Haute Coauteur

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis… and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

Clark can’t figure out why Lois, not usually given to writing gossip articles, has just come up with this fluff piece about a couple of villains at a nightclub.


Since Clark was driving, Lois answered the call and put it on speaker. This particular ‘Unknown Number’ they always answered, in preference to the ‘Unknown number’ that occasionally got past their spam blockers, and the voice that immediately sounded over the line was terse and offered no greeting.

“Poison Ivy’s at the house.”

Clark and Lois threw each other raised-eyebrow looks.

With a smile and a shake of head Clark said, “Haven’t I asked you to keep your villains out of my city?”

“I’d be happy just to keep them out of your home,” Batman grumbled.

I’d be interested in knowing how you know Poison Ivy’s in our home,” Lois put in.

An explosion sounded in the background just then, and Batman used this extremely plausible excuse to evade the question. “I’m in the middle of something. Clark, can you deal with her?”

“Ivy, or me?” Lois wondered.

“Ha ha.” On this sarcastic note, Batman disconnected.

Clark chuckled and pulled the car over into a maintenance side-tunnel, ill-lit and soon blocked off but sufficient for their purposes, off the main tunnel they were traversing. “We’re going to have to have a talk with him about what kind of secret security measures we’ve been living with all this time,” he remarked as he undid his seat belt and opened his door.

“After he promised it was a normal house,” said Lois with a lop-sided smile, emerging as well.

Clark, buttons already completely undone, met her with a quick kiss as she came over to the driver’s side. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t let her kiss you,” she advised, throwing his tie into the car behind her to join the rest of his civilian clothing his much quicker hands had sent ahead of it. Then she watched him fly off, hugging the tunnel’s ceiling so as not to be seen, before getting back into the car and resuming her progress toward the job she would now be doing alone.

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis. Of course she worried about Batman and his explosions… and there was always the off chance Poison Ivy might have some devious plot that would temporarily get the better of Superman… and the fact that such a villain had shown up at their house at all was a little worrisome… but mostly Lois was able to concentrate on the story she and Clark had been sent to follow up on, and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

***

They not infrequently teased Bruce that he did have a superpower: convincingly pretending he wasn’t exhausted when every other indicator said he was. This morning, however, Lois, who’d had the same hour and a half of sleep and had only risen now to see him and Clark off, was drooping too hazily toward her omelet to come up with anything facetious to say.

In fact she was so near sleeping in a sitting position that she hadn’t even noticed Clark with his tablet out, something he only did when breakfast conversation lagged. She perked up just a little, though, when he presently remarked, “Now I see where you two went last night.”

Lois, relieved she’d made the deadline for the morning edition — it helped she’d written much of her story before the fact — remarked with a yawn, “I didn’t know you read the society page.”

He grinned at her. “I read pretty fast.”

“We both read all your articles no matter which section they appear in,” Bruce murmured into his coffee.

Lois smiled and turned a little more attention toward her breakfast.

“There’s some of this I don’t understand, though…” Clark’s grin slowly turned upside-down as he scrolled back to what was apparently a difficult part. “Dr. Isley wore Elie Saab…” His frown grew. “…a clingy knit frock spliced with lace…” His brows lowered. “…ruffles in turquoise broderie anglaise…” He lifted a bewildered face toward Lois. “Is this part in English?”

Bruce chuckled quietly.

***

Lois’s inurement notwithstanding, when both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn intercepted her on her way back to the Planet after an interview, she remembered all too well that one of them had been spooked off her property by Superman earlier this week.

There’s my star reporter!” Quinn, though dressed like a normal person and in fact looking fashionable and bubbly-cute, still managed to stand out like a beacon as she took Lois’s left arm.

Ivy, conversely, had a more restrained, elegant beauty to her appearance that fit her better to an everyday big city street; Lois wondered what she wore under that tasteful dark green coat, and whether she’d worn the same or something flashier when she’d been prowling the house.

“Good afternoon, Miss Lane,” she said, taking the other arm, and what Lois wondered next in some surprise was whether her voice was always this smooth and sultry. “Let us walk you back to work, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Lois threw each of them a suspicious look. “I love taking a stroll with supervillains.”

“D’you hear that, Red?” Quinn was grinning widely. “I’ve been upgraded!”

Lois was a little surprised at the fond smile that crossed Ivy’s painted lips before the woman spoke again. “We’re not in town for any supervillainism, Miss Lane, I promise. We just happen to need a reporter’s services, and Harley tells me you’re reliable.”

Lois raised her brows at the aforementioned Harley, who had, when they’d last met, tied her up in a giant bow and suspended her from factory equipment on a Lexcorp lab ceiling as bait for Superman. Quinn giggled sheepishly, obviously clear on the meaning of the look. “I meant it,” she said. “You’re a good kid.” And she gave Lois a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Am I,” Lois said dryly, slowing her pace a touch. The high-rising globe of the Planet building ahead was easily visible; she had no worries for her personal safety, but was overwhelmed not only with skepticism but also curiosity at this conversation.

“Harley and I are planning a day of fun and a night of drinks and dancing tomorrow,” Ivy explained, businesslike, “and we want to make sure it makes the papers.”

Now Lois’s raised brows were directed at her. “Legal fun? Legal drinks? Legal dancing?”

Ivy nodded.

“And you want me to report on it.”

Ivy nodded.

Lois tried to decide which of the numerous problems she perceived in this setup to mention first. Her desire to be in possession of all the facts before throwing out ideas eventually prompted a simple, “Why?”

“We want to make it clear as an engagement diamond that we’re together.” Quinn raised her free hand and crossed her fingers significantly. “A big, public day out as a couple, ya know?”

Lois blinked. That explained Ivy’s fond smile, she supposed, at the idea of Quinn’s having been promoted from ‘villain’ to ‘supervillain.’ It also clicked together some gears that began to spin, one turning the other and the next and the next, until the machinery in her head provided an unexpected output. “So you want to send a message to the Joker that he’s good and truly out of the picture, without actually telling him directly.”

“See?” Quinn wondered gleefully. “Didn’t I tell you she was sharp as a pencil?”

“The Joker doesn’t take bad news well,” Ivy said regretfully. “Indirectly seemed the best way to break it to him.”

“Normally I’d say dumping someone by newspaper in another city is about the tackiest way I can think of to end a relationship, but in this case I approve.” Lois stopped walking entirely. “And you want me, specifically, because I’m Superman’s friend and you think the Joker won’t try to retaliate against me for writing the story.”

“Superman’s ‘friend‘?” Quinn let go of her arm and made an exaggerated gesture of disbelief. “Come on, toots, you don’t have to pretend with us.”

Ivy smirked. She truly had an exquisitely beautiful face, that one.

With a sigh, Lois disengaged from their arms and moved toward a nearby bench. She balled up the old newspaper caught between its slats and tossed it into the trash can next door, then sat down on the cold metal. “I’m forever having to clear this up.” Forever perfecting this particular dramatic role was more like it. “I’m not dating Superman; we really are just friends. I’m in a closed relationship with two non-superheroes.”

The other women took the places to either side of her, both showing an almost professional interest. “You shouldn’t let supervillains know you’re not actually with Superman, you know,” Ivy chided, amusement in her tone. “It’ll make us all think you’re an easier target.”

“I couldn’t be targeted much more than I already am,” replied Lois flatly. “You must have noticed I have a supervillain alert at my house.”

“Was that what it was? I wondered how Superman showed up so quickly… I just assumed, as everyone else does, that you two are dating.”

“I mean,” Quinn put in, “there’s nothing wrong with letting people think that! It could just as easily be an open relationship you’re in, right? That’s me and Red here.”

“Just not with the Joker as an option anymore,” Lois mused.

“Exactly! He and I’re like pickles and strawberry jam.” Quinn kicked her legs out from under the bench, then held them perpendicular and reached to touch her toes. Lois noticed that Ivy watched her with barely concealed concern, as if she feared Quinn wasn’t yet entirely convinced of what she said and needed constant care to prevent a relapse. And just this made Lois determined to do what she could for them, off-duty supervillains though they might be. She’d spent far more time with the Joker than she’d ever wanted to, and if this was what it took to get someone out of his clutches, she was ready to play her part.

***

“Read us the description of Quinn’s outfit,” Bruce prompted at a deadpan.

Squinting at the screen in a very human gesture, Clark said helplessly, “I think some of that was Quinn’s outfit…”

Lois grinned. “None of my cell phone pictures do justice to those dresses.”

“They also don’t help me understand a word of this.”

“It’s only a few paragraphs.”

“A few paragraphs,” Clark declared, “more opaque than one of Luthor’s lead-lined walls.”

Lois and Bruce both laughed at him.

“But moving on…” He scrolled away from the highly confusing section. “I don’t quite understand whether this club is indoors or outdoors. People were using the pool in these temperatures?”

“I made it purposely obscure,” Lois replied, yawning again, “so it wouldn’t sound like it was my first time there. It’d be a rookie mistake to gush about the force field.”

“Even in the privacy of your own home?”

“It is an interesting technology.” Bruce had risen to pour himself another cup of coffee, and raised the pot to question whether his boyfriend needed a refill as well. Clark quickly blew the interior of his mug dry, then tossed it across the kitchen into Bruce’s waiting hand. “It allows for an open terrace all around the building, but keeps the winter out. The owner greeted me personally — one rich playboy to another — so I was able to make a rookie mistake and ask him all sorts of questions…” And as he returned to the table with two full cups, he began talking technical details about the low-power, light-bending force field.

At the first available pause, “I don’t like seeing technology like that used purely for the petty entertainment of the rich,” Clark said with a shake of his head.

Bruce shrugged. “Wayne Enterprises might be interested…”

“And the fake fireworks show was pretty cool,” Lois put in. “But that’s all the gushing you’ll get out of me.”

***

“Right,” Lois said in as businesslike a tone as Ivy had used a minute before. “What are your exact plans for tomorrow?”

“We’ll start with lunch at Bienvenue.”

The reporter winced. “That’s great for visibility, but is it going to get more or less expensive after that? Because it’ll be hard to convince people you’re not up to supervillainism when you start that high.”

Ivy’s smile was secretive. “Don’t worry about where the money comes from. Just be ready to write the story.” Obviously she’d caught on to Lois’s interest and willingness.

“All right,” Lois replied dubiously.

Quinn took up the elaboration on their plan with a gleeful glint in her eye. “Next we’re going to the zoo!”

“Less extravagant,” Lois allowed, “but isn’t it a little cold for that?”

“Metropolis Zoo has one of the best savanna animal habitats in the country! We’d be baboons to miss it just ’cause of some nippy weather!”

Again Ivy was giving Quinn that unexpectedly soft smile. “Besides,” she said, “the Metropolis Botanical Gardens are next door, so we can warm up in the greenhouses after that.”

“And you’re sure you’re not planning something illegal.”

“Absolutely.” Ivy’s gaze was very serious as it slid from Lois’s face to Quinn’s as if to say, “Can’t you tell I’m doing this all for her?” and Lois determined not to ask again.

“Then we’ll have dinner at the Calico Club, and–”

“The Calico Club?!” Lois could feel her eyes bugging out of her head at Ivy’s mention of this extremely exclusive restaurant and nightclub belonging to one of Metropolis’ richest, classiest socialites. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she added in a jealous whisper.

Smugly Ivy said, “Well, now’s your chance.”

“But… but… it’s not just money you need to get in… you have to be on a list…”

“Well, you’re ‘friends’ with Superman, aren’t you?” Quinn winked at her. “It should be easy as pie for you!”

“Hmm…” It occurred to Lois that she probably did know someone that could get her into the Calico Club… but it wasn’t Superman. Finally she nodded. “OK, so you start the afternoon expensive, and you finish the night astronomical. Drinks and dancing after dinner, and then you sparkle off in the same car to the same hotel. Do I have that right?”

“You got it, LoLa! Think you can handle all that?”

Not sure how she rated in having been granted a nickname by Harley Quinn, Lois said restrainingly, “Now, the next thing we have to think about is this: I can’t follow you around to so many different places. I’m not paparazzi, and with you two busy with perfectly innocent activities all day, it’ll make me look more and more desperate for a story the longer I tail you.”

“It’s a good point,” Ivy conceded. “And I suppose a story about our entire day might feel a little contrived in any case.”

Lois nodded. “So I suggest you choose just one of the places you’ll be at tomorrow, and I’ll find you there.”

“The zoo!” Quinn said, while at the same moment Ivy declared, as Lois had feared she would, “The nightclub.”

“Harl,” Ivy said gently, “if she writes about us at the club, she can mention that we were seen at the zoo earlier.”

“And mention the savanna animals habitat?”

“I… might be able to work that in…” said Lois tactfully, extracting her cell phone from her pants pocket.

“The Calico Club it is, then,” Ivy nodded as Lois composed a text message. “We’ll be there for dinner at around 6:30, and should be out to wander the rest of the club and do some dancing after about an hour and a half.”

Quinn laid her hands each on the opposite knee and said proudly, “I’ve been practicing the Charleston.”

Ivy’s fond smile was wide enough to be called a grin this time.

“OK,” Lois nodded. “Next point. I’m not a society reporter. I’m going to frame this story like I was there with–” she glanced down at her phone, pleased with the immediate response– “my own date, and just happened to–”

“What date?” Quinn had been crossing her hands back and forth on her flapping knees, but now jumped up onto those knees on the bench and peered eagerly at the reporter.

“Bruce Wayne,” Lois laughed, pushing away Quinn’s too-close face.

“I thought you dumped him like a load of rubble! It was all over the tabloids in Gotham!”

“We got back together. He and my other boyfriend too. Hasn’t that been all over the tabloids?”

Quinn shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you’re in Arkham and don’t hear the gossip.”

“Wayne’s a decent guy,” Ivy nodded reminiscently. “I once planned to make him into a tree when his company was part of a deforestation project, but it turned out he hadn’t authorized the project and called it off immediately.”

Lois gave a pained grin. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that.”

“He was nice to me too, that one time when I stole his car,” Quinn mused.

“And that,” groaned Lois.

“Our point is that your taste isn’t terrible,” Ivy soothed, “for someone who fancies men. What were you saying about being there with him?”

“Bruce and I will be there doing our own drinking and dancing, so it will look like pure coincidence that you two are there at the same time. Of course a good reporter wouldn’t pass up the chance to write about seeing a couple like you at a place like that, so it’ll look completely natural when I hand in a story about you to my editor as soon as I can.”

The supervillains nodded their understanding.

“The problem is, like I said, I’m not a society reporter. For a story like this, I’ll need to describe what you’re wearing and all that jazz, and I’m hopeless at things like that. I grew up wearing hand-me-down combat boots, and Bruce literally buys all my evening wear for me.”

Quinn collapsed in giggles against the back of the bench. Even Ivy, when Lois turned a glance on her, had one gloved hand in front of her face as if to hide a chuckle. Lois screwed up her mouth in an expression of sardonic and only a quarter serious resentment.

“Maybe you should have Brucie take notes for you, then,” Ivy remarked innocently.

Quinn’s advice, still laughing, was, “You just look at our killer outfits at the club, and it won’t matter what kind of boots you wore growing up! The words’ll just flowwww.” And she made a flowing gesture with her arms as if dancing the hula. “Fashion appreciation is buried deep inside all of us… it’s a girl thing!”

Lois wasn’t so sure about that. But what she was sure of as a girl thing was helping another girl away from an abusive relationship. So she braced herself, at the same time opening the recording app on her phone. “Call me a tomboy, then.” And she tapped the red button. “I assume you already have these killer outfits. Describe them to me in detail — and use all the fashion terms you girls can come up with.”

***

Clark could drink freshly brewed coffee (or any beverage, throat-scorching or otherwise) faster than Lois believed the laws of physics should allow. And in between nearly invisible sips he read out the final paragraph of the article. “As they finished the last dance Dr. Quinzel insisted they stay for — an energetic Charleston bringing a blast from the past to the ultra-modern setting — they also finished their night in the public eye with a passionate kiss. Rumors throughout the building suggest they held hands all the way down to where a Lamborghini the exact color of Dr. Isley’s rose-red hair waited to whisk them off to their hotel a very happy couple.

“The biggest thing I don’t understand–” Clark’s dash to put his newly empty mug in the sink and his tablet on its charger formed barely a break in his statement– “is why you did this at all. You’re not a society reporter, and I’m willing to bet those lead-lined paragraphs earlier didn’t actually come from you. And let’s not forget that you — and you–” throwing Bruce a somewhat accusatory look– “spent the evening spying on supervillains.”

“You say that as if it’s unusual.” Bruce was enjoying his own coffee, and Clark’s confusion, at a more leisurely pace.

“It is when she writes a gossipy society article about it.” Clark looked at Lois pensively. “What could possibly have convinced you to do something like that?”

“Does it bother you?” wondered Lois. By now she’d eaten half the omelet he’d made for her, but yawned widely before her next bite.

“Not at all! ‘Dr. Isley’ and ‘Dr. Quinzel?’ You know I love to see villains reform, and you writing about them so kindly and respectfully can only promote that. But I can’t help feeling like something strange is going on here. Were you under duress?”

Bruce threw a piece of toast at him. “Use your superhuman brain, Clark,” he admonished. “If she were under duress, would I have gone along with it? They are, as you reminded me a few days ago, my villains anyway, not yours.”

Clark caught the toast jelly-side-up and ate what remained of it in two bites.

“They’re my villains now,” Lois contended, “so hands off. I don’t know if they’re really reforming, but they promised they wouldn’t break any laws yesterday.”

“So why did you follow them around the Calico Club and write that vapid story about them?”

“It was vapid, wasn’t it,” Lois chuckled.

Clark just looked at her expectantly.

She hesitated. She didn’t want to say, “You wouldn’t understand,” because he absolutely would, with that heart of his, when she told him… but she didn’t plan to explain until after she’d spent half her day off sleeping and he’d returned from work. So finally she merely smiled and offered somewhat wistfully, “It’s a girl thing.”


This is set in the same world as A Lois Date, but since I haven’t come up with a name for the series yet, it isn’t labeled as such.

The brief descriptive phrases of dresses in this story are bastardized versions of lines from an article written by Amy Verner on the official Elie Saab website. I didn’t wear combat boots growing up, but close enough.

For a few more notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Rise Unseen

“Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

An acquaintance from school, who happens to be a Death Eater now, highlights everything wrong with all of Peter Pettigrew’s relationships.


“I have to say I’m not surprised to run into you here; you always were good at skulking.”

Peter, who had whirled at the first syllable, let out his sharply indrawn breath with a bit of a squeak when he identified the woman that had stepped from the shadows of a doorway and addressed him so unexpectedly. “Lila!” he more gasped than properly greeted. “I- I haven’t seen you since Hogwarts!” He should have stopped there, but, too nervous at this sudden encounter so close to Headquarters, he allowed the next question, and the subsequent attempt at repairing it, to slip out uncautiously: “What are you doing in this part of London? I mean, in London at all? Don’t you live in Kent?”

The witch leaned against the wall beside the smelly bins Peter had been in the process of circumnavigating when she’d appeared, and gave him the bright smile he remembered so well from school. “Is it really so strange for someone to come to London? Visitors from Kent aren’t allowed; is that it?”

“No, of course not.” Peter tried to return her smile, but his could never sunburn the way hers did. “Just a little strange to meet you in this alley. It’s a bit–” he glanced around, in part to indicate what he meant and the rest to break eye contact– “rubbishy back here.”

“Like I said, then, no surprise to find you here.” She flashed her teeth in a chuckle, in which Peter weakly joined. “But it wouldn’t have been a surprise in any case, because I suspected you’d come this way soon. I was waiting for you.”

His blood ran colder than the October chill could account for. Did she know? How much did she know? How did she know? And what was she in a position to do with that knowledge? Her intentions as a Hogwarts seventh-year had been clear, but he couldn’t be completely sure what direction she’d taken once school had ended. He certainly couldn’t blurt out his suspicions here and now, and all he ended up managing to say, faintly, was, “Back here?”

“Damp corridors do seem like the best places to find you.”

*

“What are you doing down here, Pettigrew?” The tone was cheerful and vaguely familiar, and, though Peter could sense the underlying bite to the words, even just the hint of a pleasant sound made the dungeon hallway feel slightly less clammy and chilly.

The face, too, seemed somewhat recognizable as its owner stopped in the doorway of the classroom she’d just been exiting. Yeah, that was right: she was in his year; he saw her in one of his double classes. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, but he had to speak sooner than he could remember, so he merely addressed her by house. “None of your business where I go, Slytherin.” It came out sounding a little less confident than he’d planned, and she noticed.

Her musical laugh echoed off the stone walls around them. “Not so brave without your swaggering friends along, are you, Gryffindor?”

Obviously she knew him better than he knew her, and Peter struggled to recall her name so as to put them on a better footing. Finally he managed it, as well as to come up with something to say other than, ‘Well, I was supposed to meet them down here for something, but they’ve never shown up.’ “No need to be brave when there’s nothing to be scared of.” He tried to make his shrug nonchalant, the way James would have done. “You don’t think I should be scared of you, do you, Sutton?”

“Of course you should.” Again she laughed, and again the sound carried two layers — ‘I’m totally kidding,’ and, ‘I’m totally serious and you’d better watch your back’ — and which he should attend to was as yet a mystery. “I’ve had a glimpse at our marks in Care Of Magical Creatures, and I know how much better I’m doing than you.”

“So?” In reality, though, Peter’s heart fell. He was only taking Care of Magical Creatures because his friends were, but by this late autumn of their third year at Hogwarts, Remus had less and less time to tutor Peter in difficult subjects.

“So,” Lila explained patiently, smile widening but eyes narrowing proportionally, “I’m a lot better than you at that subject. But even I’m having a hard time with fairy management. Since you’re down here, why don’t we go practice together? It might help us both.”

Peter hoped she couldn’t see the mixture of emotions that arose in him at the suggestion. He was surprised, he was suspicious, he was skeptical, but most of all he was interested. He’d had to worm his way into every study group he’d ever taken part in; he’d never had someone suggest to him that they might practice together. And with Remus, his usual recourse, more and more caught up in his own private struggles and with Sirius, Peter could use all the help he could get. But was she serious, or baiting him? There were other objections the idea besides.

“Don’t you have your own friends you’d rather revise with?” he asked cautiously. Most people did, after all; just because his own didn’t seem to care much whether he passed or failed didn’t mean hers didn’t.

She laughed. “I exploit my friends in other ways.” And she sounded so pleasant as she said it. “I think you have latent talents that will be useful in helping me get good marks if I can just help you bring them out a bit first.”

He simply couldn’t help smiling at her tone, even as she blatantly discussed the idea of using him. At least she was very straightforward about her selfish motives. “Do you really want to be seen with a Gryffindor, though?”

She shrugged. “I think you’re more than half Slytherin, but of course we’ll be quiet about it.”

That clinched it. He couldn’t imagine why she’d been watching closely enough to recognize the Slytherin in him, but she’d hit close to his heart. Even after two years at Hogwarts, he’d never been completely convinced the Sorting Hat had made the right choice… and if other people could see it, that meant he wasn’t imagining things. Interhouse rivalries were all very well, but if he’d gone to the wrong place, he needed to get in touch with his Slytherin side… and wouldn’t this be the best, the safest way to do it?

“All right,” he said. “But I don’t make any promises for what my mates will do if they find out.” It was more false bravado, and she knew it.

She twirled her wand dangerously, smiling brightly all the while. “Same here! Let’s go look into fairies, shall we?”

“I actually think I’m starting to get them,” Peter admitted.

“Good! I thought you might be.”

*

She’d taken his arm and was leading him the way he’d come with no slow steps. Now as ever it was difficult to deny her, and his mind was a blank in every attempt at coming up with an excuse for why he didn’t want to return this direction, what he was doing that he needed to get back to. He had to admit, though, it was nice to leave the alley and the smells of rubbish.

Lila had begun chatting about her shopping in London, the outlet they didn’t have in Ashford, and how she’d found just about everything she’d come up here for. She’d always been interested in fashion design, he recalled as she discussed the latest in robes and hats. It wasn’t interesting, and didn’t serve to conceal the minuteness with which she peered at their surroundings, and into the face of every passerby, and watched him for reactions to any of it.

“You must be meeting some friend around here,” she said with an ease belied by the closeness of her examination of the area. “Some of your friends did always seem the London types. You certainly did, so it’s lucky for you you’ve got friends in town.”

She couldn’t trick him that easily into mentioning where everyone was living these days and that most of them apparated over for meetings — nor how formal and deserving of the term those meetings were. But her very use of the word and her assumptive declaration that it must be nice for him to have friends in London left him a little tongue-tied. All he could manage was yet another weak laugh and a mumbled something about Sirius — who did, in fact, live here, as anyone might know.

She tossed her head. “Sirius Black,” she scoffed. “I’m surprised you still keep up with him when I haven’t heard from you more than two or three times since school.”

“Sirius has always been a good friend,” Peter protested, and forced himself not to add, “If you call treating me like an obnoxious little brother when he even notices I’m around ‘being a good friend.'”

Full well she knew, though, what he wanted to follow up with, and she shot him a bright smile. “Oh, yes,” she said airily. “Always.” She gave him a dig in the ribs; he couldn’t tell if it was with her fingers or her wand, it was so quick. “Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

*

From where she lay stretched on the sun-warmed stone of the disused Astronomy Tower, having rolled onto her back and away from the book she’d previously had her nose in, Lila asked lazily, “You’ve been spending more time with your blood traitor friends again lately. Have they ever cottoned on to us?”

Not about to admit that the process of becoming animagi he and his friends had of late illicitly embarked upon required a lot more time and attention from him than he’d expected, Peter chose to respond to a different part of her question. “I’m half-blood. You think I’m a blood traitor too?”

Her tone was still languid, and so was the little laugh she gave. “Being a half-blood’s bad enough.”

Peter let out a soft breath that was like the prototype to a laugh in return. Stretching out his legs beneath the relatively giant book on his lap so his toes pointed in Lila’s direction, and noting as always how stubby and unattractive they seemed, he let his eyes fall from the Slytherin girl and his own appendages down to the book’s pages. He turned surreptitiously to the later spot where he’d tucked the Marauders’ Map, and checked the immediate area again for anyone that might come interrupt them and, more importantly, spread rumors.

He tried to be the one carrying the map whenever he was to meet Lila, but lately he felt as if he didn’t really need to be: he doubted his friends would notice his absence, his location, or his company in any case. He was still around them much of the time, but didn’t know if they noticed that either unless they were busy with the animagus process together; they were probably just relieved he didn’t need nearly as much help as in earlier years with his schoolwork. That was largely thanks to Lila, whether she believed him a blood traitor or not, and Peter wasn’t inclined to deny it. It turned out he wasn’t half bad at most school stuff; he merely needed it presented in a different manner, a lot of the time, than conventional teaching methods offered.

Finally, though, he answered her original question. “No, I think they still have no idea.”

“Gryffindors have no subtlety,” she yawned. “They’d pay a lot more attention to you if they knew how useful you can be.”

“You mean,” Peter replied a little dryly, “you help me with what I’m having a hard time with, and that helps you understand it better, so then you get better marks.”

She laughed like golden bells ringing. “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing. Aren’t friend supposed to help each other out? And Slytherins? And better-blooded families?”

Not at all sure what to say in response to this, Peter changed the subject. “So are you getting this stuff about the Arithmantic Renaissance?”

*

He simply couldn’t help admitting, in a quiet, reluctant tone, “You were.”

She threw him her dazzling smile and pulled him closer, squeezing his arm. “I knew it; and I knew you couldn’t deny it.” She’d never ceased her intense scrutiny of the area, and now gestured to a muggle café that stood not far off — undoubtedly a spot where she could watch through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and note from which direction they came. “So let’s have tea like the old friends we are, and try to figure out why you haven’t contacted me in so long.”

He didn’t want her there, watching through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and noting from which direction they came, but it was so hard to say no. He fixed on the best excuse he could come up with. “Do you have any muggle money?”

She waved his concern away. “We’ll just obliviate them. Come on; you look a little peaky, and I’m dying for something chocolate.”

Uneasily Peter went where he was steered, a mixture of emotions and memories not allowing him to be as assertive with her as he wished. He relaxed a little, though, when, on entering the café, they really did embark on a simple and relatively innocuous process of ordering and obliviating, and even then settled at a table not immediately adjacent to the windows. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he’d been fabricating her significant statements and pointed looks. Maybe they could have an innocent tea together as old friends that truly had met by pure coincidence.

In an alley full bins. In a rundown area of a city where neither of them lived.

Lila dipped a spoon into her tea and cast a patronizing smile of dismissal at the waitress that had brought it out. The young woman had not been obliviated, but obviously took instructions from someone that had, and now appeared a little confused. “Muggles,” the witch said with mild disdain. “They’re not so bad as servants, but it’s a shame they’re not magically enslaved like house-elves; they’d be so much easier to control.”

Peter drew breath to contradict her, but found he didn’t have the energy to voice an opinion he’d never more than half embraced anyway.

*

The seventh-year ball, Peter had heard, was dropping out of favor and might soon be discontinued, but that happy event had not yet taken place, so to celebrate the end of his stint at Hogwarts he was still forced to endure an entire awkward evening of being ignored and overlooked. James and Lily were sickeningly caught up in each other, Remus and Sirius were hiding somewhere together to prevent the latter being mobbed by girls (and a few boys), and all of Peter’s remaining friends were only such through the others.

Except Lila.

“You want to dance?” he wondered in an incredulous hiss. He threw a covert look at the group Lila had left in order to come seek him out — a rough set of Slytherins if ever there’d been one, including Rabastan Lastrange, Calliope Wheatley, Evan Rosier, Sirius’ annoying little brother taking advantage of the fact that sixth-years were allowed to this gathering, and, of course, perennial favorite Severus Snape. “What happened to keeping quiet?”

“We’re leaving school soon,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it much matters anymore.”

He sucked in a reluctant breath through his teeth, but after another moment’s thought decided, why not? He hadn’t anticipated being noticed by the other Marauders or Lily at all this evening anyway; he might as well dance with a Slytherin. And Lila was looking especially pretty tonight in a gown that went from black to blood-red, and smooth shining red stones (Peter didn’t know what they were called) in settings just a few shades lighter than her golden-brown skin.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Of course his skill at this was negligible, and he thought he caught more than one giggle from people around them as Lila clearly took the lead. But it wasn’t too bad. At least he would be able to say he hadn’t lacked a dance partner throughout the entire ball.

“I wanted to talk to you tonight,” Lila said as he struggled to keep up with her steps without stumbling or treading on her feet, “and this seemed like a better way to do it privately than dragging you off behind a curtain or something.”

Peter felt his face go red at the idea. “Yeah,” he said a little shakily. “Thanks.”

“You saw my friends?” She gestured with her head.

“Yeah?”

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and we all have similar interests.” Her tone was low, effecting the privacy she’d mentioned, but she emphasized certain words to indicate a meaning beyond their surface level. “We’re planning on sticking together after school, and doing some great things.”

He wished he could say the same for his set. But, although there was a lot of murmuring about taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good, if anyone had made any concrete plans, those hadn’t yet been shared with Peter Pettigrew the permanent afterthought. So eventually he said nothing at all.

“We’re going to be important and respected,” she pursued, “and we’re going to be winners. We’re going to be on top. Everyone else…” She gave her usual bright smile, but there was a touch of wry regret to it as well, and her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “I can’t say how successful — or safe — everyone else is going to be.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Peter wondered, the voice he found at last yet hoarse and quiet.

All wryness, regret, and indifference burned right out of Lila’s smile, which now shone like the sun. “Because I want you to join us, stupid. You’re not too bad a wizard, but no matter what you decide to do, if you don’t join us, you’ll be in danger. Who knows what could happen? You might die!” Her light, tripping tone as she made such a morbid prediction was utterly typical of her, suggesting jest while assuring him of her deadly earnest.

He shuddered, having no doubt in his mind of exactly what she meant by all this. And her final point had preyed on him, in the shadows of his awareness, for a few years now. Taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good made for a gorgeous castle in the clouds, but here in this actual castle, in reality, he had to wonder just how suicidal such a course might prove. Wouldn’t he be much safer, indeed, as Lila promised, offering no resistance to the way things were going? Not provoking the wrath of the important, the respected, the winners?

And wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be important, respected, a winner?

What chance did he possibly have, though, at being any of that? If he abandoned his friends and joined Lila’s in their quest for great things — even assuming they would accept him as readily as she did, which seemed doubtful — wouldn’t he simply be trading one group that ignored and undervalued him for another? Her promises should be made to someone less invisible than he was; in reference to himself, he couldn’t believe them.

So he couldn’t accept her invitation. Simultaneously, he’d never been able to give her a direct negative, and now found himself torn in two, wordless and awkward. He stomped on one of her feet three times in a row, tried to move the wrong way, and felt his face getting hotter and hotter.

She laughed openly at him, but as always there was a sense of friendliness to her mockery that kept him from feeling the sting as much as he otherwise would have. “You don’t have to answer right now,” she said a little condescendingly. “As long as you don’t do anything dangerous–” and she flicked a look toward the end of the Great Hall where most of the Gryffindors not busy dancing were amassed– “you should be OK for a while.” None of his immediate circle stood over there, but he caught her drift.

The song ended, and Lila released him and stepped back into a mock curtsey. “Send me an owl,” was her goodbye, and then she headed back toward her cohorts.

*

“So what have you been busy with these last couple of years?” Lila’s eyes sparkled at him across the rim of her teacup.

Peter swallowed, and accidentally poured significantly more sugar into his own drink than he wanted. “This and that,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Lila chuckled. “And some of the other thing?” She’d seen through him, as always, and they both knew what ‘other thing’ she referred to. She bit into her chocolate tart, which silenced her briefly. It might have been the perfect chance for Peter to attempt heading her off, but, as usual, he couldn’t think of anything to say to that purpose. He feared the moment of reckoning was at hand, the moment when ‘OK for a while’ drew to its grisly close, and a cold knot of fear began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

He was right. When she’d finished her bite, Lila asked in the same easy tone as before, “And your friends? What have they all been up to?”

Peter couldn’t speak.

She leaned forward a trifle, forking another gooey piece of tart but pausing with it near her mouth. “You remember the last time we talked in person?”

He nodded. He couldn’t stop remembering it, in desperate detail.

“I have all the same friends — and more — and they’re just dying to hear the gossip about yours.”

Trying to buy time, clutching at the wand in his pocket with his free hand just in case this went suddenly from coaxing to Imperius, he gulped his tea, then choked at its hyper-sweetness. Coughing into a serviette until his eyes watered did give him several seconds, but when he’d finished the artificially extended process he found her gaze still fixed on him.

Like the tea, she was all sugary sludge as she murmured intensely, “So spill.”

And that was when realization hit.

At the Hogwarts seventh-year ball, she’d offered him a place among her proto-Death-Eater friends merely because he was ‘not too bad a wizard’ and she had a passing fondness for the boy she’d used to improve her school marks. She’d never seen any real value in him, and if she hadn’t noticed he was doing better with fairy management than she was, back in third year, her eyes would have passed right over him just like everyone else’s did. And today she’d been sent to sound him out not because she’d developed a sense of his worth, but because he was viewed, when viewed at all, as the weakest link in the Order of the Phoenix, and she’d been more or less his friend for several years.

But now, in addition to whatever value he’d had all along (something he believed in but whose quantity he’d never been sure of), he also had exactly what she wanted. What her same friends — and more — wanted.

Sirius, Remus, James, Lily, his supposed nearest and dearest, those to whom it should have been a priority to encourage and support him… they’d never seen his potential. They’d never seen him as anything but a tag-along, a vague nuisance tolerated mostly out of habit and because he never did anything memorable enough to force them to pay better attention.

Even now, when he risked his life on a daily basis to fight against the rising tide of Death Eaters and for goals he didn’t particularly care about, his sacrifice of personal safety was never recognized the way that of the others was. Oh, Sirius was a disinherited pureblood… Remus was a suffering werewolf… James and Lily had a son, and He Who Must Not Be Named was after them personally… so of course that made them and their work more meaningful than little Pettigrew, who remained in the background toiling away like a house-elf… like a muggle… and likely to get killed just like one because his so-called friends neither noticed nor cared. He probably wouldn’t even get a Dark Mark above his flat, because he just wasn’t that important.

But now he had an opportunity to be important. To be respected, a winner… and safe. The moment of reckoning was at hand, and Peter Pettigrew would be reckoned up at a much greater sum than anyone had expected.

He stood abruptly, rattling the teacups on the table, and looked down at Lila with more confidence than he’d ever used to face her in the past. Of course he had to swallow his fear at the idea of facing someone worse than merely Lila Sutton, his sunny, conniving, manipulative pseudo-friend — yet he believed, in this suddenly assertive mood, he might actually be able to say no to her for once. But for once he didn’t want to. He was taking the step at last that would make him somebody, and somebody that wouldn’t be ignored.

And Peter thought he would always remember triumphantly the startled look on her face as he finally managed to surprise her with the blunt statement, “I talk to the Dark Lord personally, or I don’t talk at all.”


Co-worker Julia gave me the following Monthly Story Prompt:

Peter Pettigrew is obviously weak minded and betrayed his “friends” and gave them up to Voldemort, then suprizingly uses powerful magic to fake his death and make it look like Sirius Black did it all. I want the moments in his life that lead up to this. Did it start at a young age? Was he jealous of his friends?

I had several immediate ideas, but how to make them somewhat interesting was the tricky part. Add to that the health issues just when I got the prompt, and this took approximately forever to write XD

For some later notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Voice of Experience

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.”

Sofia has a dilemma concerning her sister, and there’s only one princess that can give her exactly the advice she needs.


From the great ballroom doors into the shadowed corridor, the spilling light appeared golden and hypnotic, the spilling sound as sweet an invitation as a delicious scent to the hungry. Nevertheless, Sofia waved a negative at the herald waiting to announce her, and ducked into a side hallway under the pretense of adjusting her scarf with its huge emerald broach and the string of pearls winding through her upswept hair. Perhaps being fashionably late to your own brother’s engagement ball was not quite the thing, but she simply had to take a moment to calm her nerves and make a final desperate bid at overcoming her indecisiveness.

She smoothed her gloved hands down the rustling taffeta beneath her waist. The wide hooped skirts she’d run around in for much of her childhood were a thing of the past, and long, sleek, slender lines such as she’d often admired on classmates the Enchancia fashion now; but — aside from frequently having difficulties, even with Amber’s help, finding a design in that style that flattered her full figure — tonight the royal ladies, in honor of James’s fiancé, were all clad in voluminous-skirted ball gowns with a dozen petticoats inspired by current Avalor fashion — still designed by Amber, of course.

Amber. Sofia clenched her hands into nervous fists. There was a reason she’d requested a gown in green, Amber’s favorite color.

She checked her fan, checked her bracelets, checked her dance card, realized she was stalling, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the doors into the ballroom… and ran into déjà vu as into a brick wall. She’d mostly forgotten, but this wasn’t the first time she’d been through this precise struggle, was it? Back then she’d always worn purple, but the indecision had been the same… even if it might not have meant quite as much, to a child, as it did tonight to a grown woman. In fact it had been in this very corridor…

And as she recalled those events in greater detail, going right through them in her head perhaps as one last excuse to postpone her entry into the ballroom, she suddenly caught her breath, and heat rose to her cheeks. Because she did remember completely now, and she understood.

*

The music flowing from the great doors into the shadowed corridor enticed her, and the scents of the thousands of flowers Baileywick had ordered and painstakingly hung as decorations throughout the ballroom enchanted her, all calling out in hypnotic voices to come in and join the dance. Sofia, however, already late though she was, couldn’t quite bring herself to enter yet. Under the pretense of making sure she hadn’t lost her fan and that the pearls hadn’t somehow detached and fallen from her shoes, she sneaked off into a side corridor to calm her nerves and ponder one last time a question she hadn’t been able to discuss even with her mother or Clover for all she craved advice on the matter.

The fan was there, and the pearls were there, and pondering the question wasn’t any easier in this dimly lit hallway than it had been all week in various other places. With a deep and frustrated breath, she prepared to turn back and make her entrance, though she hadn’t made her decision, when a familiar warmth and light caught her attention and stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her eyes from the glowing, slightly hovering pendant around her neck, her brows lifting as well.

The woman whose figure resolved out of the shimmer before Sofia also wore a ball gown, and appeared as ready to dance as Sofia would be if she could get this question resolved. She smiled at the little princess, and had already begun swaying to the music almost before she finished materializing.

“Princess Anna!” Sofia couldn’t help smiling herself at seeing how eager her visitor was for the evening’s activity. “I didn’t think this was a problem I needed a princess’ help for, but I’m still really glad to see you.”

“I’ll help however I can!” Anna replied. “Oh, and Olaf says hi.”

“Oh… great! Hi to him too! I wish he could have come with you… I could use a warm hug right about now.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Sofia sighed. “I want to ask Amber to dance with me tonight, but I don’t know if she’ll like that.”

Anna’s smile did not alter, but her eyes seemed to take on a serious depth that had previously been nothing more than a sparkle of excitement on hearing the music from the ballroom. “Seems like all you need to do is ask,” she offered, “and then you’ll know!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll even like me asking,” Sofia said awkwardly. “Most princesses don’t dance with their sisters at balls… Most princesses don’t even dance with other princesses at balls! It’s just not what princesses do.”

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.” And she dropped unceremoniously to her knees, billowing skirt and all, and reached out to take both of Sofia’s hands. She wore gloves that matched one of the lighter greens on her dress, which clashed with the purple of Sofia’s… and looking at the colors combined to such ill effect made the younger princess more uneasy than ever.

“Why do you want to ask Amber to dance so much?” Anna queried earnestly.

This was easier to explain. “I love dancing with Amber! She taught me how to dance in the first place, and it’s so much fun! I don’t mind dancing with dad or any of the princes, but Amber’s my favorite person to dance with in the whole world. She’s so graceful and beautiful, and we can talk about anything while we’re dancing!”

Anna gave the same nod as before, the one simultaneously impressed and pensive. She squeezed Sofia’s hands. “All right, your little highness, here’s what I think.” And Sofia focused hard on whatever advice she would give, knowing it must be especially pertinent if Anna believed she knew why she in particular had been brought here tonight. “I can’t tell you whether Amber will like you asking her to dance, or whether she’ll say yes or no. That’s all on her end. But for you–”

She suddenly jumped to her feet — no mean accomplishment without tripping over her gown! — and whirled Sofia around like a partner in a particularly vigorous Avaloran salsa. Sofia giggled as she spun, but still caught the rest of Anna’s statement: “If dancing with Amber is what will make you happy tonight, don’t miss out on it because you were afraid to ask! She might say no, but she definitely won’t say yes if you don’t ask!” And Anna spun Sofia back toward her and into the warm hug she’d just recently been wishing for.

After a few moments’ thought, the Enchancian princess accepted the advice she’d just recently been wishing for as well. “You’re right,” she said as she stepped away from Anna and nodded decisively. “I have to try. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“Right!” Anna pumped a fist in encouragement. Then she sobered, and her expression turned somewhat distant. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.”

Sofia focused in again, which made Anna smile.

“This is actually advice for when you’re a lot older; you won’t really understand it now, and you may not even need it then. But if you do need it someday, think back to what I’m about to say, and maybe it’ll help.”

A little puzzled, Sofia said, “What is it?”

“It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in that ballroom. It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in the world. It’s all right to love her more than anyone else around you expects you to.”

“But why would anyone expect me not to love Amber?”

Anna’s expression was both kind and mysterious. “I told you you wouldn’t understand until you’re older. Maybe not even then. Just don’t forget what I said, in case you need it later!”

Again Sofia nodded decisively. The counsel seemed strange, and perhaps a little unnecessary or even redundant, but she thought she could keep hold of it until she understood.

“Now! Ready for some dancing?” Anna gestured toward the ballroom doors with a grin.

“Thanks to you I am!”

“Should I come in with you and show everyone how it’s done?”

Sofia giggled. “I know my family would love to have you as a guest, but I think it would be kinda hard to explain when the amulet sends you back.” And in fact, when she turned from the light spilling out of the ballroom to face Anna once again, that had already happened.

*

The great domed space shimmered from every wall, while the spinning forms of the dance about to end created a blur of gorgeous color. Sofia hardly marked her name and titles from the herald’s lips as the orchestra, now so much closer to her ears, called her again, this time inexorably, with stirring voices. Guests that stood still, like a garden seen from afar, lacked detail just as much as those dancing; the only clearly visible figure at the ball to Sofia at that moment was Princess Amber, resplendent and graceful seemingly at the end of a rainbow tunnel of light and sound.

“There you are!” Amber’s eyes swept her sister from toe to head, in the end meeting her gaze with an approving set to her chin at Sofia’s dress and accessories. “You could have made a flashier entrance, you know, if you’d waited until the end of the opening waltz.”

Even through her lingering nervousness, Sofia couldn’t help grinning at this very typical remark. “I didn’t want to make a flashy entrance. I just wanted to get to you before all the princes started crowding around asking you to dance.”

“Oh, they already did that.” Amber smiled smugly, but her wave was dismissive. “My card is completely full.”

Sofia’s heart sank. “Then why aren’t you out there now?”

“Because Prince Zandar claimed the first two dances and then disappeared,” Amber sniffed. “He probably wandered off to look at the Hall of Armor and lost track of time.”

This was it, then. The second dance would soon begin, and, with Amber fully engaged, now was Sofia’s only chance. Thanking Zandar from the bottom of her heart for his absentmindedness, trying not to show how deep was the breath she took, she screwed up her courage. She’d faced worse trials than this.

“Then…” She dropped into a deep curtsey, fanning out her skirt with one hand and holding the other up toward the gold-clad princess before her. “I would be honored if you would give me this dance.”

“Oh!” Amber seemed unusually tongue-tied after that one surprised syllable, and as Sofia lifted her eyes she found an expression of some confusion on her sister’s face. And even in the midst of the flowers and glittering lights and luxurious ballroom attire and happy visages all around them, the blush that then spread across Amber’s royal cheeks and the hesitant smile that grew on her perfect lips as she reached for the offered hand had to be the loveliest sight Sofia had ever seen.


For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Sketch: To Suggest

She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

On seeing a new set of Nathaniel’s drawings with a new subject, Chloé’s at it again.



Though truth and documentation would always be her primary concern, there was a distinct flavor of sensation to Alya’s journalism. And though she strove to be fair and as kind as reasonably possible, she liked gossip as much as the next high-schooler. She wouldn’t bother to deny it. So when, descending the stairs after class (by herself, as Marinette had pulled a vanishing act the way she so frequently did), she caught sight from that high vantage point of what promised to be a kerfluffle at the bottom, she paused and watched for two reasons: first, in case she might learn something of interest; second, in case she might need to step in and tell off Chloé Bourgeois.

Nathaniel had a marvelous talent for carrying a stack of loose papers while not looking where he went. The sound of their rustling flutter to the ground and under the feet of startled passersby had barely even settled before Chloé had begun the statement that had really attracted Alya’s attention: “Look, Sabrina–” snatching up a sheet covered in headshots and holding it between finger and thumb– “Nathaniel’s finally moved on from his first bad choice.”

Sabrina, under the guise of being helpful but the wicked gleam in her eyes seeming to reflect off the floor and make itself visible even with her head turned downward, had immediately begun reaching for the spilled papers. In so doing she bumped heads with Rose, who had knelt to do the same (though undoubtedly with much kinder intentions). The rest of the flow of students had formed a hasty circle around them so as both to stop stepping on the sketch pages and to observe what transpired.

“Let’s see who his new gross crush is,” Chloé declared, flipping her confiscated set of drawings upward and examining it critically. Her brows went down, and her expression gradually changed from eager disdain to frustrated confusion. “Ugh. I can’t even tell who this is supposed to be. Usually Nathaniel’s chicken scratches are more recognizable than this.” She tossed the paper down in a sort of Get this away from me gesture. “Or do you like someone so boring we can’t even figure out who she is?”

Alya, pressed against the staircase railing in an attempt at letting others pass, grimaced. She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again on the dozen sheets that had gone flying when he’d tripped or bumped into someone. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

I think they’re fine,” Rose protested, grabbing after three attempts the page Chloé had dropped as it switchbacked through the air toward the floor.

But Nathaniel sighed, bending to retrieve the last of the fallen papers. “No, she’s right, Rose. For some reason, not one single one of them came out any good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

“What’s wrong,” Chloé said, never one to miss such an opening, “is obviously that you have a crush on someone who’s not even interesting enough for me to recognize.”

“He does not!” Rose, now on her feet, hugged the pages she’d gathered to her chest like a precious treasure.

At the same moment, Nathaniel said in frustration, “It’s not that! She’s very interesting to look at! It’s just that something seems to go wrong with every picture…”

“Chloé!” Sabrina gasped all of a sudden from where she too had risen and was staring intently at the only couple of sketches she’d managed to get her hands on. “I think it’s Juleka!”

Alya shook her head with a sigh of her own. She’d hoped neither Sabrina nor Chloé would pick up on that. Admittedly the sketches didn’t seem quite right somehow, so there had been basis for optimism…

“Juleka?!” Snatching one of the drawings from her minion, Chloé peered again. “No. Way.” And when she raised her eyes, she was clearly convinced. “I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as the bread-flour girl, but, really, Nathaniel? Juleka, with her corpse makeup and that awful dye job and those tacky gloves?”

More to the point, Juleka, with her preference for other girls? That Chloé didn’t bring that up meant she must not know. Alya let out a breath of relief that Nathaniel’s hopes and dreams wouldn’t be destroyed (yet again) by such a cruel messenger. Someone would have to tell him, though.

“I think we’re going to have to warn Juleka,” Sabrina said in a serious, almost pious tone. “I mean, Nathaniel already turned into a supervillain over one girl he liked…”

Chloé put a finger to her chin. “You’re right, Sabrina. Even if it means I have to talk to Juleka and try to stand her fashion sense for a few minutes, it’s for her own good!” She laughed affectedly. “I’m such a good friend.”

“You’re making a–” Nathaniel began, appearing awkward but not at all disturbed by Chloé’s barely veiled threat. But he went no farther.

“Nathaniel does not have a crush on Juleka!” When Rose raised her voice, it was more squeak than shout, but sufficient to draw the attention of anyone in the vicinity not listening. “And Juleka has adorable fashion sense, and I love her makeup, and I love her hair, and I love her gloves!” She stalked toward Chloé, waving papers in her face, free hand clenched into a little fist at her side. “I asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for me, because for some reason nobody can get a good photo of her and I wanted some pictures!” The tears that came so easily to Rose’s eyes sounded in her voice, but that same tone was unexpectedly assertive enough to have driven Chloé back a few steps with hands raised.

“Calm down!” Chloé protested, obviously unsure, just at first, how to respond to such a confident Rose. “Geez!”

Ever the loyal assistant, Sabrina dashed in here to help Chloé save face. “So you’re saying you’re the one with a crush on Juleka, Rose?”

“Yes!” Rose replied at top volume, retrieving the last of the drawings from the tormentors.

Silence fell around the circle, and now at last Alya began again making her way down the stairs, tensed for conflict. There were certain levels of jerkish behavior everyone had learned to tolerate in Chloé, but if she started throwing homophobia around, Alya wanted to be on the spot ready to smack her down. She’d never heard Chloé’s opinion on the subject, but couldn’t trust it to be a reasonable one.

As the inevitable muttering and giggling began all around them, Nathaniel murmured, “Sorry, Rose; I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s OK, Nathaniel,” Rose broke in, and as she briefly faced him Alya could easily see the tears. But then she returned her gaze to throw what appeared to be a very pointed look from Sabrina to Chloé and back. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit I like another girl.” And with her head held high, she marched from the open circle into the crowd and away.

Frozen in place, jaw slightly slack, Alya lost sight of Rose as a new sound from the crowd filled her ears: much louder mutters and giggles, this time with some shrieking and the occasional Ohhhhhh of triumph and pleased surprise thrown in. Had Rose, little innocent flappable airheaded Rose, just made a snarky implication about Sabrina and Chloé and silenced them both thereby? For they certainly were standing stock-still with scarlet faces trying not to look at each other.

It was a good five seconds longer than her standard before Chloé got hold of herself. The color of her cheeks altering not one whit, she demanded with less outraged certainty than her norm, “What did she just say about me? The very idea! It’s ridiculous — utterly ridiculous!” She stomped her foot and, still without meeting Sabrina’s eyes, called her to heel.

As they stalked away in a huff, pushing between students at the edge of the circle, jeers began to float in from miscellaneous spots around them, only rendering Chloé’s walk all the more exaggeratedly angry. Since some of the taunts were, unfortunately, as homophobic as the sentiment Alya had half feared from Chloé herself, she made a point of shouting them down with, “Aren’t you going to warn Juleka about Rose’s crush, Chloé?”

“No!” Chloé called back, and her words faded with distance despite her annoyed volume. “Rose hasn’t ever been akumatized, so Juleka can take care of herself!”

The interested students began to disperse (not least because M. Damocles had emerged from his office and come to the railing, wondering what was going on below), and the tenor of the surrounding conversation was curiosity as to how much truth there might be to Rose’s implication. Alya herself found it interesting that Chloé had so automatically assumed Rose to be addressing her when it could just as easily have been Sabrina accused of hiding an interest in her best friend.

Glancing around, regaining her bearings and trying to remember where she’d been on her way to when this had started, Alya found herself meeting Nathaniel’s eyes. Unexpectedly he gripped one of her shoulders and gave it a little shake, saying intensely as he did so, “Thanks, Alya.” Then he ran off, probably to collide with someone else and spill a second set of sketches all over the floor.

Since the only thing Alya had actually done just now had been to try to drown out the homophobia in the courtyard, she could only imagine Nathaniel had been thanking her for that. And the implication of that thanks, therefore, was clear. Alya smiled and shook her head, resuming her walk toward the cafeteria and mulling over everything she’d learned in the last several minutes. At some times it was harder than others to keep from turning the school blog into a pure gossip rag.



Rewatching Reflekta (prior to which this is set) gave me this idea. Though it’s understated in the story, I thought it would be incredibly sweet if Rose asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for her so she could have pictures when none of the attempted photos ever came out right. And of course the curse is still in effect at this point, so even Nathaniel’s drawings don’t come out right!

Oh, and did I mention how pansexual everyone is?



Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



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

Last updated on May 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

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

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

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

“What did you find out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

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

“You will when you hear my message!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

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

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

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

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime snorted derisively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on May 12, 2019

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.


As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.


When I originally started writing this story approximately forever ago, what are now odd- and even-numbered parts formed the halves of chapters. Eventually I decided I liked it better this way, since previously there was some implied connection between the specific events in the halves of each chapter, and I didn’t like giving that impression.

The idea to have the modern parts in present tense was also a later decision. I think it’s an interesting way to differentiate the timelines and the narrating voices.