t understand, generally agreed that it sounded sensible. They discussed the details of her employment and signed a contract, and her luggage — packed in advance for the type of voyage specified in Anna’s letter in case of a desirable issue of this interview — was sent for from her hotel. A tide was set for departure, and Jane was more than satisfied.

That night, however, found her hopelessly insomniac. Usually the movements of a ship under sail — between bouts of steam power — were restful and soothing to her, but mental agitation in this case overcame physical comfort even before the wind died and the engines were required for further motion.

She’d been assigned one of the ship’s two staterooms to share with Princess Anna, and certainly that formed part of her agitation. Anna had behaved toward Jane throughout the day with casual friendliness, and at times an almost sisterly comradeliness, and if she’d been anyone else in the world Jane would have valued her as a roommate. Yet she was royalty, and Jane couldn’t determine yet exactly how to interact with her. So she’d donned her coat, tiptoed from the room onto the quarterdeck, and found a spot at the railing where, not too blinded by the light of the nearest lantern that she’d avoided, she could look out over the dark water and up at the stars.

Royalty. Jane’s own blood ran a distilled blue, her father tracing his line back to a lesser French prince that had fled to England with wife and children a hundred years before, and this formed the basis of nearly all her problems. Not only did the pride of lineage her mother had always attempted to instill in her increase her uncertainty at how to deal with proper royalty in this context, it was that same pride that had driven her from Africa in the first place. “I belong in England… with people…” — those words would never have crossed her lips without her mother’s influence strong in the back of her mind reminding her of her place, her prospects, her deserts.

And now she was returning. Why, exactly? What would she do if she found Tarzan again? Confirm he still lived, then say a more permanent goodbye? Or turn her back on her dignity and become a woman of the jungle, bringing her father, in whom her mother had also felt so much happy pride, with her into the same darkness?

Beyond that, the aforementioned almost sisterly behavior at times displayed by Princess Anna made her more uncomfortable than ever with that second possibility. Did she aim to become Anna’s sister in reality? She had no idea what the two Arendelle women would think of their unknown brother if they were to meet him… What, furthermore, could they possibly think of an English gentlewoman bent on spending her life with such a savage-seeming man? Was any sort of acceptance to be expected, or would they withdraw in horror both from Tarzan and from the idea of Jane requesting Captain Bengtsson to perform the ceremony aboard this ship and them to return a message to her father in England that he should join her and his new son-in-law at once on the west African coast?

Returning meant she had to decide whether to seek Tarzan out once again, what to do if she found him, and whether to tell Elsa and Anna what she believed about the situation. And her mother’s voice seemed to speak to her out of the past, urging her to decide one way, while her heart seemed to be pulling her in precisely the opposite direction.

“Jane?”

She jumped at the sound of her own name and whirled with a gasp to find Anna approaching so quietly that her steps had been drowned out by the rushing of the sea beneath them. Her heart suddenly beat faster than the rhythmic rumbling of the steam engine through the deck. “Oh! Your– Anna. Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Anna returned, and her starlit smile reflected all the curiosity she’d never yet expressed aloud. “Can’t sleep?”

“I don’t much fancy traveling under steam power,” Jane admitted — and it was the truth — “but I’ll get used to it.”

Anna came to join her at the railing. “I can’t say I’m fond of that development myself.” Her interested face turned eagerly toward the stars reminded Jane yet again of Tarzan: always fascinated by the beautiful and impartially understood, no matter how commonly encountered. “But I’m looking forward to seeing Africa. How about you?”

“I…” Jane sighed. And if Anna hadn’t gone and hit near the very center of her reverie… “Yes,” she finally said honestly. “I am.”

“But you didn’t expect to be traveling with royalty.” Now Anna sounded half apologetic and half prodding: she did want to figure out what Jane’s dazed reactions earlier had been about.

At this Jane managed a smile. “No, not at all. In fact I felt in danger of fainting when you presented your sister; I really did.” And then, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to mention Tarzan just yet, no matter how much the friendly Anna wanted elucidation, she hastened on with, “If I may ask, are you two the only sisters? In whose care did you leave Arendelle?”

“We are,” Anna replied easily, leaning both arms on the rail. “And we have a whole collection of dukes and duchesses, including my husband, who are happy to look after the kingdom for us while we’re away. Arendelle is… unusually fond of my sister–” she grinned privately– “and when people heard we might be able to find some information about our parents by going to sea, they were tripping over themselves offering help so Elsa could go with a clear conscience.”

“That’s so kind of them.” Unsure what volunteering to look after a small kingdom on behalf of its sea-bent ruler precisely entailed, Jane couldn’t think of much else to say. So again she hastened on somewhat at random. “And the duchess? Does she have a financial interest in this trip?”

Anna gave her a puzzled look. “No, she’s just along as Elsa’s particular friend. Why would you think that?”

“Well, isn’t she…” Awkwardly Jane twisted her hands. “Forgive me if I’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion, but isn’t she…” She lowered her voice a trifle in order to finish, “a Jew?”

Standing straight and folding her arms, Anna stared at Jane with one brow raised. “Yes, she is. What difference does that make?”

“Oh, none at all, I’m sure,” said Jane, hastier even than before. “I’m sure the Jews are lovely people.”

Anna’s second brow went up, and her skeptical look took on a touch of disapproval. “Are you?”

Very seriously Jane said, “Please understand I intend no offense. To be perfectly frank, I’ve barely ever spoken to any Jews, and have no real opinion — if any opinion is even necessary. It was my mother who always…” She trailed off and sighed. It kept coming back to that.

Anna’s expression softened. “Judith is basically a member of the family, and sometimes I forget that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t have Jewish sisters. Was your mother particularly opposed to Jews?”

Jane pursed her lips. “She might have been. Of course she was always civil, but I’m afraid she had her prejudices.”

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

“It’s hard to look back on her and know what to think.” Again Jane leaned on the polished wood before her and regarded the ocean. “She spent my childhood teaching me ladylike behavior and the rules of society because she wanted to see me a successful, accomplished, happy woman, and she loved me so dearly…” It seemed an imposition to be discussing such personal matters on such short acquaintance, but she wanted to offer some explanation for what she now saw had been a markedly impolite remark. “But so much of what she believed contradicts so much of what I want to believe now.”

Mrs. Porter had highly valued her husband’s scientific pursuits, and, given the longstanding family tradition of devouring any book one could get one’s hands on, had always encouraged Jane therein as well. But would she have approved of a young lady actually physically taking part in an expedition to Africa? Jane had often asked herself that under the green canopy she so loved as she bathed from a small basin behind a screen at their campsite.

Mrs. Porter had always taught her daughter to treat her inferiors with kindness and charity, but Jane wasn’t sure her mother had ever truly believed Park’s assertion that whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature. Would she have approved of a descendent of Prince Adam of France hob-nobbing with the people of the Congo area?

Mrs. Porter had stressed the importance of marrying a respectable man of good upbringing — and very hopefully of good family — that would treat his wife well and be able to support her at the level to which she was accustomed. Would even the blood of Arendelle serve to compensate for a complete lack of gentility in lifestyle and connections? No, Jane didn’t think it would. And that was why she’d gone back to England. She’d regretted the decision the moment she’d made it, but had never been able to reconcile herself to contradicting her mother’s wishes either.

Her voice trembled as she finished her explanation. “She did everything she thought was best for me, and I feel as if it’s disrespectful to her memory to abandon what she taught me — as if what she did and what she wanted for me are all I have left of her.” She glanced penitently at Anna and added, “But that doesn’t mean I have any wish to speak disrespectfully of anyone you think well of.”

A certain depth to the sad smile on Anna’s face seemed indicate both that Jane was forgiven and that this discourse had struck a chord. As she had that morning, she reached out to take Jane’s hand. Her own was ungloved, and Jane wondered whether living so far north made her less susceptible to the cold. As she applied friendly pressure, she said, “It’s hard to know what to think about my parents too.” Her gaze, even as it met Jane’s, seemed to withdraw, as if, though every word had weight, she watched far-off events rather than her companion’s reaction. “They did everything they thought was best for Elsa and me — especially Elsa — and they were, to be blunt, wrong. They loved us so much, and they tried so hard… but what they did supposedly in our best interests caused us years and years of suffering. I don’t resent them — obviously, or I wouldn’t be on a voyage right now looking for any clue to what happened to them! — but I don’t feel the need to cling to their bad ideas. I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all to let go of something someone’s taught you that was simply incorrect, even if you dearly loved that person and they you.”

Jane watched Anna’s eyes, so similar in color and energy to Tarzan’s, and considered her words in something of a stupor. Older and more experienced, royalty, herself married, sister to the man Jane loved and sisterly in and of herself, having been through something at least vaguely similar to what Jane had thanks to the misguided actions of a parent… Anna was perhaps the only person in the world that could have driven this advice home. She let her glance drop to where Anna held her hand tightly as if with an urgent desire to convey more gently the lesson her own past had so painfully taught her. And she suddenly remembered, with a fresh throb of the heartache that had plagued her ever since that moment, a glove flying from her hand in the wind and spinning away to land in the surf at Tarzan’s knuckles just as if she really had been letting go of her hold on her mother’s mistaken precepts and resolving to stay with him as her father had urged.

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

“Goodness, we’ve gotten personal out here,” Anna said, abruptly releasing her with one more squeeze and half a sheepish grin. “I’m so emotional all of a sudden thinking about my parents, and it’s been thirty years.” She laughed a little, but as she turned away Jane thought with some concern she saw sparkling around the edges of the princess’ eyes beyond what starlight could account for.

“Oh, dear. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“Not a bit!” Anna was definitely wiping away tears with her back turned to Jane, perhaps eschewing the use of a handkerchief in an attempt at concealing the motion. “Not that I’d consider it your fault if you had, with me being the one to bring up my parents. Still, I think I’ll go back to the cabin now. Good night!”

Jane almost asked her to stay, but wasn’t quite to the point of pouring out the tale of Tarzan just yet, and so only returned her goodbye. She watched the spry figure disappear through the door that led to the cabins, then turned with another sigh, hugging herself against the chill of the night and the sea spray, to look out into forever again.

She kept picturing that glove, and how it had almost taken her back to him. But the other one had remained, a stark symbol of everything her mother had stood for, and once aboard the ship she had replaced the one she’d lost. And she’d never felt good about it. Now she imagined tearing off the gloves she currently wore and tossing them into the ocean below, throwing away that symbol and truly going back. She didn’t actually do this, since the cold did bother her, but one by one the mental gloves were discarded as she examined her mother’s truths and rejected them.

Royalty, or simply someone that had married a royal descendent, could make poor choices regarding their children, even coming from a place of love. A descendent of royalty could do unladylike things such as every single activity Jane had taken part in the last time she’d been in Africa. A descendent of royalty could get distracted by matters she truly valued and drop some of the trappings of polished society. A descendent of royalty could make friends with Jews and Negroes and not consider them inferiors to be regarded only through the lens of noblesse oblige.

But could a descendant of royalty marry a man completely uncivilized, unmoneyed, unknown to the enlightened world, and usually unclothed? This was the point where she repeatedly stuck, the glove that just wouldn’t come off.

She had squeezed herself into a corner and laid her cheek forlornly against an upright beam, in spite of the chill, and this time, rather than her failing to notice those that emerged from the cabins, it appeared they missed the presence of anyone standing in a narrow little spot beside the railing. They climbed the stairs onto the upper deck without seeming a glance in her direction, and moved to gaze out over the prow. The lantern on the poop revealed them as Elsa and Judith, strolling easily to their destination arm in arm.

Jane watched them forlornly, envying their easy steps and evidently easy consciences. Elsa had been, if not as warm and talkative as her sister, nothing but civility and grace, and the duchess’ politeness, though quiet, had never been tainted by any coolness or restraint. But they hadn’t talked to Jane as pleasantly and freely as they seemed to be talking to each other now. Their low, indistinguishable conversation nevertheless proved how intimate and comfortable they were with each other, and the dark sea surely had no such effect on them as it did on Jane.

She should return to bed, she considered as she continued somewhat absently to watch the two women in the lamplight on the higher deck. She had over four thousand nautical miles to work the matter out, and anyway she was weary from the long train of thought she’d already engaged in tonight. That should help her sleep, and by tomorrow night perhaps she would be reaccustomed to the movements of the ship under all varieties of power.

Frozen in place, however, she found herself abruptly stock-still as she would have moved toward the door to the cabins, staring upward with widened eyes, unable to take a step. For of all things that could have arrested her complete attention and even torn it from contemplation of Tarzan and what to do about him, nearly foremost on the list was Judith turning a smiling face toward her queen and interrupting the latter’s laugh by kissing her full on the lips. She withdrew only after several loving moments, then laid her head on Elsa’s shoulder.

That had been no familial kiss, and it was clear that when Anna had referred to the duchess as being like a sister, she’d meant only to herself. To Elsa Judith was obviously something different, something more. And Jane could not have been more astonished.

Oh, she’d heard of such behavior. Suffragettes talked about it at times when the desired freedoms of women arose in conversation, and of course there was the poetry of Sappho. But she’d never in life thought to encounter women living out a Lesbian tradition in front of her very eyes. It gave her an even greater shock than had Anna’s earlier words concerning the very real possibility of a loving parent making choices that would traumatize their children for years. It was… it was…

It was sending her thoughts hurtling in the direction of Tarzan again as if they were made of India rubber and now sprang back with a violence proportional to the force with which they’d been thrown away.

Because Queen Elsa of Arendelle, not merely the descendent of a prince that had (like so many royals and nobles) fled a people’s revolution a century ago, but the much-loved monarch of a nation, felt herself free to take a lover that would surely meet with approval neither from Mrs. Porter nor society at large — both a Jew in a Christian nation and a woman. She was not standing up there on that deck worrying about the propriety of her match, nor clinging to the poor decisions her parents had made trying to do what they thought was best for her.

Jane didn’t know how she felt about this issue of Lesbian love that had just exploded upon her, but had a sneaking suspicion that, as with Jews, she wasn’t actually called upon or perhaps qualified to have an opinion. All she knew was that Queen Elsa, someone her mother would have wept with joy to see her daughter grow up to be like in many respects, was following her heart.

Taking care to walk as quietly as she could so as not to disturb the sweethearts on the poop deck nor reveal to them that she now knew their secret — though, in full view of the watch as they were, the ship’s entire crew must be in on it already — Jane moved with a sudden warm sense of internal peace she hadn’t felt in longer than she could remember into the hallway off of which the cabins opened.

Inside her state room, she found her princess roommate and possible sister seated at the dressing table brushing out her greying red hair. A smile and those energetic crinkled eyes met Jane in the mirror as she entered, and Jane took a deep breath.

“Anna,” she said quietly, “may I tell you a story?”

My final November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, which took me approximately forever to write a story for, was from my co-worker Julia, who said, “Jane actually leaves Tarzan at the end of the movie and spends about 5 or so years trying everything to get back to him. She finally finds a way back because Elsa and Anna are trying to find him too.” Technically Elsa and Anna don’t know here that they’re looking for Tarzan, but close enough, eh? :D This one now holds the record as my longest November Quick Fic!

Blind Repair


“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place. This is literally a beach house.”

Zuko, Sokka, and Toph attempt to fix the swimming pool at the old Ember Island estate.

“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place.” Sokka rotated the blueprints ninety degrees and compared them at the new angle to the view in front of him with a critical squint. “This is literally a beach house.”

“That’s because you don’t understand rich people,” Toph provided, feeling her way slowly around the empty basin to get a good impression of the workings under the stone beneath her feet. She went from dry to drippingly sarcastic as she added, “Of course they’d need a swimming pool even though the ocean’s right out there. What if they want to swim in fresh water?”

“And ‘us guys’ didn’t put it here,” Zuko put in, perhaps attempting to evade the truth of Toph’s words. “This house is 75 years old.”

“Oh, so a generation into the war.” Sokka turned the plans again and scowled. “The Fire Nation sure sucked at blueprints back then.”

“I’m not responsible for either of those things,” said Zuko.

“I don’t know…” Toph suddenly fell into a soldierly rigidity, then transitioned stiffly to a firebending pose. No one imitated postures as well as Toph, because she wasn’t deceived as to the exact arrangement of body by clothing or gear. “You’re pretty naturally warlike.”

“Or unnaturally,” Sokka laughed, slapping his knee. “Toph, you’ve got that down! Do me next!”

Toph immediately went boneless, wobbling back in Sokka’s direction for a few steps before miming the throwing of a boomerang with a completely limp arm. At least she had the decency to do a catching movement next, though, implying a less than total lack of competence.

Zuko chuckled, then straightened his face back out again when he saw Sokka’s resultant outrage and heard his protest, “I do not do that!”

Having prompted the reaction she wanted, Toph doubled over laughing. “You asked for it!”

Emboldened, Zuko put in, “And sometimes you do kinda… flail…”

“You know,” Sokka huffed, “I was just about to say we know you’re doing your best to help end the war, but now? I don’t think you deserve it.” He buried his face in the blueprints again. “Let’s just figure out how this outdated pump system worked.”

“I don’t get why we want to.” Toph raised her arms, put her hands behind her head, and continued ambling along. She’d probably assessed everything beneath the surface by now and was merely confirming details. “Why not just have Katara waterbend the pool full?” She gestured vaguely toward the house, then resumed her casual pose.

“It won’t be a surprise if we ask her to help,” Zuko replied somewhat impatiently.

“Ooooh,” Toph hooted. “Prince Zuuuko wants to impress Kataaaaraaaa.”

“It’s for Aang and Suki too!” Zuko blustered.

“Ooooh,” Toph echoed herself. “Prince Zuko wants to impress Aang and Suki!”

“I do not!” Zuko replied even more loudly, blushing (though in response to which name was impossible to tell). “I just wanted… I thought it might be nice…”

“Chill out, hotman.” Toph’s tone was light but still mocking. “We all know you want to do things for the team because you feel guilty about everything you did before, but you should know by now you don’t need to.”

“I think it’s this way.” Sokka, who didn’t seem to be paying attention, said this uncertainty as he yet again rotated the plans he held. “Why did they have to make this plan square when the swimming pool is rectangular??”

Toph patted the ground with one foot. “Because the mechanisms underneath are laid out in a square, oh wise technician.”

“Aren’t there labels on the blueprint that indicate which side is up?” Zuko wondered.

“You’d think so,” grumbled Sokka, “but the instructions are all on this other sheet, and they just assume you know where everything is!”

“That seems like… really poor design.” Zuko scratched his head. “Sorry about that.”

“Not your fault. Like you said, 75 years old.”

Impatiently Toph suggested, “Why don’t we walk around the pool together, and I’ll tell you what I’m sensing down there, and you can match it up with your ancient diagram?”

“Good idea,” said Sokka, and they set off.

Zuko watched them make the circuit, undoubtedly aware he could contribute nothing and thus standing still. By the time they came back, Sokka was certain which direction was up, and beginning to think he knew where to go to get the whole thing working again.

He moved to a spot where the mossy flagstones were divided into smaller segments than in most other places, and started trying to pry one up. Zuko came to stand beside him, waiting to see what would be disclosed. But after nearly a minute and a half of groaning and straining and scraped fingers and really funny facial expressions on Sokka’s part, Zuko had to ask, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Hey, don’t ask me for help and then question my help!” the breathless Sokka protested. In some annoyance he added, in a different direction, “Earthbender! A little help?”

Toph gave a mocking laugh and shifted a toe. The stone panel swung upward.

Grumbling something unflattering about benders — though there must have been some other way to open the thing for those without the ability to manipulate earth — Sokka leaned over the cavity and began comparing its contents to his blueprints. “Yeah, these are the controls, all right,” he muttered.

Zuko peered in over his shoulder, eyeing the unfamiliar gears with a total lack of understanding. He sat back on his heels and looked around: first at the quiet house — checking to see if the other half of their party had heard them and might appear at any time — then, satisfied, at the empty pool. His eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment.

“When I was a kid and we used to come here as a family,” he murmured, “how the pool worked was a big mystery to us. To me and Azula, I mean. It would be empty when we arrived, and the next morning it would be full. It seemed like magic to us back then. I wish that were the only thing my father never explained…”

Toph, standing at the edge, rubbed a foot contemplatively at the corner where it plunged down into what would be the deep end if they ever managed to fill the thing. “Yeah… We had a pool at home too. I was never allowed in it, because my parents were convinced being blind meant I couldn’t learn to swim. And it did, of course, since they wouldn’t let me try…”

Perhaps in response to the doleful mood that settled after these statements, Sokka put in a little awkwardly, “Well I have great parents. Or… had… in my mother’s case.” Then he evidently felt his companions’ none-too-appreciative eyes on the back of his neck, and added, “But, uh, the water’s literally almost freezing all the time where I come from, so… we never did much recreational swimming?”

Toph changed the subject. “The pipe is warped and has a crack in it about three yards that direction.” And she did that thing where she pointed directly where she meant without actually looking over.

“Can you fix it?” Sokka wondered.

“‘Can I fix it,'” she scoffed, cracking her knuckles and moving toward the spot.

“And then I’ll need you to help me with these gears!” he called after her.

As Toph started what seemed an unusually finicky earth- or metalbending process, Zuko gazed past Sokka’s shoulder again. With a deep breath he said quietly, “You know, I said it to Katara, but I never got a chance to tell you: I’m sorry about your mother. I’d bring her back for you if I could.”

Sokka turned to face him sharply, but his expression immediately softened. “Zuko, that wasn’t you. I mean, thanks, but… don’t feel guilty about it, all right?”

“It’s… not exactly guilt…” Zuko lowered his tone ever further. “It’s just that, if I’m ever going to be Fire Lord — and I’m not sure anymore that I am — I have to take responsibility for the Fire Nation’s deeds. My father’s deeds. It’s probably best if I start with my…”

“Friends?” Sokka supplied the word for him when Zuko trailed awkwardly off.

“Yeah.”

“Then… I accept… whatever that was. Apology? Was it an apology? Or more a sort of… official statement?” Sokka put a hand briefly on Zuko’s shoulder. “Anyway, it’s really big of you. The Fire Nation’s going to have a good ruler when this is all over.”

Zuko smiled faintly, seeming more relieved than flattered. “Thanks.”

“Ooooooh,” came Toph’s voice from nearby, “Zuko wants to impress Sokka!”

“Shut up, Toph,” said Sokka good-naturedly, “and help me with these gears.”

Zuko’s smile did not fade for a good minute while they worked.

Eventually, several crooked gears and a sort of lantern-thing and a few more pipe repairs later, the mechanic and the metalbender declared the business finished — or at least that they could give it a try and see if the aged pumping devices could still bring water up from the spring at Ember Island’s center and fill the pool so everyone could have a relaxing day of swimming without setting foot outside the anonymity of the royal family’s walls.

“Now we need you, Zuko, to heat the interior of the activation chamber to…” Sokka checked the instructions again. “230 susuros?” He looked at the written line askance. “What the heck is a susuro?”

“You’re not familiar with susuros?” Zuko wondered.

Toph agreed in the same skeptical tone, “Yeah, Sokka, you’re not familiar with susuros?” Then to Zuko in a loud whisper she asked, “What the heck is a susuro?”

“I know it’s an older unit of heat, but I didn’t think–” Zuko did a double take at Toph and scowled. “You too? But you’re a well educated Earth Kingdom girl!”

“Eh, I forget stuff that’s not important,” Toph shrugged.

At the same moment Sokka said, “Fine, fine, it’s some snooty elite Fire Nation term that only snooty elite firebenders will understand. Can you heat the thing to 230 of them?”

“No,” Zuko admitted, visibly uncomfortable. “I know what they are, but I have no sense for how hot that is.”

Again Toph doubled over laughing. Sokka seemed torn between a grin and a glare. “Well, according to these instructions, it has to be that hot to activate the pump process, but if it gets much hotter it’ll warp the disc and you’ll have to replace it. So can you make it kinda hot but not too hot?”

“How am I supposed to know how hot is too hot?” Zuko demanded.

“I don’t know! Use your firebending senses!”

Zuko threw his arms up. “I don’t have ‘firebending senses’ that tell me how to fill swimming pools!”

“This was all your idea in the first place, you know!”

“Yeah, and I asked you to help because I thought you could figure out this old–”

Why,” Toph said loudly enough to override Zuko, “don’t you just heat it gradually until the pump starts working, and then stop?”

Both young men stared at her. “Yeah, that’s…” said Sokka.

“Or that, yeah,” Zuko agreed. “Where is the… active… disc… thing?”

Sokka hustled him to the correct spot and pointed. Zuko subsequently went through more of the breathing exercises he and Aang both tended to use before firebending than the other two expected, if their similar dubious expressions were any indication. With a frown at their obvious bemusement, Zuko murmured, “Stop shifting around back there. This is going to take some subtlety, so I have to prepare.”

Both Sokka and Toph nearly collapsed with giggles, and practically tripped over each other to get their comments out:

“Subtlety? You?”

“You’d better breathe for another couple of days, then!”

Fire sprang up to either side of them in mock warning, and perhaps the very safe distance it kept was prompted by the memory of a burned pair of feet once upon a time. Then Zuko turned his real attention to the job at hand.

For a long time nothing happened in response to the thin, concentrated stream of flame, and both Sokka and Toph had begun to shift again in a muttering sort of motion when the younger of them paused. Pensively she bit her lip, and slid one foot slowly in front of her every bit as if peering through deep shadows. Then she announced excitedly, “It’s working!”

Zuko pulled back, and he and Sokka dashed to the pool’s edge and peered eagerly down. And there was a distant rumbling and sloshing sound drawing nearer. There wasn’t, however, any actual water, and this state persisted for so long that both young men stood straight and looked at each other.

“What’s going on, Toph?” Sokka scratched the shaved area just above his ear.

“I’m not sure… It’s definitely pumping, and there’s water somewhere…” She tapped a foot impatiently, clearly annoyed not to be able to sense exactly what was happening beneath them. “The pipes may be broken farther out than I can feel…”

“The water probably has to come a pretty long way from the spring,” Zuko said doubtfully.

Sokka started some remark about flushing the system and how many leaves were probably collected down where they couldn’t see, when they all jumped, cringing, at the explosive sound of water gushing forth. Because the sound and the rush came not from the pool but from the house behind them. Zuko and Sokka whirled.

The rice-paper windows at this end of the building had all burst outward in an initial violent spray, which now settled into a calmer but no less prolific waterfall from every orifice. A full-blown river began to fill the courtyard, and raced toward them carrying various household items and — as Sokka had predicted — leaves in all states of decay.

“What diverted it inside?” Sokka squawked.

Toph was laughing at this unexpected outcome, but it sounded a little hysterical as water splashed over her feet.

Zuko cried in horror, “My house!” at least partially disproving the claim that he didn’t care about the place.

As the earthbender scrambled up a surprised Sokka for an enforced piggyback ride, there emerged from one window, along with the water, a bedraggled Suki, slipping on the sill, clad still in her nightclothes, coughing and irritated. A moment later Aang appeared in a similar state of dishabille but a far more cheerful mood. “The bathroom just went crazy!” he called as he slid neatly down one particular flume, curled up and spun blithely on his back in a small whirlpool, and finally jumped to his feet with a splash.

The water had found its way into the activation chamber, and at an abrupt hiss and jet of steam Sokka leaped backward, almost losing his balance as he forgot to compensate for Toph’s weight on his back. She demanded to know how far the water had risen, and with Zuko in the background trying to reassure her that it couldn’t get high enough to touch her as long as Sokka didn’t klutz up and Suki (in annoyance transforming to grudging amusement) wondering what was going on and the continued gurgling and gushing all around, no question or answer could be heard.

Then, miraculously the driest of any of them, Katara came barefoot-surfing out another window with raised arms, bringing with her all the remaining water from the house. No more replaced it, as the cooling of the activation chamber (and undoubtedly the warping of the mysterious disc) had probably halted the pumping process. Katara slid expertly to a halt in the midst of them, directing the sloshing contents of the courtyard effortlessly into the nearby receptacle. As she came to a gentle rest on the sodden moss of the flagstones and lowered her arms, everyone else seemed to ease into less tense poses and take stock.

Zuko gazed at the pool as the water in it gradually settled and bits of window, wooden dishes, miscellaneous articles of clothing, the blueprints and instructions for the pump mechanism, and a cushion or two bobbed to the surface or spun in calming eddies. He turned back to the others with a helpless expression and lifted his hands a little before dropping them again. “Anyone up for a swim?”

scifikimmi gave me a November Quick Fics 2018 prompt that said, “One of my fave dynamics between characters was Zuko and Sokka and also Toph in season 3. Could you write about them all having an awkward (but but not fight-y just funnily awkward) conversation? Maybe they are all forced work together for some reason without the rest of the crew?” I don’t know if I really captured their dynamic properly, but I think it’s a pretty fun story nonetheless.


Her Own Words


These angry, fisted hands may never heal again.

Yaten’s lyrics reflect her internal struggles.

With some surprise Seiya took the paper Yaten held out, and skimmed it. Yaten didn’t write lyrics often, so it always came as something of a surprise. She supposed she could have handed the sheet over more gracefully, too, than with nothing beyond the grumbled name of a currently popular song with a similar meter.

Seiya started to hum as she neared the bottom of the page, and Yaten, observing she’d caught the working melody, turned away and moved to the widow seat, where she drew her knees up to her chin and stared somewhat sullenly out the dark glass. In these male bodies, Seiya alone of the three of them had a soloist’s voice, which Yaten blatantly resented since she’d loved to sing back on Kinmoku. Now it was backup or embarrassment, and though Yaten often chose the latter, Seiya was really the only one that could do a dry run of a new lyric.

Taiki, who’d arrived in time to hear the name of the song Yaten had mentioned and then taken her customary place at the keyboard, now played a few introductory chords.

“Two notes lower,” Seiya requested.

Taiki frowned as she did a quick and somewhat difficult mental transition, played a few more chords to get the feel of the new key, and paused.

“And there’s a bridge I’m going to have to improvise,” Seiya added. “Maybe just drop out when I get there.”

Taiki nodded, fingers poised on the keys, and Seiya started the run-through.

Once this gentle heart of mine gave birth to so much love,
But with the ending of my world I had to lock it up,
Wrapped in starry scarlet like the glitter of your hair,
Surround myself in marble as I struggled not to care.
But can you blame me?
Can you blame me?

I feel it every time.

Of course they each had an image, a specific niche they filled in the band: Seiya the bad boy, the show-off; Taiki the scholar, the aloof and dignified; and Yaten the hard-hearted, the cold-hearted, the bitch. She knew she had a following, a specific set of fans of this persona that went starry-eyed every time she rudely refused to take a picture with the groupies or made some overly harsh comment in an interview.

And this song would be a calculated risk, representing as it did a shift in that persona, but Yaten thought it would pay out by solidifying that part of the fanbase without a lot of interaction with them on her part. She was pretty sure most of them already believed her to be so seemingly unfeeling because of some great tragedy in her past. They were right, of course, but their vapid imaginations went no farther than ‘loss of girlfriend…’ which was exactly what these lyrics would be taken as confirmation of, sending most of the hiding-his-broken-heart-Yaten contingent into paroxysms of pity and passionate love. And those that legitimately liked her because of her perceived unkindness were the type of people she didn’t want as her fans anyway.

Not that she wanted any fans.

And it’s not your fault for leaving,
But if you came back you’d fix everything.
Please return to me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

It had been different once. On Kinmoku or on the moon that had been her particular domain under Kakyuu’s rule, Yaten had been happy to share her music, when she had time, with everyone around her. She’d been pleased to have admirers that appreciated her talents. She never would have refused anyone a picture or made overly harsh comments back then. But that had been before every single one of them had died.

Here on Earth she looked out over a sea of humanity and tried to pretend she neither liked nor cared about them. It didn’t quite work — and every time one of them had a Star Seed taken, she literally ached — but she was able to present this frigid front to save herself, and part of that was denying her fans. Fans that might well be multiplied by this song when they realized it was only unbearable pain that had made her so cold. Oh, joy.

Though I’ve tried to block it out, I always feel their pain,
But these angry, fisted hands may never heal again.
Somewhere past my cruelty I’m longing to be kind,
But when everything is gone, what’s left to do but hide behind
The walls I’m building?
These walls I’m building…

I feel it every time.

When she did write lyrics, she tended to put her heart and soul into them; none of her songs were fictional as so many tended to be. As such, when performed or even recorded, they always included the psychic message the trio desperately hoped would bring Kakyuu back to them. Of course the band came up with a decent number of more mundane pieces — they had to fill up their concerts and albums somehow, and it took a lot out of them if every song sent the broadcast — and Yaten dutifully orchestrated them and played bass and sang harmony as needed… but, though she put plenty of artistic energy into them, those songs didn’t mean a thing to her. The trio had one mission, one goal, one purpose that swallowed up everything else; she couldn’t afford — and had no desire! — to get caught up in other nonsense.

And the rest of the band business? The signings and the sponsoring events and the advertising contracts and the interviews? That was even purer nonsense than the casual music required of them by circumstance. She considered it nothing very worthy of censure to give very little effort to that.

It wasn’t as if she needed anyone around here to respect her work ethic anyway. Though perhaps, deep down, in the part of her that lived in the past on a now-barren world, she might have liked them to.

And it’s not your fault I’m alone now,
But if you found me I know I’d know how
To say I’m sorry,
And return me to the me I used to be.

All this drama with the local Sailor Senshi had made her feel worse than ever. That Sailor Moon, like their own princess, had the power to restore phage to human form, to restore stolen Star Seeds, cut like a knife into the breast of one that had sensed so many of her own people disappear forever at the hands of Shadow Galactica. Of course Kakyuu would have saved them if she could, but, wounded and defeated, hadn’t been given that choice. That someone else out there had the power to prevent all that death and suffering, but hadn’t been present to do so, hurt so badly it was almost a catalyst to draw out all the emotions Yaten was so industriously repressing.

And that Sailor Moon clearly wanted to help, had been the one to insist in the first place they heal the phage instead of simply destroying them… that was so close to unbearable Yaten simply refused to think about it. Not only because it represented a missed opportunity, however remote the chances, but because healing…

No, she would never consent to join forces with Sailor Moon and her handmaidens. Never. Let them heal their own world, since they oh-so-fortunately still had the power to do so. Or fall to Galaxia, for all Yaten cared.

I feel it every time:
Every sorrow and hurt.
They reach out to me, and I turn away without a word.
Are you reaching out too?
I swear I feel you near.
I know the type of me you’d prefer…

Kakyuu was out there somewhere. And ‘out’ perhaps wasn’t even the right term; Yaten could absolutely sense her somewhere on this planet, somewhere in this country. The others couldn’t — at least not nearly so strongly — which was why Yaten herself had led them here, and at first she’d looked down on them for that. In her newly forged emotional withdrawal and harshness, she’d disdained her fellow soldiers for lacking her adeptness in one particular area.

But she was past that now. They had their own skills, as she’d known all along and had eventually come to accept even through the walls and the bitterness. It was impolitic in any case to demand more of them, or to blame them for working in their own ways alongside her when that work was more important than any individual’s strengths or weaknesses.

Would she ever see her princess again, though? Every time she thought about it, a dull ache she simply couldn’t push down throbbed through her. Where, exactly, was Kakyuu? What was she doing? Dying of her wounds, or biding her time? Working toward some goal, or just slowly healing?

And did she fail to respond to their desperate songs because she didn’t feel it safe to do so, or because she didn’t hear… or because they had changed so much she no longer wanted or needed them?

Yaten refused to think about it. Just finding her… that would be enough.

And it’s not your fault I’m broken,
But if I saw you I’d be whole again.
Please don’t forget me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

She didn’t like what she was. That was one truth of the song: she wished she could be other. In reality she didn’t think she could go back to her former self, because she couldn’t unsee the horrors she’d witnessed on Kinmoku and on her moon, and she couldn’t unfeel the pain of her princess’ flight to this unknown world. And it would take some doing even just to unwrap the layers of unkindness she’d used to hide from everyone she might have loved.

But if she could grow from the experience into a better, gentler, stronger version of her old self… couldn’t she better serve her princess that way? Perhaps someday she could even heal again… if only she could find her…

And until then, the walls. The marble. The near-complete insensitivity.

We’ll be together. I’ll find you.
I won’t stop searching past the stars and the moon,
Through the galaxy,
For my princess and the me I used to be.

That last chorus… Yaten wasn’t quite sure about it, and would probably cut it. Too many of their songs already used the word ‘princess,’ and eventually even the most thick-headed fan had to wonder why the Three Lights all seemed to be obsessed with someone they called by that name. The imagery of stars and moon was also repetitive of similar wordings in other pieces, and, though it was difficult to avoid, it did get old after a while.

Beyond that, the attitude seemed a little… optimistic. After all, perhaps, as Yaten had reflected before, Kakyuu didn’t want to be found. Perhaps she was on a mission of such importance she’d considered it expedient to shed everything that might hold her back, including her own soldiers. Or perhaps she didn’t even recognize them in their young men’s bodies.

Yaten stared down at her boy’s hands as Seiya finished singing. This was another thing she hated. The others often seemed fairly comfortable in their bodies, but Yaten never was. The only time she felt physically right was when she transformed. Just another thing to hate about herself and the contingencies of the mission they were on.

Seiya went over the bridge again, experimenting with a different melody without accompaniment. Then she tried one of the verses a little slower than before, making it sound even more soulful in her smooth voice. Yaten fought a prickle of tears behind her eyes as her own words, her own deepest thoughts and the pain that prompted them, poured out of her comrade’s mouth.

Finally Seiya ceased singing all together. Yaten’s gaze shifted to where she could see Seiya’s reflection in the window, and, observing her frowning slightly over the paper, Yaten frowned as well. And Seiya asked, “Don’t you think some of this is a little obscure for a boy band?”

“No more obscure than most of Taiki’s lyrics,” Yaten almost snapped back.

“That’s true,” Taiki admitted. Gently she added, “I think they’re excellent lyrics, Yaten.”

Seiya’s reflection nodded. “We’ll have to find a different melody, of course, but this’ll make a great song.”

Almost against her will, Yaten smiled faintly. Because she knew they’d suffered very much as she had, changed in their own ways as she had in hers. Because she knew that by ‘excellent lyrics’ and ‘great song’ they meant, “We understand every word; we’re with you in pain and in hope.”

Because where she’d previously had fellow servants of a higher authority from different moons, barely even acquaintances, she now had sisters — or perhaps brothers — with the same name, the same goals, the same trauma.

She swiveled in the window seat and stood. “Let’s practice something else,” she said airily, as if none of this mattered, and headed to pick up her own instrument.

And maybe she would keep that last chorus in after all.


An anonymous Guest gave me the following November Quick Fics 2018 thoughts:

I’m not sure if you would be interested, but I feel like the Starlights don’t really have enough fics about them? I’m particularly interested in Yaten and her apparent (psychic? emphatic?) abilities. None of the Solar Senshi were able to tell when a Star Seed was taken, yet she always did. How was she affected when her own planet was destroyed? I mean, could it be a reason for her to close herself off and become so resistant to getting attached again? I feel like one of the reasons she never lost faith in the Princess and knew she was somewhere out there was because she could sense that she was alive, but then seeing her die would have hit her twice as hard. It also seemed to me that while Taiki and Seiya could be a little harsh on each other, they were more tolerant of Yaten’s mood swings and when they did scold her (i.e. for throwing away fans’ letters) they were always gentle. Lastly, her name’s Healer but she doesn’t seem to have the ability to actually heal – or could that be that by cutting herself away from her emotions she also cut away her healing powers? (we do know some other characters have these.) I feel like there is much to explore here (not necessarily in the way I see it). Or maybe not, and I’m terribly wrong…

I think I hit most of the points.


Escape From Reality


“Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain.”

Ladybug and Chat Noir face off against an enemy that shows them a variety of unpleasant possibilities… and one that may be a little more pleasant.

“They said I play too many video games and don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality…” The akumatized villain, calling herself Dimension, shouted her manifesto as so many of them did. “But I’ll show everyone that any reality can be real enough to change your life… or to end it! Starting with you, Ladybug and Chat Noir!”

She waved an akumatized parody of a motion controller at them in a rapid succession of movements like repeatedly cracking a whip, and in the air around them at each invisible point where the fictional whip’s end would have snapped, a translucent oval of color — red, yellow, black, blue — appeared and began wheeling around and above the two superheroes in unpredictable patterns. Inside the whirling set of hazy-edged shapes, Ladybug and Chat Noir threw each other a glance of bemusement.

“Is your idea of reality to make us look at pretty colors?” Chat Noir scratched his head, then, with a lop-sided grin, threw out an elbow as if to prod Ladybug with it as he added, “I think she really doesn’t know the difference.”

Ladybug had to smile a little, but… “Let’s just make finding her akuma a reality, OK?”

“Of course, milady!” And Chat Noir moved to duck under one of the floating colors and dash toward their enemy. The black, hazy-edged oval caught him in the shoulder, however, and with a loud popping sound like a cork from a bottle, he disappeared.

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug yelped, and jumped backward to avoid the black oval that swerved in her direction. This put her right in the path of the red one, and with both a popping sound and a popping sensation — as if she were the cork — she suddenly found herself somewhere else.

Well, it was still the streets of Paris. But something — everything, in fact — was different about them. The walls and buildings and even the parked cars around her were a confusion of varied hues she couldn’t take in quite yet, and the people had gathered in far different groups than those carefully collected at corners and behind cover to peek around and see what Dimension would do. These onlookers had clustered up at different points seemingly at random, and stood casually chatting. Confused, Ladybug drew closer.

A list of startling items became gradually evident: first, the surrounding chaotic colors were spray-painted onto every available upright surface in an epidemic of graffiti; second, the only thing those that viewed it had to say was a litany of repetitive praise for its artistry and the talent of someone they called ‘Tagger;’ third, they’d been engaged in this activity for a dreadfully long time, if their near-emaciated frames and the human waste on their lower bodies was any indication; fourth, the graffiti — or ‘street art,’ to give it the name used by the enthusiastic, starving audience — had some sort of hypnotic power over those that looked directly at it. Even from the corner of her eye, Ladybug felt the pull: a dizzy, euphoric impression and the creeping alien thought that it really did look nice and the artist really was talented.

She shook her head violently, eyes closed, and when she opened them again she focused steadfastly on the cobblestones beneath her feet. Lucky this ‘Tagger’ hadn’t painted the ground as well! She sidled up to the nearest group of art critics.

“Look at the colors!” one of them was saying rapturously.

Ladybug had, in the short time she’d been here, heard him say this once already, and now, careful to concentrate only on him, she grasped his shoulders and shook. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

When he didn’t reply, nor even turn his head in her direction, she attempted to drag him away or pull him off balance, but he seemed stuck in place and would not budge. She tried putting her hands over his eyes from behind as if playing the ‘Guess who!’ game, but he pushed her arms away and said, “Just look at the way the red melts into the orange!”

“Tagger is so talented,” agreed the elderly woman beside him in a tone of extreme weakness, and even as she made the comment she fell to her knees. Almost in a panic, Ladybug tried to catch her under the arms and ease her away from the soiled spot where she collapsed, but she too proved impossible to move. She just kept staring at the graffiti out of an unhealthily pale face.

These people needed food and water and to be cleaned up and gotten away from here, but obviously Ladybug lacked the power to effect that on her own. Glancing around at everyone clustered all up and down the street, she felt her heart sink slowly but surely into her spotted shoes. She also noticed the swirling colors not far off still doing their unpredictable dance in the air around where she’d originally appeared. The red was missing now, and in its place whirled a white oval whose movements seemed the most darting and random of all. If she understood correctly, those were portals to — as Dimension had hinted — other realities. The red one must lead here, so now it had been replaced by white, which led… where? Back to her own reality? Could she catch it and then come back here with help? She had to try.

The white portal proved far too capricious to catch, however, and she found herself popping through the black one before she even realized what was happening. Well, at least she followed Chat Noir; if she could find him, they could regroup and consider what to do.

A mere moment in the new reality was enough to make her shudder, for the structures of this Paris were covered in cobwebs. It was like the street leading up to the Arc de Triomphe under Anansi’s influence, only far worse. The wispy pale substance stretched from the ledge of one window the next, across doorways, and from wall to street as far as the eye could see. Despite the blue sky, the entire world looked dusty and grey, and in the corners of her eyes she thought she saw skittering movement. What was going on here??

Even as she directed her gaze upward in the immediate vicinity, something like a teardrop made of web detached from a street lamp and fell to the ground. Its outer covering seemed to melt away, and a cluster of huge spiders uncurled, detangled themselves from each other’s legs, and turned their many eyes upon her.

In great agitation, Ladybug looked for something she could fling her yo-yo at in order to swing away… but everything was far too spidery, and she didn’t feel confident connecting with any of it. She did a panicked little dance in place as she watched the spiders approaching, and a squeal escaped her lips as she searched for cover. And then, with a thud that made her shriek out loud, Chat Noir landed in front of her. He wore thigh-high wading boots, for some reason, instead of his usual footwear, but to her relief his staff was extended; he held it like a hockey player ready to bat away a puck and then get into a knock-down-drag-out with some member of the opposing team. Except the puck — and the opposing team! — was a group of spiders.

“Since I ran into myself here just a few minutes ago,” he said over his shoulder, “I assume you’re that other reality’s Marinette!”

“M-M-Marinette?!” was all she could reply, frozen in place more completely than fear of the spiders could hope to leave her.

“Oh!” Chat Noir replied, a bit startled. “Do you not know each other’s identities in your world yet?” The first of the spiders had reached him, and he knocked it away with his staff. It flew twelve feet into the air and disappeared into a swirl of purple and black. They weren’t real spiders, then, but the product of some akuma.

“No!” Ladybug’s head spun, and not merely from the thought of an akumatized villain covering Paris in spiders. “You didn’t tell the other Chat Noir, did you??”

“It didn’t come up,” this Chat Noir assured her, fighting off a thickening wave of arachnids. “I was too busy rescuing him just like this! When the egg sacs open, the spiders inside go for the first person they see. They don’t bite, just swarm all over them — but that’s bad enough! Araña wants to convince everyone that spiders are awesome, but it’s backfired — nobody comes out of the buildings anymore.”

Ladybug was a little easier at the news that this undertaking hadn’t shattered the secrecy between her and her world’s Chat Noir, but horrified at the nature of this dimension’s dilemma. She would have asked why the local Ladybug and Chat Noir hadn’t captured the akuma yet, but believed she already saw the answer: Chat Noir’s movements, even as he defended her against the last of the spiders as if he did this all the time, were stiff, awkward, borderline clumsy. “You’re injured!”

“No.” He grimaced over his shoulder at her. “Just scared to death of spiders.”

“Me too,” she admitted. That would hamper anyone’s ability to deal with a city full of them.

“I know.” He gave her a smart-aleck grin. “And I need to get back to my Ladybug. You should get through your portal before another egg sac hatches!”

Ladybug glanced where he was looking, and indeed saw the whirling set of colorful portals waiting for her. Here, the black portal was missing and had been replaced with the red. “Which one did Chat Noir take?”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“I’ll aim for white, then. Thank you!” she shouted as she darted to try.

But again the chaotic movements of the portals betrayed her; blue filled her vision, and with another popping sound and sensation she was carried to yet another version of Paris. Her running momentum did not slacken at the transition, and she stumbled several more steps forward and smack into Chat Noir. They both tumbled to the ground, she on top of him, and his eyes widened as he recognized her.

“Please tell me you’re my Chat Noir,” she gasped.

“Always and forever, milady,” he said just as breathlessly, probably because she’d knocked the wind out of him. He added, “But if you mean the Chat Noir from the reality where Dimension sent us off to various miserable places covered in spiders, I’m that Chat Noir too.”

“Thank goodness,” Ladybug said, climbing off him and scanning the area. Her brows lowered as she took in the scene, and she asked, “What’s going on in this Paris?” with a sense of great uneasiness.

Chat Noir jumped to his feet and stood beside her, looking grim — or at least as grim as he was capable of. “They’ve got everything they need in there…” He gestured to the pedestrians that resembled walking showers, their bodies circled from head to ankle in opaque curtains. “Food, water, something that keeps them clean, and they can even sleep standing up. They can see out, but nobody can see in. I saw the supervillain putting the things on some construction workers, and they just went back to work without talking to each other. Nobody interacts wearing these things; I think the villain hates all kinds of human interaction, but he didn’t say a word when I saw him!”

“Then us standing here talking is probably going to draw his attention,” Ladybug speculated. “Where are the Ladybug and Chat Noir of this reality?”

“I haven’t seen them. Maybe they got curtained like these people?”

“It would be hard to fight in those things… Should we try to defeat the villain ourselves?”

Chat Noir did a pensive handstand. “I don’t think we have time to go defeating all the villains in these realities… who knows what Dimension is up to back in our reality?”

With a reluctant final look around, Ladybug protested, “I don’t like to leave them like this, though.”

“Always so kind,” said Chat Noir admiringly. “But it’s not as bad as some we’ve seen…”

“You’re right.” She clenched a fist in unhappy determination. “Let’s see if we can get back through the white portal!”

They turned to face the crazy ovals. Ladybug thought she was getting better at predicting their patterns, but the white one remained the fastest and the least calculable among the other available options of yellow, red, and black. As she and Chat Noir dove for it, he got swept up by the red one, while she popped through the black again.

Spider-Paris’ Chat Noir was nowhere in sight, and neither, thank goodness, was any egg sac ready to burst — but that didn’t mean Ladybug wanted to linger. She spun and dashed for the portals again, and this time actually managed to hit the one she wanted. With a pop, the graffiti-covered Paris came back into view, and Ladybug quickly dropped her eyes to the ground.

“Chat Noir!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

His voice came from nearby, but unfortunately its tone was all hypnosis in remarking, “What a cool design! What genius painted this?”

Ladybug looked up just far enough to see the black-clad figure slowly making his way toward a nearby car where bright colors already tugged at the corner of her eye. With a sound of frustration she followed, and, getting around in front of him, put both hands over his eyes and tried to hold him back. And perhaps because he hadn’t yet reached the spot where he would be rooted to the ground immovably, it worked; though he raised his hands to try to remove hers, his grip was lackluster and his steps slowed. He came to a halt, stood still a long moment simply holding her wrists, and finally wondered, “What’s going on?”

“Chat Noir, I’m going to remove my hands,” she told him, “and you can’t look at the graffiti. Look at the sky, or the ground, or — or at me, but not at the graffiti. OK?”

As she did as she’d said, his face wore the grin she’d expected when she’d suggested he look at her. “OK, milady,” he replied, pleased. “I’m always happy to look at you! But what’s with this place?”

“It seems like nobody appreciated the villain’s art. Now everyone who looks at it is hypnotized and can’t leave or talk about anything else. They’re all starving because they’re not allowed to do anything but admire his graffiti nonstop!”

Chat Noir swept a careful low glance around, undoubtedly taking in enough of the people nearby to confirm what she’d told him. “Do you think we’re hypnotized somewhere too?”

“If we are,” Ladybug replied in dismay, “the villain could easily have taken our Miraculous while we just stood there praising his art.”

“Or maybe there is no Ladybug and Chat Noir in this reality. Le Papillon showed up and started stirring up trouble, but somehow we never got our Miraculous and aren’t around to help. Maybe in curtain-Paris too.”

“I can’t decide which idea is worse,” Ladybug grumbled.

He met her eyes again, but this time with a thoughtful, almost sneaky smile that didn’t seem to fit the situation. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“We may not have time and energy to defeat all these villains or even check whether there’s anyone around who can, but maybe we can do something to help. These people need to be fed and cleaned and to get some rest, right?”

“Yeah…?” She stared into his strangely green eyes for a moment, and then suddenly realized what he meant. “Yeah! That’s genius!”

He bowed. “I’m like that sometimes!” And he turned back toward the portals again.

“Wait!” Her cry halted him mid-step. “We keep getting separated; hold my hand!”

Coming back toward her, he took her extended hand and kissed it. “I thought you’d never ask!” Then together they tried to intercept the blue portal.

Yet again they weren’t able to pinpoint the one they wanted. Yellow swallowed them up with a pop, and, hands still tightly clasped, they found themselves elsewhere: not the streets of Paris this time, but an annoyingly familiar suite in an obnoxiously familiar hotel. After a brief glance around, each met the other’s gaze, and they both sighed.

“Chloé?” they queried in unison.

“In here!” came the immediate reply from the next room. The same voice — Chloé’s voice — then went on in frustration, obviously addressing someone else, “Don’t you dare put that on me! That thing is absolutely hideous!” Then there was a loud rustling of paper and a muffled cry, followed by another yell in their direction: “Whoever’s out there, get in here and help me before I puke from this horrible color!”

The scene in the next room was not all together surprising: a clearly akumatized woman whose left hand had been replaced by a pair of scissors was busily cutting outfits from pieces of paper she pulled from a kind of quiver at her back. They grew to life-size as she cut, bore tabs like those used to attach such clothing to paper dolls, and were obviously intended to be worn by Chloé Bourgeois. The latter hung in the air, tied up at wrists and ankles by long strings of simpler, chain-style paper dolls, currently dressed in a fluffy sequined orange dress of which she evidently didn’t approve.

Both the villain and the victim looked over as Ladybug and Chat Noir entered, and mimicked the unison of a moment before in demanding, “Who on Earth are you?”

“And what are you wearing?” Chloé added.

So that basically proved Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t exist in this reality. Of course there was no reason they couldn’t eventually, but it was still a depressing thought.

“Well, I don’t care who you are,” was Chloé’s next, dismissive comment. “This servant I fired because she brought me ugly clothing turned into a monster and is making me wear hideous rags like this–” the clause ended on a disgusted shriek– “and you need to take care of it! You know who I am, I assume?”

The villain had paused with the next outfit mostly cut out, staring at Ladybug and Chat Noir warily, but as Chloé went on about how the daughter of the mayor of Paris should never be forced to wear such monstrosities and the villain’s taste was even worse as a monster than it had been as a personal assistant, she returned to her snipping without a word.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered. “Let’s find the blue portal.”

Ladybug barely resisted as he pulled her back into the other room. “But Chloé…”

“If the worst that supervillain’s doing to her is making her wear clothing she doesn’t like, she’ll be OK for now.”

With a shrug Ladybug admitted, “At least this one isn’t trying to kill her.” She did feel a little bad about leaving even Chloé at the mercy of an akuma in a Ladybugless Paris, though.

This time they made it through the blue oval and back to the curtain dimension. It looked as it had before: with numerous shrouded white figures moving about in a fairly normal fashion, just completely invisible behind their yards of cloth and never acknowledging the presence of others.

“You said the villain was near here a little earlier, right?” Ladybug asked.

“Yeah. I figure if we keep talking, he’ll show up.”

“It probably helps that we’re holding hands.” She thought she saw a faint blush seep out from beneath Chat Noir’s mask as she said this, and that made her own face heat.

Chat Noir cleared his throat. “This is going to be tough once he does show up.”

“I know. It’s hard enough on our own!”

“We’ll probably want to grab him from both sides so we’re all touching, and then jump. If we miss, don’t think about it — just jump again.”

“Right.” She nodded firmly. “We can do this.”

“Hey! Isn’t this great?” Chat Noir startled her with his sudden yell. “Look how well we’re interacting! We always get along so well! We always want to talk to each other and hold each other’s hands!”

“Uh, yeah!” Ladybug took her turn at the ridiculous taunt. “We hang out all the time! And we get other people involved too!”

Do we?” Chat Noir’s eyes twinkled as he asked this in a low tone.

Ladybug blushed more deeply than before at his implication. “I mean we have a lot of friends!” she cried. “Friends who interact with each other all the time, just like we do!”

“Sometimes we get into arguments!” Chat Noir agreed. “With people we interact with!”

“Oh, yes! There’s all sorts of drama! Sometimes people even get their feelings hurt!”

“Misunderstandings! And deceitful behavior! And insults! And–”

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug freed one hand from where they’d somehow come to be clasping both, and pointed. A ripple in the crowd seemed to be making its way in their direction, and as the pedestrian traffic shifted she thought she could see a different color than the omnipresent white.

“That’s him, all right.” Together they began backing up, her left hand still in his right, until they were about as close to the portals as they could get without risking being hit by one on its forward swing. And before them, a figure wearing a black curtain emerged and plodded slowly toward them. It stopped not far off and, though it said nothing, seemed to be examining them. Several moments passed in silence.

Undoubtedly to speed things along, Chat Noir bent toward Ladybug and asked, “Well, what do you think, milady?”

“I think Chloé wouldn’t approve of the outfit,” Ladybug replied.

The villain struck in a sudden, startling movement. His curtain fluttered upward with the missile that flew from each of his outflung hands, granting them just a brief view of the sad-looking man beneath. But they were too busy dodging the white cloth that had shot toward them, threatening to make them into solitary curtain-wearers probably every bit as lonely as this guy. Their hands had broken apart with their leap, but it didn’t matter; if they couldn’t get hold of him quickly and drag him back in this direction, being separated would be the least of their worries.

More curtains raced toward their new positions; Ladybug jumped while Chat Noir ducked. Then a yo-yo flicked out at the enemy in the hopes of immobilizing him at least briefly. The villain essayed a dodge of his own, but came immediately up against Chat Noir’s extended staff and was caught neatly in the yo-yo’s string. The two superheroes dashed forward, each catching hold of one side of the floating bar above the guy’s head from which his curtains hung. They pulled his stumbling form toward the portals, and Ladybug could feel him straining against the tie in which he was wrapped; it wouldn’t hold him long.

The colors swirled before them, and by now they were definitely parsing the patterns somewhat. The curtain-villain struggled even harder as Chat Noir said, “3…”

“2…” said Ladybug.

“1…”

“Jump!”

With a red pop, they’d succeeded — all three of them landed in graffiti-Paris. Hastily they shoved the curtain-villain forward, Ladybug disengaging her yo-yo, and stepped back themselves. Now to get the all-important answer: could one akumatized villain resist the hypnosis created by another?

The man caught his balance after a step or two, then stood still as he’d done in curtain-Paris just a minute before, seeming to look around without a word at the admirers of Tagger’s street art. He took another step forward as he and the superheroes heard someone nearby make a remark to a neighbor and get a reply: clear interaction. Then white cloth began to fly. Bystanders disappeared one by one, and Ladybug was pleased to see the old woman she’d been so concerned about before rising easily to her feet as soon as she was under the protection of a curtain.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered, and drew her backward again. The villain was moving away from them, up the street, curtaining everyone he could see, but if they spoke too loudly he would undoubtedly turn once more. They needed to get through a portal, and right now it didn’t much matter which.

The color turned out to be black, proving it did actually matter which since Ladybug hadn’t really wanted to come back to this version of Paris. She and Chat Noir shuddered in tandem as they realized where they were, and huddled almost unconsciously closer together.

“It worked,” Chat Noir said, still in a whisper though they’d left curtain-villain behind. Doubtless he, like Ladybug, thought attracting the attention of the spiders around here would be every bit as bad.

“At least they’re better off now than they were before,” Ladybug replied in as quiet a tone. And looking around she added, “Now I’m getting an idea…”

“I love your ideas,” Chat Noir told her with a grin obviously tempered somewhat by their surroundings.

But before she could speak again, another voice — this one not bothering to whisper — called out to them. “I thought you might come back, since the portals are still here!” And the other Chat Noir vaulted into view. This time the spider-Paris Ladybug swung in beside him, and Ladybug noticed she too wore tall wading boots. That only made sense, given what this Paris was like, but it did rather spoil the outfit.

“Do you two need some pointers,” alternate Chat Noir went on, “from a more in-tune superhero team?” And he threw an arm around alternate Ladybug’s waist and laid his head on her shoulder.

The gesture and the question combined were so easily understood that Chat Noir’s jaw dropped and Ladybug’s face went burning hot — far worse than earlier. With a squeak she dropped his hand and stepped awkwardly away, stammering as she did so, “No, no, no, of course we don’t need any pointings — pointers — like that! No pointers at all! We’re just fine in-tune the way we are, thanks!”

But, “I think we could use some pointers!” Chat Noir told his double with eager haste. “How did this happen?”

Alternate Chat Noir moved to kiss alternate Ladybug, who pushed his face away with a roll of eyes. “This really isn’t the time for it, kitty-cat.” Then, turning to the others, she added, “Do you need our real help?”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” alternate Chat Noir whispered loudly behind his hand to his twin.

“Oh, like you did?” wondered alternate Ladybug with affectionate sarcasm.

Alternate Chat Noir allowed, “You’re right, milady.” And to Ladybug and Chat Noir he admitted, “She figured everything out. She’s even more of a genius than I am.”

“Right!” Chat Noir agreed. “I’m always in awe of her powers!”

“What did I do to deserve two of them,” Ladybug muttered. Then, loudly, overriding the two amorous cats, she said, “Actually, Ladybug, you might be able to help us.”

Her Chat Noir’s attention snapped right back from the small distance it had wandered. “You said you had an idea.”

“Yes! I think we can use the same trick twice, and help Chloé!”

The alternate pair echoed, “Chloé?” and, meeting each other’s eyes, sighed.

On the other hand, Chat Noir’s face lit up. “Good thinking!” And he started looking around at the walls and lamp posts.

“So what do you need?” alternate Ladybug wondered. “I suppose Chloé’s gotten herself targeted again?”

“We need to push one of those egg sacs through the yellow portal,” Ladybug explained, “to scare off her villain at least temporarily. But Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain. If we can find an egg sac–”

“There!” Chat Noir’s searching gaze had located one three storeys up a wall above them.

Ladybug gave him a nod of acknowledgment. “–can you two help us get it down and through the portal?”

They all looked at the egg sac, and they all shuddered in unison. Then, eyes falling again, the four of them laughed nervously.

“Yes, of course,” alternate Ladybug assured her, though her voice very naturally wavered a little at the prospect of messing it up and spilling spiders all over them.

“That one doesn’t look ready to hatch yet,” alternate Chat Noir assured her. “Which is a problem we’ll have to deal with once we get it down.”

“But how do we get it down?” Chat Noir wondered.

Alternate Ladybug, frowning upward, took her yo-yo in hand, and Ladybug was intimately familiar with the motion, as well as with the sound of a voice just like hers crying out, “Lucky Charm!” Some things had gone differently in this reality, and the superheroes were wearing wellies, but many things were identical.

A small folding chair without legs — just plastic cushion and back and a couple of hooks on the bottom for attaching it to something — appeared in the air above alternate Ladybug and dropped into her hands. “What is this?” she wondered, sounding as baffled as Ladybug felt.

“It’s a stadium chair,” both Chat Noirs informed her at the same moment. One of them went on, “You bring it to a game to make the seats more comfortable.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’ll make things any more comfortable for us with all these spiders around,” alternate Ladybug muttered, her eyes darting from point to point in another motion Ladybug was eminently familiar with. She decided to join her.

“Um, milady…” Alternate Chat Noir was looking uneasily up the street. “I think I hear the skitter-scatter of a lot of little feet coming our way…”

“One more second,” said alternate Ladybug with a touch of desperation, and then she and Ladybug lighted on the same solution at the same moment. “There!” they both cried, startling the Chats. Then they got busy, each taking her Chat Noir by the arms and arranging him as needed: shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the wall to which the egg sac adhered. Alternate Ladybug stood in front of them, holding the stadium chair so its back was to them, and instructed, “Now, if you each extend your staff to the same length, so they catch the hooks under here…”

“The chair becomes a giant spatula!” gloated one Chat Noir.

“For a super nasty omelette,” the other added.

In perfect synchronization they did as they were told, and alternate Ladybug ducked as the seat was lifted out of her hands by the two extending staffs. It rose smoothly at an oblique angle, and where it hit the wall slid neatly underneath the sac, separating the latter from the stone so it settled down against the seat back and descended gently toward the pavement again as the staffs retracted. They didn’t bring it within arm’s reach, though, seeming to agree tacitly that just beyond was close enough.

“Now…” said alternate Chat Noir, looking up the street again to where the sound of tapping spider claws definitely sounded, “you said the yellow portal, right?”

“Right,” said Ladybug.

“Then take this.” Alternate Chat Noir gestured to his staff, and Ladybug was quick to obey. She and her Chat Noir pivoted, turning the chair with its disgusting burden toward where the portals whirled some distance away. Alternate Chat Noir was already headed in that direction. “Extend!” he called as he ran. Ladybug and Chat Noir did so, struggling to keep the wobbling seat steady as the staffs grew longer. “Cataclysm!” alternate Chat Noir shouted next, raising his hand.

They stopped the chair’s movement just in front of the portals, where alternate Chat Noir halted as well. He watched carefully, then darted his hand out to slap the egg sac off the stadium seat and forward just as the yellow portal swung by. His Cataclysm destroyed the sac’s outer coating of web, and they all barely saw a mass of spiders pushed forward into the portal, where they disappeared — hopefully to swarm over the scissor-handed villain tormenting Chloé and drive her away long enough for Chloé to escape.

Alternate Chat Noir seized the stadium chair and bounded back to his Ladybug, who threw it into the sky to return it to the magic (though it changed nothing, of course, as no akuma had been captured). Her earring spots were already in short supply.

“You two better get out of here,” alternate Chat Noir advised, “before that new group of spiders arrives!”

“You two too,” Chat Noir returned, “before you transform back and can’t do anything to fight them!”

“We have got to take care of Araña,” alternate Ladybug complained.

Ladybug said, “Let me guess… she’s a giant spider?”

“Got it in one,” said alternate Ladybug in a dark tone. In an impetuous movement, she stepped forward and gave Ladybug a kiss on both cheeks. “Good luck with your villain!”

“Yours too!” Ladybug replied, touched. “Everyone, go!” And they split, the local superheroes swinging and vaulting off to safety before they could regain their civilian forms and Ladybug and Chat Noir, finding each other’s hands again, sprinting toward the portals.

“Think we can manage the white one this time?” Chat Noir wondered as they ran.

“No doubt!” was Ladybug’s enthusiastic reply. “I’ve got the kiss of luck on me now!”

“Aww, don’t make me jealous,” Chat Noir pouted, and they came to a brief halt and waited only a few moments before jumping forward again. White enveloped the world, and they popped out right into Dimension’s face.

She appeared more than a little startled, but rallied quickly. “So you made it back, did you? How did it feel to witness your failures in those other realities?”

“We didn’t witness failures,” Ladybug declared, giving Chat Noir’s hand a squeeze before letting it go. “We only saw what’s made us stronger than ever — and you’re going to feel it!” And throwing her yo-yo into the air, she added, “Lucky Charm!”

MangoFox’s second November Quick Fics 2018 prompt was this: “By some shenanigans (time travel, parallel universes, whatever), Marinette and/or Adrien have to view or enter a series of alternate realities in which Ladybug and Chat Noir have been unable (or unwilling) to stop certain villains. In each reality, one akumatized villain, now unopposed, has been able to continue using their powers, taking their method/goal to its logical extreme. Now, Marinette/Adrien are forced to (briefly) deal with the creepy outcomes of each scenario.”

I feared this might be a little too complicated for a quick fic, but then I got an idea how to deal with it, so it happened.

A Legion of Hideous Minions

The castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen.

Angela finds the castle overrun by unexpected enemies.


Angela wouldn’t exactly call her ascent ‘panicked,’ since it was a more controlled haste and (she liked to think) a more controlled attitude than that, but she certainly clawed her way up the last few yards of the castle wall a little less carefully than usual.

It had been merely a leisurely sweep of the surrounding area upon awakening, a brief glide about this immediate part of a city she was only just getting to know, but it had at first startled and subsequently alarmed her. And now she finished her quick trip back home with a climb up over the crenelated walls to inform her clan that New York had gone completely mad.

Finding no one in sight in the courtyard where she landed and feeling a little too unnerved to shout, she made her way through the first door at hand and into a pleasant lounge that had probably once been a war room or something similar but that had been fitted up lately with more modern furnishings. Comfortable seats called sofas formed a square with open corners in the center, while a gleaming bar stood to one side, and the hangings that, now as a thousand years ago, worked to keep out the October drafts were machine-woven blankets from a Mexican street vendor rather than hand-crafted tapestries depicting battles long forgotten.

At first Angela believed herself alone in the room, and would have passed immediately onward looking for someone to tell about the chaos many storeys down… but as the heavy oak door closed behind her with an inevitable noise despite its well maintained hinges, a figure previously motionless at the bar whirled suddenly to face her. Angela took a step backward in shock, wings returning to a startled half-open position from where they’d been clasped around her shoulders.

He couldn’t be anything but a vampire, with that mottled skin as pale as death and those extra-long, protruding incisors startling even to one not remiss in the tooth department herself and from one of which dripped a viscous red substance. She hadn’t thought gargoyles capable of becoming vampires, but the stranger’s dolichocephalic face and the wings that sprang up behind him in as startled a movement as that of her own marked him as no human, even if the black and white suit and red cape he wore looked more like something designed by that race than the simpler garments gargoyles typically favored.

For one moment he stared at her, obviously surprised at her abrupt presence. Then his mouth opened into a smile, baring the expanse of the nearest overlong tooth and its gob of blood slowly sliding downward toward the direly pointed tip. When he spoke, it was in an accent she recognized from one of the ‘movies’ Broadway had recently taken her to — maybe the humans, ignorant though they were of so many things supernatural, had gotten at least that part correct.

“Ah, a beautiful gargoyle voman. Perhaps you vill be villing to donate your blood to my noble cause.”

Angela still didn’t panic, but at this point she was definitely a long step closer. Monsters rioting in the streets below, looting food from homes, and now one had found his way all the way up here to the castle above the clouds?

She considered her options. Vampires were said to be immensely strong, fast, and difficult to defeat. And though some gargoyle clans, in other areas of the world, reputedly hunted them — the night should stalk the night, after all — they were far from here and far from her range of experience. She didn’t know if she could take a gargoyle vampire one-on-one, especially unarmed as she was. Her eyes darted toward the opposite door, calculating her chances of escape. If she could just find some of the others, they could battle side-by-side and even the odds.

“You can run,” the vampire said, and for all the calm in his voice she thought him on the brink of laughter — at her relative weakness? “…but you can’t hide. I am Count Mordacula, lord of vampires, and my host of minions from the undervorld is loyal only to me! Your puny castle doesn’t stand a chance!”

Were the monsters ransacking the city his servants, then? Angela had to find the others, assess the situation and plan a counterattack, before the situation got any worse. Without answering the vampire lord — she wouldn’t be hypnotized by any spell of words! — she made what she hoped would be an unexpected dash for the exit. Feeling no gnash of sharp teeth or scrape of undead talons, she darted through the door and slammed it behind her, fumbling with the lock as if that would do any good. Then she raced down the corridor beyond.

What had once been the Great Hall and, she supposed, still was — though it had become more a museum dedicated to physical mementos of adventures past — seemed less defensible than other parts of the castle keep, having multiple entrances whose banded doors were more for show than anything these days, but it lay at the end of this hallway, so there she went. So fast did she tear inside, in fact, that she skidded to a halt on scraping claws, unfurling her wings again slightly to stop herself, as she entered the larger space and looked around.

This time she had no illusions about being alone, as the great figure before her would have been hard to miss. And lucky she considered herself that she hadn’t eaten anything yet tonight, for the abomination in front of her might have caused her to lose it if she had. She’d never seen anything like it — was it zombie or unholy construct or simply a walking nightmare? Its belly gaped open, showing rotting green intestines only held in place by what appeared to be metal bars grafted to the withering edges of the rent, and from behind its head stretched a third fleshy arm bearing a huge hook ready to impale an unwary enemy — assuming they hadn’t already passed out from sheer horror.

On catching sight of her, the creature opened its mouth, disclosing a mass of sticky brown as if its tongue had decayed into a stretchy mass, and let out a muffled groan as if trying to speak words long since lost to its cold, dead brain. Gagging, Angela took off running again so fast she left scores in the flagstones. She had to find the others. It seemed Count Mordacula hadn’t lied: he did command a legion of hideous minions, and — as long as she remained its only defender — the castle didn’t stand a chance. She needed her father’s strength, Hudson’s sword, and Elisa’s gun. She would even welcome some of Xanatos’ appalling mechanical suits right about now.

To the sound of the inarticulate monstrosity’s gurgling behind her, she made her way up a spiral staircase to the keep’s second floor and into a network of tighter hallways and chambers used as bedrooms by the various members of the small clan. The first with an unlocked door was the one Lexington used to tinker with his outlandish modern gadgets, and into this she ducked, hoping to find some sign of where everyone had gone. This time, though, panic was so close she could taste it, and she actually gave a little squeak at what the creaking hinges disclosed at their unfolding.

The place was overrun with spiders uniform in shape and size, that shape beyond unnerving and that size positively outlandish. She’d seen tarantulas; she’d seen funnel web spiders and camel spiders and a giant spider god, for goodness’ sake… but this many spiders the breadth of a small shield moving with clacking, whirring limbs in motions almost identical was enough to unnerve even the most seasoned world traveler. And that was before their dark master, hearing her cry, whirled toward her: three times the size of its brood, it moved more quickly and fluidly as well, and, seeing her, leaped forward with its many greenish legs, glowing webs criss-crossing between them, waving. Angela stumbled backward from the room, skin crawling, again slamming the door… but unfortunately, this one locked only from the inside.

Obviously in just the time she’d spend gliding around the neighborhood — an hour at most — the castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen. But who knew how many more of Count Mordacula’s minions had replaced her family? Though a skilled warrior and learning the ways of tactics and castle defense, Angela on her own was out of her depth and wrestling with fear. Best to get away from here as quickly as possible.

As she navigated the same smaller halls, now away from Lex’s spider-filled room, passing as quietly as she could Hudson’s partially open door from which an eerie glow and a menacing growl emanated, she thought fast. Where might the clan go at a time like this? Into the Xanatos building to seek aid from their uneasy allies? But the monsters she’d seen thus far didn’t seem capable of flight, and must have reached the castle somehow… how else but up through the building from the ground level? It seemed probable, therefore, that the building was also overrun.

Perhaps they’d gone over the side and all the way down underground to seek reinforcements among the Mutates? Not unlikely — and a practical regrouping option for Angela herself even if she didn’t find the others there. She hastened with steps as muffled as she could make them around the tight corners and outside.

On the battlement, she nearly ran smack into two figures that were surveying the courtyard below as if searching for something. The first, clearly a human or human-like magician of some sort in black robes, stood even taller than Angela if her wide-brimmed pointed hat counted for height, and turned to regard the gargoyle with a face as green as an apple. The other loomed over them both, hat notwithstanding: a great winged monkey, bulky and hairy and glowering of brow over deep-set eyes. It too turned immediately toward Angela as she emerged so close beside them on the stone terrace.

Succumbing for one brief moment to the panic that had been threatening all along, she leaped haphazardly to the wall, tore her way upward, and launched herself into space from the top before her wings were even fully unfurled.

***

Goliath lifted his monkey mask, which he wasn’t too sure about in the first place, the better to watch as his daughter scrambled unexpectedly up the great blocks and dove off the castle’s side after a single glance at him. At his side, Elisa likewise snatched off her obstructive witch’s hat, letting the hair she’d styled into a scraggly, unkempt imitation of is usual sleek shine shift slightly in the autumn breeze. Removing their eyes from the spot where Angela had disappeared, they shared a look involving the same grimace of sudden dismay. Before they could say anything, though, the door behind them opened again and Brooklyn, in complete makeup and evening wear, emerged from the keep.

“Hey, did you guys see Angela?” he wondered. “I tested my accent out on her, but she didn’t say anything, just ran off.”

Again before any answer could be made, Broadway appeared, and they all shifted along the battlement to make space for him; he seemed even bigger than usual with all the cosmetic putty and one wing done up like an extra arm. He was smacking his lips, and his voice still sounded gooey as he remarked, “Remind me never to put that much caramel in my mouth all at once ever again! I couldn’t say anything to Angela, and I think I grossed her out! Did she come out here?”

Lexington was the next to forestall an answer, creeping from the doorway on all fours due to difficulties walking upright in the extra-legs harness. He seemed to have caught the end of Broadway’s statement, for he put in regretfully, “I think I scared her with my remote-control spiders.” He brightened a touch, though, as he added, “At least I know they work!”

“But where is she?” Broadway wondered, now sounding a little concerned.

Both Goliath and Elisa looked again at the wall’s summit where the object of their conversation had disappeared. In some chagrin Elisa said, “I don’t think any of us told her about our costumes.”

Goliath shook his head, and his tone was even more regretful than his human mate’s. “I don’t think any of us told her about Halloween.”


This is for iamkatsudone’s November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, “All the gargoyles and Elisa and halloween shenanigans?” It’s not quite all the gargoyles, but there are certainly Halloween shenanigans! (The WoW abomination costume is a total anachronism, though XD)



Forgivably Wrong

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here?” the young man wondered.

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you describe them for me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

They’re not ogling me, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

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

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though was that idea really so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


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

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



Blood Contingency 1-5

 

Blood Contingency

“You always thought I’d get myself killed doing something stupid before I was twenty-five… but here I am a hundred and forty-eight, and you’re the one who can’t get through half a life.”
A modern-day American cop isn’t sure what this unnervingly familiar vampire wants from him, until Sano reveals the tragic events of a past life and his undying connection with a Meiji-era Japanese cop.



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018

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.


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 July 29, 2018

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


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: