Notice


Duo came up the stairs to his dorm hallway with an overloaded backpack and frozen hands, still stomping snow off his feet and wishing he hadn’t lost his gloves. At least it was warm in here. Actually it was a little too warm, since whoever was in charge of the heating and air conditioning in this building had a penchant for stark opposites, but you couldn’t have everything.

The not-unusual sight of Heero sitting on the floor outside the door to his room with a computer on his lap and a textbook open beside him met Duo’s eyes as he approached, and Duo chuckled. “At it again, are they?”

Heero looked up at him, threw a quick glance at the warning rubber band hanging from the doorknob, and nodded with a slight rolling of eyes.

Carefully avoiding getting his wet shoes anywhere near Heero and what he was doing, Duo circumnavigated him to reach the door of his own room just diagonally across the hall from Heero’s. “I keep telling Quatre he should switch with you, but apparently breaking two rules is waaaay worse than breaking just one.”

Heero gave a faint snorting laugh. “And Trowa thinks it would be too distracting to share a room with Quatre.”

“Did you want to come in?” Duo invited him as he unlocked his door. “You can sit at Quatre’s desk instead of on the floor.”

With a glance at the time, Heero shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got to go in a couple of minutes anyway.”

Duo acknowledged this and went inside, but he’d only set his backpack down beside the bed before he stepped out again. “Hey, did I hear right? You’re staying here for break?”

“Yeah.” Heero was putting his things away now, getting ready to head off to whatever class he had this afternoon. “My parents are going on a cruise, so I thought I’d just stay here and get some work done.”

Awesome. I was afraid I was going to be bored out of my skull all alone in this place.”

“Didn’t Quatre invite you to have Christmas with his family?”

“Yeah, but that was before he decided he wanted to take a certain person home to meet mommy and daddy… I wouldn’t want to get in the way of their romantic holiday.”

Heero smiled. “Well, yes, I’ll be here.”

“Excellent. See ya!” And Duo went back into his dorm room and closed the door. He removed his coat and tossed it onto the chair at Quatre’s desk, then flopped down on his bed, letting his feet hang off the end so as not to get it wet, and reached for the backpack. Somebody had left him what appeared to be an honest-to-goodness Christmas present in his mail cubby downstairs, and he was eager to get at it.

The wrapping paper was a very tasteful pattern of red ribbons intertwined among big white and gold flowers on a deep green background. Duo always wondered where people found wrapping paper like this; whenever he went to buy some, he ended up with something truly horrible with the worst-looking cartoon Santas imaginable on it. Of course it didn’t help that he was drawn to the ugliest and most nauseating choice in any given selection… but still he didn’t think he’d ever seen wrapping paper this nice at any store he’d been to. Maybe he just didn’t know where to shop.

White and gold ribbons were tied around the package in an off-center double line, the crux covered by a huge white bow that was rather crushed from having been in his backpack. Duo probably would have used red ribbon with paper like this, and, looking at the fine effect of this color choice, thought he probably would have been wrong to do so. He’d never been very good at wrapping presents.

The one aspect of the package Duo thought he could have done better than whoever had actually wrapped it was the tag. Because there wasn’t one. He’d turned it over three times and looked under the ribbons, but no indication was to be found of who had sent the thing — not even a spot where an existing tag might have been torn off. In fact, if these dorms hadn’t happened to have separate mail cubbies for all the students, Duo couldn’t even have been sure the gift was intended for him and not his roommate.

Of course he was also curious about what was inside, but, since it was obviously a soft-cover spiral-bound book of some sort, this was of less driving interest for the moment than the question of the anonymous sender and their mad wrapping skills — not to mention the fact that he rarely got Christmas presents. But eventually he gave up trying to glean any extra knowledge from the exterior of the package, and tore it open.

It was a sketchbook — one of those green ones with a picture of dancing pencils on the cover. This was a little strange, Duo thought, and what made it even more interesting was that it seemed quite well used. He lifted the somewhat ragged cover, turned the first, blank page of relatively thick drawing paper, and found himself unexpectedly looking into his own face.

Duo didn’t often think much about it, but he was, like most people, familiar enough with what he would see in a mirror if he bothered to check. And he found it strange, bordering on uncanny, to have that experience mimicked suddenly by this anonymous present. For the artist seemed to have captured perfectly every detail of Duo’s face in this rich pencil, right down to the almost invisible little scar on his right cheekbone just in front of his ear. And the Duo on the page was grinning up at him as if there were nothing at all odd about this.

Further information was probably needed before he could decide exactly how he felt about this, so he turned to the next drawing. In a much better display of what Duo expected of sketchbooks, this image was a house with trees and a lake: a very picturesque landscape in the same soft pencil, its lines fading to nothing as they approached the edges of the paper. Duo nodded slightly and moved on.

The next page was a collection of small, random sketches that appeared to have been doodled during class. Except that, unlike when Duo doodled during class, these did not involve battling dinosaurs or noses with feet or flying blenders, nor did they look like crap. They were quick little drawings, but very good nonetheless, mostly of faces in various positions and expressions and shown from various angles — classmates, perhaps? None of them were familiar to Duo except for the four (out of twelve or so) that were his face.

Still attempting to reserve judgment, he turned to the next page. Here was a nicely-shaded rendering of the modern art statue thing outside one of the science buildings. The artist had done an excellent job, Duo particularly noted, giving the idea of the grass that surrounded the base without actually drawing a lot of grass. That meant this had probably been drawn back before snow and whatnot. Which meant that the previous images, including the ones of Duo, had probably been drawn even before that…

He was not particularly surprised to find another picture of himself on the next page. In this one, he was looking over his shoulder and apparently in the middle of saying something cheeky (to judge by the expression on his face); the shirt was identifiable as one that he actually owned, too, not just some random artist’s invention or a fadeout.

With a deep breath, staring down at his own penciled face on the thick paper, Duo allowed himself to think the thought that had been hovering at the edge of his mind since the very first page: this was officially really weird. Someone had been watching him closely enough to draw him repeatedly with excellent skill and accuracy, and then had given him their sketchbook as a Christmas present.

He bypassed a picture of a car without much attention to its fantastic light-on-chrome effect, and found one of himself holding — and ill-protected by — the ragged umbrella he’d finally been convinced to throw away last month when rain had given way to snow.

Then there was another page full of smaller sketches — this time mostly hands and ears, perhaps for practice — followed by an extreme close-up of Duo’s broadly-grinning face that showcased the artist’s knowledge of the fact that Duo was missing a canine on top. The resulting empty space between lateral and bicuspid had closed up on its own before Duo had reached college age, so it wasn’t something people usually noticed at a glance, but the artist obviously knew all about it. Well, the artist probably didn’t know about the childhood bike accident that had caused it, but the tooth’s absence had certainly been accurately noted in the picture.

Actually, Duo reflected as he proceeded through an orderly set of blotches that looked like some kind of experiment in shading or contrast, and another picture of himself — this one full-length from behind, with a good deal of attention given to his braid — he wouldn’t be surprised if this artist did know the reason for his missing tooth.

A key sounded in the door, and Duo found himself hastily closing the sketchbook and shoving it under his pillow. He didn’t really feel like explaining to Quatre that he seemed to have an extremely artistic stalker.

His roommate entered with that look he often wore these days, of clothing just straightened and a bright flush just diminished, trying to appear casual and innocent and failing utterly. “Hi, Duo,” he said with excessive cheer.

“Hi,” replied Duo in a very knowing tone. “Have fun?”

“Well, yes,” Quatre said, blushing. “Quite a bit.” He seized Duo’s coat and hung it from the doorknob of Duo’s little closet, then took its place in the chair at his desk.

“Good job.” Duo reached for his backpack again and dug out his laptop, then shifted into a seated position. He didn’t know how much he was going to be able to concentrate on homework at the moment, but he might as well make the attempt — at least while Quatre was in the room.

Two minutes in, exactly what he’d anticipated took place: the mental images of what he’d seen in that sketchbook swallowed up his ability to work, and, in fact, his very awareness that there was even work to be done. His hands stilled on the keyboard as he stared blankly at the screen, seeing nothing but what he was picturing in his head.

From what he’d observed so far, the artist could be anyone. It didn’t even necessarily have to be a student, though that, he thought, was most probable. But anyone that, for instance, lived in the vicinity of the school, or worked close and perhaps passed nearby on their way home, could have seen him often enough. Hell, it could be someone that worked at the school… it could even be a teacher… That was a weird thought. It really was probably a student, though.

Whoever it was, they seemed to have more than a passing interest in Duo. That little scar, the missing tooth… his friends usually knew about these eventually, either because they spent enough time with him to notice or because it came up in conversation… but Duo wasn’t aware that any of his friends drew. Besides, if any of them liked him that much, they’d surely just tell him, wouldn’t they?

Which made the whole thing that much weirder.

He might be making a big deal over nothing; there might be a message with a perfectly good explanation further on in the sketchbook. He needed to look at it again. He wanted to look at it again. Aside from itching to solve the mystery and dying to know what else was in there, there was also the simple fact that the art was really good — and, strange and possibly extremely creepy as the situation was, there was something flattering about having been the model of someone so talented so many times, about being drawn so frequently in such loving detail…

Had he really just thought of it as ‘loving detail?’ Yes, this situation was definitely creepy.

Quatre, who had seated himself at his desk and was typing cheerfully away at what from here looked like an email — Probably to Trowa, Duo thought, since it’s been soooooo long since they had any sort of interaction — had his back to Duo and was humming to himself. Watching him carefully, Duo slid a cautious hand under his pillow and slowly extracted the sketchbook. Quatre might well overlook a nuclear apocalypse at this stage of afterglow, Duo was quite aware, but there was no point taking risks. The sketchbook and the news that Duo had a stalker would inevitably call up a We need to report this!! reaction in his roommate, and Duo thought it was still a bit early for that.

Quietly, he opened the book again behind his computer screen, ready to close it and shove it underneath the moment Quatre showed signs of emerging from his happy little world. Flipping through the pages, he took up where he’d left off.

A zebra… a fantasy swordsman… another car… a praying mantis… an old, cracked flowerpot containing one lonely geranium… a pair of beaten-up tennis shoes… a direct copy of Boston’s Third Stage album cover… a barn standing among dead trees… a basket of fruit set up for a very deliberate, dull still-life… a receding street Duo recognized as being downtown not far from here… a wolf… Leonardo DiCaprio…? a shotgun… a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand…

And in addition to all of this, at least fifteen more pictures of Duo, one on every other page. But Duo was past being astonished by now, and was simply looking for clues as to who the hell was behind this.

The earlier drawings were all in pencil — graphite, actually, he guessed it was called — but eventually some color entered the scene, and the artist was just as good at that. Every five or six pages, with interesting regularity, there was another collection of doodles (though the word hardly seemed to fit), which indicated to Duo that the artist really was a student and had a particularly boring class every so often.

In one of the pictures of him, he was in the cafeteria eating some of the disquieting stuff they called pizza down there, and the figure next to him, though only a collection of faint, squiggly lines, might almost have been Quatre. From this he inferred that the artist wasn’t Quatre, but he hadn’t really thought it was. Still, he filed the fact away.

Then in another, he was in pajamas. This was one of the color pieces, as the artist evidently hadn’t wanted to miss the chance to capture the fluorescence of the bright little electric guitars that covered the long-sleeved flannel shirt and footed pants. Duo wondered if the artist also knew that these glowed in the dark, and felt he could safely narrow down the pool of possibilities to students living in this particular dorm. At least he didn’t think he’d ever worn those pajamas outside…

One image on which he lingered particularly long was that of a nude model posing on a mess of shiny, rumpled cloth. He’d already guessed, from various previous pieces, that there was an art class involved in this business somewhere, and this seemed to confirm it; he was fairly sure you didn’t get nude model setups like this in other contexts.

The man faced away from the viewer, and either was rather well-formed or had been touched up by the artist, who had given most of his attention to the back and buttocks and thighs. And as for the head…

No, the artist hadn’t quite gone so far as to pretend that the model was actually Duo… but, as on a few earlier pages, there were some light, meandering lines that suggested… and what they suggested here was a long braid draped over the cloth-covered whatever-it-was the model was lying on. It probably wouldn’t have been noticeable if Duo hadn’t specifically been looking for it, but it was fairly obvious what the artist had been thinking about while drawing.

So who did he know that took an art class?

Who did he know that took an art class and totally had a hard-on for him?

OK, well, it could be a woman; this was a co-ed dorm. No need to assume this was a gay man just because he was bisexual until he had some real indication of the artist’s sex.

That indication came at the end of the book.

The last page had been carefully removed along the perforated line, and lay loose against the back cover. It was another full-color piece and nothing short of exquisite — if Duo did say so himself, since it was another picture of him. It was one of those portraits that faded out just below the shoulders, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how anyone could draw something melting out into the white nothingness of the paper like that, especially in multiple colors. But it was impossible for this or any other aspect of the picture to hold his attention for very long, for this time the artist had signed his work.

Duo sat back against the wall, his eyes locked on the neat little signature but not really seeing it anymore, his mouth hanging slightly ajar. He must have made some sound — some squeaky, choking sound of astonishment and disbelief — for Quatre turned, and Duo only barely had the presence of mind to act upon the plan he’d had in place all along against these circumstances. He just hoped Quatre didn’t see him frantically hiding the sketchbook underneath his laptop.

In response to his roommate’s curious look he managed, “The internet is so stupid sometimes.”

“I’d say all the time,” Quatre grinned. “And I can see you’re hard at work.”

“Hey, finals don’t start ’til next week.” Banter could cut into any thoughts, no matter how serious. “Besides, I’m not the one wasting time getting laid twice a day.”

It was so easy to make Quatre blush… but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a very good retort. “Obviously you’re not getting laid, Duo, or else you wouldn’t call it a waste of time.”

“Ouch!” Duo cried, laughing.

“Yeah, you walked right into that one.” Quatre turned his grin back toward his computer.

So Duo was safe for the moment, but he couldn’t be sure it would last. He needed to think about this good and hard; he needed to get out and think about this. The little room felt suddenly very cramped and restrictive. Of course it was very cramped and restrictive, but usually this didn’t bother him.

Swiftly he strategized as he quietly closed his computer, laid it aside, and began pulling the heavier books out of his backpack. He was fairly sure Quatre did not have class this afternoon, and, although Quatre now appeared to be doing homework rather than sending love notes, if Duo announced that he was going somewhere interesting Quatre would probably volunteer to accompany him. But to get outside, he needed his coat, and taking it would rather prevent his pretending he was just going to the bathroom. Damn this weather.

In the end, his ‘strategy’ consisted of stuffing the sketchbook into his backpack, gathering this and his coat as hastily as possible, and mumbling something incoherent when Quatre asked where he was going. Then, coat flapping out behind him like a superhero’s cape, he pelted down the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building, startling but managing not to run into at least five people on the way.

Outside, he made a noise of disapprobation as the cold hit him, and quickly shrugged first into his coat and then his backpack. Shoving his gloveless hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he set off at a brisk walk in some direction across one of the snow-covered lawns. He should probably have kept to the sidewalk, as his shoes really weren’t made for this, but he preferred not to have to spare any thoughts for avoiding other pedestrians.

So…

Heero…

All this time, when their little group had been studying together, eating together, just hanging out, putting up with the vagaries of the dorm amenities, watching the ongoing drama between Quatre and Trowa, playing stupid pranks on each other… all that time, quiet, serious Heero had been watching Duo from whatever corner he was sitting in, with those eyes of his that missed nothing, and had half-filled a sketchbook with pictures of him.

Duo had been surprised at first, but, now that he thought about it, found it made perfect sense. Heero was always around, but nobody much paid attention to what he was doing; it would have been quite easy for him to study Duo — or anyone else — and draw at his leisure. And actually it seemed just like Heero to have done something like that… something that quietly tested his observational skills and his ability to represent coherently what he’d observed. Heero was always observing.

The thorough precision of the shading combined with the subtle effectiveness of the faint suggesting lines seemed just like Heero too. Everything Heero did he did perfectly; it was no wonder he turned out to be such a great artist as well.

Winter afternoons swiftly turned into winter evenings, and Duo could already see his breath as a heavy white mist on the darkening air. His ears and nose were frozen, and his toes were beginning to complain very seriously. He paused, frowning, and, with vague thoughts of hot coffee at a restaurant, turned his steps toward the edge of campus and the shopping district beyond.

So Heero liked him, apparently. Duo couldn’t imagine the obsessive attention paid to him in that sketchbook meaning anything else. Heero liked him. Did Heero even like guys? Duo realized that, though some memory or other seemed to answer in the affirmative, he couldn’t quite dredge up any instance where it had been definitively stated. The fact that he’d never known Heero to date… or flirt with… or express even the remotest interest in anyone certainly didn’t help.

But, then, Heero wouldn’t do any of that if he had a crush on Duo, would he? But why hadn’t he said something? How long had this been going on? How long had Heero been surreptitiously studying his dorm-mate, drawing these brilliant pictures of him, and wishing… what? Without a word to Duo…

Again, as he thought about it, Duo couldn’t really say that much surprise was called for. Somehow, pining in lonely silence seemed absolutely typical of Heero. Against this, however, his mind rebelled a bit. Because, sure, Heero was quiet, but was he really that shy?

Well, yes, Duo thought, he really was. He’d never considered it before, but of course Heero was shy. It wasn’t that stupid kind of stammering, obnoxious shyness you saw in movies and stuff; it was a cool, self-aware disinclination for certain aspects of social interaction, probably born of a sense of inability, that barred Heero from even attempting what he perceived as beyond him. And perhaps telling Duo he liked him had simply been beyond him. At that point, the ability to hide his inclination — so expertly, so completely that the object of it would never even begin to suspect — must be considered an adaptive related trait.

Because, god, Duo had just talked to him in the hall, and hadn’t had any idea. He talked to Heero fairly frequently, in fact, and had never had any idea. But now, as he looked back, he was beginning to realize that, although he talked to Heero a good deal more than Heero talked to him, still Heero talked to him a good deal more than Heero talked to anyone else.

The restaurant on the corner closest to campus made its fortune off the students with its twenty-four hour service and its overpriced coffee. Duo had grumbled about the prices on numerous occasions, but would probably continue to patronize the establishment just as long as they served that mint cappuchino he particularly liked because they put green food coloring in it.

The dining lobby was tackily hung with tinsel and lights, and cheerful secular Christmas music issued from the speakers overhead. Duo, humming absently along, looked around as he found a seat, remembering several instances of eating here with his friends — including Heero. On one particular occasion just before mid-terms, they’d pulled an all-nighter in this very corner, almost more for the sake of being able to say they’d done it than because they were desperate for more study time. At least, that had been Duo’s motive. Quatre and Trowa, at that point, had been happy to spend all night giving each other significant looks and avoiding admitting that they were madly infatuated; their other few friends had been legitimately studying for some class they shared (though there was also a lot of unrelated chatter involved); and Heero had, as usual, been buried in…

No… he hadn’t… he hadn’t had his nose in a textbook, though there had been one on the table beside him. Duo had thought at the time that he was taking notes of some sort, without considering the fact that Heero almost never wrote anything by hand and hadn’t had his laptop out. Heero had been drawing, hadn’t he? Just sitting there in the midst of them (well, OK, in the corner seat where nobody could see what he was doing, with one knee pulled up so that they couldn’t even make out what kind of notebook he was working in, but still…) drawing Duo right under Duo’s nose.

Somewhat unexpectedly, these new realizations pertaining to that innocent memory made Duo smile. Wasn’t that just like Heero… hiding in plain sight…

It was quite flattering, really. Heero was some kind of genius, after all… sometimes Duo thought he only studied because that was what was expected of the perfect student, but that he could probably maintain his position on the Dean’s List without it. Though, actually, given how much time Duo now knew Heero spent drawing (him), maybe he didn’t really study quite as much as everyone thought he did.

Whatever the case, Heero was still a genius physics major that had probably never failed a test in his life. And now come to find out he was an incredible artist too… Duo wasn’t about to start letting his opinion of himself be affected by who had a crush on him, but the interest of someone like Heero couldn’t but give him a sort of warm internal glow. Though maybe that was just the coffee.

Besides, Heero was really nice, too, in his subtle way. He was a private tutoring army unto himself, ready to help anyone in the dorm with whatever subject they were struggling with, whether or not he was actually taking it. Duo didn’t know how many times he’d run into Heero and some random acquaintance in some quiet corner bent over some unexpected textbook, one drawing attention to some unnoticed point to the sound of the other’s sudden understanding “Ohh!”

This willingness to help people out at such short notice, Duo thought, much more than the fact that Heero was roommate to someone being courted by one of the most outgoing guys in the dorm, was what had made him known to and welcome among such a wide and diverse circle despite his being not at all social. And this was the person that had drawn Duo thirty times in a secret sketchbook.

More than just flattering, Duo thought, it was a bit of a triumph. Because Heero might be kind, and Heero might be shy, but Heero didn’t put up with nonsense. And Duo was not infrequently all nonsense. Did that make him the exception to the rule? The one nonsense Heero could tolerate? A sort of nonsense, in fact — Duo was thinking of his absurd pajamas that Heero had captured down to the last bright, silly detail — that Heero actively enjoyed?

The last few slurps of his drink, which if they hadn’t been so deliciously minty he would have called ‘dregs,’ disappeared down Duo’s throat, and he set down the cardboard cup with a tap on the table as he reached epiphany.

No, ‘epiphany’ wasn’t quite right. In much the same way certain other aspects of this situation hadn’t been very surprising as soon as Duo seriously bent his thoughts toward them, so it was also no great shock to realize that the idea of Heero liking him — or, more accurately, the idea of what might come of that — was not at all unpalatable. Actually he found that the greatest surprise was that this had never occurred to him before. It was almost as if he’d liked Heero all along and had simply forgotten, and was now remembering — remembering both that he liked him and, to his chagrin, that he’d forgotten.

Which brought him to the topic of what to do about all of this. Normally, on finding that he was interested in someone, his immediate action was to ask them out — or at the very least start flirting with them pointedly until things ran their natural course. But Heero was…

Heero was a special case. Heero was special. He obviously hadn’t intended to confess this to Duo… probably assumed Duo wouldn’t respond well, and who could blame him for that? Duo had always been friendly to him, sure, but had never given even the slightest indication that he might be amenable to anything more than that. If Duo went up to him now and said something to the purpose of, “I know you have a crush on me; let’s go out,” it would probably discomfort and embarrass Heero, and Duo didn’t like the thought of doing that to him, even in bringing him what would presumably be good news.

But if he went up to him a week from now (OK, well, thirteen days from now, when finals were over) and asked him out, pretending he’d come to the idea independently, knew nothing of Heero’s existing interest, and was unsure of the outcome of this venture… that might work. Well, it would be a torment to watch Heero coming and going all week without saying anything, but Duo supposed it was about his turn. Yes, that would probably work. They could get together and try things out, and Duo wouldn’t have to say anything that would make Heero feel bad. There was no reason at all even to mention the sketchbook.

The sketchbook…

He pulled it out of his backpack and began looking through it again. It really was quite marvelous work; Duo particularly liked the pictures of animals, and thought the praying mantis was his favorite. And, to be honest, there were a number of pictures of him that he enjoyed seeing too — although, despite being aware now who the artist was and having worked through how he felt about that, gazing down at his own face so accurately depicted was still a little uncanny.

So this was the last mystery of the whole affair: who had stolen Heero’s sketchbook, wrapped it up like a Christmas present, and dropped it off in Duo’s mail cubby? Duo had no doubt that the motivation for this had been to alert Duo to Heero’s feelings for him… but who else knew, was busybody enough to want to advance things manually, and had the ability to carry out this devious plan?

Well, anyone that had seen inside the sketchbook could undoubtedly have figured it out just as Duo had. Obviously Heero didn’t leave the thing lying around, or Duo would have noticed it at some point before this; but he also probably didn’t take it with him everywhere, so someone that had been into his room with Trowa while Heero was out might have had access to it.

Trowa himself, of course, was a suspect, and therefore so, by extension, was Quatre. They were awfully busy these days getting busy in between classes, but, if they ever managed to engage in coherent conversation at any point, Duo could see them conspiring to hook their roommates up in some tricky manner just like this. He could even see Quatre picking out that elegant rich-boy wrapping paper.

What he couldn’t see was either of them being so insensitive. Trowa probably knew Heero better than anyone in the dorm; he must, if he was aware of Heero’s feelings at all, be aware of Heero’s disinclination to share them. And Quatre, Heero’s friendly rival in the genius department, could undoubtedly come up with a better way to get them to notice each other (or, rather, to get Duo to notice Heero) than stealing personal possessions and giving away secrets.

Duo ran through the other members of their group of friends, and then through everyone he could think of in the dorm. Breaking into someone’s room was not generally difficult even if you didn’t have a key, and, given that the school never changed the locks, functional dorm room keys were fairly easy to come by. In the end there was a dismaying number of people on the ‘Might Have Done This’ list; and he feared the list was still incomplete, given how many in Heero’s art class that Duo didn’t even know could also meet the criteria.

It irked him that he might never find out. The idea of this misbegotten Samaritan smugging around behind their hand at the thought that they’d put things right, that nobody would ever know, made Duo’s fists clench. Apart from the general dickishness of the plan, nobody got the better of Duo without being pranked equally in return.

Well, he would definitely have to keep his eyes open for anyone in the dorm that seemed to be unusually interested in his or Heero’s doings. That would probably be beneficial, too, because it would help keep him occupied and from showing his unusual interest in Heero before the time came. He had a feeling the next week and a half was going to be something of a trial.

And now it was about time to get back to all of that trial and week and dorm stuff. This wasn’t how he’d expected to spend his free evening, but, overall, he couldn’t really say he was terribly unhappy about it. Having his eyes opened about Heero had been unforeseen, but was already proving fascinating, and would (he hoped) end positively. Standing, he returned the sketchbook to his backpack, then took his cup to the trash on the way out of the restaurant.

The next day, Friday, he had a small number of classes and a great number of work hours, which meant he wasn’t in the dorms most of the day and didn’t catch sight of Heero until late that evening. It didn’t mean he didn’t think about Heero, though. Class had some efficaciousness as a distraction from social life, and the student bookstore where he worked kept him fairly busy, but neither could wholly strike from his mind the sketchbook, Heero’s state as revealed thereby, his own growing interest, and the future’s related possibilities.

And none of this really readied him for actually laying eyes on Heero later. For the moment he caught sight of the messy dark hair, the smooth tan skin, and the slender figure (most particularly those tight jeans), he found himself stopping in his tracks at the top of the stairs and simply staring, overwhelmed by the shocking realization that Heero was, if not the hottest guy he’d ever seen, at least in the top five. How the hell had he failed to notice this before? Why had it taken a stolen sketchbook and several hours of reflection to see something he should have been availing himself of forever ago??

It looked as if Trowa was heading for the showers, and Heero had stopped him just outside their room for some discussion or other. Duo, wide eyes still running frantically up and down Heero’s body, did not at first take in anything they were saying, but eventually, as he began to get himself under better control, he was able to make out the words.

“For the last time, no.” Trowa sounded a little frustrated.

“You’re absolutely sure?” Heero, on the other hand, sounded as calm as usual — but if this was really ‘for the last time,’ it was probably something he had bothered his roommate about on previous occasions, which meant he was actually quite concerned.

“Heero, I’m not blind,” Trowa insisted. “I know what it looks like; I would know if I’d seen it.”

Duo suddenly had an uncomfortable suspicion that he knew exactly what they were talking about.

“But–”

“I’m sorry. I know it’s a nightmare to lose something you need for class. But I really can’t help you.” And Trowa turned away from Heero and moved on toward the bathrooms.

Slipping into the other hallway, which ran to the right from the top of the stairs, where Heero would not see him, Duo leaned against a wall and didn’t budge until he heard a door close around the corner, trying to work through all of this.

He needed it for a class? God damn this luck! Duo was tempted to add, ‘And god damn whoever had stolen the thing from Heero in the first place,’ but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Despite not appreciating being put in this position, seeing Heero put in this position, despite how much of a tactless jerk he thought that anonymous person must be, Duo couldn’t regret having been brought to his senses where Heero was concerned — because how long, otherwise, might it have taken him to notice and appreciate Heero fully? He might never have.

But Heero needed his sketchbook for class. Apart from wondering what the professor was likely to make of the prolificacy of Duo within — or had stalking been part of the assignment? — Duo was now wondering what was the best way to get the thing back to Heero without embarrassing the hell out of him. He peeked around the corner, and, seeing no one in the perpendicular hall, hurried down it toward his own room to think about things in greater comfort there.

He was not at all even a little surprised to find Quatre all bathrobed up and ready for a shower when he entered his room, and was glad that he would be alone for the next… however long it took. After wishing his roommate a suggestive farewell, he flopped down on the bed just as he had yesterday, pulled the sketchbook out, and stared at it, trying to decide what to do.

Well, there was a lost-and-found in the building, but it was historically unreliable as a means of somebody actually recovered their own lost property. And there was always the option of giving it to someone else and asking them to deliver it to Heero, but, besides that seeming equally unreliable when he wanted to make good and sure Heero actually got it in time for whatever class called for it, whom could he entrust with such a task?

He’d never really fully cleared his closest friends of suspicion, and, besides, how could he word the request without making it sound strange and underhanded? They would undoubtedly mention to Heero that Duo was the one that had found the missing sketchbook, and that was precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Much the same problems were associated with his outer circle. What if he handed the thing off to the very person that had originally stolen it? What if whoever he asked to return the sketchbook looked inside it, came to the same conclusion Duo had, and spread the word throughout the dorm that Heero Yuy on the second floor was obsessed with Duo Maxwell across the hall?

No, no, no, no, no. Duo couldn’t let that happen. He would just have to sneak in there and deliver it himself. Quatre had a key, of course, which Duo was sure he could easily appropriate… If he sat around quietly here before work tomorrow, keeping his ears open, he could mark when both Trowa and Heero went out — he was fairly sure Heero worked Saturday mornings, and Trowa was likely to go somewhere with Quatre — and then he could creep over there, let himself in, drop off the sketchbook, and retreat with none the wiser.

He nodded decisively. Good plan.

Taking advantage of Quatre’s in-building absence from the room, he set about locating the key. Actually, there wasn’t much ‘setting about’ involved; Quatre’s things were always organized, and his keychain lived on a push-pin on the little bulletin board that hung above his desk. Duo wasn’t sure whether he would notice the absence of one key among four or five (what they all unlocked Duo hadn’t the faintest idea), but he hoped to sneak it back on there as soon as possible and didn’t really worry about it.

Then, having arranged this to his satisfaction, he sat down and went through the entire sketchbook again. This was probably quite vain of him, since it was almost like reading and rereading a list of compliments, but he simply couldn’t resist. His favorite picture of himself, he decided, was the one in which he was gesticulating wildly and making a funny face. There was so much life and movement in the piece, and Duo was certain it wasn’t just because there was so much life and movement in him. He wondered what Heero had been thinking as he’d drawn it. Someday maybe he would be able to ask him.

Although… the more he looked… he remembered this. Of course he couldn’t be certain, but he thought the last time he’d worn that shirt with those jeans had been when they’d all gone to that stupid movie… the one they’d gotten free tickets to from that Independent Records store, that terrible one where the main character had worn clothes something like Duo’s (which was why he remembered at all).

In the restaurant afterward, Duo had mocked the show mercilessly, and Heero had helped him. That just meant, most of the time, that Heero nodded his agreement, or smiled at Duo’s dumb jokes at the movie’s expense, but occasionally he offered some derisive jest of his own. As Heero was quite clever, these had all been very amusing. Why hadn’t it occurred to Duo at the time that Heero hardly ever joked with anyone? That Heero was paying Duo exclusive attention and enjoying Duo’s attention in return? Why had Duo then drifted off to argue with his other friends, who’d liked the movie and kept referring to him by the name of the main character because of his stupid outfit?

And Heero had retreated back into his usual corner to capture Duo’s gesture and expression on paper. Heero bringing a messenger bag full of homework (or what was generally perceived as homework), even to a social event, was so standard that no one looked twice or questioned; no wonder there were so many candid pictures of Duo in this sketchbook.

He left it open to that piece as he changed into pajamas — the plaid ones, not the ones featured in the book — and then put it carefully away in his backpack again before turning off the lights and getting into bed. Knowing he would have to let a loudly-humming Quatre in after not too long, he didn’t bother trying to sleep just yet, but put his arms behind his head, looked up into the dark, and thought about Heero.

The next day he was awakened, as was often the case, by the sounds of Quatre cheerfully getting ready for whatever romantic outing he had planned. Normally this caused Duo to grumble fairly volubly from the muffling warmth of his pillow about rich kids that didn’t have to work, morning people in general, and anyone so incapable of getting enough of his damn boyfriend that he had to annoy his roommate with his stupid weekend schemes at uncouth early hours… but today he just turned toward the wall with a grouchy noise (only partially to keep up appearances) and listened.

Quatre took an inordinately long time to get ready, for someone that didn’t wear makeup or use hair product, but eventually he finished his whatever and left. Then there was the sound of Heero and Trowa’s door opening and closing, voices, receding footsteps, and then silence. So that was Trowa gone.

Yawning, in no kind of hurry, Duo rose and dressed, still listening. It did occur to him that Heero might already have left before this vigil even started, and Duo might now be waiting for a sound that would never come; in that respect, he was fully willing to admit, this wasn’t the best of plans. But he figured he’d head over there and knock if ten o’clock came and he still hadn’t heard anything; if Heero was in there, he could just pretend he needed to borrow a calculator, and then he would know, and could keep listening.

Wait, what was that? A couple of people walking by, talking… Shut up! You’re making it impossible to hear! Except then one of them said quite distinctly, “Oh, hi, Heero.” Duo didn’t catch Heero’s reply, but he did hear the door across the hall close and the voices continue toward the stairs. Then there was silence. Hah.

Hastily Duo pulled out the sketchbook and retrieved the key he’d left sitting in one of his shoes last night, but forced himself to slow down and wait a few minutes. No reason to rush things, after all; he didn’t work until one.

Eventually he deemed it to have been long enough, and probably couldn’t have waited much longer in any event. The sketchbook was too big to burn a hole in his pocket, but his hands certainly felt on fire as he held it.

Nobody was around in the hall when he stepped out, but there were noises from other parts of the floor. He doubted anyone would think twice about his entering someone else’s room even if they happened to know which was really his, but somehow he didn’t want to be seen. So he bounded across, pressed as close as he could to the door as he unlocked it at top speed, and dashed inside.

He’d opened and closed the thing so quickly that, at the crappy little table Heero and Trowa used in lieu of desks at the far end of the room, the seated Heero was only just beginning to look up when Duo noticed he was there.

He could have bolted. He might even have made it back out into the hallway before Heero realized who his unexpected visitor was. He could have tossed the sketchbook down on one of the beds and made a break for it. But he found that Heero sitting there in the sunlight — they had a window in here, unlike in Duo’s room — his serious eyes bent studiously downward and his dark hair falling into his face, was one that it was almost painful to abandon. He wanted those eyes to look up at him, for he found himself uncertain as to their precise color. Blue, certainly, but exactly what kind of blue, he was ashamed to admit, he’d never noticed.

But even as his wish was granted — and they were the most spectacular cornflower he’d ever seen — he realized with a sinking heart that his plan had failed. Here he was, here was Heero, here was the sketchbook. They would have to have it out here and now; there was no escaping.

Heero was greeting the person he thought had entered before he’d even fully turned: “That was the quickest breakfast I’ve–” But he cut his words off abruptly when he saw who it actually was.

“Hi,” said Duo. “I used Trowa’s extra key he gave Quatre, but I didn’t think you were in here; I heard the door close twice, and I thought you guys were both gone.”

Heero was looking at Duo curiously and a little warily; knowing what he now knew, Duo thought there were other emotions in that gaze as well, but so expertly concealed that they were only visible to someone that knew specifically to look: hope, desire, fear, despair…

“I walked downstairs with them, but decided I didn’t want breakfast.” Heero’s tone sounded a little as if he was humoring the madman that had burst into his room and started talking about how many times he’d heard the door close. “So I came back in here.”

Wow. If Duo had been trying to arrange a private conference with Heero in his room alone, rather than essentially the opposite, he couldn’t have done better. He took a deep breath. “Well, I came to return your sketchbook.” And he held it out.

Heero seemed to reach for the object very stiffly and reluctantly; he’d probably already seen it in Duo’s hand, and knew what this must mean. “Thank you,” he said as he set it on the table in front of him and turned his eyes upon it. His voice was level and cool, and it occurred to Duo all of a sudden what he might be thinking — especially given the use of the word ‘return.’

“I wasn’t the one who stole it!” Duo said hastily. “Somebody left it in my mailbox all wrapped up like a Christmas present with no tag, probably trying to–” But he stopped with something of a jerk; wasn’t he supposed to be not saying embarrassing things?

“Trying to what?” Heero’s tone was still calm, and his eyes, as he glanced over at Duo again, were piercing. Captivating.

“Well…” Duo scratched his head, wanting to look anywhere but at the searching eyes and yet never wanting to look away. “I did go through it, and I couldn’t help noticing…” Noticing what an interesting and attractive guy you really are… noticing that, even if I haven’t had a crush on you all along, I really should have…

Finally those eyes withdrew as Heero let his gaze fall once again to the table and the book between his hands. “Yeah,” he said shortly. And his voice was still cold.

“Well, listen,” said Duo after an awkward silence. And perhaps the difficulty of the conversation thus far prompted him to phrase his sentiment in a way he otherwise might have avoided. “I think secretly drawing someone a million times is probably the most passive-aggressive way I’ve ever heard of to express your interest in them, and I’ve gotta say… if it was anyone but you, it’d be really creepy. Since it is you, though…” He paused. He’d seen Heero’s shoulders go rigid at his last words, and knew that Heero was anticipating intensely what else he had to say. “Since it is you,” he resumed at last, slowly, “it’s actually kindof adorable.”

Abruptly Heero stood from his chair and turned to face Duo, taking a step toward him with a hard, riveting look. It was a look that said alternately, “Don’t you dare play games with me,” and, “Please don’t break my heart.” But what his mouth said was, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I wish you’d just told me, because–” But that was as far as Duo got; quite obviously, it had been enough. He wasn’t sure which if either of them moved first, faster, or farthest; they seemed to meet in the middle, and were suddenly kissing as if they’d been magnetically drawn.

And it wasn’t like a typical first kiss, where they were getting used to each other and figuring stuff out and still hesitant about any number of things… it was more like the reunion of long-separated lovers, each reminded in a blaze what he loved about the other, tasting with curiosity and undismayed by the changes time had wrought, settling joyfully into each other again.

When they eventually broke apart, Duo remained hovering close to Heero’s face, his breathing somewhat hastened, surprised and delighted at what he’d found here. Heero looked as if he felt much the same, though to his expression there was also an overtone of ecstatic disbelief.

“My god,” Duo whispered, “your eyelashes… I’ve never noticed before what amazing eyelashes you have.”

Heero smiled.

“And your smile!” Duo went on, seeing this. “I’ve seen you smile a million times before, but I’ve never really noticed.” And he kissed him again.

His next query was, “Why am I not surprised that you’re perfect at kissing too?”

“If that is the case,” Heero said with impossible calm, “it’s a surprise to me.”

Duo bent so his forehead rested against Heero’s. “You and your perfect face and your perfect grades and your perfect kisses and your perfect art…”

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“Liked which?”

Heero actually laughed, a rare sound at any time, and one that now sent shivers up Duo’s spine. “All of it. But especially the art.”

“I couldn’t stop looking at it,” Duo confessed, “but it mostly just made me think of you.”

“Why did you want to bring it back when I wasn’t in here?”

Taken a little by surprise, it was a moment before Duo could shift gears and answer this question. “Oh, I figured since you hadn’t told me all along, it’d probably embarrass you if you knew I had it, so I thought I’d just drop it off here anonymously so you wouldn’t know I knew.”

“And skip this conversation entirely?”

“No way! I was planning on asking you out after finals! I just didn’t want to make you feel bad!”

Heero smiled a curious little smile and said, “Well, I appreciate the thought. Really. But I think you were underestimating me.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s true–” and he sounded rather displeased with himself admitting it– “I couldn’t figure out how to tell you I liked you in person, but I had decided I was going to tell you somehow… I was ready for however you responded.”

“But you still didn’t actually tell me!”

“Yes, I did. I gave you my sketchbook.”

“You… what?” Duo released him so he could more properly gesture his surprise and skepticism. “You? You did not!”

“I did.”

You took your own sketchbook and — no, you did not. I don’t believe it.”

Without a word, Heero pushed past Duo and crouched beside his bed to retrieve something from beneath it. When he stood again, he placed in Duo’s hands a roll of wrapping paper: green, red-ribboned, covered with gold and white flowers.

“I should have known,” said Duo in a murmur of wonder, staring down at it. “Of course this is really your style.” But he hadn’t noticed, before, that he had any idea what Heero’s style was. “And the way you wrapped it… all neat and nice-looking… I’m going to make you wrap every present I give to anyone from now on.”

“I would be glad to,” said Heero solemnly.

Duo lifted his eyes from the paper, grinning at Heero suddenly. “And it’s all or nothing with you, isn’t it? You can’t just tell me, ‘I’m interested in dating you,’ but apparently you can tell me, ‘Look! I drew you thirty times!'”

Now Heero did appear somewhat embarrassed. A little hoarsely he said, “I wanted you to know how much I…”

That embarrassed look on that usually-so-impassive face was just too charming; Duo tossed the wrapping paper aside, stepped forward, and pulled Heero into another embrace. “I guess it’s no weirder than writing someone a love sonnet or something,” he allowed. He was moving to kiss Heero again, but this thought made him pause a breath away from Heero’s lips to ask a little suspiciously, “You don’t write poetry too, do you?”

“I may have tried it a few times,” Heero replied noncommittally, and forestalled any further questioning by leaning in to claim the kiss Duo had postponed.

The next point to be brought up once articulation was again available was, “Without a tag, though? I mean, you had me all up in arms trying to figure out who would be such a jerk to steal your stuff and blow your secrets!”

Heero looked surprised and pleased. “You really were worried about embarrassing me.”

With an exaggerated expression of reproving austerity Duo said, “I think now you’re underestimating me.”

“I won’t do it again,” Heero promised with a slight smile.

Really, it shouldn’t be much of a shock if Heero considered him a little thoughtless, given how long Heero had been largely invisible to him despite being pretty much everything Duo wanted. Maybe Duo was a little thoughtless. Maybe this was a lucky break the like of which he would never see again. Maybe he should take advantage of this opening of his eyes to look around him more seriously in case there was anything else important going on that he was missing.

He would have to think about this later, though; none of it was answering his question.

“So why anonymously?” he reiterated. “You knew I’d find out at the end who’d drawn it all; what was wrong with letting me in on who’d sent it, too?”

Once more Heero looked somewhat embarrassed as he shrugged and said, “I guess that was just another passive-aggressive thing. I thought about putting a tag on it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m pathetic, I know.” It was remarkable how he could make such statements so placidly, so coolly. And he was pathetic — or, at least, if Duo didn’t precisely feel sorry for him, he at least felt sorry

Throwing his arms around Heero again, he said, “I so wish I’d noticed before this how interesting and sweet and hot you are! We wouldn’t have had to go through all of this!”

“I wouldn’t have had to try and fail to approximate a perfectly normal human interaction?” Heero wondered dryly. He seemed to be blushing a little — his face felt suddenly hot where Duo’s was pressed against it — whether at his own misanthropy or at Duo’s compliments could not be guessed.

“Well, now you’ve learned your lesson,” Duo laughed. I’ve learned my lesson, anyway.

“Yes: passive-aggressiveness gets me everything I want.”

Again Duo laughed, simultaneously amused by the joke and pleased at being referred to as everything Heero wanted. “OK, one more question,” he said, “and then we can make out all weekend.”

“With a promise like that,” said Heero seriously, “I’ll tell you anything.”

Duo grinned. “OK. So what’s the symbol for the curl operator in Maxwell’s equations?”

Heero blinked. “An upside-down triangle and an X… Where have you even heard of Maxwell’s equations?”

“Some nerds outside one of the science buildings were talking about it,” Duo shrugged, “and it had my name in it so I listened. I just wanted to see if you really would tell me anything.”

“Yes, but now you’ve asked your one question.”

“I’m going to ask you another one anyway, though.”

“I may not answer.”

“Then I may not kiss you again.”

“Fine; what is it?”

“Was Trowa in on all of this? All that, ‘For the last time, I haven’t seen it!’ stuff? Or was that something else you’d actually lost?”

“Oh, that.” Heero cleared his throat. “That was a show, at least on my part. Trowa doesn’t know. But I saw you coming–” he gestured to the window– “and I wanted you to know that I needed it for class.”

“So I’d make sure to get it back to you soon and not keep you in suspense,” Duo finished for him.

“Well,” Heero said a little sheepishly, “and I do need it for class.”

“You… sneaky… manipulative… underhanded…” If Duo’s affectionate tone didn’t assure Heero that there was no malice in the statement, the coined noun with which he eventually finished must have: “…adorableguy!” He put his hands on his hips. “No more of that, OK? Just because you can trick me into doing things doesn’t mean you’re allowed.”

“No more,” Heero agreed gravely.

“And I,” Duo went on expansively, “promise in return never to ignore you again the way I’ve been doing pretty much ever since we met.”

With a rueful smile, “I’m just naturally invisible, I think,” remarked Heero.

Duo shook his head. “Not to me,” he said firmly. “Not anymore.”

Heero’s smile warmed.

“And now…!” Duo wanted and fully intended to make good on his promise of prolonged kissing, but this needed to be done first. “This… is mine.” He turned to the table and snatched up the sketchbook.

“I do have to turn it in on Monday.”

“But you gave it to me. You wrapped it up and gave it to me. It was a present, and I like it way too much to give it back!”

“It’s an eighth of my grade in that class.” Heero reached for the book.

“You should have thought of that before you just gave it away!” Duo laughed as he jerked out of Heero’s reach.

“Duo!” Heero was grinning somewhat too now as he dove again for the item in Duo’s hand.

“It’s mine!” Duo insisted, jumping aside and almost crashing to his doom against the table; the small dorm room wasn’t made for this kind of game. As Heero made another lunge he therefore added, “Maybe I’ll let you borrow it if you ask nicely.”

At this Heero straightened and met Duo’s eyes with such a fervid gaze that Duo also immediately stilled. Heero reached out again, this time not for the sketchbook but for the collar of Duo’s shirt, with which he pulled him close and then guided him into a seated position on his bed. “Please,” he said, almost against Duo’s lips.

“OK,” Duo managed weakly. The object of their discussion was already well on its way to being completely forgotten; it fell from his hand to the floor as Heero’s arms slipped around him and Heero’s lips pressed insistently against his. Duo slid his hands into Heero’s hair, pulling him closer as he deepened and intensified their kiss; and Heero was clasping him, warm and strong, as he let Duo in. And then–

“This is unexpected.”

At least this time Duo wasn’t the only one not to have noticed things going on around him; he thought Heero was just as startled as he was at Trowa’s impassive voice from the door he hadn’t even heard being unlocked.

“I like it, though.” Quatre, at Trowa’s side, looked and sounded both thoughtful and pleased. He took his boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s give them some privacy.”

“It is their turn.”

“We can go to my room.”

Trowa nodded. With an ironic salute in Heero’s direction, he allowed himself to be dragged out, and the door closed.

Once again Duo flung his arms around Heero for a ferocious hug, laughing heartily. “We have been judged!” he cried.

“And found worthy,” Heero added in amusement. He paused, and when he spoke again it was in a tone simultaneously pensive and more playful than anything Duo had ever heard from him. “I say we move them in together over break.”

Duo’s eyes went wide at the consummate genius of this idea, but the aspect of it on which he chose to comment was, “Heero, I think you just asked me to move in with you.”

“I think I did,” Heero nodded.

“Could get awkward if we break up…”

“You think we won’t even last one semester?” Though his tone was light, still Heero was discernibly disappointed.

Maybe it was just beginning-of-the-relationship giddiness, but somehow, when Duo thought about it, he actually saw them lasting a lot longer than that — and he said so. He’d been reminded, too, by Heero’s suggestion, of the fact that the winter break was approaching and he and Heero would be here practically alone throughout. Settling his arms around Heero’s waist, Duo added happily, “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

“I think so too.” Heero pulled him close again for another kiss.

And from the floor beside them, another Duo, in exquisitely detailed colored pencil and bearing the neat signature of Heero Yuy in pen, smiled up at them approvingly.


Oh, Heero. Nothing says love like being a manipulative stalker, right? He’s lucky Duo’s so generous (and likes him too), because, generally, the appropriate reaction to this kind of behavior is not to make out with the guy.

Also, don’t even ask me what kind of bike accident knocks out a canine but leaves the lateral untouched.

I’ve rated this story . I wrote most of it in the car during a family vacation to Santa Fe when the interstate stopped due to feets of snow. The back seat of my dad’s car is not a comfortable place to sleep.

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


Another Source of Light

He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet.

James may think he no longer needs Pyramid Head, but what if he hasn’t really learned his lesson?


The TV was painfully bright in the dim room, the radio’s moaning static agonizingly loud. As he staggered up from the chair, he saw almost nothing but ghost-images of the snowy rectangle wherever he looked, and heard only echoes of her pain from the noisy device and words of a conversation he almost didn’t remember having, which seemed impossibly distant though it had only just occurred.

“Mary’s gone… she’s… dead…”

He stumbled from the room, leaving both television and radio behind, unaware even of what route he took through the maddening hotel, unconcerned about what he might meet on the way out, wishing only to escape from that place, the returning knowledge, that bright scene…

“I killed her…”

He clutched at his head, squeezed it, clawed at it, ripped out bits of hair, but all to no avail: the memories, now that they had returned, were stark and unrelenting…

…her equivocal requests, the inconstant desires of a woman suffering endlessly, physically and emotionally, that had driven him to the edge…

“She was always waiting for you… why…? why…?”

…his hatred for her, for what his life had become thanks to her, that grew steadily beneath the cover of a love that rotted slowly, love that he yet professed until the bitter end…

“I’m… sorry… The Mary you know… isn’t here.”

…the feeling of the pillow in his hands, of her weak, ineffectual struggles…

“No!” he roared, sinking to the ground. “No…” He came to rest on hands and knees on filthy asphalt as the world around him seemed to darken. Blackness spread in throbbing patches until he could see nothing, nothing but the bright, stabbing memory of what… what he had…

Another cry burst from him, inarticulate and strangled as he ground his face against the street as if somehow he could scrub out the images in his head. There was nothing but darkness and pain and memory, but the former could not overcome the latter that shone so brightly.

“I killed her…” It was like staring into the sun; it beat at him, stabbed into him, unrelenting and unjust brilliance.

And that was when he saw it.

His eyes snapped to it at once: another source of light. Thin and pale and dim by comparison, yet visible in the darkness even in the face of the first light. And any reprieve was welcome. He bent over it hungrily, desperate to bring it into better focus. It kept fading in and out, and after a moment he realized that this was merely because of his own blood dripping onto it and obscuring its glow.

It was a faint, meandering silver line on the ground that ran off into the blackness before him like a quiet and yet compelling guide. Guide to where? It made no difference to him; if he had a choice between the glare of his memories and this pale distraction, there was no question which he would take. Willing his reluctant limbs to move, he crawled after it.

He seemed to hear her voice — the voice that had haunted the crackling radio and that had haunted his dreams and that had haunted his waking life for three years — but in no physical sense; it merely resounded in his head, an inescapable conversation.

“Didn’t you want to see me?” Each word sent a shock of bright light through his consciousness like a strobe. And it was a conversation, simply because it wasn’t a memory of anything she’d ever actually said.

“Of course I wanted to see you…” It was an immediate reply, one that seemed very much like all those empty professions of love in the last days.

And her reply was also immediate, colder and harder than the plaintive question had been. “That’s not true, is it? You killed me.”

He crawled on, clinging desperately to the sight of the silver trail just as he clung to his answer, the answer he’d been giving silently all along: “I couldn’t stand to see you suffering…”

“Don’t make excuses, James.” Her voice was twisting, becoming something he didn’t recognize, an audio representation of the painful brilliance that was the memory of what he’d done. All the greater then became his focus on the other light, his only distraction, his only salvation. But her words throbbed on in his head. “I know I was a burden on you. You must have hated me. That’s why you got rid of me.”

He told himself not to answer, not to admit the truth, but when the discussion was only in his mind there was no hiding it. “Yes, I hated you! Don’t you realize what your illness did to you? What you became? It wasn’t my fault — how could I help hating you?” And maybe things would be better now that he’d said it, now that he’d acknowledged his real motives and how he’d languished during those years. He didn’t deserve any of this; it hadn’t been his fault.

“That’s not enough.” By her cold, bright, hard tone, Mary didn’t seem to agree. “You killed me, James. You killed me. And now her voice, surreal though it was, rose to a tight shriek in his mind: “James… do you really think I could ever forgive you for what you did?”

He reeled, crashing momentarily to his side on the ground, as echoes of her castigation flashed through his head, his entire body. But the next moment he was crawling again, moving faster, as if he could leave behind the pain and sorrow and bright light if he just found what lay at the end of the little glowing path beneath his eyes. I don’t deserve this, he found himself thinking over and over; he didn’t deserve to suffer like this; it had been more than he could handle; it hadn’t been his fault.

And suddenly the trail ended.

For a long moment he remained entirely motionless, frozen as if time and space no longer progressed, his mind refusing to comprehend the abrupt cessation of all his hopes. Then…

“Didn’t you want to see me?”

Rising up to his knees, he clenched his fists and howled. The memory was stabbing at the back of his eyes, white-hot and merciless. The pain on her face, in her voice… the snowy television… the pillow… For a second time, he clutched at his face, at his head, wanting nothing but to be rid of this bright light, and screamed until his voice gave out. Then he fell forward again onto his hands and then his chest, groveling on the asphalt, helpless, abject.

It was then, when his thoughts seemed to give way and shut down and only the vague sense of his surroundings and that light remained, that he noticed the difference in the air. Before him, within arm’s reach as he stretched out to test what he thought at first might be some sort of delusion, the air was in motion: thin, rising currents, now hot, now chilling, always bearing a filthy, sharp, metallic scent that wrapped around him and pulled at him.

In something resembling a panic he dropped his hand, searching for the ground… and discovered that not a foot in front of him, it ended entirely. Reaching back, he found its jagged edge, and noted that his trail, his light, his guide — it didn’t end, it merely plunged into this unknown abyss. Salvation was yet possible, escape from the brutal memory that even now tore at his mind like a gleaming, serrated blade. He rose again to all fours and threw himself forward.

He seemed to fall for a very long time, but it was the fall of a dream: no gravity pulled at him, and he feared no harmful collision at the bottom — he fell because he meant to fall. Already, knowing that he had another chance at following the silver light to its end, his mind was clearing a little. He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet. By the time he hit the ground, this thought had heartened him to the point where he was ready to move on almost immediately, despite the fact that there actually was a considerable amount of pain associated with the conclusion of his descent.

Dragging himself slowly up, his entire body aching from the impact, he looked around — for he found he could see again, and not merely the blessed silver line that continued on before him into the shadows. It was clear he was lucky not to have been eviscerated during the fall, for he’d entered a confusing tangle of twisted chain-link and barbed wire. It was as if all the fences in the world had been rusted, mangled, deliberately set into an impossible maze, and laid at his feet.

After taking this in with a brief, impassive glance, he dropped again to his knees and continued to follow the light. It was difficult and bloody progress, for the silver trail did not always take the path of least resistance; sometimes the decaying steel around him encroached so close that, no matter how carefully he tried to wriggle past it, it still caught and tore. Soon his clothing was in shreds, and his flesh seemed likely to fare no better. It occurred to him that, rather than a maze, this was more like a vast cobweb of sharp points and hard lines… but whatever spider he might find at its center was irrelevant if the light led to it.

His next pause was not in response to any change in his guide, but in the scene he came upon in following it. It seemed typical of what lay around every corner in this bizarre and horrible world… but somehow more meaningful. More ominous, he might have said if he’d felt even the slightest apprehension. He stood still for some time, having lost track entirely of the silver line, staring, his eyes stinging with the unblinking intensity of his gaze, hardly breathing in his fascination and horror.

The pavement within the little clearing he’d entered was stained with blood in varying shades, from the glaring crimson of freshly-spilt to the decaying near-black of long-dried, and in the midst of this mess lay a half-clothed, headless corpse. Its limbs, the pallid blue-veined flesh like that of a drowned man, bore patches of the same colors that marked the ground, and it was curled up tightly in a fetal position, unrelaxed even after decapitation. He could make out tense ropes of muscle seemingly ready to burst free across the bare back, as if it had died in the throes of some monumental effort and never unclenched. But somehow, despite what he speculated must have been the fate of this unhappy victim of this terrible place, he couldn’t bring himself to feel any pity.

Abruptly the figure shuddered and slowly uncoiled, climbing to its feet, and with a shiver James suddenly recognized the spattered butcher’s apron it wore. Unencumbered by its usual hinderments, it moved with greater speed and agility than he had expected… but he found himself rapt, fixedly studying the blackened edges of the severed neck. It hadn’t been a clean cut, and it seemed to have been scorched besides.

Finally tearing his gaze from that inordinately fascinating sight, James looked around somewhat wildly, and noticed that there, indeed, half-obscured by a tangle of the ubiquitous wire off to his left, lay the triangular helmet or head the creature normally bore; and nearby the impossibly huge knife, its edge glinting dully even in the shadows. And in the moment it took him to take note of these things, the creature was on him.

Though he had good reason already to know the hideous strength of the muscular body, still he was surprised at the force with which he was flung to the ground. At the thought of what that strength might be capable of doing to him, knife or no knife, he began to struggle… but it was too late. The bone-crushing grip of one gloved hand was enough to keep him down while the other tore at his ruined clothing, pulling it off in shreds.

In James’s mind the consideration formed that there was really only one reason the creature would strip him… only one reason… but, like electricity along a broken circuit, the thought couldn’t seem to get any farther than that. Only one reason, only one reason, it told him, but never what that reason was. This state of incomprehension lasted as long as it took for his skin to be bared, and no longer. For at that moment the creature pulled aside the lower half of its apron to reveal a huge, erect, blood-stained penis.

This galvanizing sight made James struggle even harder — and even less effectually, for the creature’s strength seemed to grow the nearer it came to its gruesome goal. With a few iron-hard blows it neutralized his struggles, immobilized him; in fact, the stunning pain might have caused him to collapse onto his face if the creature hadn’t been holding him. He might even have given up and gone limp if he hadn’t known now what his fate was to be.

There was no preparation, physical or mental, that could ready him for this, and none was offered. In one agonizing moment he was penetrated fully, ripped open and violated in a single movement. The swiftness of the motion was no relief, however; the real torment had just begun. The creature’s strength and speed were evident here as well as in wielding its more conventional weapon; as it began its impossibly painful thrusts into him, it held him inexorably where it wanted him with a single steely arm around his chest.

Besides excruciating to the point where James thought he might faint (and wished he could), the irregularity of the driving cock was jarring, and prevented even the remotest possibility of acclimatization. Every time the creature shifted even slightly, the next thrust was at some new unbearable angle, finding some new sensitive spot inside him to torture and tear.

I don’t deserve this… oh, god, I don’t deserve this… Somehow this was for a while his single and overwhelming thought until he was screaming it aloud, and with each repetition of the sentiment the creature pounded into him harder.

And… yet… the pressure was…

It was a completely different type of pressure, but still it reminded him, took him back… in his head, somehow, the weight of the creature bearing him down was the weight of his shoulders as he held a stark pillow down over his wife’s face.

No, he told himself in a sort of mental groan, it’s not the same… that was nothing like this… maybe I deserve something, but not this

At this the creature’s arm and hand seemed to tighten as if hoping to crush him, to crack his ribs and drive them right into his lungs until he drowned in his own blood and slowly expired. Maybe it would prefer to be fucking a corpse, being something of a corpse itself… or maybe this was simply the embrace of one murderer for another.

Though the pain had not lessened, even his screams died as he choked and struggled to breathe. He felt compressed, smothered, and as all the air was squeezed from him he began to see tiny shifting points of light not unlike the condemning sun behind his eyes… and perhaps this was not so inappropriate a punishment after all…

Then the crushing arms slackened, and he gasped in the acrid, sex-scented air and coughed twice as the stars began to recede. The creature still held him, however, keeping him stationary for its continued hammering into his ass. But though James found himself able to scream again, he found himself simultaneously less inclined to protest this treatment, and the only sound that escaped his lips was a low moan of continued pain.

It seemed to go on forever, the tireless headless body violating him with endless, patternless brutality, slowly and methodically beating out of him any desire to deny that he deserved this. As the last of this desire faded, he was overwhelmed by an impression of sudden change. The air seemed abruptly fresher — or, rather, the stench of blood and sweat and filth and desperation seemed somehow less unpleasant than it had — and as he took a deep, shuddering taste of it, he began to feel… aroused.

Yes… yes this was as it should be… this was what was due him after what he’d done… for what he was… Yesssss… He felt his own cock growing hard, painfully hard, as the creature continued its relentless pounding. It drove into him just as he’d driven down on his helpless wife, robbing him of choice just as he’d robbed her. And though this brought him more pain than pleasure, yet the pain, because it was so right, because he deserved it so entirely, brought pleasure. His next moan was distinctly one of enjoyment, even ecstacy; and he squirmed against the iron grip now not in any attempt to escape but in carnal revelry — and also perhaps in some emulation of her futile struggles as he’d killed her.

And then the creature gripped him tightly again, crushing him once more, this time even harder, and its muscular body stiffened as it gave one last, savagely deep thrust and seemed to explode into and around him with the force of its orgasm. Feeling his ribs creak and as if he were being incinerated from the inside out, James roared with an agony that was more heavenly right than anything he’d ever felt, and found blackness blossoming in his eyes. Soon he could see no light but the stabbing brilliance of his guilt, and even that presently began to fade as he toppled hard onto the rough, blood-stained ground.

The throbbing of both his erection and the sharp pain in his bleeding ass and elsewhere eventually awakened him. He dragged his eyes open sluggishly and tried to fight off the sort of haze, glowing with that same horrible light, that filled his vision. Rusty, twisted shapes were all he could make out before him, which was only to be expected, but where was the creature? Slowly he stirred, delighting in the pain every movement occasioned throughout his body, and looked around for his punisher.

It really did seem to have actually exploded, for nothing remained of it but copious amounts of blood, random spatters and gobs of blackened gore, and shattered bits of bone… and the apron, which was draped across James’s back where it must have fallen when the creature dissolved. It slid stiffly off him as he sat up, and he reached out for it. Holding it, he smiled vaguely.

He got slowly to his feet and stretched leisurely. He had gone, and remained, unsatisfied, and his need for release was even greater than before, but he knew that could easily be remedied; he could sense sources of satisfaction everywhere around him.

Within, everything was gone, he noticed. Everything, gone. Everything except the brilliance that was Mary. She was still in his head, but that didn’t matter; he knew what to do. As he pulled the apron strap over and fastened the ties at his back across what remained of his tattered clothing, his smile grew.

The helmet was heavy — very heavy — but, somehow, despite having anticipated no such weight, he lifted it without trouble. It fit easily and well, bringing with it that perfect, perfect darkness. There was only one source of light he needed; he had no need for that bright memory in his head, so it could just —

A wrenching snap like a bear trap’s closing echoed in the space around him, and the memory was — gone. The light, gone. The guilt and the pain and the awareness of any events past… gone. His body twitched, staggered half a step, then straightened. Blood gushed from beneath the metal edges only for a moment before flames roared briefly within the confines of his new world.

He rolled his shoulders, settling the pyramid more comfortably, then cast a slow look around at the flawless darkness. Crouching, his hand went unerringly to the hilt of his knife, and he dragged it up as he straightened. It, too, was heavier than he had expected, and his gait was jerky and slow. Nevertheless, it was with perfect satisfaction that he walked away. The barbed wire snapped, whipped, flailed before him, and the knife, screeching behind him, scraped a meandering line of glowing silver on the pavement in his wake.


This story is dedicated to fe, who originally introduced me to the world of Silent Hill, and to scacao, whose amazing Gundam Wing fic just dripping with Silent Hill inspired me finally to finish writing this.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?



I Am the Mask You Wear


The surest way to command Heero Yuy’s full attention was to begin a sentence with the word ‘Duo.’ If advertisers had known this, they would undoubtedly have taken ruthless advantage: “(Duo) Worried about your mortgage? (Duo) We can help!” or “(Duo) What’s the only difference between our paper towels and the leading brand? (Duo) The price!” Fortunately, they didn’t know this strange and inconvenient weakness of Heero’s — and neither, he was fairly certain, did his friends. They probably thought he had let them in because he was glad of their company, not because they’d indicated an intention of relating some sort of news about his object of intense fascination.

Well, and he was glad of their company. But he was more interested in what they had to say about Duo.

“He’s been running around biting people.” Quatre always had such an inappropriately apologetic air, as if (in this instance) he were the one running around biting people. Heero often wanted to reassure, tell the always-conscientious Quatre that he was one of the least offensive people he knew, but the comment seemed too… personal… somehow, and thus went unsaid.

So back to the matter of Duo running around biting people. It actually took Heero’s brain a moment to assimilate the information and present a (relatively) rational explanation. “In costume?” he asked.

Quatre nodded.

It sounded… well, it sounded just like Duo. Not content to wait for the office costume party tomorrow evening, or perhaps eager for some practice in his role of classic vampire, he had taken up a relatively harmless but doubtless rather annoying pursuit and made the other apartment-dwellers his innocent victims.

Heero assumed it must be annoying his neighbors, anyway. He based this assumption on the rather dubious evidence of Trowa’s facial expression and the accompanying reflection that (if being bitten by Duo didn’t seem like it would be inordinately fun) Heero himself would have found the behavior very annoying as well.

Trowa was Quatre’s boyfriend, and Heero would have gone so far as to say the guy had no personality whatsoever if he weren’t aware how disturbing it was to be on the receiving end of that assessment. Trowa’s face wasn’t a very good indicator of anything, at least, since it rarely changed. Still, he did seem to be looking a little less pleased than usual, so Heero’s assumption went unchallenged as yet.

“What have you done to stop him?” he asked Quatre.

“Well, we’ve tried asking him politely,” replied the latter, grimacing slightly, “and asking him… less politely.”

“How less politely?” Heero persisted.

“He dodged.” It was the first thing Trowa had said since entering Heero’s apartment. He wasn’t always quite this reticent; he must be annoyed. It was also a rather amusing statement. Trowa was like that sometimes, giving every indication of detached indifference until he suddenly said something bluntly, concisely clever. Heero had often thought of mentioning — just casually, of course — how much he enjoyed this aspect of Trowa’s hypothetical personality… but, unfortunately, he wasn’t terribly good at casual compliments.

Quatre’s laugh sounded helpless and — predictably — apologetic. “And then he pulled his cape up to his face and said something about how only a stake through the heart works against him… and ran off again.”

There was a long moment of silence while Heero pored over this entertaining mental image. He could already hear Duo’s voice in his head quoting lines from bad vampire movies and laughing maniacally as he darted through the deepening shadows across the lawn. It almost made Heero smile. Almost.

It also occurred to him, belatedly, to wonder, “Did you two come up here just to warn me about this?”

“We thought you might have an idea how to stop him,” explained Quatre. “You know him better than we do.”

While this statement was accurate in that Quatre, working in Human Resources, had less contact with Duo on a day-to-day basis than Duo’s cubicle neighbor Heero, the fact remained that the three of them were still co-workers and lived in the same apartment complex. He thought he knew what Quatre meant, though; it had more to do with the borderline-stalkerish behavior Heero alone exhibited toward Duo at times. Heero was fairly certain Quatre knew exactly how he felt about Duo, too, and simply didn’t say anything out of tact. Quatre was good at tact; on occasion Heero wished he could thank him for that… but never managed, somehow, to find the right words.

His face a little hot, Heero looked away from his friends. His eyes fell on his own party costume, which he hadn’t touched since Relena had laid it out on the sofa yesterday evening, and suddenly an idea was beginning to form in his head. Only a stake through the heart… It was a ludicrous idea, but it gripped Heero unexpectedly tightly and he found he could not shake it off. It strengthened, fleshed out, reiterated itself, and demanded to be suggested.

“We…” began Heero slowly, “need to play his game.”

Quatre, always uncannily quick to pick up on things, speculated, “Dress up and hunt him down?”

Heero nodded.

“That,” Trowa declared flatly, “is a terrible idea.”

This was pretty much what Heero had been thinking: it was a terrible, unhelpful, embarrassing idea, and he couldn’t believe he had thought of it. Only a strange, inexplicable desire to go out and chase Duo around in costume like a little kid or a nerdy college student, maybe see if he could get Duo’s mouth onto his neck, had insisted he suggest it at all. Now that Trowa had criticized it, however, Heero felt compelled to defend it.

“You tried to hit him and he ignored you.” He could state relevant facts just as stonily as Trowa could, after all. “If you had used a stake, he would have pretended to die and come back inside with you for a beer.”

Quatre chuckled. “I think you’re right, Heero… but we don’t have any stakes.” He glanced at Trowa and asked facetiously, “Do we have any stakes?”

“Not unless there are some in the boxes I haven’t unpacked yet.” Trowa’s tone was a complete deadpan but for the very slightest touch of dryness.

The remark made Quatre blush a little, as did most references to the recently-taken step of having-the-boyfriend-move-in, but, unashamed, he grinned at Heero and reiterated, “We don’t have any stakes.”

Heero shook his head. “That isn’t the point. He would probably be satisfied with any dramatic defeat.”

Quatre nodded slowly. “Yes, that sounds like Duo…” He raised worried eyes to meet Heero’s. “But do you think we can manage it?”

Of this Heero wasn’t entirely certain. He’d never really considered himself much of an actor — but, then, he’d never really made any attempts at it. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “But that’s my only idea.”

“I guess it’s worth a try…” Quatre seemed pensive.

After a long moment of silence during which nobody moved, Trowa finally said, “We aren’t really going to do this.” Heero thought he meant it as a question, but Trowa said things with such finality it was sometimes difficult to tell.

“We’re certainly open to other suggestions,” Quatre smiled wryly.

Heero said nothing. He wasn’t entirely sure Trowa was wrong. True, something inside him really wanted to do this, but it was a something that was easily squelched, beaten into submission by the same repressive instincts that wouldn’t let him be as open as he wished with his friends. Of the four of them, Duo was really the only one with the sufficiently devil-may-care attitude required to put on a costume and run around outside biting people without regard to his own dignity. Heero would simply feel too silly… unless he had a good, specific reason for doing it.

He guessed the others felt the same: if there was a reason (an excuse, his better judgment corrected, at least in his case), it wouldn’t be nearly so bad. Even stoic Trowa, he thought, could put on a mask and a goofy outfit and make a fool of himself as the means to the right end.

Apparently Trowa didn’t have any better ideas, for he was shaking his head. He looked a little grim; obviously he was aware that if Quatre decided to do this, he would have to as well. This, Heero knew from having observed the two of them for so long, was not because Quatre was the one in charge (though in many ways he was) but because Trowa was innately supportive. It was rather charming… though of course Heero could never tell them so.

Nobody, Heero noticed, had suggested that this might not really be their concern. Technically it wasn’t; Duo was an adult and not their responsibility. But they all knew that Heero’s interest in the matter changed at least his perspective on it. Which was, of course, part of the reason they’d come to him at all. Beyond that, they were all Duo’s friends…

“Well, somebody’s probably going to call the police on him if we don’t do something soon,” Quatre said, voicing aloud the exact reason their friendship demanded action in this particular case. “Come on, Trowa.”

Trowa gave a quiet sigh and stood up heavily alongside his boyfriend.

“We may see you outside,” was Quatre’s goodbye to Heero as he left the apartment behind the unspeaking Trowa.

Heero wandered over to the sofa. Staring down at his costume, he felt a frown growing on his face as he pondered. He wished he could be like Duo, be able to do silly things without a valid reason. Hell, quite often he wished in vain that he could do sensible things for a valid reason — things like vocalizing his nice thoughts to his friends rather than keeping them inside all the time. At the moment he wasn’t really debating, either; he was just trying to work up the necessary… nerve? …to put this thing on.

It was an old-fashioned evening suit with a cloak of some sort, almost all of it entirely in black, accompanied by a white mask that looked like porcelain but was actually lightweight plastic. As he understood, it referred to some character from a book or movie that Relena was fond of — and probably, if he knew Relena, corresponded with her intended character. She’d chosen it all, of course; he wouldn’t know where to begin selecting a costume for a party he wasn’t entirely eager to attend in the first place, and it was apparently her right as self-destined eventual girlfriend to find one for him.

One of these days he really was going to have to tell her that he wasn’t interested. What with needing to find the right moment, find the right words, find a way to break past his innate reluctance for any such conversation — not to mention having to arrange it so that he could speak his peace without letting her think he was getting ready to say exactly the opposite… he just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Well, he had never put this thing on; who was to say it would even fit? In that light, it seemed worth at least trying. Or at least that was a decent excuse to get into it. Once he’d managed to put the costume on, then he could think about showing his face in public in it.

Except he wouldn’t be showing his face in it, would he? He held up the mask, examining it once again, this time with more interest.

Relena was obviously aware that he would feel easier in costume if a mask was involved, and he wasn’t sure whether to find this fact comforting or even more disturbing. The end result was that he had a mask, but it was brought about by Relena knowing him better than he liked to think. Discovering that the suit fit perfectly brought on a similar mixture of emotions. How on earth had she known…?

Well, when Duo was outside biting people’s necks, there was really no reason to be inside thinking about Relena. Heero swept the cape from the couch and fastened it around his shoulders, and took up the mask again and put it on. There was a length of rope tied into a noose of some sort that went along with the costume, which he had vague hopes of using to defeat Duo dramatically (though he was damned if he knew how); he picked this up as well and turned toward the door.

Despite his momentary burst of determination regarding this plan, it was still with some hesitation that he peered out into the corridor onto which a few different apartments besides his own opened. The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, which made Duo’s masquerade that much more absurd but would also, presumably, make locating and detaining him that much easier. And for the moment, thankfully, there was no one in sight.

He hadn’t even left the corridor, however, before he got his first strange look; he’d been expecting this, and bracing himself against it, but found now that the mask provided a sort of buffer against embarrassment. It helped, somehow, that his neighbor couldn’t see his face; hell, she might not even recognize him if she hadn’t seen which door he’d come from. That made everything easier, and Heero descended the stairs to ground level with greater confidence.

Now if only he had any idea where to start…

Well, Duo would have gotten his costume on in his own apartment and emerged thence for his biting spree… where might he have gone from there? Heero supposed it depended on how long Duo had been at this, and cursed himself for having neglected to get this detail from Quatre. As it was, he supposed that his best bet was still to head over to the building Duo lived in and see if he couldn’t pick up his trail there. So with this in mind, he started across the complex.

The first of his friends he encountered was Quatre, who seemed to have the same idea or at least to be walking in the same direction. On seeing each other, they immediately moved to meet and speak, but on drawing near gave a moment to mutual costume examination before doing so.

Heero wasn’t entirely certain who Quatre was supposed to be, though he’d heard it mentioned probably more than once. The outfit consisted of a tunic-thing over fairly tight pants and under a short cape and some type of odd-looking flat cap, all of it in rather gaudy colors and patterns, including gold trim. His eyes fell last to the sword Quatre wore hanging from his braided belt, and his brows rose. It looked so… real.

Quatre followed the direction of his gaze and laughed. “Not exactly accurate, I know, but I don’t have a rapier.”

Heero nodded slowly, accepting this explanation despite how little it meant to him, and said, “You look great.” Though this was true, it was also rather surprising; he was generally so unable to separate a compliment on physical appearance from attempts at flirtation that he found himself completely unable to deliver the former for fear of being suspected of the latter. He was rewarded by one of Quatre’s warm smiles, however, and certainly wasn’t unhappy to have been able to speak his mind for once.

“Thanks!” Quatre said. “I had to come up with a design that would look fairly accurate but that Trowa would be willing to wear too. No hose, in other words.”

Now Heero did remember Quatre saying something about matching costumes, but he still couldn’t remember the names of the characters they were dressed as. “Well, it looks really good,” he reiterated, surprising himself again. “Is Trowa out here too?”

Quatre looked a little sheepish. “I feel like I bullied him into it, but, yes.”

Under his mask, Heero smiled slightly. “He won’t mind if he gets to pretend to stab Duo.”

With a chuckle Quatre agreed. “Anyway, I told him we should probably split up, and I still think that’s a good idea.”

Heero nodded. “I was going to look around Duo’s building. Hey, how long has he been running around doing this?”

“We ran into him–” Quatre glanced at his wrist, realized he’d removed his watch for costume purposes, and shook his head. “Maybe half an hour ago?”

Heero nodded.

“I’ll go over to building three.” Quatre turned in that direction and took two steps, then paused. “What are you planning if you find him?”

“I’m… not sure,” answered Heero. He held up his prop noose and said, “I’m still trying to think how this might be any good against a vampire.”

Quatre gave that apologetic smile of his and said, “Your costume is unfortunate for fighting vampires.” Turning again and once more beginning to walk away he added with a wave, “You could try singing him to death…”

Heero really had no idea what he meant by that, and instead of concerning himself about it moved on toward Duo’s apartment.

There was no sign of Duo thereabouts, but Heero hadn’t really expected any; there was, though, an annoyed-looking man standing on the patio of one of the ground-floor units, rubbing his neck and gazing out across the lawn.

“Where did he go?” Heero asked without preamble as he approached.

“What, your dumbass friend with the makeup on? Your gay friend was already here asking.”

“We’re all gay,” Heero replied coolly, which was interesting since he usually couldn’t make that statement nearly so easily. Inwardly he was hoping that Duo had bruised this guy. “Which way did the vampire go?”

The man stared at him for a moment, looking very annoyed and at first totally unwilling to comply. But eventually, probably realizing that his revenge would never be enacted if the costumed vigilantes were unable to locate his attacker, he pointed. Heero nodded, judging the man unworthy of verbal thanks, and went immediately in that direction.

After wandering for some time and finding no sign of either Duo or of any other of his victims, Heero was starting to get frustrated. His stark suit, cape, and mask, not to mention the lasso, had received a number of strange looks from denizens of the apartment complex as he moved around the various buildings, and, although this had been a great deal less unpleasant than he’d expected, so far his fortitude seemed to be wasted. Perhaps this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Well, he’d never thought it a particularly good idea… just one that might get Duo’s mouth onto his neck.

He was approaching the playground that lay in the center of the complex, where the equipment cast long, spidery shadows in the setting sun, when he heard the voice he’d been waiting to hear and, moving toward the far end of the sandy area, saw the figure he’d been longing to see.

“Do you really think that will hurt me, mortal?” It was Duo all right, giving his words every bit as much dramatic emphasis as Heero had been expecting. He was standing down at the far end, one foot on the concrete and the other in the sand.

Heero had known Duo was planning on dressing as a vampire, but hadn’t actually seen the costume until now. Though he wasn’t sure that vampires routinely wore leather pants, he was inclined now to believe they always should. He didn’t think he’d ever seen any sight in his life that he liked quite so much as Duo’s lower half at this moment. The black silk button-up open partway down his chest was nice too, and certainly the high-collared, red-lined cape and white face-paint were very vampiric… but for the moment Heero’s eyes were riveted on the pants.

Quatre, it seemed, had located their target first, which was for some reason not terribly surprising. He was facing off against Duo at the edge of the sand, sword in hand. The foil gleamed in the light of the setting sun, looking dangerous despite its blunted end, and only the knowledge that Quatre was exceptionally skilled and responsible with the weapon kept Heero from feeling some slight concern.

“Here’s that shall make you dance,” Quatre said, and swept his sword at Duo. An odd phrase, that; it must be related to his costume. Heero did seem to remember Shakespeare being involved.

Duo, appearing a little surprised at the attack (or the statement, or both), leapt backward just in time to miss being slapped across the stomach. Then a broad grin spread over his face, baring the fake fangs he’d acquired for the occasion. As Heero drew slowly closer, he could see that these fangs had gotten to Quatre already — there was a red spot and a slight smear of white on the latter’s neck just above the blue-and-gold braid that held his cape in place; now that he’d actually set eyes upon Duo, this sight made Heero more jealous than ever.

“Hah!” Duo cried. “You’re no match for my vampire speed!”

“By my heel, I care not.” And Quatre thrust at him again.

Duo dodged in a movement that was more like retreat. Everyone present knew that he couldn’t keep this up; Quatre was hampered by the inability to stab directly at him for fear of actually injuring him, but eventually he must score what even Duo would have to be satisfied with as a dramatic killing blow.

But Quatre had a different sort of blow in mind. “You made that little girl cry!” he said severely.

Heero hadn’t noticed the little girl at first, thanks mostly to the leather pants, but now he did: perhaps six years old, she’d evidently been playing innocently in the sand when happened upon by a wandering vampire. Now she was sitting still and weeping quietly — a good deal more quietly than Heero was under the impression children generally did — her chubby, sandy hands continually rubbing at her tear-stained face. Duo was really going to get himself in trouble if he was attacking children and having this effect on them.

In response to Quatre’s accusation Duo had the grace to look somewhat sheepish. “I didn’t mean to,” he protested. “I just thought–”

“I will bite thee by the ear for that jest!” interrupted Quatre, slipping back into Shakespeare-speak and attacking again.

This time Duo barely escaped the intended blow. It was probably because he was too busy with his gleeful retort, as Quatre’s latest statement had evidently eradicated his embarrassment about the little girl and thrown him into a state of triumphant pleasure. “But I already bit you by the ear!” he cried.

“Ay, ay,” Quatre allowed, “a scratch, a scratch.”

“No, this fight is over!” insisted Duo obstinately, his dramatic declaration colored by laughter. “You’re already defeated!” And, his laugh becoming positively malignant — he must have been practicing — he turned to run off. As he spun, his cape flew out and up so that Heero could see beneath it… and if he’d thought the tight leather pants had been riveting from the front, well, they were absolutely spellbinding from behind.

Both Quatre and Heero would have followed at once, but at the very same moment they were distracted. The door to one of the nearby ground-floor apartments burst open in a noise of children, two of which came running out toward the playground with incoherent shouts. At almost the same moment, a little dog with a bow in the topknot between its ears bounded out after them. A split-second later a distressed-looking pregnant woman appeared in the door.

“You let the dog out!” she cried in irritated despair, watching the creature dart away.

The moving children didn’t hear her, as they’d approached the crying girl in the sand, who seemed to be the sister of at least one of them, with shouts of their own — mostly with the goal of informing her repeatedly that it was time to come inside for the night. Their remarks quickly changed to demands to know why she was crying and taunts on that account, and one of them began kicking sand at the poor thing and laughing.

Quatre glanced at the fleeing figure of Duo, the abusive children, and the little dog in quick succession, nodded briefly, and said, “Heero?”

Heero, understanding him, also nodded, and darted off after the dog. Some effort was required to get his hands on the obnoxious thing, and undoubtedly in the few minutes it took for him to catch it Duo had long since escaped. Of course Heero wouldn’t have neglected someone obviously unable to pursue her own runaway pet, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling rather bitter toward the horrid yorkie for cutting into his Duo’s-leather-pants-time.

By the time Heero returned to deliver the creature to its owner with a silent, ironic bow, Duo had indeed disappeared. Frustrated, Heero went to join Quatre at the playground. On the way, he passed the three children, now making their way inside as instructed. The older two looked deeply troubled and perhaps a little pale, but the girl that had previously been crying was smiling. Heero wondered what on earth Quatre had said to them.

Quatre sighed as Heero approached, and murmured, “A plague o’ both your houses… I am sped.” Looking up he added more audibly, and also somewhat apologetically, “Well, we lost him.”

Heero watched him thoughtfully. Yes, they’d lost Duo, but only because of other, more pressing concerns. Quatre had analyzed the situation, made an instantaneous decision on what their priorities must be, and acted upon it. Sure, it hadn’t been a particularly dire situation, but it had been a miniature of Quatre’s behavior and abilities in all other fields; he was a born strategist.

Quatre was staring at him now with widened eyes, and Heero realized suddenly with a severe shock that he’d said at least some of that out loud. His face was instantly burning, but the cool mask atop his hot flesh was a solid reminder that Quatre couldn’t tell.

“I… wow,” the latter said, slowly smiling. “Thanks.”

Heero, every bit as astonished as Quatre that he’d said anything of the sort, merely nodded.

Quatre cleared his throat. “Well, let’s split up and see if we can find him again.”

Once more Heero nodded.

Noting that the sun had set entirely, he began to wonder whether Duo even had any potential victims left. Sometimes on Friday and Saturday evenings there were still children playing outside after dark, or the occasional barbecue or patio party, but this was Thursday. Which meant, quite possibly, that Duo would be forced either to go inside and give up this pursuit, or to focus exclusively on Heero, Quatre, and Trowa. And since Duo wasn’t really the type to give up, well… that was promising.

The next to locate the troublesome vampire was Trowa, and once again Heero joined the program already in progress. He approached in time to hear Duo saying something about Trowa being a much more appetizing victim even than his boyfriend — “Who I totally just defeated, by the way.”

Trowa, whose costume resembled Quatre’s in every particular but color, drew his sword. Again Heero felt the beginnings of concern at the use of a real weapon against unarmed Duo — especially as Trowa, unlike the foil’s owner, did not fence — but he found himself distracted and, indeed, riveted by a totally unexpected source.

“Now,” said Trowa stonily, “by the stock and honor of my kin, to strike you dead, I hold it not a sin.”

Duo responded with a laugh as he dodged the inexpert thrust of the sword. “My enemies are determined to Shakespeare me to death,” he declared. “But I am immune to Shakespeare!” As he had been with Quatre, he seemed positively tickled by the scene.

“Immune?” Trowa echoed. Despite his straight face, Heero thought he was enjoying the little drama almost as much as Duo was. “I hate the word, as I hate hell, all vampires, and thee: have at thee, coward!”

Heero saw that, once again, he needn’t have worried about Duo’s safety when Trowa’s next attempted blow was as neatly dodged as the first had been. “You’re just jealous that I’m immortal and you’re not!” was Duo’s next pronouncement.

“Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries that thou hast done me,” was Trowa’s fierce reply.

Knowing (or at least thinking he knew) how reluctant Trowa had been to get into this costume, Heero was surprised to discover how well he seemed to know the lines. More than that, however, he was shocked at just how well Trowa delivered them. That Trowa was a fan of Shakespeare wasn’t particularly surprising, but the passion and intensity with which he recited, rendering the words at once natural-sounding and fascinating — that was unexpected. Whatever Heero thought of the bard (or thought he thought of him), he would pay money for a performance like that. It was almost as absorbing as Duo’s pants (if in an entirely different way), and that was saying something.

Though it would undoubtedly not have been dramatic enough for Duo’s tastes, Trowa would have been better off sticking with his fists. An excellent addition to the costume the sword may have been, but an unfamiliar weapon only slowed him up and never once made contact with Duo’s person. And eventually Duo managed to circumnavigate it and Trowa both, seizing him by the shoulders from behind.

The sight of Duo’s mouth closing onto Trowa’s neck was enough to rouse Heero from his Shakespeare-induced hypnosis. He moved forward from where he’d only been watching, rapt, up until now. Duo, however, jumped back from his victim as Trowa struck out (wisely, with his elbow this time), glanced at each of them in turn, then ran off laughing into the bushes.

Trowa and Heero both took off after him immediately, but again Trowa’s unaccustomed weapon got in his way, this time tripping him so that he fell rather violently onto the mulch that surrounded the bushes flanking the sidewalk. Heero, following too closely, stumbled likewise and barely kept himself from falling directly on top of his friend. Sitting up from where he’d landed on the pavement, he looked hastily around for Duo… but they’d lost him. It didn’t help that, at this level, the bushes entirely blocked 180 degrees of his view.

Appearing more annoyed than ever, Trowa also sat up, disentangling himself from his foil and rubbing at his neck. He too looked around for Duo, with something of a deadly gleam in his eye, but could see as well as Heero could that the vampire had eluded them. In a tone of irritation and self-reproof he muttered, “His fault concludes but what the law should end.” A little more loudly he added, “I told you this was a terrible idea.”

Rather than defend an idea that had yet to be proven anything other than what Trowa stated, Heero found himself, somewhat unexpectedly as the two of them got to their feet and dusted off their costumes, pouring out his opinion of Trowa’s ability to recite Shakespeare.

By the time he finished, Trowa was looking at him with one eyebrow raised. This didn’t cause quite as severe a sense of embarrassment in Heero as Quatre’s surprise had, since this time Heero remembered he was wearing a mask. And Trowa said briefly, “I got roped into understudying the part once.”

“So you’ve never actually performed it?”

Trowa shook his head.

Heero thought that was a shame, and said so.

Trowa just stared at him.

Clearing his throat, Heero turned. “I think he went this way.”

“No, he went around the building.”

“Well, you go that way, then,” Heero commanded impatiently, certain it was wrong. “I’m going this way.”

“Track down this murderer; he must be found,” said Trowa sardonically.

Having nothing to say in response to this odd statement that didn’t sound much like Shakespeare or Trowa, Heero just turned and headed off in the direction he believed Duo had gone. He was wondering as he did so what had ever possessed him to gush like that. Of course it had all been true, he didn’t think he’d expressed himself badly, and he couldn’t really object to having expressed himself at all… it was just so strange. It was, however, a less consuming topic than that of Duo.

Because it occurred to him that Duo had probably bitten both Quatre and Trowa before the three of them had gotten into costume. But then he’d bitten them both again once they were chasing him. Did that mean that he considered them different people — fresh, unbitten victims — once they were dressed up? And was the logical conclusion that if Heero encountered Duo now, then went back inside and came out again in normal clothing, he might possibly get bitten twice as well? If he changed his outfit again after that, could he pose as a third unbitten bystander? It was something to keep in mind.

Unproductive minutes felt forever long on this hunt, and the apartment complex seemed twice as big as usual. Every hint of movement anywhere caught his eye and made him jerk in that direction before he realized that it was just some innocent neighbor entering their apartment or heading for their car. He found that he rather liked the way his evening cloak or whatever it was swished around him as he moved, especially if he turned abruptly, but that wasn’t really helping him locate Duo.

He did locate something, drawn by sounds that seemed promising in the little space between a cluster of bushes and the apartment office building. He pushed his way through the bushes as quietly as it was possible to push through bushes while wearing a cape, and stopped abruptly two steps from emerging when Quatre and Trowa became visible. They hadn’t found Duo this time; apparently they’d just found each other.

Heero wasn’t sure how this scene had started, but he was in time to see Quatre take Trowa by two handfuls of his tunic and practically slam him up against the wall. “If love be rough with you,” Quatre was saying, “be rough with love.”

Trowa, making no resistance whatsoever to this rough love, nevertheless pointed out, “This isn’t helping us find Duo.” He didn’t much sound like he was objecting, though.

“Humors! madman! passion! lover!” Quatre grinned. “Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh: speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied.”

You have all the lines about love,” protested Trowa softly, a faint smile appearing on his own face.

Quatre’s grin widened as he raised it toward Trowa’s lips. Heero didn’t think there was any way they could be unaware of his presence, but the energy with which they kissed — the very personal way Trowa’s arm snaked around Quatre’s waist to pull him closer, the intimacy of the touch when Quatre’s hand ran up Trowa’s face to bury itself in his hair and knock his hat right off — suggested they thought they were currently, if not the only people on Earth, at least the only ones that mattered.

That they could be that to each other, that two men so different could combine their differences to such a satisfactory end, could thus complement and support and invigorate each other, was uplifting and inspiring. They always made Heero feel that the world wasn’t quite so lonely and hopeless as he was sometimes inclined to believe, and that perhaps he wasn’t quite so far from attaining this kind of happiness as he often feared.

And he’d said all of this out loud again, hadn’t he?

“Aren’t you supposed to be looking for Duo, my clever friend?” Trowa wondered, in a tone that implied some annoyance at being interrupted but was yet so mild that Heero thought he was actually teasing. Quatre just grinned into Trowa’s jawbone, blushing.

And Heero found that he was not embarrassed. He probably would be later, when he looked back at this and wondered how the hell any of that had come out of his mouth, but by this point in the escapade he had attained a perfect state of disinhibition. At the moment he felt he could have told them anything, no matter how personal, without even faltering, if he’d wanted to.

He didn’t want to. But he could have. What he did say was, “Yes. You two have fun,” and turned to depart.

“What’s wrong with him?” he heard Trowa wondering in a near-whisper behind him.

“Nothing plainer,” Quatre replied, by his tone evidently still grinning: “He is clearly quite insane.” And the last thing Heero heard of their conversation as he made his way through the bushes away from them was Quatre changing the subject with a return to Shakespeare. “This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep: come, shall we go?”

How much further assistance he could expect from those two he didn’t know, but he had his doubts. Also, as he was the only one of the three that hadn’t yet been bitten, it was most certainly his turn to run into Duo before anyone else. It was a little unfair, actually, that he hadn’t yet, when he was the one that wanted to get bitten.

At last he got at least part of his wish. Just on the other side of the swimming pool enclosure, on one of the lawns through which sidewalks snaked between the various apartments, a rustling sound startled him into turning abruptly to find Duo approaching through a cluster of bushes. Why he couldn’t use the sidewalk like normal people Heero didn’t know; undoubtedly it was a vampire thing. Not that Heero was really one to talk, he supposed.

Heero took a deep breath and intoned, “We meet at last.” Immediately he decided that this was entirely worth it when he saw how pleased Duo was by the greeting.

Duo moved out of the bushes, his hips swaying in a hypnotic swagger that was completely un-vampire-like and completely wonderful. “So it is to be war between us,” he said. “I’ve destroyed all your allies; what makes you think you can defeat me?”

“My…” Heero really had no idea what to say, other than to protest that ‘destroyed’ seemed something of an overstatement. “My secret weapon,” he finished somewhat weakly.

“Ooh, what is it?” wondered Duo excitedly.

“It’s a secret!” Heero remonstrated.

Drawing himself up dramatically Duo told him, “Only a stake through the heart can kill me! Whatever this weapon is, it will have no effect!” And with a flip of his cape he was charging at Heero.

Of course their dialogue could never reach the dramatic heights of Quatre’s or Trowa’s, but just this brief stupid exchange had seemed fun. It wasn’t only a means to an end or an excuse to admire Duo in tight pants; it was fun in and of itself. Trust Duo to have orchestrated such a situation; really, all things considered, Heero should have been expecting it. Everything was fun with Duo. But then everything changed.

For Duo was suddenly close enough that the heat of his body was palpable, gripping Heero’s arm to keep him still while the other hand slid beneath his collar, pushing it aside to bare his neck. Warm breath hazed across Heero’s skin, and he felt himself go stiff as his heart suddenly started racing. He couldn’t help it; as Duo’s lips brushed his neck, he shuddered uncontrollably. Suddenly the cool evening seemed burning hot, and it was all he could do not to reach out and seize Duo in a crushing grip.

There was no conceivable way Duo could overlook this reaction. Heero watched with a slight sense of panic, not to mention a great deal of disappointment, as Duo jerked away abruptly. He was staring at Heero now with widened eyes, one hand creeping up to his mouth where the white makeup was slightly smeared. In stunning contrast to this, his ears had gone bright red. Well, the rest of his face probably had too, but its color was invisible under the paint.

“Duo…” Heero whispered, aware that the atmosphere had changed but not exactly sure how. And where had all that liberation of a few minutes ago gone? Evidently the mask could shield him only so far, and after that it was back to the usual inhibitions and awkwardness.

Duo straightened, and the agitated expression on his face smoothed out. “My name is Nosferatu Lord Maxwell!” he cried, and stepped back as if he planned on darting away into the bushes again. He paused with an indecisive movement, however, his eyes locked on Heero.

Nosferatu Lord Maxwell? Really?

Struck with a sudden inspiration, Heero repressed his laugh at the name and said hastily, “Well, my lord, how did you like that vampire poison I had on my neck?”

Again Duo’s ears went red, which made Heero’s stomach do funny things. “Oh, is that what that was?” he wondered.

What it really had been Heero rather wondered too. “It was made of garlic,” he said, “and…” But he couldn’t come up with what else was supposed to hurt vampires. Duo would just have to forgive him his inability to think clearly at the moment.

Duo choked out the single syllable, “You…” and staggered forward. “You betrayed me!” He stumbled right into Heero, who reached out automatically to catch him despite knowing it was just an act. Duo clutched at him with strong, clawing hands, and Heero’s arms didn’t seem inclined to let go, so when Duo sank to the ground he took Heero with him. “I thought…” Duo gasped. “I thought you were my friend.” His expression was tragic, but one corner of his mouth was twitching wildly.

It was less difficult for Heero to keep a straight face — not that Duo could see his face — as he was distracted by his efforts not to take improper advantage of the situation. As such, when he replied, “I had to stop you,” if felt more real, somehow, than it probably should have, and his tone was genuinely apologetic.

The way Duo twitched and writhed would have made Heero laugh if Duo hadn’t at that moment been in his arms on the ground. It was a good thing they had this silly drama to play out; otherwise, Heero feared, once he had Duo in his arms he wouldn’t know what to do with him there. Duo was so firm and so warm… even his harsh, fading whisper, “I just wanted… to be the… best vampire… ever…” couldn’t drag Heero’s attention from the fact that this was the closest he’d ever come to what he’d wanted for so long. Nor could Heero tear his eyes from Duo’s; the latter were half-closed, looking up at him pitifully… but at the same time sparkling with glee.

“Good… bye…” Duo gasped faintly, then closed his eyes and went limp. Well, a fair imitation of limp, anyway, beyond the repressed laughter Heero could feel shaking his chest.

Let him go, Heero’s better judgment was instantly commanding. Put him down! Except he couldn’t. You really don’t want to still be holding him when he opens his eyes. Except he did.

Duo opened his eyes. His ears abruptly turned red again. Heero dropped him and stood.

Stretching out flat on the ground, Duo put his arms behind his head and grinned impishly up at Heero. “So,” he said, “you don’t happen to have any beer in that stuffy apartment of yours, do you?”

Their walk inside was wordless, though Duo was evidently in a very good mood. Seeing nothing of Trowa or Quatre, Heero guessed they’d given up (for whatever reason) and gone back inside as well. Which was preferable, since Heero didn’t feel like tracking them down and letting them know the hunt was off.

He unlocked his door and ushered Duo ahead of him into his stuffy apartment. That description must have had to do with something other than the layout, as his one-bedroom was built to the same design as Duo’s. He wondered what that said about him. He also wondered exactly what had just happened, and whether it had been good or bad. Sure, on the surface it seemed like maybe the best thing that had ever happened, but what was the meaning of that blush Duo kept producing?

After stepping into the dim entry and closing the door behind him, he turned to find Duo standing just in front of him.

“Take that mask off,” Duo commanded. “I want to see your face.”

Heero’s hand moved protectively to the object in question, pressing it comfortingly against his cheek — which, he feared, was as red now as Duo’s ears had been a few minutes before. “That’s not fair. You still have face paint on.”

Duo leaned forward, peering into Heero’s eyes through the holes. “I have never seen you act like this,” he said.

“Like what?” Heero wondered uneasily, taking a half-step backward.

Following him that same half-step, Duo didn’t break eye contact. “Honestly I can’t believe all three of you got dressed up and chased me around outside,” he grinned, “but you especially. You’re not a bad actor, you know that? Except usually you keep everything bottled up like you’ve got something to hide. Which I guess is just more proof that you’re actually a good actor. But here tonight you’re telling Quatre that he’s a born strategist, and Trowa that you’d pay to see him perform Shakespeare, and almost telling me…” He paused. He didn’t trail off hesitantly; rather, he seemed to be toying with the words.

Heero could, at this point, have expressed his wonder that Duo had heard any of that, if his ability to express anything hadn’t been temporarily revoked.

“Almost telling me…” Duo repeated. His ears were red again (or perhaps still), but despite his embarrassment he was very clearly in control of this situation.

Another retreating step brought Heero’s back up against the door. He wasn’t even sure why he was moving; he certainly didn’t dislike the thought of Duo closing the distance between them. Perhaps, over the course of the evening, he’d developed a fear of vampires.

“It’s that mask, I think,” Duo said pensively. “If you think people can’t see your face, it’s easier for you to say things you couldn’t otherwise. I should have thought of that forever ago. Except I didn’t know, and if I had you wouldn’t have needed to tell me.”

“That… makes no sense,” Heero said hoarsely.

Duo laughed, and abruptly pressed himself full up against Heero, wrapping his arms around Heero’s waist and filling Heero’s limited field of vision with bright indigo. “Take that mask off,” he murmured. “I want to see your face.”

This time Heero obeyed without question, and immediately Duo kissed him.

Earlier he’d been reflecting that he might not know what to do if he ever got Duo into his arms in some context other than vampire-slaying; it turned out not to be a problem. His hands seemed almost of their own accord to thread through the braided hair of Duo’s head to pull him closer, then disentangle and slide down to feel the contours of Duo’s back, still pulling at him; finally they settled on the smooth roundness of his buttocks in those pants. Oh, those pants.

Meanwhile Duo kissed him enthusiastically and messily, squirming as Heero tugged at him, tasting slightly of grease paint, his own hands making a very similar exploration of Heero’s body all the while. Finally with a moan he broke away, panting, to stare into Heero’s face very intently once again.

Lips swollen and red, eyes shining, he gasped, “Wow, Heero. I mean… wow.” And without waiting for a reply — assuming Heero could have come up with one for this articulate statement or even at all — he kissed him again.

When they separated, Heero’s head was spinning, and he felt the only reason he didn’t fall right over was the fact that he was pinned between Duo and the door. “Yeah…” he agreed faintly. “Wow.”

Duo nuzzled his face against Heero’s ear and jaw. “How long have you wanted this?” he wondered.

“I don’t know…” Heero scrambled to find the answer in a brain that didn’t seem to be functioning properly. “Months… a year… I don’t know…”

“And here I only just noticed,” Duo chuckled huskily. “Hey, say something nice about me. I want to see if you can do it without that mask on.”

“I think…” Heero struggled to comply, but it wasn’t working very well. “…you…” It wasn’t just his usual inability to say such things; it was also that one of Duo’s legs was between his. “…you… were the best vampire ever,” he finally managed.

You certainly seemed to enjoy being my victim,” Duo grinned, drawing back to look Heero in the eye once again.

“You didn’t actually bite me, though,” Heero pointed out.

“No, I didn’t.” Duo pulled his lips even farther apart and snapped his teeth together audibly, all the while holding Heero’s gaze with narrowed eyes. He was deliberately teasing now; Heero had to ask for it if he wanted it.

Giving in to the unspoken demand with a blush, “I wish you would,” Heero whispered. “That was the main reason I came out after you in the first place.”

Duo looked pleased. “To get me to bite you?”

Heero nodded. “Quatre told me you were running around biting people, and… I…” But he trailed off as Duo’s lips, for the second time that night, came into contact with his neck and his breath spread out over Heero’s prickling skin in a hot mist. As if searching for the precise spot he wanted, Duo’s mouth crept slowly along, slightly open, accompanied by the occasional scrape of teeth or the brief wet trailing of his tongue.

Groaning softly, Heero let his head fall back against the door. Duo made a thoughtful, interested humming noise against his neck, and then began nipping gently at the latter. The costume fangs dug sharply into Heero’s flesh, causing him to gasp at the sudden and wholly welcome pain. Duo made the humming noise again, then began sucking on the spot he’d bitten.

This combined with the grinding that had been going on slowly and subtly all along down where their hips pressed hotly against each other was enough to complete what the kissing had started, and Duo did not fail to notice. With a chuckle he removed his lips far enough to remark, “That’s all it takes, huh?”

This was one of those moments when Heero would have particularly liked to say something clever or complimentary, but it was absolutely beyond his power. Once again, he couldn’t really blame this on his own taciturn personality, but rather on Duo’s intoxicating nearness that robbed him of his ability to articulate. A somewhat ragged syllable in the affirmative was all he managed.

Duo chuckled again, somewhat raggedly himself, and, taking hold of one of Heero’s wrists, guided his hand down to where his own lower garment was bulging just as much as was Heero’s. Then he returned to kissing Heero invasively, leaving the hand to do what it would. And what it would was fulfill Heero’s several-months’ wish of getting into Duo’s pants. He didn’t really tell it to; it just went on its own. Given the way Duo angled his hips to give Heero better access, it was evident he didn’t object.

There was a button and a zipper, which presented all sorts of trouble for a moment, but the rewards were well worth it. Beyond the last remaining barrier of soft boxer briefs, the flesh of Duo’s erection was smooth, fine, and very hot, and the breathy groan that fell from Duo’s lips as Heero touched him made the blood pound into Heero’s groin at the speed of his rapidly beating heart.

Evidently the old-fashioned suit Heero wore had given Duo even more trouble, but he also persevered. And as his hand threaded through curling hair and found what it sought, he gave a little sigh half of triumph and half of growing satisfaction, and began mouthing Heero’s neck again. Heero felt himself go simultaneously stiff and weak at the knees as Duo slowly explored his erection from one end to the other with creeping fingers and nibbled at the flesh beneath his ear with sharp fangs. He could feel the unevenness of Duo’s breathing against his neck, and his own was coming in short gasps. His unoccupied left hand clutched at Duo’s back, crumpling the red-lined vampire cape into a mass of cheap polyester wrinkles.

Except for a slight trembling that moved through him like a storm, Heero was absolutely still at Duo’s haphazardly roving mouth on his ear and jaw and neck and collarbone. He felt as if he was flying high up through a cloud of pleasure, and not just physical (though that certainly was a significant part of it), racing through lightning and thunder like a kite whose taut string was held in Duo’s skilled grip. He pulled at the flesh in his own hand, and Duo writhed against him with an inarticulate gasping groan before kissing him hard on the mouth once more.

A pulsing, aching core of arousal was largely central to the universe at the moment, but it was dimly surrounded by other sensations: the rapid beat of Duo’s heart, the scent of Duo’s sweat rising in the heat between them, the taste of the paint on Duo’s face and the unique flavor of his mouth. And yet, through all this, it was the knowledge, largely unconnected to his five senses, that Duo was here, with him, holding him, touching him, as Heero had so long wished, that was doing the most to accelerate him through waves of pleasure toward a bright grand finale.

Erratic though his motions were, he stroked Duo’s erection purposefully, loving the way the sensations he was giving seemed to mirror those he was receiving. And when the lips against his broke away as Duo’s face lifted upward in a little spasm of ecstasy and moaned out Heero’s name, it was all he could take. With a loud, shuddering sigh, he climaxed hard onto Duo, clutching at him with digging fingers as he did so.

Duo’s outcry had been an indicator of how close he was, and soon, heralded by noisy huffing breaths and a groan, he came as well. Then he went limp against Heero so that they were both in danger of slumping down to the floor, tugging somewhat absently at Heero’s hair with his right hand and letting his breathing steady against Heero’s neck as he made a soft contented noise in the back of his throat. Heero returned the evening’s favor by mouthing Duo’s neck and occasionally scraping his teeth against the hot flesh.

Eventually, after a deep, pleased breath, Duo’s incoherent sounds turned into murmured words. “So…” he said, and then repeated his earlier, “That’s all it takes, huh?”

Breathily Heero chuckled against Duo’s carotid and said, “Yeah.”

Drawing back, Duo kissed him briefly one more time before looking at him with a smile that was half thoughtful and half playful. “I have to say I’m flattered.”

“I guess I should be too, then,” Heero replied, “since you only took about ten seconds longer.” He was blushing, but also so flushed in general that he doubted it could be distinguished.

Duo’s smile widened into a grin, and he detached himself from Heero with the reluctance of something firmly glued. He looked around rather sluggishly, seeming only slowly to regain his awareness of the rest of the apartment. Holding his pants closed with his right hand and slowly swiveling his hips as he walked as if reveling in a very pleasant leftover sensation, he crossed the room. A box of Kleenex on the kitchen counter seemed, understandably, to be his destination. He examined his left hand and the sleeve just beyond it as he went, and announced, “I’m going to have to wash this shirt if I want to wear it to the party.” He didn’t seem to be complaining, though.

“Yeah…” Heero agreed, looking down and taking stock. “My pants…”

“I got some of this paint on your jacket and stuff, too,” Duo said as soon as he was finished laughing triumphantly. “Supposedly it comes off in the washer, but we’ll see, I guess.” Once he’d righted his own attire, he brought a couple of tissues back to help tidy Heero, who was still leaning weakly against the door.

As Duo’s eyes were bent downward, he kicked at something on the floor. “You never got a chance to use your Punjab lasso.”

“My what?”

“I think that’s what it’s called…”

Heero followed Duo’s gaze to his prop rope, which had dropped from his hand the moment the latter had found better things to hold onto. “Oh, that. I never figured out how I was going to use it anyway.”

Duo looked back up at him, eyes flashing through his bangs and a devilish grin on his lips. “I bet we could think of one or two ways,” he said. He bent and retrieved the object in question, then stroked one end of it slowly down Heero’s face before he put it in his hands. “You know what else I’m looking forward to? Is you wearing that mask again.” Duo nudged it with his toe where it too had fallen forgotten to the floor.

Heero smiled at him. “I don’t really need it anymore, though.”

“Maybe not with me, but I can’t wait to see what you have to say to everyone at that party tomorrow with it on.” Duo looked rather tickled at the thought, and went on enthusiastically. “Because I can just see you telling Schbeiker that we all know she’s the one who eats all the extra donuts in the break room on Fridays but nobody says anything because she’s so touchy about her weight; or that obnoxious old man who sits down at the other end that he needs to stop leering at you because you wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, especially now that you’ve got a boyfriend.”

Heero laughed, but had to protest. “I don’t think it makes me say nasty things.”

“Well, tonight’s been mostly just your friends. Of course you’re going to say nice things to us. People at work, though…” Duo became even more excited as he continued. “And everyone’ll stare at you because they have no idea where this all came from, and you can say, ‘Why so silent, good messieurs?’ and then boom! turn to Treize from accounting and tell him that he needs to get over himself already because he just isn’t that hot. I swear I would jump you right then and there.”

“Well, when you put it that way, it’s almost tempting.”

“Almost?” Duo echoed, disappointed, as he picked up the mask as well and added it to the rope in Heero’s hands.

“All right, it’s definitely tempting,” admitted Heero. “I guess we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Duo gave a grin of self-satisfaction. “Seriously, though,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, Mr. Doesn’t-Bother-To-Tell-Me-He-Likes-Me. I’ve known you for, what, a year? and the more I think about it, the more I think I’ve liked you all along without realizing it.”

This brought a sudden warmth to Heero’s chest and a smile to his face. It was a slow, almost tentative expression; this was so much more than he’d expected tonight when he’d set out to try to get Duo to bite him and relieve just the tiniest bit of his pent-up frustration and hidden desire. It was almost incredible that they’d come this far.

Duo also seemed to be marveling, simultaneously surprised and delighted at Heero’s smile. “You are so cute…” he said wonderingly.

Heero didn’t know that ‘cute’ was the word he would most like to have applied to him, but couldn’t really object when it impelled Duo to kiss him again.

“Now,” said Duo at last, drawing away, “I seem to remember somebody promising me beer.”

I seem to remember Nosferatu Lord Maxwell inviting himself over for it,” Heero replied mildly.

Duo grinned. “You can’t tell me you didn’t want me to come.”

Heero thought he was once again blushing a little at Duo’s word choice, but still so flushed that it probably wasn’t visible. “Well, take a look in the fridge,” he said.

“Excellent!” Duo swept his cape out dramatically as he turned and headed for the kitchen once again.

Heero paused before following, his gaze falling from Duo’s figure to the objects in his hands. Contemplatively he stared at them for a long moment. “Duo…” he said.

Duo paused just past the microwave and looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

Face taking on a serious frown, Heero continued to scrutinize his props. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.” Duo moved two steps back toward him, mirroring Heero’s expression with a slight worried wrinkling of his brow at the pensive tone.

At last Heero looked up at him and said, “Who the hell am I dressed as?”


This was written for the 2010 Moments of Rapture contest, whose theme was a whole long list of cliches. I’ve rated the story .

My friend Zombie Girl provided the suggestion that Quatre and Trowa dress as Mercutio and Tybalt of Romeo and Juliet. I’m not a huge fan of the play (though it’s a lot more enjoyable when the titular couple are offstage), but I wanted matching costumes that would provide them with the opportunity for dramatic dialogue, and those characters worked perfectly. The one line that doesn’t belong to either of them is, “His fault concludes but what the law should end,” which is originally one of Lord Montague’s.

Incidentally, though Heero’s narration never really had a chance to get into it because of flow and all that, Shakespeare is something of a mask for Trowa: in much the same way the actual mask allows Heero to express himself more openly, the memorized lines and the concept of performance allow Trowa to show a good deal more emotion than he otherwise could.

Obviously all the other quoted lines are from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera. I have mixed feelings about his adaptation of what has long been one of my favorite books, but people tend to know the musical much better, so I felt it logical to have the other characters quoting that rather than the book. I wanted to balance this out just a little by giving the story a title from the book rather than the musical (which title would also then have been a bit less obvious), but, although there are several lines featuring the word ‘mask’ in Gaston Leroux’s original (OK, a translation of Leroux’s original), none of them said what I wanted, so there you go.

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


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


I’ve rated this story . The idea was kicking around for literally years before I actually wrote it. I think it’s pretty sweet. Also, you know Tokio and that ex-prostitute are going to hook up now. Maybe I should write a story about them

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


Subtext

The absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was.

When the victim of Sano’s prank texting turns out to be an intimidating cop, Sano’s friends are every bit as amused as Sano is terrified.


When Katsu got home from work, he found his roommate chortling on the floor. Sano’s head was under the coffee table, his legs up on the couch, and he held a cell phone in the air above his face. The moment Katsu entered and looked at him, he rolled onto his side in a spasm of laughter — the sort of laughter that sounded like a relapse, as if he’d just managed to get himself under control and Katsu’s appearance had set him off afresh.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Katsu remarked as he closed the apartment door behind him.

At first Sano could not answer except with further paroxysms, but he did sober enough to read the text message that presently chimed in to his phone. But if Katsu expected an explanation thereafter, he was disappointed, for the message sent Sano into another rolling fit of amusement.

Being a patient young man, Katsu moved off into his own bedroom to change from his work uniform and turn on his computer; he left the door open, though, in case Sano should recover to the point of volunteering information.

Eventually he did. “I’ve been prank-texting this dude for, like, an hour now,” he explained at a shout. “Pretending to be some chick named Sandra.”

“Oh, god,” was Katsu’s (not entirely unamused) response.

“I asked him out and everything. He thinks I’m a girl…” And Sano lost it again.

Katsu shook his head, rolling his eyes and grinning. “And who is this guy?”

“I dunno… Chou gave me his number.”

“Are you sure it’s smart to be randomly texting somebody Chou gave you the number of?”

“I dunno. It’s just some–” The phone chimed again, appropriating all of Sano’s attention. “Oh, he says he’s going to–” But again the phone cut him off, this time with a genuine ringtone. Sano’s mirth quickly turned to consternation as he realized, “Oh, shit, my voicemail! What do I do?”

“You should have thought of that before.”

With a deep breath, Sano answered the call.

Now Katsu had to bury his face in a couch cushion, for at the first sound of, “Hey, Sandra here!” in the most unconvincing falsetto he’d ever heard, he simply could not contain himself any longer.

As soon as Katsu emerged again he saw Sano waving violently at him in a gesture that clearly communicated, It’s hard enough for me to keep from laughing without you doing that. “No, I’m not,” he was saying into the phone, still in that awful fallacious tone. “I lost my voice for a few days and it’s just coming back, so if I sound weird that’s why. Hmm, oh, really? That sounds so sexy. Ooh, that sounds totally sexy too! What? No, those are hot too. Ha ha, no. I love a car with good gas mileage.”

Whether this was a euphemism and what they could possibly be talking about Katsu couldn’t guess, but the absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was. Every little while, Sano would turn aside and let out a string of muffled guffaws into his sleeve, and Katsu wondered what the stranger thought of these breaks in the conversation.

“He keeps getting all quiet for, like, a minute at a time,” Sano explained in a choked whisper on seeing his roommate’s expression at this. “What do you think he’s–” But he was forced to return to the phone at this point, his stupid falsetto even less convincing than before. “Oh, no, sugar, I was talking to the TV. I told you I was bored…” Sometimes a random little accent crept in too, and Katsu wasn’t sure whether Sano even knew it was happening. “What else do I have to do when I don’t have a man to keep me busy? Oh, can’t you guess? Well, I’ve been told I give really good blow jobs. Hmm? Oh, yeah, any time.”

Things had gone so far that just about everything Sano said was too much for Katsu, and eventually he would surely betray his friend by laughing more loudly than the pillow could stifle or too suddenly to hide it. Besides, he had other things to do. However, he’d barely reached his room again when there came a knock at the apartment door. Assuming Sano was too busy — and in no fit state — to answer it, Katsu reemerged.

“Dude, he stopped talking again,” Sano was chortling as Katsu turned the dead-bolt and then the knob.

“Yes, he did,” said the man at the door in a carrying tone, ostentatiously snapping shut the cell phone he held.

Sano sat up abruptly, dropping his own phone. He dove for it, found the confirmatory evidence of the call’s having ended on its screen, and stared at the man again in growing dismay.

“A word of advice for you,” the stranger remarked as he stepped inside unhindered by any motion of Katsu’s. “Chou isn’t a very good accomplice. He can’t keep a straight face.”

Katsu restrained a snorting laugh.

“And the fact that he works at a police station should have given you some idea of the type of people he’s with all day.” The man pulled aside his jacket to display the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck.

This time Katsu couldn’t contain it; the laughter burst out of him. “Oh, god, Sano, you do know how to pick them.”

“So what?” demanded Sano, worried and obviously trying to cover it up with surliness. “Are you gonna press charges or something?”

“Harassment is a fairly serious charge,” the cop agreed with a smirk, “but I’m more inclined to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?” Sano wondered blankly.

The officer held up his phone again and answered blandly, “Among other things, you asked me out.”

This was almost too much for Katsu. And if the pronouncement itself hadn’t been enough, Sano’s stunned expression — as if he’d just been shot in the middle of a laugh — certainly would have been.

“That was… that was just a… I wasn’t serious!”

“Still, you did offer.”

“I have a girlfriend,” Sano stated defiantly.

“Of course,” was the cool reply. “And that poster there was her idea of a joke.”

Katsu almost lost it again as the man indicated with a gesture the half-naked Speedo model adorning the wall. The interlocking rainbow male symbols that formed the poster company’s logo didn’t help.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a boyfriend.”

The cop glanced at Katsu, who was still struggling not to collapse bonelessly onto the floor as he shook his head without a word.

“Katsu!” Sano yelped in protest at this betrayal.

The stranger’s mouth twisted into a smile. “So it appears you have no legitimate cause to object to our arrangement.”

“Except that it was just a joke! I was just messing with you!”

“So you would rather I pressed charges for harassment?”

“I…” Sano’s brows went down over wide, astonished eyes. “That’s blackmail! Isn’t that just as illegal?”

“It’s called ‘settling out of court,'” the stranger corrected. “You’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.”

Katsu thought Sano went a little pale at this.

“Come on,” the man insisted, jingling his keys. He added with a smirk, “I thought you wanted to see my car.”

Sano took a step toward him, jerkily, as if drawn against his will. “Katsu…” he said helplessly.

“Have fun, Sano,” Katsu grinned.

With a look at his friend half stricken and half irate, Sano began to move a little more naturally: evidently he realized he had no choice in the matter. Stopping just short of arm’s length of the stranger, however, he turned to Katsu and said darkly, “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, call the…” He threw a glance at the policeman and amended his statement. “Call someone.”

“I may call a pizza place and order something to eat…” Katsu offered.

“Oh, fuck you,” Sano said. And then they were gone.

Katsu didn’t have long to laugh himself sick over all of this while wondering desperately and impatiently what was going on; he should have known Sano would keep him posted. The first text arrived only a few minutes later: I’m going to fucking die!

What are you guys doing? Katsu inquired in return.

We’re going to play pool, I guess, was Sano’s answer.

That’s not so bad.

It is with THIS psychopath! Now he’s asking if I’m harassing someone ELSE, so I’ll tell you more later.

Katsu sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be too much later, since this was funnier than anything he could have found on TV, and had made his day a good deal better not only than it had been but than any recent day he could think of or future day he was likely to have. Living with Sano was always an adventure.

This guy kicks ass at pool, was the next message, after perhaps half an hour.

Better than you? wondered Katsu.

I’ll beat him pretty soon, Sano replied evasively, but Katsu could hear the irritated determination as clearly as if they’d been talking rather than texting.

Relative pool skills were all well and good, but what Katsu was mostly interested in hearing about… Is he still being creepy?

Not really. He bought me some snacks. This didn’t tell Katsu much, since Sano was so fond of being bought snacks that he might overlook a good deal of creepiness on the part of the buyer.

Another twenty minutes or so passed before Katsu heard anything more. Then it was, I’m going to kill Chou. He TOLD this guy who I was after my FOURTH text. He told him I was gay and everything.

And probably that you were his neighbor, too.

You should totally hear this guy talk about him, though. Shit’s hilarious.

“Oh, Sano,” Katsu murmured, laughing as he read this and refraining from making the obvious reply.

The next communication, after another interval spent impatiently on Katsu’s end trying to find anything that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge, was a call. Of course he picked up immediately. “Sano?”

“Shit, man, I don’t know what to do!” Sano sounded panicked “You gotta help me!”

“Calm down! I can’t do much to help you from here. What’s going on?”

“He… this guy…” Sano’s voice echoed somewhat; since the signal was fine and the words otherwise undistorted, Katsu guessed him to be making the call from a restroom.

“Is he assaulting you, or what?”

“Well, sortof… I mean, he keeps saying things…”

“That’s quite an accusation, Sano.”

“He keeps saying… flirty… things.” The word didn’t really seem an appropriate descriptor for the man, briefly as Katsu had met him, but the concept at least was clear.

“You guys are on a date,” Katsu pointed out. His tone was mild, but it was probably a good thing Sano couldn’t see his face.

“Only because he forced me!” Sano sounded far more confused than anything else.

“What’s really bugging you is that you’re enjoying this.”

“What?! I am not! Just ’cause he’s… How could I possibly–” At this moment Sano made an indescribable and very undignified sound, and his phone clattered as it evidently fell to the floor. Hastily Katsu turned off the TV and pressed his own phone hard against his ear so as not to miss a word of the subsequently distant conversation.

“What are you doing in here?!” This was Sano, startled and angry.

“Seeing what’s taking you so long,” said the man’s voice; he sounded amused. “You just can’t stop harassing people with that phone, can you?”

“I’m not–”

“And what are you promising this one?”

“It’s just–”

“I seem to recall you promising me a ‘really good blow job.'”

“I… what?!” Sano sounded a little hysterical. Or perhaps ‘giddy’ was a better term. “I didn’t… No!”

Even from here, Katsu could tell that the man was teasing just as easily as he could tell that Sano didn’t mind the idea nearly as much as he claimed to.

“Then I think you owe me a kiss at least.”

The guy was probably giving Sano some kind of look Katsu couldn’t appreciate from afar, for Sano was obviously very flustered. “Not… not… not on the first–”

There came a scuffling sound, during which the transmitting device was apparently kicked into a corner or something, followed by a long silence. Finally, almost inaudibly now (thanks to the phone’s new position? or the man’s lowered tone?), the police officer said, “That wasn’t so bad.” And whether the statement aimed at reassuring Sano or commenting on his performance Katsu couldn’t tell.

“You are the worst cop I’ve ever met,” Sano responded with relative distinctness — and relative calm, too, especially for how breathless he sounded; it really must not have been so bad.

“That’s quite an achievement, considering you’ve met Chou.”

“And he backstabbed me.” This grumble of Sano’s was suddenly a good deal louder as he evidently bent to retrieve his phone.

“I don’t know what else you were expecting,” the man said, a sentiment with which Katsu had to agree.

Some profane statement of Sano’s cut off as he hung up the phone without a goodbye, and again Katsu waited for the next update on the edge of his seat (figuratively, as he was, rather, sprawled on the couch in weariness from laughing so much and never having found anything readily edible in the kitchen).

Sano’s eventual comment was, So he’s a good kisser.

So I gathered, Katsu replied.

And he’s actually pretty hot.

I noticed that too.

And he bought me ice cream.

Plying you with dessert, is he?

He’s still an asshole.

I’m sure he is.

During the next information lapse, wherein Katsu tried futilely to pay attention to the show he was supposedly watching but kept checking his phone so frequently he might as well just have turned the TV off again, there came a knock at the door. A little irritated at an interruption he doubted could be anywhere near as interesting as the ongoing drama, Katsu went to answer it. He knew who it must be, however, when the knock was repeated and elaborated upon before he’d made it halfway to the door.

“Hiya, Katsu,” Chou greeted him, craning his neck to look past into the apartment.

“He’s not here.” Katsu gestured Chou inside, shut the door behind him, and checked his phone again. “And you’re lucky he’s not, because at the moment he wants you dead.”

Chou grinned broadly. “Hey, I tried not to give him away… but it was just too fucking funny.”

“It’s better than you think.” Katsu couldn’t help promising great things with his own grin. “At this very moment they are out on a date.”

“What?!” yelped Chou. “You’re shitting me! No way!”

“Last I heard–” Katsu held up his phone– “your boss or whatever he is was buying Sano ice cream.”

Chou staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it, breathless and helpless with laughter. “Do you…” he panted eventually. “Do you know… what he came over here… to do…?”

“Threaten Sano with death if he ever did something like this again?”

“Yeah, something… something like that…” Chou buried his screwed-up face in the same cushion Katsu had been using all evening to muffle his own laughter.

“Well, he pretty much took one look at Sano and changed his mind.”

When Chou could speak again he said, “Oh, we live in a fucking insane world.” His posture having returned to more or less upright, he’d freed up the other half of the sofa; Katsu came to sit next to him and give a more detailed account of what was going on somewhere else in town — including reading out all the messages sent and received thus far.

At the end of the tale, Sano’s newly arrived comment on the proceedings could be appended: I guess we’re done now.

Did you ever beat him? Katsu wondered.

I would have if he wasn’t so distracting, Sano answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

“‘Distracting,'” Chou chortled. “God, of all the fucking weirdness I never expected…”

Katsu shook his head. “This is so typical of Sano.”

“This is so not typical of my boss,” replied Chou.

“You’d better get back downstairs,” Katsu advised. “I don’t know where they went, but it might have been that pool hall just up the street, and if Sano gets back and finds you here…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chou grinned, rising. “Thanks for the entertainment, though.”

“I think I should be thanking you. Sano probably should too, but I doubt he ever will.”

Chou’s grin broadened, and he turned in the exit. “You’ve got my number, right? Let me know if more fun shit happens.”

“Roger that.” And Katsu shut the door behind him.

His speculation regarding Sano’s date venue was pretty much confirmed when Sano arrived, solitary and angry, after only a few more minutes.

“He didn’t walk you back in?” Katsu wondered, fighting to keep his face grave; his levators and zygomatics were aching enough as it was.

Sano’s answer was a short, irritated negative.

“Did he at least try to molest you in his car?”

“He didn’t even kiss me again,” was Sano’s reply, and exactly what the surliness of his tone was aimed at was rather up in the air.

“Well, I’m glad you survived,” Katsu said placatingly.

Sano snorted and threw himself down onto the couch.

Gradually the apartment grew quiet, except for the continued chime of incoming texts to Sano’s phone. Katsu, moving around straightening things up and getting ready for bed, wondered whether Sano was threatening Chou or continuing his ‘distracting’ interaction with the other cop. Eventually, too curious to refrain from being nosy, he stepped to the couch and looked down over it, and Sano’s shoulder, from behind.

It was fun, said the latest message Sano had received. Despite the angle, Katsu saw the conflict in the lip-biting scowl on his friend’s face. He also saw that Sano had created an actual contact for the man. The name confirmed what Katsu had guessed at seeing the man’s face: another gay Japanese guy. How did Sano keep finding them?

Finally, Yeah, I guess, Sano replied.

Katsu rolled his eyes, and didn’t move. His quiet patience was rewarded, soon thereafter, by the sight of another message from the cop: Same time next week?

Sano made a What the fuck, man? sort of gesture, and suddenly noticed Katsu. “God!” he cried, startled. “How long have you been standing there?”

Katsu grinned. “A while. What are you going to tell him?”

Sano grimaced at him, and got up in something of a huff. “I don’t know!” He headed for his room, and Katsu watched him complacently, still grinning.

He was pretty sure he knew what Sano’s answer would be.


So there’s a dumbass story behind this story. It is, in fact, based on actual prank-texting that happened at one point. It was my brother in real life, pretending to be a girl and asking some guy from school to homecoming and whatnot. It happened very much like this, too: the dude eventually called, my brother realized that his voice on the voicemail recording would give him away, and falsetto conversation ensued.

So, yeah, Sano would definitely chatspeak, abbreviate, typo, and misspell all over anyone he texted (especially with T9 and whatnot, which is the era this story is set in; ah, nostalgia), but there was no way in hell I was going to write it like that. Consider this a translation.

I’ve rated this story .

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


Angles – The Color of 120°

Angles – The Color of 120°

Chapter 1 – Something

There was something in those eyes, something uncanny that, while not feeling inherently wrong, still frightened him; something at once alien and shockingly familiar — and perhaps it was his struggle to name it that had put him so badly off guard. That wild golden something had been directed at him, surely, as if those eyes were pistols aimed straight into his own.

Debris crowded his vision, flying dust that obscured the object of his curiosity. He couldn’t manage to get up again, no matter how he tried, and a shadow fell over him so he couldn’t even see the light. But then those eyes were clearly before him…

“What does he see in you?”

The world spun and blackened…

There was blood everywhere, agony in his shoulder and the back of his skull…

Pressure… a fiery touch… the taste of…

But, no, this was familiar pressure, gentle, and a taste he knew well.

“Kenshin…” he groaned into his lover’s mouth as warm, bright colors swam before him and pain exploded again in his shoulder. Kenshin’s lips quickly withdrew, and Sano opened his eyes.

“Sano.” Kenshin hovered close, staring at him worriedly. “Sano, you’re finally awake.”

Remembering at the last moment that his right shoulder had been impaled — yesterday? a week ago? how long had it been? — Sano lifted instead his left hand to touch the scarred face. “Yeah,” he grunted once he was certain Kenshin was actually there.

“How do you feel?” Kenshin inquired in the same tone as before.

“Like shit,” Sano replied hoarsely. “And maybe like I’m going crazy,” he muttered as an afterthought, thinking of the dream from which Kenshin had just awakened him. “And some guy’s out to get you.”

“I know,” Kenshin replied grimly.

Sano studied Kenshin’s expression, immediately apprehensive. He’d never seen the redhead so visibly anxious before. “What is it?” He was recovering his voice a little, but his whole body ached, and breathing deeply enough to lend the question any volume was not worth the pain it occasioned. Still, Kenshin knew he seriously wanted an answer.

“I am at a loss why he would have attacked you.”

Sano’s state of mind wasn’t exactly placid to begin with, between his pain and the agitation of half-formed recollection that might (not?) have been a dream, but it made everything so much worse that Kenshin didn’t seem upset in quite the way he should be. Of course he was concerned for Sano’s health and safety, and unhappy that Sano had been hurt, but when he said ‘he,’ something else showed in his face — something like confusion, like memory, like… like whatever had been in those eyes that Sano had never successfully been able to name.

“You know who he is, don’t you?” Sano managed to ask this a bit more loudly than his previous question.

Kenshin nodded, his face still rather bleak.

That his lover did not immediately elaborate made Sano a hundred times more worried than before, and he felt that, having been on the receiving end of the unknown enemy’s sword (and an unwanted kiss? …no, he wouldn’t believe that had actually happened until he had more concrete evidence), he deserved to know. Still, seeing what a strange effect the events seemed to have had on Kenshin, he felt it would be kinder not to get angry. “What,” he said in a somewhat teasing tone, trying to lighten the mood by reaching out to squeeze Kenshin’s knee where he knew him to be ticklish, “you afraid he may be able to kick your ass?”

Kenshin took Sano’s hand in both his own as he nodded gravely.

Sano was so startled that he almost sat up, but his shoulder hurt too much for that. “What?!”

“The man who attacked you is one of the few I have ever fought that I was unable to defeat.” And Kenshin broke their shared gaze and looked slowly away.

Sano’s eyes widened. The tone in his lover’s voice was… different… somehow… from anything he’d ever heard. That anything spoken by Kenshin, his Kenshin, could be… an audio version of what he’d seen and failed to understand in that other man’s eyes… almost terrified him. And watching his lover’s face, he shivered slightly as he saw, or perhaps (hopefully?) only imagined, a splash of gleaming amber dot the customary violet of Kenshin’s eyes: a gilded flash identical in hue to the last thing he’d seen before he’d passed out after being stabbed by the as-yet-unnamed man — their mutual enemy? Or something else? What was that something he could not define? Why did his lover share it with the stranger that had attacked him?

He had a feeling everything was soon going to change.

***

“He’s about seven years older than me.” He didn’t get into the irrelevant details of Saitou’s exact date and place of birth and the names of all his family. “He was the captain of the Shinsengumi’s third division during the war.” Exactly when Saitou had joined, what his position had been at first, the name Yamaguchi Jiro, and a few other trivialities Kenshin happened to know were equally certain not to interest Sano, so he didn’t mention them either. “He is quite a skilled swordsman, as you probably noticed.” Sano’s statement that he wouldn’t go back to sleep until Kenshin told him everything he knew about Saitou was quite an ambiguous threat, really; Sano couldn’t possibly want to know all about the Hirazukiryuu, could he?

“The move he used on you is called gatotsu; it is his personal variation of the Shinsengumi’s most famous technique.” And surely Sano didn’t care what Kenshin knew of Saitou’s various stances. “I fought him a few times, but we were always interrupted by circumstance, and so never reached a real conclusion as to who was stronger.” No need to tell him the well remembered details of any of those encounters, was there? Just because he hadn’t forgotten them didn’t mean Sano wanted to hear them. “However, there was one thing we were certain of in regards to each other: that we each fought for what we thought was right.”

Sano was watching him intently; could he tell how much Kenshin was leaving out? “So even though you were enemies, you both knew the other was fighting for what he believed, ‘zat it?”

Kenshin nodded. “Our fundamental beliefs differed very little in those days, and we respected each other for that.”

“What beliefs were those?” Sano asked softly; it seemed he couldn’t tell Kenshin was omitting large parts of his account — but was obviously very interested anyway. “And what changed?”

I changed,” Kenshin admitted softly, and wondered why he felt uncomfortable thinking about it possibly for the first time since he’d made the decision not to kill, all those years ago. “One of the basics of the Shinsengumi code was something that he wholly embraced, and to which he devoted himself — Aku Soku Zan.”

Sano frowned in understanding, and moved his hand to squeeze Kenshin’s comfortingly — although also, Kenshin thought, perhaps in slight need of comfort himself. “Is that why he’s after you now? Because he thinks you’ve become evil or something?”

“I do not know,” Kenshin replied grimly. “I haven’t seen him since those days, so I do not know how he might have changed.” And that he attacked you is worrisome, he didn’t add. What is he thinking?

Sano closed his eyes with a sigh, still holding Kenshin’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I believe in you. You won’t lose, no matter how strong he is.”

Sano’s faith didn’t seem as optimistic as it generally did, and failed to bring the usual warmth to Kenshin’s heart. Was it because Sano sensed Kenshin’s confusion? Was it because he could sense Kenshin had once been…

No. Sano was just concerned because he’d already had concrete proof of what a strong enemy Kenshin faced, not because he thought Kenshin was thinking too much about things, remembering too many details but not sharing them.

The redhead bent and kissed the younger man gently on the mouth. “You should go back to sleep now.”

Sano grunted his assent, returning the kiss until Kenshin withdrew. No, there was no way Sano could guess Kenshin was… well, no, because Kenshin wasn’t.

Savvy, yes. Detail-oriented, certainly. Observant, by habit and necessity, definitely. But if there was one thing Himura Kenshin was not, and certainly had not been as a younger man, it was obsessive.

Especially not where Saitou Hajime was concerned.

His lover had no reason to worry.

***

Some believed dreams were carried out in shades of grey, while others held they were accurately colored; some believed it could go either way depending on the dream, some that it depended on the dreamer. It was a ridiculous debate he’d heard among philosophers at times before, but its importance in anyone’s life was the point none of them ever brought up.

His dreams were all in varying hues of yellow and violet anyway.

Yellow — gold as some fancifully called it, amber as other insisted, or very light brown to the pragmatic that denied such an eye-color as yellow could exist — was familiar. It was safe. Yellow was what he saw in his sword’s blade when he caught sight of his own reflection, what he had seen there since he could remember having looked. Yellow was how he viewed the world. Yellow was surely the color of justice.

Violet — orchid for that same crowd that wanted to name every color after an object, purple for those that fancied themselves modern, or warm blue for those in denial — was also familiar. But it was less safe. Violet was what he had seen beyond his sword’s blade when he found himself caring to look, what he had always hoped to see there since the first moment he had. Violet was a door into a different world. Violet was surely the color of indulgence.

And these were the two extremes that, without exception, colored his every dream.

Or had, up until very recently.

He’d talked to an artist once, incidentally at some point in the line of work; he hadn’t paid much attention at the time, as the conversation had been merely a cover for whatever he’d actually been doing — but somehow he recalled the man’s ramblings on the subject of color better than that vaguely remembered activity. The spectrum was arrayed in a circle, the artist had said, in which each hue had a perfect opposite: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. When blended, two opposites would produce a neutral central color.

Thence the brown that had recently touched his dreams with its unexpected tint.

Yes, that was the logical answer. The yellow and violet to which he had so long been accustomed had simply melted together and added a third color — definitely a neutral color — to the spectrum of his nightly visions. There was no significance in it whatsoever. Even if there were, he was not a jealous man: let the brown intrude; he had no particular attachments to the exclusive combination of yellow and violet.

So why, he wondered as he found his fingers creeping to his lips yet again, was he always so confused when he awoke?



Chapter 2>>

Chapter 2 – No Security

He was drifting in and out of painful dreams again. Or was it still? Did the state of painful-dream-drifting restart after each period of wakefulness, or did it count as ‘still’ if he just took up where he’d left off whenever he went back to sleep? At any rate, this time he was conscious of Kenshin’s absence at his side. And he wouldn’t notice Kenshin wasn’t beside him unless Kenshin had been gone for more than about ten minutes. It was this eventual realization, coupled with the sound of Kaoru’s spoken inquiry on the same topic just outside the room in which he lay, that awakened him completely.

“Where is Kenshin?” She sounded curious and a little worried, and probably with good reason. “I haven’t seen him for at least an hour, and he hasn’t been gone that long since before Megumi-san left.” Sano began immediately to share her feelings, but with a much less concrete apprehension than Kaoru’s pragmatic and probably superfluous fear for Kenshin’s physical safety. Though there was something to be said for practicality, for realism — how could he state, after all, that his worry was centered around the color of his lover’s eyes and the possible reasons it kept changing, and stemmed from dreams of transforming faces and unfairly effective stab-wounds?

Yahiko probably didn’t realize that Sano, if awake, could easily hear them through the shouji as he answered, “He said he had some errands and that he’d be late, but I saw him reading a letter or something earlier.”

“Errands… A letter?” Kaoru repeated, sounding by now quite confused. Sano, who was propped up on one elbow (the one that didn’t cause him serious pain to prop himself up on, obviously), had to agree with that sentiment. As far as he knew, Kenshin had no friends, beyond the little circle that had collected around him here in Tokyo, that would send him a letter that could drag him away from Sano without any notice or explanation. But Sano was beginning to fear that ‘as far as he knew’ was about as far as he could toss a feather when drunk. Kenshin could have any number of friends he’d never so much as mentioned. He was a wanderer, after all, or had been up until recently, and although Sano knew (thought he knew) Kenshin hadn’t made a habit of stopping long in any particular place over the past ten years, he might have made all sorts of friends along the way. Or it might be a friend from before, from the old days.

Or an enemy. There were some of those from those days too.

But would any of them send him a letter?

Perhaps they might, if there was an affinity, somewhere, of golden eyes and respected beliefs.

But what would that letter say? And how would Kenshin respond to it?

Taking a deep breath, Sano sat up entirely, gritting his teeth against the raging hurt in his shoulder. Really, for a wound that had been precise enough to cause so little major damage, it had kept him in bed and amazing pain for far too long. It had been almost two days now since that man had stabbed him, and he was getting sick of lying here. And now he felt he had a real reason to get up, there was very little that could have kept him in bed.

***

“Yahiko thinks you’re sneaking out to see some secret girlfriend; ‘tsa bad example to set for a kid, you know.” This was almost Kenshin’s first warning of Sano’s approach, which was rather disconcerting; was he really so lost in thought?

“Sano!” He jumped to his feet, hurrying worriedly to where his lover was pushing through the grove of tall bamboo toward him. “You shouldn’t be up yet!”

“Like hell I was just gonna lie there with you gone.”

Kenshin carefully embraced him. “How did you know where to find me?”

Sano’s tone indicated he was frowning. “You always come here to practice or meditate, so I figured you’d come here if you were worried about some letter or something too.”

Startled, Kenshin kept his face pressed against the younger man’s chest so Sano wouldn’t see his expression. He hadn’t planned on telling him about the letter, as he knew Sano had been unusually worried about the whole thing. Well, and also because he was worried about it. He’d come here to sort out his feelings, to see if the suddenly stirred emotions of a decade ago were at all compatible with those he’d built up over the last few months. His words were muffled by Sano’s gi as he said, “It is a challenge.”

Something like an unusual tenseness seemed to dissipate from the air as Sano relaxed somewhat, but there was still quite a bit of tension left both around them and in Sano’s taut form. “Thought so.”

But did you really, Sano? “I don’t know whether I will go to meet him or not.” That Sano hadn’t asked meant Kenshin didn’t have to state who ‘he’ was.

Sano lowered his head so his face was buried in Kenshin’s hair, tightening his single-armed hug on Kenshin’s back. “You do whatever you think’s best.” But his voice sounded worried… so worried… much too worried…

“I will not let him hurt anyone,” Kenshin murmured almost automatically, in a soothing tone. Why Sano? Why had it been Kenshin’s best friend, rather than Kenshin himself, that had been the initial target? And did the fact that Sano was also his lover have anything to do with it?

Sano drew back, one hand still on Kenshin’s shoulder holding him close, but far enough away that they could look into each other’s eyes. “I’m not worried about him hurting anyone but you,” he said softly, still frowning, and Kenshin could see plainly that what he’d taken for worry was actually barely-controlled terror.

“Sano…” Asking what Sano was afraid of would be like deliberately insulting him. But how could he reassure where he didn’t know what was wrong? “When I said I was never able to defeat him, it was–” He didn’t get to finish, for Sano leaned down and kissed him.

Kenshin couldn’t help but respond to any kiss from Sano; he was like walking fire, and never failed to bring out all the passion and energy that so often lay dormant in Kenshin’s heart. But this kiss was a little different than normal… somehow it seemed desperate, but not sexually so: it felt as if Sano was demanding something of him, begging for it in the only way that would not compromise his dignity, letting Kenshin taste all the fear he was feeling without actually explaining what its object was.

Once Sano pulled reluctantly away and rested his forehead against Kenshin’s, they stood silent with their eyes closed for several moments. Finally Kenshin asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…” Sano sounded tired, and there was some additional timbre to his voice that could not quite be given a name. Kenshin imagined that if Sano were ever to back down from a fight, this would be the sound of his call for retreat. “I just… I’m just afraid you’re fighting a battle without me.”

Kenshin hesitated to answer, for it seemed Sano meant something else beyond what he’d said, and Kenshin wasn’t sure exactly what. “We have supported each other through all of our battles,” he finally replied softly. “Ever since we met.”

“Yeah,” Sano said again. “Even when it was just a battle in our head about something that happened way back before we met.”

“Even then,” Kenshin agreed, his heart sinking as he finally understood what his lover meant.

“So don’t leave me out of this one,” Sano whispered.

And Kenshin made no reply, not liking to promise where he wasn’t sure of his own power to fulfill.

***

He laid his left hand flat on the floor so close beneath him, to remind himself it was there. His sword was always a comfort at his side, but it was good to know the floor also supported him. He continued listening to the conversation not far off.

“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Am I to believe three of you couldn’t handle the task of keeping one wounded boy in bed?”

“Kenshin went somewhere, and Yahiko and I thought he was sleeping!”

Women were annoying. He touched the floor again, then laid his sword across his knees, anticipating the moment when he could finally draw it. It felt as if he hadn’t drawn it for years.

“Where did Ken-san go?”

“I don’t know. It must have been important, though, for him to leave Sano.”

“It may have something to do with what that policeman said.”

“Yes, and I’m worried.”

“Don’t be… Ken-san can take care of himself, and we’ll be safe with that officer here.”

“I think I’ll go outside and wait.”

He lifted the sheath onto his lap and pulled the sword a few inches out. Even seeing the fine, well-cared-for edge of the blade gleaming before his face did not give him the feeling of having drawn the sword. It wasn’t real. But soon…

“Wow, I thought policemen carried sabers.”

He barely looked toward the voice as he slid the sword back into place and the light it had caught faded. “Sabers are brittle and unreliable,” he replied shortly, setting the sword down again and tapping his gloved fingertips briefly against the floor just to see if it was still flat and made of wood.

“Isn’t it against the rules to have a nihontou, though?”

“I have special permission to carry this.”

“And Japanese swords are really better than those western ones?”

“Of course.”

Kids were annoying. And they were kids until they were at least twenty-five, no matter how good they looked or tasted.

Tasted? That seemed to have jumped in at the last moment, just as the thought was ending, and sent his hand to the floor again, making sure it was there. It wasn’t that he’d lost his equilibrium, or that the floor had made any threats recently to disappear (although this was someone else’s home, and the floor here might be less stable than at his own); he just wanted certainty.

“Kenshin! Sanosuke!” He only heard this because it was shouted; whatever followed was inaudible. He gripped his sword-hilt in cool expectation. It was just a sword, really, but it was always there, and soon he would draw it. The end of the sheath tapped reassuringly on the floor.

“What?!”

The door had opened.

“Where did you hear something like that?”

Footsteps were approaching.

He stood slowly. He turned, and although he knew perfectly well what he was turning to face, from what he already knew and the voices he heard and the spirit he felt, it was as if this was the first true confirmation of who they were, what they were to each other, and what he planned to do. He was holding his breath as he finally set eyes on them, standing there together with that girl at the other end of the room gazing in startlement back at him. He held his sword tightly in his left hand, and stared, wondering where the floor had gone.

Chapter 3 – Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)

It had been troubling before, when Kenshin had asked him to stay hidden, but then, at least, Kenshin had been conscious of his presence. Now, with the enemy actually before them and visible — the real enemy, not some troublesome decoy — now… this was downright painful. For Kenshin to prefer him uninvolved showed Kenshin cared what happened to him. For Kenshin to ignore him completely, stepping forward with that calm tension that meant he was already more than prepared for battle, showed he cared… about something else.

Already Kenshin was fighting without him.

“You had trouble with Akamatsu, I see. You have become weak.”

Sano loved Kenshin. He hadn’t quite managed to tell him yet, but he did love him, more than he’d ever loved anybody in his life. But he’d seen… and he wondered whether the man he loved was the true Kenshin or just a beautiful and inevitably temporary façade. It frightened him that he didn’t know.

“It has been ten years.”

But what frightened him even more was that there existed anywhere a man that didn’t even have to be present, only brought to mind, to effect the change from the Kenshin Sano loved to… the other one. And perhaps he was also a little frightened by the fact that that same man had kissed him. (Or that he’d dreamed he had; that Sano might have thought it up out of his own head was equally disturbing.)

“Ten years, yes. Two simple words, those, but a long time to live through.”

“Yes. Long enough for someone to become rotten.” He couldn’t see Kenshin’s face, couldn’t see his lover’s eyes. But Kenshin’s voice was gilded, and that was all Sano needed. “In the old days, you would consider it beneath you to attack an opponent’s friends in order to intimidate him, or to set a dog on him and take hostages while he was occupied. You cannot be the Saitou Hajime I respected as a warrior.”

Sano’s attention shifted abruptly at the speaking of the man’s name, and he began to feel slightly guilty. No matter what or who Kenshin was, or had been, or even would become, the fact remained that he was likely to fight a very difficult physical battle right now, and Sano should support him (and think about settling his own score later).

Saitou was laughing. The sound sent a shiver through Sano as if he’d been touched by something unexpectedly painful. Not an unexpected pain, but rather something that seemed like it shouldn’t have hurt. Now he’d begun to look at Saitou, Sano couldn’t remove his gaze from the lean, blue-clad figure. He wasn’t close enough to see if that uncanny something was still in the man’s narrow yellow eyes, but he didn’t want to know. Didn’t need to see to know, actually, as he felt the same inexplicable discord in his thoughts just by being in the room with Saitou.

“You think Akamatsu was a dog? Ridiculous. He’s far too weak.”

He was studying Saitou’s face as the policeman said this, and for some reason felt that somehow the expression thereon was incompatible with the speech. The laughter, he realized, had sounded much the same. But there was no real physical evidence of this, and he couldn’t decide what exactly he thought he saw.

“The Shinsengumi fought the hitokiri Battousai many times,” Saitou continued; “we knew his strength. But you had trouble fighting Akamatsu. Your notion of a rurouni who doesn’t kill has taken that strength from you.”

It was true the fight Kenshin had just finished had given him a bit of trouble, but that was more because he’d been trying to get information out of the freak than because the stitched-up man had really been difficult to defeat. Certainly it didn’t earn Kenshin such a moniker? Yahiko and Kaoru seemed quite shocked by the suggestion, and Sano was somewhat disturbed at the finality in Saitou’s tone… but Kenshin’s answer seemed to indicate he didn’t much care:

“The only strength I need now is that of the rurouni who protects others. I don’t need the hitokiri’s strength I once had.”

“If your rurouni’s strength is all you need, I’m here to tell you you’ve failed.” It was something about the heavy scorn in Saitou’s voice, Sano decided. Something… “While you were busy fighting Akamatsu, I was here waiting for you. Since I presented myself as a police officer, your friends let their guard down.” Saitou gestured at Yahiko and Kaoru, whose shocked expressions, if possible, intensified. “I could have killed them as I pleased.”

Sano was too busy searching for the answer to his solidifying question to partake much in the others’ fearful outrage at this statement. He was still pursuing the scorn idea. It was truly felt, not a playact; that seemed fairly obvious. Just something was… off… somehow… about the way Saitou delivered his words. “And that wasn’t the only time,” the dark man continued. “With Jin’ei, with Kanryuu… during every battle, the one you were trying to protect fell into the enemy’s hands. You even let that fool Raijuta scar someone for life.”

This last shook Sano out of his attempted analysis, and he stared at Saitou in surprise and growing consternation. The police hadn’t been involved with…

Something caught at his mind as the anger that usually followed such emotions washed through him, but he ignored both it and the anger in favor of the other two feelings. To think Saitou had been watching Kenshin so closely for so long… it was frightening in more ways than one. What were Saitou’s motives? Obviously he wanted to fight Kenshin, but why all this extraneous nonsense, all these other things Saitou had done? In Sano’s mind, a fight was a fight, and such trappings were not only unnecessary but also a confusion of the issue (not to mention disconcerting in the present situation, especially given Saitou had… well, he wasn’t going to think about that now).

“Having only a part of your strength is equal to having no strength at all. Your words are pure hypocrisy; you make me sick.”

Sano’s rage was growing, and he wanted desperately to retort at the top of his lungs, to refute Saitou’s contemptuous accusations… but he found he couldn’t say — or shout — a single word. To begin with, Kenshin was still simply standing there, offering no defense… and though Sano loved him and could hardly bear to hear him insulted, he feared that silence. What did it mean? Did Kenshin not consider a response necessary? Was he trying to decide what was best to say? Or did he agree with the accusations? And if so, what would his answer be then? Would it be a verbal answer, or something more meaningful? If he concurred, what did that say about who he was? And why didn’t Sano know what was going through his lover’s head?! Dammit… he didn’t, he couldn’t understand any of this, and it frightened him. Which only made him more angry.

And that was the other reason he couldn’t find a word to say — there was something about his anger, his typical response-to-fear-and-confusion irate state, that brought him closer to the answer he sought about Saitou.

He needn’t have worried about defending Kenshin; he’d forgotten there were others present willing to do so. “What are you talking about?!” Yahiko was demanding angrily. “Every time, ’cause Kenshin was there, nobody died!”

Saitou nodded grimly, and replied with the same inscrutable scorn as before. “But tell me… how long will that last? How long can you trust luck to fill in the gap between your current strength and your potential?” The utter derision in his voice — therein lay the answer, somewhere… “I thought you, Battousai, would understand merely by this example with Akamatsu, but as you said, ten years is long enough for someone to become rotten. This rurouni who does not kill is too comfortable with his pseudo-justice. How can the hitokiri Battousai protect without killing?”

Fists clenched and twitched, but Sano was rooted to the floor where he’d stopped upon entering the room, his back to the door that nobody had yet remembered to close. Anger rose like a storm inside him — his usual, familiar protection against the black (or, in this case, gold) unknown — but because it was giving him his answer, he couldn’t do a thing except ponder.

“Aku Soku Zan — this was the one truth that the Shinsengumi and the hitokiri shared. I can’t stand to see what you’ve become.” This statement provided Sano with the final piece of evidence he needed, as the tone it was spoken in was just slightly more scathing even than the rest of Saitou’s words. The bitter drip of his voice contrasted harshly with the dry rasp of his sword leaving its sheath — but still Sano could do nothing.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.” The look on Saitou’s face as Kenshin uttered this calm rebuttal only confirmed further what Sano had begun to believe — and he could not move, perhaps because of this or perhaps in spite of it.

For it was clear now, to Sano at least, that Saitou wore scorn just as Sano wore anger — to protect himself from something he didn’t want to feel, to hide that feeling from the rest of the world. It was not a falsified emotion, not a show… but it was deliberately conjured to guard against something else. Nobody that didn’t shield in such a manner could tell, Sano guessed, but even from this brief conversation that didn’t involve him it seemed obvious. Perhaps that had been what he’d seen in Saitou’s eyes the other day when…

“Is that so? Then come,” Saitou challenged. And what was he trying to hide? What was it he didn’t want to feel? Sano thought his contempt increased tenfold as he added, “I deny everything you are.”

***

It was the same stance. Kenshin never forgot a technique that was shown to him, and this one he remembered particularly well. It was that straightforward stabbing move that could be modified into just about any swing after its commencement, like truth that could become a lie at any moment or perhaps even a lie that could become truth. And he was willing to meet it. He drew his own sword.

“Are you going to involve your lover in this?” Saitou asked, making just the slightest gesture with his head.

The words hit Kenshin like a blow, for he had… forgotten… that Sano was there. Sano, whom he loved, whom he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life… he had forgotten him. It hurt. He dared not turn around, lest Sano should realize this was the case. He feared it was too late.

He stepped slowly away from the door and the two people behind him.

“Kenshin…” Sano growled softly.

Kenshin couldn’t tell whether his tone was one of warning, of fear, of supplication, or something else. Why couldn’t he tell? He’d been with Sano long enough that he could usually read everything from a single word… why didn’t he know now what his lover was thinking?! “Sano, please stay back.” His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, flat even, much like… it always had… back then… “This is inevitable.”

“But, fighting like this… you promised…”

He’d forgotten Sano’s tendency to read oaths into simple words or actions; Kenshin had never promised him anything. “It will be all right.” He glanced over at Sano finally, now he was far enough away, hoping his words were enough to keep Sano out of the fight. But he couldn’t tell. He might as well never have set eyes on his own lover before this, for all he could anticipate Sano’s intentions. And the reason for that was… he was already looking through the eyes of a hitokiri: Sano, as a non-threat, was practically invisible. Which might be a good sign, as far as Sano’s planned involvement in the upcoming battle, but…

But now Kenshin was angry.

How dare Saitou have such an affect on him?!

That carefully-locked-away part of himself should not be so easily, so quickly accessed by another; Kenshin should have a chance to fight it at the very least. He almost felt violated as that assassin’s internal fire rose again within him and he clenched tighter at his sword hilt. He was already battling the desire to kill Saitou, to spatter blood all across the floor and walls of the dojo — and the fight had not yet begun. He could not engage Saitou with that impulse in his veins… could not.

But Saitou was not leaving him that option.

The policeman charged in his first gatotsu stance, and Kenshin jumped to avoid the stab. The warring desires of slaughter and decency slowed him, however, and before he could move into a Ryuu Tsui Sen, Saitou had altered the trajectory of his blow and jumped upward to meet him. Kenshin barely managed to block, avoiding being impaled straight through the chest, but still felt his ribs grazed as the sword pierced his flesh on the right. Saitou twisted the blade to the right and slashed it out across Kenshin’s chest in a burst of pain and blood, spinning to kick him in the stomach in the same movement.

Kenshin fell to the floor, struggling within himself. The taste and smell of blood were exciting him dangerously; the desire to kill was growing. He got to his knees, then his feet, watching Saitou fall into his first stance again. As the wolf charged, Kenshin went forward to meet him, almost staggering as something twitched within him, urging him toward destruction. They engaged midway, vying until Saitou managed to get in a quick but forceful slash across Kenshin’s chest, knocking him backward. Hitting the wall so hard he could hear plaster crack, holding his stomach with a grimace, Kenshin fought to stay upright. He… didn’t want… to want… to kill him… but that battle he was losing. Standing again, he really did stagger this time, making one last attempt to bring his enemy down before he himself was lost. Saitou was ready to meet him with a second-stance gatotsu; Kenshin slipped around behind him, but Saitou turned and kicked him in the face, knocking him away in another splash of blood.

And suddenly everything was colored thus, deepening until there was only red and black as Kenshin flipped backward to land in a crouch some distance off, panting, staring at Saitou who seemed pleased and who charged in his second stance again. And Kenshin dodged to the left, blocked the slash that Saitou moved into, then ducked down beneath the level of Saitou’s sword to spin around backward into a Ryuu Kan Sen. And there was harsh contact between blade and skull, a guttural cry, and Saitou was thrown through the wall. Certainly that hurt, but unfortunately did not kill.

Sword resheathed, ready for Battoujutsu, watching Saitou’s second stance again, meeting its charge and forcing the other blade away to the right, feeling the heat between bodies drawn close together, then ducking beneath Saitou’s sword and throwing it off entirely. Speeding forward low with a rising sweep, feeling the tension as Saitou blocks him again in a clash of metal and they’re forced close to each other once more, an attempted blow from Saitou’s right fist, and with evasion they’re apart again.

A jump into a half-formed Ryuu Tsui Sen that Saitou dodges, but push upward from the resulting crouch with a sweep that Saitou blocks, and suddenly Saitou is restraining his sword-hand and sweeping his own weapon at him simultaneously, but a high leap can dodge the swing and free the hand at the same moment, then charge forward again, I’m going to kill him, but it’s blocked and now the heat is there again between two close bodies locked by flashing swords between until Saitou pulls back and swings downward but if I jump again I can dodge that as well as the next, onto the ceiling, sheathe the sword again, push off toward the wall, propel from there into an aerial Battoujutsu that he blocks on his right, so I roll forward through the air and push off another wall, spinning, regaining my bearings, stabbing at him, falling backward as he blocks and pushes me back, he’s so close and the beautiful edge of that sword is near my cheek I’m going to kill him so I kick his face, flipping over and launching myself above his head backwards to land facing him as I resheathe my sword again, he isn’t waiting but he’s back in his first stance, which I meet with Battoujutsu and break his sword, so now we’ll see who’s going to die I’m going to kill him he’s charging again the fool without a weapon block the broken hilt he throws at me blood from my left hand pain in my sword-hand his belt? sword falls to the left blows all over my chest and stomach behind me damn him jacket? can’t breathe can’t pry the thing off choking slam iron sheath into his chin jump tear away the jacket smells like cigarettes crouching panting going to kill him those eyes kill him love those eyes ready for the next stand kill he’s aiming kill this is the end

Stop!!

***

He’d never deluded himself into thinking he would walk into that dojo and make an impartial judgment of Himura’s level of strength, but he hadn’t expected it to go quite as far as it did. The moment he’d started to fight, all surroundings had shattered and they’d been lost in a void of heat and movement and the desire for one another’s death that was far from any era but farthest from the Meiji. And on his part, it was weakness. He couldn’t speak for Himura, but that battle was exactly what Saitou had been wanting for years — to be able to fight with abandon and still be in danger of his life. He’d experienced nothing so thrilling since the Bakumatsu — not in the Boshin wars and certainly not during his time with the police, even as a spy. But it was weakness. He was not here to sate his long-repressed desire, but rather to test the former Battousai’s strength for more important matters. And he’d given in.

And yet he couldn’t regret it.

He’d shown them — shown them all — what Himura was really like — shown that boy. That boy that thought he knew Himura so well, that was stupid enough to think his foolish existence was sufficient to feed the fire of a hitokiri’s soul. Certainly Saitou had proven him wrong on both counts. Although why he felt so triumphant at the thought of having done so, he did not know. As if he cared what kinds of playmates Himura sought out these days.

As if he’d ever cared.

He wasn’t paying attention to the conversation going on around him; he’d barely even noticed the other woman was there in the room, didn’t know when she’d entered. He was concentrating dually on the presence outside the window and his own thoughts. As he felt more than heard Akamatsu slip away, presumably to run to Shibumi with his whipped tail between his legs and his ears down (although hadn’t Saitou just finished saying Akamatsu could never be strong enough to merit the canine title?), the room came back into focus. He hadn’t realized his unseeing eyes had been directed at the boy Sagara the entire time, but apparently they had. He wondered how long Sagara had been staring back at him the way he was now.

“Hmph.” He made the noise only to draw attention to himself as he bent and retrieved his jacket. Slinging the latter over his shoulder, he directed his following statement at Himura: “I’d love to stay and play, but I have real work to do. We’ll finish this some other time.”

“Your life has been spared,” Himura replied in that even, emotionless tone Saitou remembered so well.

“Rather, yours has,” Saitou replied with a smirk. These were the typical words of men whose battle has been prematurely terminated: meaningless noise. Only in actual combat could such things be determined. He continued toward the door.

“Saitou!”

Kawaji. Saitou probably wouldn’t hate him so much tomorrow as he did now; at the moment he was still reeling internally from the abrupt withdrawal of his battle-drug that Kawaji’s voice had caused, despising his short employer for dragging him back into this era that he loathed. He paused, resisting the urge to say something pointless and nasty to the little man, and decided what he would say. Halting thus put Sagara immediately to his right, and before answering Kawaji’s stern demand he turned his head briefly in that direction to give the boy a glance that if he’d ever told Sagara anything would have been an ‘I told you so.’ “Mission report,” he finally stated succinctly: “Himura Kenshin is worthless. Himura Battousai may suffice. End report.” And he stalked out the door.

Oddly enough, as he walked away, replacing and buttoning his jacket and wiping the blood from his face with gloves he then folded and put in his pocket, he couldn’t quite decide whether he’d succeeded or not. Obviously he’d done what he’d been assigned to do — tested Himura’s strength and determined whether or not the former assassin was suitable for the task Ookubo wanted to set him at — but as for his own personal goals… he couldn’t be sure whether he’d met them or not, as he wasn’t entirely certain he even knew what they had been.

Chapter 4 – The Beginnings(?) of Distraction

Sano was about ready to go into a rage and start throwing things. Every last little aspect of this situation made him nervous and unhappy, and his anger, as a response, was phenomenal. The only thing stopping him was the reflection that his shoulder, which already hurt like hell, would not stand for it.

What had that look been for? Any of those looks? Why had Saitou been looking at Sano anyway, if the bastard was so fixated on stabbing Kenshin to death? On taking Kenshin away…? (Sano was determinedly focusing all his anger on Saitou so as not to have to think about Kenshin at all.) Was Saitou maybe trying to rub in the fact that Sano didn’t understand his eyes and whatever that nameless-but-familiar thing in them was trying to tell him? Yeah, that’d be a great reason to stare at someone like they’re your next meal.

And just who the hell was Saitou, anyway?? Working for Ookubo and Kawaji and crap explained a couple of things, but not why the jerk had stabbed Sano through the shoulder or fucking kissed him. He doubted that had been part of Saitou’s mission briefing. Then Saitou’s whole demeanor, Sano thought, had been this understated cry of check-me-out-I-may-be-a-freak-but-I-can-kick-Battousai’s-ass-I-am-so-cool, right down to the casual way he’d strolled out the door after informing Kenshin he’d be dealing with him later, then looked straight at Sano with that… that… that look. That look saying who-fucking-knew-what. Was it, See how great I am? Or I’ll be dealing with you later, too? Or…

Wait…

Sano felt the blood drain from his face at his new thought. Was that what Saitou wanted? In other words, was he what Saitou wanted? That would explain why Saitou had obviously intended to kill Kenshin rather than just test him as Ookubo and Kawaji insisted had been the original idea… That would explain why Saitou had kissed Sano… That would explain the looks, probably… That would… not explain “What does he see in you?”

I am so fucking confused…

A sudden movement startled him into looking at Kenshin again, against his inclination, as his lover abruptly punched himself in the face, and it took Sano actual willpower not to step back in surprise. He just didn’t want to think about…

“I am not the only one involved in this,” Kenshin said darkly as he raised his bloody face. “We will all hear what you have to say.”

“…sessha hitori dewa gozaran…”

A wave of heat ran through Sano at the sound of the words, and he stopped breathing entirely. No, he hadn’t been thinking about Kenshin, but in reality… he’d been thinking quite a bit about Kenshin. And now it was like a physical sensation, the relief he felt at knowing that Kenshin, his Kenshin, had returned. From the sharp intake of breath at his side, Kaoru had evidently noticed as well… but she, not being in love with the confusing redhead, couldn’t possibly feel it the way Sano did. “Megumi-san?” she requested in a tone that, despite the tension of the scene, was almost calm. Sano wouldn’t have been able to say anything calmly even if he’d wanted to try.

Megumi nodded and hurried over to Kenshin. One look and with a shake of her head she said, “Come over here and sit down. This will take a minute.”

“Yahiko, will you find cushions for everyone?” Kaoru said.

Sano was barely paying attention to the sudden air of business that had filled the room; he stepped after Kenshin as the latter went to have his wounds tended, knowing this interval would not be long and soon Ookubo would be saying what he’d come to say. And in that time, Sano wanted to — needed, actually, to hear Kenshin’s voice again, talking just to him. He told himself it didn’t matter what that voice was saying as long as it was speaking and it was his Kenshin, but he wasn’t sure at all if that was true.

***

It had all been a test, of course. There was no deep, mysterious motive behind Saitou’s behavior; he was following orders as usual, presumably for some good cause, probably something fair and rational Kenshin would hear about in a minute or two, something in the pursuit of the destruction of evil. Yes, it all made sense now. Kenshin laid it out carefully in his mind thus:

Saitou had been assigned to seek Kenshin out. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have, as he would have had no reason to do so. Saitou had a few points to make as part of this assignment, but no emotional involvement in any of them — the points were related to whatever Ookubo and Kawaji wanted to use Kenshin for, undoubtedly something unpleasant and difficult. Saitou had striven to prove that Kenshin’s friends were weak and he couldn’t protect them, that Kenshin himself was too trusting and easygoing. Was too different from the way he had been. Yes, Saitou had worked very hard to demonstrate that. And even if the old days had jumped up around them as they fought, that was just a natural result of such a battle — it was still merely part of the test, the assignment. Everything had been; it made sense.

And then from the end of the battle until the moment he’d left the dojo, Saitou had looked at nothing… but… Sano…

And all of Kenshin’s neatly-organized reasoning was blown away, as if each step in the process were written on a slip of paper on the floor and the door had suddenly been opened.

It meant nothing.

It proved nothing.

It said nothing to either of them.

Didn’t it?

Or had it meant something to Sano?

It almost seemed like it had.

Saitou hadn’t appeared threatening, particularly. Smug, perhaps, and calculating — Kenshin hadn’t been able to read him. Had Sano? Why would Saitou look at Sano like that anyway? Kenshin was trying so hard to believe the only thing going through Saitou’s head was the assignment, the duty in the name of justice. So why, when Kenshin had been the one at whom were aimed the cutting words, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve become” — words obviously meant to goad him into anger so Saitou could fight him and carry out that same duty — why did Saitou stare at Sano?

It wasn’t that Kenshin cared whether or not Saitou could stand it; it was just that the statement did seem to indicate Kenshin was the focus of this drama. Why should Sano be a target? Especially when it had already been proven that Sano was weaker than both of them and therefore a relatively easy one? Saitou didn’t know, and therefore could hardly have any grudge against or interest in Sano… as far as Kenshin could see, Sano’s part in all of these dealings had ended the moment he hit the dojo floor the day Saitou attacked him. Why would Saitou have been staring at him??

Kenshin was jolted into awareness of a question perhaps even more important by a hand on his shoulder that was not Megumi’s: Why, if he was so very worried about his lover, had he forgotten entirely Sano was there, sitting beside him?

***

As far as Saitou knew (and he knew rather a lot, as when he’d become a spy for Kawaji he’d gained access to all sorts of new information sources), Himura, a disturbingly young man wielding a legendary kenjutsu style whose actual existence many doubted, had shown up out of nowhere in 1863 in Choushu’s Kiheitai and become an assassin at Katsura Kogorou’s request for the specific purpose of using his skills to help build a new era in which the weak would no longer suffer.

Perhaps some would object to such a portrait of one that killed in the shadows for a revolutionary group, but from the few existing accounts of those that had known him at the time, it was undoubtedly true. Not that Saitou needed any such proof: it had been evident to him from the first time he’d crossed blades with the hitokiri Battousai. Well, perhaps the particulars of Himura’s morale hadn’t been evident: there was no way he could have read something so complex in another’s eyes alone. But what was obvious was conviction, whole-hearted devotion to a well-understood cause — and that was admirable in and of itself. The accounts Saitou heard later regarding what, more exactly, Battousai believed had only strengthened his respect for his one-time enemy. Clearly Himura Kenshin, during the Bakumatsu at least, had been fighting for the good of Japan and its people using all his strength of body and will.

And what was he now?

Saitou didn’t like to admit how often he’d wondered, during the past ten years, just what had happened to Himura at the commencement of the Meiji era. It was nothing unnatural to wonder, of course, about the fate of someone so interesting to so many, but after the first couple of years the curiosity really should have faded just as it had about the other few that had captured his interest during the war. What was there about Himura, after all, so much more intriguing than about any other young warrior from those days that fought with conviction and spirit? Well, other than that Himura could battle Saitou evenly and most of the rest hadn’t even come close?

At least that was still true of him, if nothing else was.

The first report, given by the unflagging spy he’d set to watch Himura from the moment the former Battousai set foot in Tokyo, had been a surprise. Subsequent reports had been dismaying. Actually, Saitou had not really believed them. The man these accounts represented was sloppy, passive, acquiescent — it could not be the same he had known. But now he had no choice but to believe. Now he’d been informed definitively that ten years was enough time to change someone completely. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much.

But was it really a change? Had Himura really transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, or was this rurouni merely an aggravating and hopefully temporary façade? Did Saitou hope, as it really seemed he did despite the indifference he continually declared to himself, that the latter was true? Presumably the answer to these questions would not be long in coming to light.

Saitou assumed the reason he cared was because there were so few people left that he’d known at all during the war, even fewer he’d respected, and he would like to understand what had happened to this one — whether he could continue to respect him, or whether he would be forced to add him to the ever-growing ranks of those he utterly scorned, on which he was often tempted simply to list ‘mankind as a whole’ and be done with it. But even given that sort of understandable curiosity, this kind of musing seemed slightly… no, no, it wasn’t worth that title. He liked to see, to know and understand what was going on around him, down to minor details, but that didn’t make him obsessive. Really, it was just the week thing that was bothering him.

Either Himura was still, underneath the fluffy exterior of this ridiculous decade, the precise and steadfast warrior he had once been; or he was, in spite of the strength of purpose with which he’d once burned, truly a lost and faded soul doomed to die some obscure death unworthy of his former status. The offer of a week to such a man was pointless.

The hitokiri would not need a week to accept the task.

The rurouni could take a year and still be coming up with excuses not to go.

And Saitou should not care so damned much either way. Why should those seven days seem like such a long time to wait?

Chapter 5 – Other Beginnings

The next few days were not pleasant.

Kaoru was in a bad mood in general due to recent events, and therefore when Megumi came over the two of them fought more than ever. Not that Megumi was in a particularly good mood herself. Yahiko had been pestering Sano ever since that day to give him the details of his relationship with Kenshin, about which the kid hadn’t known until Saitou’d had to go and refer to Sano as Kenshin’s lover in front of him. And Yahiko was too young to hear details like that, but too persistent to let the subject drop. And as for Kenshin… Kenshin was spending a lot of solitary time, among chores and shopping trips, in his secluded bamboo practice-hole.

He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want Sano around, but Sano, with all the willful irritation an insecure lover can muster, assumed. And as his shoulder still hurt, he spent most of his own time lying around in Kenshin’s room or just outside it, dozing or thinking. Mostly thinking. Kaoru, who hated it when Sano stayed at the dojo for extended periods of time and seemed in her annoyance to have forgotten he was still wounded, presumed him sleeping — and truly he would have preferred to be. He abhorred trying to work things out in his head, because they only seemed to get more twisted, and as he got deeper and deeper inside his own confused mind he just got more and more angry.

If there was anything worse than the confusion, it was this tense monotony. Kenshin made no sign, whenever he returned from his meditative outings, that he’d chosen one way or another. Sano didn’t care what Kenshin chose, as long as Kenshin was still Kenshin, but he would have liked to know what was going on under that red-thatched roof. Not knowing was surely as bad as whatever Kenshin eventually decided.

And he still had another four days of this to deal with.

Rather than in or near Kenshin’s room as he mostly had been for the last seventy-two hours, he was lying now on the front porch of the dojo. Actually, it seemed he’d gravitated slowly in that direction from day to day, or even nap to nap. It took him a while to notice, and when he did, he sat up and stared. He didn’t like to think he was drawn toward the as-yet-unpatched hole in the wall, but that was where he seemed to have stopped.

And he knew why he’d awakened, this time: he felt something. He didn’t always know what people were about to do the way Kenshin did, but he damn well knew when there was an enemy hanging around outside the dojo walls. He jumped up, ignoring the pain the action occasioned, and crossed the yard. He flung open the doors with a scowl and one clenched fist, and stopped short.

Any enemy but this he had been ready for. Now he didn’t know what to do.

***

Kenshin hadn’t been able to decide whether to walk up to Saitou and ask what he wanted, or to ignore him and enter the yard a different way. The choice was taken out of his hands, however, when Sano burst out the front doors ready to do battle and stopped short when he saw who his enemy was.

“Calm down, boy; I’m not here to see you.” Saitou sounded unexpectedly amused. Kenshin would have liked to see his face, but if he moved any closer Saitou would certainly realize he was there. Perhaps he already knew.

“You weren’t the first time either.” Sano, on the other hand, sounded agitated — and for good reason, Kenshin supposed. He could feel his lover shifting into a more solid combative stance.

“Is it my fault you spend your entire life lying around on someone else’s porch?” The sound of a match striking accompanied this question: Saitou remained casual.

“Shut up!” Sano growled. “Just tell me what you’re doing here!”

“You are aware that shutting up and telling you anything are mutually exclusive?”

“Tell me what you fucking want before I kick your ass!” Sano was becoming more and more angry and disturbed; he probably thought Saitou once again had some violent intention here at the dojo. Kenshin knew better: if Saitou intended violence, he would already have carried it out and would not be wasting time talking with Sano. Still, Kenshin couldn’t help being a little worried. Why was Saitou talking with Sano like this, casually but for Sano’s high level of tension?

“Indeed, what do I want?”

“What are you staring at, you psychopath?” Kenshin was startled at this demand, brows lowering at its implications. Saitou seemed to stare at Sano quite a bit, and if that meant what he thought it might… The idea bothered him, more than he would guess it should. “Hey, cut it the hell out! Like I’m some shunga or something…” Sano obviously didn’t much like the attention either. Kenshin found himself thinking at the same moment both that he should be relieved at this and that to feel so would be an insult to his lover.

He felt similarly about Saitou’s scorn-laden reply: “What makes you think you look that good?”

Now Sano was angry again, and, although the uncertainty wasn’t entirely gone from his voice, it had diminished quite a bit. “All right, just why the fuck are you here?”

“To talk to Himura, if you must know,” Saitou answered easily, adding, “though it’s hardly any of your business.”

“Listen up, bastard: it is my business if it has to do with Kenshin!” Here was Sano’s typical tone of righteous indignation, but with an added depth to it of whose nature Kenshin could not quite be sure.

“Is it really?” Had Saitou picked up on that extra edge to the tone as well, and understood it better than Kenshin had? He seemed to know exactly what to say to render Sano speechless. And that question… Kenshin didn’t like this. Not at all. What did Saitou think he knew? No, what did Saitou know, that he could use to make Sano so uncomfortable with just a few words? Actually, Kenshin had his guesses… and he didn’t want to think about them.

He moved forward, stepping around the corner. “What do you want, Saitou?”

Saitou was already looking in his direction. “Are you going to Kyoto?” he asked.

“Thought your part in that shit was just trying to kill everyone.” Sano, who had obviously found his voice again, moved to stand next to Kenshin even as Kenshin took his stolid place before the open door.

“Then you have been misinformed on several counts.” Saitou did not even remove his eyes from Kenshin as he said this, almost as if Sano’s presence didn’t matter anymore.

“Ookubo isn’t expecting my reply for two more days,” Kenshin said calmly.

“I’m asking now, out of curiosity,” Saitou returned just as calmly. There was no challenge in his words.

“I have not made my decision yet,” Kenshin said after a moment, not pleased with how much he found himself inexplicably shaken by the question. Why did Saitou want to know? Surely, as Sano said, his involvement in the whole affair was over?

Saitou frowned. “Putting it off, are you?”

Kenshin disliked the heavy scorn in the tall man’s voice. “No,” he replied firmly, “debating possibilities.”

Saitou stared down at him wordlessly, and Kenshin wondered, not for the first time, what was going on behind those metallic eyes. He would instantly have been able to tell if Saitou intended something other than standing there levelly meeting his gaze, but as to what the wolf was thinking… Finally with a sneer, Saitou took a drag on his cigarette and turned.

Sano let out an angry breath as the police officer began to walk away. “What the hell are you so worried about?!” he shouted after Saitou a moment later. “Bastard, like it has anything to do with you!” His volume was fading as he added, “Like Kenshin won’t do the right thing…”

Kenshin looked at him in surprise. “Sano…”

“Sorry,” Sano grumbled. “I just can’t stand him looking at you like that. Who does he fucking think he is?”

How was it Sano could assign any interpretation to that unreadable expression? Let alone that interpretation? And then, if Sano was so angry, why didn’t he act as he usually did and try to fight Saitou? Kenshin didn’t think for one moment Sano was learning any self-preserving restraint… perhaps the younger man saw something else in Saitou that Kenshin could not? The thought was unaccountably disturbing. “Come inside,” Kenshin urged, taking Sano’s hand and moving through the doorway, away from Saitou and the mystery he presented.

Because it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter what Saitou was thinking or feeling, or who knew about it or how they knew.

It just wasn’t important.

***

Ookubo’s murder was not much of a surprise to Saitou. He wasn’t exactly thrilled it had happened, but couldn’t exactly say he hadn’t seen it coming some time in the indefinite future, either — especially given the way Ookubo liked to run around without an escort of any kind. No, not much of a surprise.

He wasn’t thrilled… it was terrible news… he wished he could have prevented it… but he wasn’t torn to pieces over it either. Because he hadn’t seen that look in Himura’s eyes — that absolute determination fueled by some flame within that could not be extinguished — in a number of years he didn’t like to count… and it was the knowledge Ookubo had been assassinated by some agent of Shishio’s that had inspired it. Whether Himura’s mind had been changed at the last moment or his resolve merely strengthened, the former Battousai was going to Kyoto.

Himura’s little troupe of friends, though… that was a different story. Saitou had no idea whether Himura had really understood his demonstration or not. And even if the point had gotten across to him, it was too much to hope that the headstrong Sagara would remain in Tokyo, regardless of what Himura chose to do. The other fools were mostly directionless without Himura around, so Saitou didn’t worry as much about them, but Sagara was likely to be a problem. A problem Saitou was almost looking forward to taking care of, although he didn’t quite know why. Probably because the boy was irritating.

The best way to find out how Himura planned to deal with those friends of his was to keep a close eye on him until the rurouni left the city, and as Saitou had very little business remaining in Tokyo at the moment, he could easily make that his first priority. Therefore, as soon as he could get away from Kawaji, he discreetly made his way to the Kamiya dojo to find out what he wanted to know.

Chapter 6 – Fallout

Kenshin had been gone all day.

It seemed so cold out. Unseasonable. Sano frowned.

It couldn’t take this long, could it? Unless… but, yeah, right. Seriously, Kenshin certainly wasn’t going to accept this stupid assignment. So all he would have needed to do was find Ookubo and explain he wasn’t going. Couldn’t take more than a couple hours at the most, no matter how much the old guy argued. Kenshin should have been back long before this.

It wasn’t really actually all that cold out, now he thought about it. It just felt that way, a little bit. He went inside, into Kenshin’s room, and sat down, staring at the door.

All right, so maybe he was worried. Kenshin and his damned sense of responsibility… As if this Shishio thing were his fault in any way, shape, or form. As if he had any obligation whatsoever to go to Kyoto and clean up the damn government’s mess.

But, no. There was just no way. Because, no matter how Kenshin felt about the issue, the thing involved killing, and that wasn’t Kenshin. Not anymore. And Kenshin would never, never go back to those days.

Not even with some guy around who seemed to want to pull him back. Some guy with really haunting eyes and…

Sano got up and left the room again. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking; it wasn’t cold, it was hot. And it was way too stuffy in there. He sat outside on the porch and stared absently into the twilight.

But what if…

No way.

He clenched a fist and slammed it down into the wood beneath him. He would really love to continue reassuring himself that his rurouni wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t keep up lying to himself much longer. Because in the last little while he’d come to realize just how much he didn’t know about Kenshin and just how likely it was he could be mistaken about his lover’s intentions and, more frighteningly, the effect that the past could have on the former assassin. The truth was that he just didn’t know what conclusion had been the end of Kenshin’s week’s musings. Kenshin hadn’t confided in him, not even with the smallest hint.

It hurt, and he wasn’t reluctant to admit it. But even worse was this inescapable fear. Something important like this, and Kenshin didn’t say one word of his thoughts or plans to his lover… It made Sano wonder… how much did he really mean to Kenshin? Before this thing had started, he’d really been beginning to think Kenshin loved him. Would love him after not too long, at any rate. But now that he began to rethink the equation of Sano plus Kenshin, the answer was coming to something more like diversion than love — something useful that would take up time until Kenshin’s past came back to claim him. Until he

“Motherfucker, I am not gonna start thinking like that,” Sano growled, standing up abruptly. He went back into Kenshin’s room. The wind out here was a little chilly anyway.

He trusted Kenshin. He believed in Kenshin. He loved Kenshin. He didn’t sit around thinking stupid, traitorous, faithless, jealous, irrational thoughts about Kenshin.

But Kenshin had been gone all day.

Sano tensed abruptly as he heard footsteps outside. He was up and bounding toward the door in an instant, but before his hand reached it he realized it couldn’t be Kenshin. Too much weight, too much height. For all Kenshin sometimes looked and sounded really girly, he didn’t walk like a woman. Certainly not one that tall. Megumi, Sano guessed, coming to gossip with Kaoru.

To his credit, he didn’t go straight to sleep after he’d unrolled Kenshin’s futon and thrown himself down onto it — he lay around reflecting that love had to be more than just a word when the combination of uncertainty and an absent lover’s scent could make a heart hurt so desperately. Could drive someone that hadn’t cried in ten years so perilously close to tears.

***

It had taken him nearly an hour to come up with the words. Granted, that deliberation had been interspersed with contemplation on other subjects, so it might not have been such a lengthy process had he been undistracted. But even hearing the voice of the person that had murdered Ookubo had not taken his mind entirely from the difficult matter.

No matter what he said, it was going to upset Sano, so to choose what would hurt his lover least had been the dilemma. He hoped he’d gotten it right, but he wouldn’t know until he next saw Sano. And when that would be he did not know; he was on his way to Kyoto now, and had no idea how long he would remain there.

There hadn’t been anything he’d wanted to take with him: he’d spent what few yen he had on some food for the journey, and a decade as a wanderer had acclimated him to owning very little. Besides, Sano had been asleep in his bedroom, and although Kenshin could move as quietly as any spy, he just couldn’t risk his lover awakening. So he’d slid his note through the crack in the door and departed.

He was glad it was summer. He was taking any comfort he could get at this point, after all, and the thought of how much worse this would have been had it occurred in winter… well, it didn’t really do anything for him. But at some point it might.

The others, he felt sure, would forgive him. Kaoru and Megumi had each other, whether they knew it or not (and he was fairly certain they still thought of each other only as fellow members of the Women-Kenshin-Doesn’t-Want Club); and though they might be outraged at first, Megumi’s sense and Kaoru’s activity would soon help them both recover. And Yahiko admired him too blindly to be angry at him for long. Beyond that, even if they all understood he’d left alone for their protection, they would not hold it against him.

Sano, on the other hand…

Kenshin wouldn’t really want Sano calmly to accept that he wasn’t strong enough to accompany the rurouni on this dangerous venture; that just wouldn’t be Sano, and so compliant a lover would not appeal to Kenshin. But the concept was going to hurt him more than Kenshin could bear to consider. It was too much to hope Sano wouldn’t eventually figure it out, too (and, once again, Kenshin wouldn’t really want him not to), although the note certainly hadn’t elaborated on it; he could only hope Sano would not hate him for it.

His footsteps seemed difficult, somehow, as if the very act of walking had become a chore. He had to smile a little, wryly, at his predicament in general: he’d left his friends and lover, hurt them, in order to accept the request of a murdered man to do something he didn’t want to do and had, in fact, sworn he would never do again. And where was the benefit?

Well, certainly he would be aiding the country, fulfilling his own sense of responsibility, doing in part what he had dedicated himself to doing when he took up his sakabatou — and that had to be enough. But he didn’t feel it. And the thought that there might be one or two other rewards, which he probably didn’t want any more than he wanted the assignment in the first place, was vaguely disturbing. No, he didn’t even want to think about that… but the alternative was thinking about Sano, and there was too much heartache associated with those thoughts. So what could he think about, on this long and lonely walk?

The weather was always a good topic.

He reflected, most steadfastly, that it would have been a much finer day out if this chilly wind would stop.

***

Saitou was now even more curious than before, and it annoyed him because he’d rather not be curious at all. He just couldn’t help wondering what Sagara’s response to Himura’s note would be — not to mention what that note said — and it irritated him that he cared so much. He could probably have rationalized that he needed to know what message Himura had left and see first-hand the boy’s reaction to it the better to plan what he should do and say to keep Sagara from following Battousai all over creation… but the fact was simply that he was curious, and he wasn’t bothering to deny it.

The problem, for all of that, was that he really had no desire to sit around outside the dojo waiting for Sagara to wake up and find Himura’s message. And the problem with that was that he had nothing better to do. Dealing with Himura’s stubborn lover was Saitou’s final task in Tokyo, after all. But though he wanted to make sure he did it right, he didn’t want to waste much time on it. Still, he didn’t think walking into Himura’s bedroom and kicking Sagara awake in order to tell him he couldn’t go to Kyoto would be quite as effective as waiting and holding a slightly more conventional conversation with the boy. So he waited.

All night.

After this Shishio thing was over, he was going to sleep for a week.

The Kamiya girl and the child were up long before Sagara ever stirred, and even the doctor woman found her way to the dojo relatively early. As Himura hadn’t spoken to any of them the previous evening, they were all anxious to know the outcome of yesterday’s events, and kept walking past Himura’s bedroom door apparently in the hopes someone would emerge from it if they made enough noise…

Kenshin usually doesn’t sleep this late, but maybe he had a rough night, or maybe Sanosuke kept him up, giggle giggle, or maybe he isn’t in there at all, but someone’s obviously in there, it might be Sanosuke, should we knock? that would be too rude, but what if we were bringing him breakfast? maybe he’s thinking and doesn’t want to be disturbed, he does that sometimes, what do you think he said? and so on and on and on. How did Himura stand them?

Saitou was getting impatient. After battle or a long stint without rest it would make sense, but how could any ordinary person sleep this late? Especially in the middle of something this important to him? Granted, Saitou couldn’t exactly think of Sagara as an ordinary person anymore… the kid was strong and beautiful enough to have caught Himura’s attention, although whether that could possibly be anything more than a purely sexual relationship Saitou doubted. Still, how could the boy sleep so long??

There was always the possibility that Sagara had already awakened and read the thing and was sitting in there considering it or something, but Saitou was counting on an initial reaction explosive enough not to miss. Thoughtfulness didn’t really fit with what he’d seen of Sagara so far, let alone the reports he’d been given before that.

He was partially correct. Around noon Sagara finally appeared, flinging the door open so hard it bounced and sprang from its track and fell askew. In the boy’s free hand was clenched, crumpled, what must be Himura’s note, but the expression on his face was not what Saitou had expected. There was anger in it, and some pain, yes, but more than that some kind of confused look neither pleased nor unhappy. What did that damned note say?

This was very irritating. Saitou had sat around all night waiting for an entertainment, not for the stupid boy to be completely ignorant of what he was feeling. And now the officer had to go talk to him like that… Sagara was really an idiot. It was vaguely disappointing to think Himura had such poor taste — but then, as before, it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement for which he could more easily be forgiven; the physical attraction, after all, Saitou could readily understand (although when he’d come to that conclusion he wasn’t quite sure).

In bursting from the room, Sagara had startled the passing doctor woman into screaming, which in turn had brought the Kamiya girl running outside, but the kenkaya pushed past them both without a word as if he were only half conscious of their presence.

“Sanosuke!” they both protested, but, seeing they were being ignored, turned in synchronization toward Himura’s room. The boy, who’d obviously seen them after all and evidently knew they would seek answers from him when they found the chamber empty, took off at a run the moment their backs were to him, and was out the main doors of the dojo before they’d turned again.

Saitou followed, determined to have his questions answered and the remainder of his Tokyo duties carried out within the hour.

Chapter 7 – Confrontation, Confession

He wanted to tear the damn thing up, wanted to burn it, wanted to throw it in the river where the ink would bleed away and the paper would wash downstream out of his sight forever. And he wanted to keep squeezing it and never let go, wanted to take a needle and sew it into the skin just above his heart, wanted to frame it and hang it somewhere where he’d see it every day when he awoke. He wanted to kiss it, but he was afraid in doing so he might rip it to shreds with his teeth. He wanted to grind it into the dust with his heel and walk away, but he knew he would only turn around and pick it up and hug it and apologize to it, and then it would be difficult to get the dirt off.

He wanted to stop being ridiculous, but he really had no choice.

He had no idea what he was thinking or feeling, or where he was going or what he was planning. He was so angry, he wanted to track Kenshin down and punch him in the face. Or shake the little guy and demand just why the hell he’d thought Sano needed to suffer like this. He was so happy, he wanted to fly after Kenshin and kiss him halfway to death. Or talk to him, tell him everything, anything he could think of, all his secrets and stories and thoughts and ambitions and anything, just because he wanted to share himself. Tell him he loved him. But not until after he hit him, to let him know how much he was hurting. Or kissed him, to let him know how much he missed him already.

All right, so he did have some idea what he was thinking and feeling and where he was going and what he was planning. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wasn’t staying here. He was going to Kyoto. But what he would say to his lover once he found him… about that he really had no idea.

To Kyoto… He would need traveling food, and that meant money. And since he’d just annoyed Kaoru and Megumi, no way was he going back to the dojo or to the clinic. Besides, they would want to know how he knew Kenshin was gone, and that would bring up the note, and then they’d demand he tell them what it said, and then they would be the ones annoying him, and they’d probably want to go with, and… no, that just wasn’t an option. He would never, never, never show that horrible note to another living soul. It was the treasure of his heart, and not for anyone else’s eyes.

Katsu was his best option. Katsu would lend (give) him money without asking questions. Well, Katsu probably wouldn’t need to ask questions. Ever since he’d started the whole newspaper thing, he knew everything, and he would probably take one look at Sano and say, “You’re going to Kyoto after Himura, aren’t you? Do you need money?”

The problem was that Sano had been walking randomly through town without looking where he was going, and was now far from Katsu’s apartment. And although it would be quicker just to keep on the way he was going and leave the city right now, he knew he shouldn’t depart without some supplies. He forced himself to stop and consider. Trekking all the way to Katsu’s apartment before heading out would make visiting his own only a small detour, so there was no excuse not to pack a couple of things. He could still be out of here in a couple of hours, which amount of time couldn’t possibly make any real difference except to his impatient mind. So that’s what he would do. He turned, pleased with himself for being reasonable.

“Shit!” This wasn’t really in response to anything specific, just an exclamation of surprise at finding he was not alone. “Fucker!” This one was aimed more specifically. “How long’ve you been following me?”

“Longer than anyone should be able to follow someone else without being noticed,” Saitou replied dryly. “But I suppose the usual rules of attentiveness and sense don’t apply to you, do they?”

“Shut the hell up. What do you want this time? Shouldn’t you be off to Kyoto anyway? Got big murder plans and shit to take care of, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve already explained that if I shut up I can’t answer your questions. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

Sano growled, clenching the paper in his hand more tightly. “You think this is all going great, don’t you? You think everything’s worked out just exactly how you wanted it.”

Saitou nodded once, smiling slightly, but Sano could see the heavy scorn in his eyes. What emotion was Saitou repressing that he had to… well, Sano shouldn’t really try to figure that kind of thing out. First of all, he could have been wrong with that hypothesis he’d made back in the dojo a week ago and now be looking for something that wasn’t there. Secondly, he didn’t want to stand here staring into Saitou’s eyes puzzling over scorn and repression when Kenshin was somewhere waiting to be punched in the face and kissed half to death. Third, he hated Saitou anyway, so what the hell did he care how scornful the bastard was?

But the half smirk was beginning to enrage him, so he finally growled out, “Listen to me, you freaky-eyed jerk: no matter what you think, just ’cause Kenshin’s going to Kyoto doesn’t mean he’s gonna kill anyone.”

“I suppose you’re going to stop him.” Saitou’s tone was still threateningly casual, but he wasn’t fooling Sano.

“No, dumbass, he doesn’t need anyone to stop him! He’s strong enough to keep his own promises.” Except for the one about not wandering off without me, an unexpected infidel thought interjected.

“Promises? He promised you he wouldn’t kill Shishio?”

Sano didn’t quite know what to make of this question. “He didn’t have to… I already knew… that’s just how he lives…”

Saitou’s smirk grew. “So you have nothing to hold him to.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he was even still standing here discussing this kind of topic with this kind of man… maybe it was because he couldn’t bear anyone speaking badly of Kenshin, or maybe just because Saitou seemed to be playing off his own specific worries and Sano wasn’t going to take it. Either way, he demanded angrily, “Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time? Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about shit like that, would you?”

The older man was contemplating him now with undisguised disdain, and what did it mean? “And if the rurouni you know is only a hiatus, a step out of his regular lifestyle?”

Sano glared, but truthfully, when this was exactly what he’d been worrying about lately, Saitou’s bringing it up did more to frighten than anger him. “But for me–” he began, but Saitou interrupted him:

“What makes you think you’re worth a second thought when it comes to what direction he decides his life is going?”

It stung about twice as much as Sano would have expected. Illogical as it was, he didn’t think it could have hurt all that much more even if Kenshin himself had said it. But at the same time, it infuriated him to the point where he wasn’t even sure what he did next. It felt as if he was trying to punch Saitou, but he found after a moment that he’d shoved Kenshin’s note into the other man’s face. “That fucking does,” he growled. “Read it, asshole, and just try to say that again.”

Saitou took the crumpled message between two fingers, smoothed it halfway out with two more, and scanned it briefly before handing it back. “Ahou.”

Sano snatched it, bristling. “What?!”

“You let a few words on a piece of paper blind you… you really can’t see the reason he left you behind, can you?”

“He said it right there, dipshit,” Sano retorted. But this entire conversation was leaving him with a dreadful sinking feeling, as if there were a lot of things out of his control and Saitou knew it.

With a short, derisive laugh Saitou replied, “Even if he hasn’t abandoned you in order to return to the way he once was without your interference, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you around because you’re a liability to him.”

Sano stared, dumbstruck. He was a… But Saitou couldn’t possibly… But it made sense… And Kenshin would never say something like that, might even say something else to lead Sano away from the idea…

As Sano stood stunned, Saitou continued. “The first rule in any fight is to know your opponent’s weak points. If you were to go to Kyoto, Shishio would immediately find a way to use you. Battousai knows he can’t protect you; I showed him that. That’s why he left you here.”

The scales were tipping heavily toward punching Kenshin rather than kissing him, although at the moment Sano could do nothing but stand perfectly still waiting for the first wave of pain to subside. He wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, only Kenshin’s face and the question of how he felt about it. But as things began slowly to come into focus around him, it was extremely irritating to find Saitou still standing there, silent and staring. He frowned, and in a sudden movement pushed past the other man and started walking swiftly away.

“Where are you going?” Saitou asked.

“Where do you think I’m going, bastard?” Sano stopped and glanced back; Saitou had not moved. “I’m going to Kyoto to hit Kenshin. Got a problem with that?”

“Kyoto is the other way,” Saitou replied mildly, walking toward Sano with calm purpose. “And, yes, I do have a problem with it. I can’t have an amateur like you underfoot; this is too important for you to get in the way.”

Sano turned to face Saitou, eyes blazing with the rage these words had awakened. “I’ve had about enough of you,” he snarled. “I’m going to Kyoto whether you like it or not!” And he hurled himself at his enemy to prove his point with his fists.

But Saitou dodged the blow, and, in a movement that seemed to indicate he’d been ready to fight all along despite his casual demeanor, slammed his own gloved fist into Sano’s exposed underarm, seized the wrist that sailed past him, and used the intended strike’s momentum to throw Sano dizzyingly to the ground.

The disorientation of this move did not distract Sano from the agonizing sensation of barely-healed flesh ripping open and blood abruptly soaking the gi Kenshin had just washed and mended for him. By the time he hit the ground, though, the anger was blocking out any other pain — until Saitou’s heel ground down on his torn shoulder and pain took over again for a moment. Then anger regained the upper hand as the bastard stepped back and spoke. “You see how easily your weakness is used against you. Do what’s best for everyone and stay here.”

Sano staggered to his feet. The battle between anger and pain within him continued, but the unbeatable pain — the one that wasn’t physical — was returning with new force and threatening to overwhelm all. Weakness… Was he really…? He just… No, it seemed his rage still had a chance, as he felt it surge up again and break over him, sending him hurtling forward a second time. And even though Saitou was his target, some of the anger was directed at Kenshin, giving Sano new resolve.

Saitou blocked the punch with raised arms, and, although he skidded back, it didn’t seem to have affected his balance. Evidently, however, his composure was slowly wearing away. “What is this going to prove?” he wondered in obvious annoyance as Sano postured for combat. “Especially when I’ve already beaten you once?”

“You can’t say that,” Sano returned in a growl. “You didn’t fight fair.”

Saitou glowered. After a moment he reached down and lifted his sheathed sword out of its holster on his belt and tossed it aside. “You won’t have that excuse this time. If I use your own sorry way of fighting to beat you, you’ll see what your own limitations are whether you like it or not.”

“You’ll never make me think I’m anyone’s fucking weakness,” Sano replied as he charged. Although he wasn’t sure he believed it.

At the moment, much as he would like to do some serious damage to Saitou, what he really wanted was for the jerk to back off so he could go to Kyoto without any trouble. So all he needed was to prove he was stronger than Saitou thought, that he had some tricks (fair tricks!) up his sleeve that would ensure he was not a liability. So he showcased his new idea, one he’d actually formulated while watching Saitou fight Kenshin: he laid into the man with a seemingly endless barrage of tight punches, forcing Saitou to stay entirely on the defensive (if he didn’t want his ribs pummeled into his lungs) and never giving him a chance to get in a hit of his own. A messy technique, but effective.

Or so he’d thought. But he found, as he fell back slightly to observe the effects of the prolonged attack, that his blows didn’t seem to have connected. Saitou would have nicely bruised forearms from blocking them all, but that would be the sole damage. Sano could only stare.

Saitou’s smirk was heavy with contempt, but also rather irritated. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He lowered his arms, the sleeves over which were shredded from elbow to wrist, and indeed he did not seem to have taken a single hit. “You may be considered strong in your little Tokyo fighting circles, but the Kyoto we’re talking about is a different world. Compared to Battousai and me you’re nothing but a child.”

Sano’s fists clenched again, but the depth of his ire was not so great as it had been. It was appalling, the way Saitou said ‘Battousai.’ Sano had heard Kenshin’s enemies say the old assassin’s name before, and of course he’d heard Saitou speak it both to Kenshin and when discussing Kenshin with Sano… but when mentioning him so casually like this, it was different from anything Sano had ever heard. Especially given the context, it sounded so familiar, so knowledgeable… as if Saitou were infinitely accustomed to speaking that name as well as perfectly justified in passing judgment on that man.

“That’s not his name anymore,” Sano said tensely, trying not to seem illogically defensive. Saitou started to make some undoubtedly smart reply, but Sano immediately continued, loath to listen. “And even if he did decide to start killing people again, it still wouldn’t be his name because the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

A brief — barely momentary — flicker of contemplation passed through the yellow eyes before Saitou replied, “Even so, you’re nowhere near his level. Kyoto is no place for you.”

Sano’s only response was to ready himself to fight again.

“You don’t know when to give up,” Saitou remarked darkly, and attacked.

Sano gritted his teeth and struggled just to keep his balance as Saitou mimicked his move from a few moments before — copying it perfectly except that he connected nearly every time. It didn’t make any sense! The blows were the same speed, coming at Sano with the same strength, but he was lucky if he could block one out of four. What was the difference?

It didn’t take Saitou long to knock Sano to the ground again, this time with a painfully shocking hit to the jaw that wrenched his neck and sent paralyzing tremors through his entire body. Of course Sano immediately struggled to rise, but just at first he couldn’t find anything like balance.

“Do you understand yet?” Saitou was saying. “Even at your own game, you can’t win. Shishio is going to be playing something completely different; if you go, you’ll jeopardize the entire operation and be killed.”

Perhaps it was the mixture of determination and rage flooding him that helped Sano finally stand. Saitou looked annoyed as the former kenkaya steadied himself and declared, “I’m going to Kyoto.” His tone was surprisingly calm, the words far more level than any he’d yet used as he added, “No matter what you or anyone else says.”

Saitou frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Give up.” There was a chilling finality to the statement, and as he made it he took what looked like a gatotsu stance without a sword. “You can barely stay standing.” Sano returned the dour expression, silently still and challenging. “It doesn’t matter how stubbornly you keep this up; you’re still just an inexperienced child.”

This was not a blow Sano could afford to take, and he knew it, but not until the last possible moment did he see any way out of it. Then as Saitou’s fist was about to meet his face, he slammed his own fists together with Saitou’s arm between them, applying all the force he could without knocking himself over. And it worked: Saitou was stopped mid-charge, staring surprised at Sano. There was a long moment of silence during which a slow, dark, triumphant smile spread over Sano’s face. “This inexperienced child could break your arm right now,” he finally said. “What do you think of that?”

“Kisama…” Saitou, for the first time, really looked like he’d been thrown for a loop. And this helped Sano find the words he needed.

“You keep saying I’m nothing compared to you and Kenshin, but so what? You guys didn’t start out that strong, or get like that just overnight… you had a war and then ten years to practice and get better and crap. But that doesn’t mean everyone who hasn’t had that kind of experience is a weakling. I may have a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t at a pretty good place right now.”

Saitou’s expression had gone back to its usual sneer, but he made a frustrated sound. Sano thought he was going to say something, but instead the older man caught him unexpectedly with a right hook that knocked Sano away. “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed.”

“I am not gonna ‘get myself killed!'” Sano retorted, watching irately as Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Saitou looked over his shoulder. “A fool who thinks he’s strong and doesn’t know the first thing about defense isn’t going to survive long.”

Sano kept his eyes on Saitou’s back until the other man was out of sight, and he found he was trembling. Possibly with pain, but he doubted it, as that sensation was mostly forgotten. He found all he could think of was how he could get stronger and prove to that bastard he wasn’t some loser weakling. He didn’t even bother to wonder why it mattered so much that he prove this, why he cared what Saitou thought. He just had to; he just did. In that moment, there was nothing else in the world besides Saitou and Sano and something one of them really needed to learn.

After a while, of course, reality came trickling back, and Sano turned and headed toward Katsu’s place again. He felt a little tired now, although he hadn’t really expended all that much energy in the fight… it was the conversation, rather, that seemed to have drained him. He didn’t want to think about anything, not even how he was supposed to become stronger in so short a time; he just wanted to leave and start walking. He’d have to figure something out on the way.

***

He never really considered that it wasn’t quite natural for there to be two of them. It was just one of those things that seemed perfectly normal in the dream and wouldn’t strike him as odd until he awoke in the morning. That there were two was just another part of his trial anyway.

I’ll tell the locals they’re twins. And that I’m only married to one of them. Except that he was married to both of them, because they were the same woman but there were two of her.

But I don’t want either of them. The person I love is… somewhere else. It’s been a long time… So long he almost couldn’t remember who it was. And the women wanted him. Why is that? I killed their fiance… They should hate me. They both should. But, actually, he didn’t know yet that he’d killed their fiance. So why should they hate him?

Still, I can’t love them, obviously; all I want is to protect them. He didn’t much think about protecting people, usually; it was his job to kill, and although there was a philosophical, indirect sort of protection involved in that, it was far from his thoughts when he drew his sword. But now I just want to make sure they’re safe and happy. That was clearly impossible, though. They wanted him to be something other than what he was, and they weren’t going to allow him to protect them.

Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. Are they destined to die, then?

He awoke to the sound of someone approaching through the trees.

***

He’d always been rather partial to the ocean, as much as he’d ever really been partial to anything. He enjoyed the fact that for all its changes in form and attitude, it remained blue, remained vast and unstoppable despite the years’ movements. He was appreciating this idea in the back of his mind as he stood at the rail and only half observed the rocking tide around him. The ship swayed more and more as they truly got underway, but it felt steadier to him than anywhere he’d stood for weeks. And still it rolled beneath him.

“…the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

He never would have thought that after so long, after all the changes that had touched both their lives, he would trust Battousai. Trust Himura, he corrected himself with a surprising lack of bitterness. It made no sense for him to trust the man in the first place; they had never been anything but enemies — mortal enemies. Well, perhaps there had been some rivalry there, a slight sense of competition… but it was a strange world in which a man could trust his enemy over his friends. But Saitou had no friends, so perhaps it was he that was strange. Certainly he was foolish. He and Himura had tried to kill each other too often for this kind of sensation. He must be mistaken.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.”

Perhaps out of desperation, a final act of rebellion against something he knew he couldn’t deny much longer, he searched his memory for any evidence of the animosity that should logically be the basis of his relationship with that man. Ah! Why had he gone to the dojo after the fight, he demanded of himself triumphantly, if he trusted Himura so much? Shouldn’t he have assumed the former assassin would make the right choice?

“Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it.”

The truth was that he had assumed. He’d never really believed Himura would turn down Ookubo’s request. Feared it, perhaps, but only in the irrational way an adolescent still fears the monsters in his closet. And he’d gone to the dojo simply because he wanted… he wanted…

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know why he’d gone there that day.

It’s been said that a filthy man cannot smell the stench that clings to him. But Saitou was beginning to smell his own denial. Or perhaps that was only the sea, which at the moment was looking disturbingly far from blue.

Sanosuke– I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you. –Kenshin

So there was obviously more to it than physical attraction. But Saitou wasn’t ready to admit just yet that he could see any basis for emotional appeal. Then, Sagara was clearly not as pathetic as Saitou had thought at first, but there was certainly no reason for… But Himura loved the boy, so there certainly was a reason.

Saitou no longer had the energy to ask himself why he cared.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time?”

No. No, he didn’t know much about having a normal life, and he didn’t want to. He hated it all. He hated being confused. He hated this rocking ship. He hated Himura and Sagara and their damned voices in his head and however he actually felt about either of them. He hated this hellish, changing grey sea most of all.

Chapter 8 – Stronger Distraction

He’d been a little off in his prediction. Upon opening the door, Katsu had skipped the small talk and gone straight to the point with, “How much do you need?” But then, Sano had made his prediction before he’d had a bloodied shoulder and freshly bruised face. At any rate, departure from Tokyo hadn’t taken long. Neither had getting lost.

He sat wearily against a tree and tried not to think about anything. He’d never run so fast for so long before — pushing his body to its limits until his lungs threatened to dissolve and his legs finally declared their simple decision not to run anymore today — but he’d wanted to escape. Perhaps that was what had gotten him lost, but he didn’t really care. Just… he’d escaped… now…

Or had he? Naturally, once he went still and his rasping breaths were calming, the thoughts began to return. He wished he could run forever — well, run all the way to Kyoto in one stretch, anyway, so there would be no gap, no moment when he was forced to sit against a tree to save his lungs from being ripped to shreds and his legs from turning to some kind of highly useful bean paste not terribly effective at holding his weight. The gap let the thoughts in again, and now he was exhausted on top of it.

If he could sleep, he could lose them, and when he awoke he would be rested enough to run from them again. He pushed away the mental query about what he would do if his dreams followed the same pattern as his thoughts, as they seemed likely to do. It didn’t matter, though; he couldn’t sleep just yet anyway.

He pressed his hands against his chest and looked down at them with a scowl. The knuckles were split, every one, the fingers bruised, and dried blood lay in thin, halted lines down to his wrists. He probably shouldn’t have done that… but he’d been so furious!! He’d had to take his rage out on something, before he started running, and it had felt so good to watch huge trees splinter and go crashing down among their fellows to cause absolute havoc among the animals and birds. Trees looked nothing like Saitou, but still, somehow, it felt good.

And now he’d admitted why he’d bloodied his fists, the thoughts came pouring in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree-trunk, hoping sleep would take him soon but not very optimistic about it.

. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . His reflections flowed along in time with the beating of his heart. . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . that bastard . . . stronger . . . why did every fucking thing he had to say have to be true?. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but it wasn’t all true . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . no, ’cause Kenshin’s still Kenshin, no matter what Saitou says . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll make that asshole respect me, if it’s the last thing I do . . . stronger . . . and I’ll prove to Kenshin I’m not a fucking liability, too . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t even know how . . . stronger . . . but I fucking will . . . they’ll see . . . stronger . . . both of them with their ten years of experience since the war, all better than me and everything . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . they’ll see, and then they’ll . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t know . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but I won’t be left behind again . . . stronger . . . I’m not a fucking baby . . . stronger . . . even if he did say I’m a child, and so what if I am compared to those old men? . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them . . . I will get stronger . . . stronger . . . Saitou has to . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . Kenshin has to . . . stronger . . . they both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’m not just . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . had ten years . . . stronger . . . . . . . stronger . . . . . . . . I will . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It seemed he was closer to sleep than he’d originally imagined. Either that or this pleasant lullaby had eased the transition from waking to dreaming much more quickly than he’d fancied it could.

***

“…and they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard!” She reminded him a little of Sano. “And it was true, but it’s good for onmitsu to be small, right?” Not that Sano ever chattered like this. “But when I said so, they just kept laughing!” A certain restlessness about her was somewhat like Sano when he was actually interested in what he was doing. “I got so mad…” Misao’s energy level was slightly higher than Sano’s even then. “Then, I guess to prove their point or something, Hyottoko grabs me and throws me in the air!” He wondered if she had lazy spells the way Sano did. “So I’m looking for a good way to kick him in the face as I’m coming down, just to show them all that just because I’m small doesn’t mean they can toss me around…” Her lazy spells would probably exceed Sano’s in lethargy just as much as her activity did his in exuberance. “And then my grandpa decides to get his old self involved.” She didn’t seem to do anything by halves, and therein lay the real resemblance. “He isn’t really my grandpa, actually, did I mention?” Beyond that, she seemed prone to bouts of swift-passing anger much like Sano was. “My real grandfather was Okashira before Aoshi-sama.” But once again, Sano didn’t go on like this. “He was killed at the beginning of the Bakumatsu and I never met him.” Actually, her talk was becoming a bit tiresome. “Anyway, so here I am falling and Jiiya decides to show off that he still knows what he’s doing even though he’s so old.” Not that he would tell her she was annoying him… yet. “Actually, it was a pretty good lesson for me, because of course I was so silly back then — you know, eleven years old and all, and thinking anyone over thirty is washed up — so it was good to learn that old Jiiya still had it in him.” He liked energetic people perfectly well. “I hope I’m still that good when I get that old!” He didn’t like chatter, and he found women’s voices a little irksome. “So where was I? Oh, flying through the air, and then Jiiya jumps up and grabs me before I can manage to kick Hyottoko in the face.” Sano would probably put up with her a little better… “And he and Hannya-kun start playing this game like I’m a ball or something.” Sano and Misao might turn out to be two peas in a pod, really. “Every time I manage to get something ready — like a kick or a punch, and once I had a really good one for Hannya-kun’s crotch — whoever was holding me would hand me off to the other guy.” He could be wrong, though; they might rub each other entirely the wrong way for being so similar in some points. “So they’re jumping around off the courtyard walls passing me back and forth in the air, and Beshimi’s rolling on the ground laughing.” Saitou would not like her at all. “I mean literally rolling on the ground laughing!” Not that Saitou and Misao were likely ever to meet, but it might be interesting if they did. “And the worst part of it was that — I mentioned I was eleven at this point, right? — it was actually kinda fun to be thrown around like that, and I was trying not to laugh myself!” He wondered idly what Saitou would have to say to her. “Anyway, like I said, that was the last time I saw Aoshi-sama smile.” Or about her, if Saitou considered it not worth his time to address her directly. “And the time before that was — hey, did you hear something?”

***

Before they’d even become aware of him, Shishio Makoto had built up one of the largest criminal empires in Japanese history, as well as a fighting force that could not be dismissed as some mere gang. His organization had eventually grown so big that despite how well it was maintained it could no longer be hidden from the government. But by then, he was firmly established and unshakeable, and had already quietly begun his takeover. It seemed incredible, but the possibility that he could have the entire country under his control within the next year was real. The worst part of it was that the whole affair, when looked at in the light, appeared so implausible and fantastic that there was little chance of much resistance from the general populace. Moving thus so efficiently in the shadows, Shishio was a greater danger than any other kind of revolutionary. That was why they had to combat him in kind: quietly and subtly.

And, really, in the midst of something like that seemed a very odd time for a government agent to indulge in self-defeating behaviors.

Though he was still technically denying that he… well, denying things… he wouldn’t have used that phrase for it. ‘In denial’ implied there was an awareness not readily apparent, that the knowledge being denied was subconscious — whereas what he denied now had been parading itself through his head for the last few days; he was merely pushing it away, not claiming it didn’t exist. He had been in denial, and now he was simply being stubborn. He would not admit… what was begging to be admitted.

Stubbornness — persistence for persistence’s sake apart from any justice involved in the issue — was a perfectly useless, often dangerous, and almost always ridiculous frame of mind, and one he would generally avoid. But everyone had to let themselves go somewhere, sometime… it was just a vacation of sorts. Although right now really did seem like an odd time for it.

But then, none of this had anything to do with Shishio and the state of the nation… allowing himself to play at being stubborn or in denial or whatever he was might as well happen now as any other time, as long as it didn’t interfere. Actually, keeping things from interfering might be one of his motives. He had no time, he had no energy, he certainly had no patience for things like that right now. Also, he could think up a number of very specific reasons why he shouldn’t admit…

Or maybe that was denial again? Considering, he couldn’t decide whether these excuses he was making, though they seemed quite logical, were part of the stubbornness, or part of another attempt to claim he didn’t…

Or maybe they were both really the same thing? He’d admitted that he was being stubborn, but maybe it was just a new label for the denial? He could be in stubborn denial about being in denial, stubbornly claiming he was merely stubborn rather than in denial.

And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thought he’d ever had, he didn’t know what could possibly have been.

He hated this. It gave him a headache every time he thought about it, which meant he’d had a headache for… a week? Or had it been longer than that? But this headache, actually, was probably different from the headache he’d had before he’d realized… Time to think about something else. Perhaps saving the country would be a sufficiently distracting subject. Starting with whatever was going on in this sorry little village.

Himura appeared to have found yet another shrill and obnoxious friend just when it seemed he’d managed to escape the last batch. Saitou could see merely by the hyper glint in her eyes that he would probably regret after not too long having saved her just now. But he couldn’t look at her for long, because Himura was out there fighting in the main square of the little town.

Himura had very red hair, that is, and the contrast against the grey and miserable tableau drew Saitou’s gaze. That was the reason he looked at him.

(…self-defeating…)

“Hey,” Saitou called, in a slightly darker tone than he’d intended. No, actually, it was good to talk to him like that. That was what Himura needed to hear. “What are you doing wasting time around here?”

“Saitou…” The way Himura said his name was… well, it wasn’t interesting at all. It was not at all different from the way anyone else said his name. Similarly, Himura’s eyes that turned toward him in surprise were nothing remotely fascinating. Just like his hair, they provided an unexpected contrast to the colors around them and drew Saitou’s own eyes.

(…useless…)

“What are you doing here?” Himura didn’t seem to care, asking this, that he hadn’t answered Saitou’s very similar question.

Saitou explained concisely. It was good to talk business, but when it was Himura he was talking to, it didn’t really help.

“The boy’s brother must have been the man you speak of.”

Saitou followed Himura’s brief glance toward the two desecrated bodies that hung in the center of the square and then at the boy behind him and nodded slowly. “Mishima Eiichirou was a native of this town; I thought he could get in without raising suspicion, but apparently he was discovered. The fool should have waited for me before trying to get his family out.”

The anonymous girl had drawn closer, and now burst out, “How can you say something like that about one of your own men?!”

“Oi…” Saitou glanced sidelong at her, marking smallness, swiftness, bared teeth, and a pointed nose. Not to mention a peculiar annoying quality that, as it was already displayed in this the third thing he’d heard her say, was sure to heighten to a painful degree. Certainly this was not a companion Himura had chosen of his own accord! “Who is this weasel-girl?”

The little one went into a violent tantrum, and Himura restrained her and said some pacifying things, but Saitou had what he wanted: that quirk of the former assassin’s mouth, the glint in those violet eyes, that told him he’d been correct.

Which knowledge, of course, he only wanted because he needed to be sure Himura’s judgment was still intact.

(…dangerous…)

And he wasn’t tempted to test Himura’s tact by saying something else that would invite the redhead to join him in teasing the girl possibly without her knowledge, thus making a sort of inside joke out of the scene.

(…ridiculous…)

“Please calm down, Misao-dono.” Himura was still trying to keep the girl from attempted murder. “That is merely the way he talks; if you become angry with everything he says, we will be here for eternity.”

Saitou snorted, but Himura still had half of half of a grin hanging around the edge of his lips, so he could not be entirely displeased. Anyway, it was the truth…

“Besides that,” Himura added, his tone growing less pleasant as he turned slowly back toward the square, “we have more important things to attend to right now.”

Saitou had never rued his low level of compassion. But at the same time, he had never particularly disliked the emotion on the occasions he did feel it, nor minded it in others. Of course he believed having too much of it, or none at all, could be blinding, but it was generally something he didn’t give much care or consideration. Certainly he’d never admired it… before…

But the combination of deep pity and rage in Himura’s eyes as he fixed them on the hanging bodies, Saitou was realizing, suited him extremely well. Not the same as the purpose with which they’d glowed ten years ago, no… but somehow, that was all right. Different, but still…

Yes, fine, he admitted it. It was a little irritating, but he conceded he’d probably been wrong in assuming the changes Himura had undergone were entirely bad. That didn’t mean much, though. They still needed Battousai’s superior strength for the coming conflict.

(…and his subconscious could stop with the tirade any time…)

Himura was approaching the corpses, his hand on the hilt of the sword he’d resheathed. As his intent became clear, a protest rose from some member of the crowd that had gone only half-noticed as it gathered at the other side of the square. Saitou, Himura, and the girl Misao looked to where an old man, surly in his fear, stood spokesman for the equally surly and frightened other men of the town.

“You can’t cut them down,” he said. “You’ll anger Senkaku-sama, and we can’t allow you to do that. Without his permission, those bodies stay where they are.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” the girl sprang forward shouting. Saitou expected her to go up in flame at any moment like the slip of paper she almost resembled. “Are you going to let this Senkaku get away with this, just like that?!”

“Defying Senkaku-sama means death. Obeying him means life.” There was hardly anything in the old man’s eyes as he replied… a trace of weariness, a spot of fear, perhaps… but beyond that, nothing. He barely even seemed human. “All of you must leave at once, for the sake of the village. Eiji, do you hear me?”

Little Misao was trembling with anger, apparently shocked that anyone could act like this. Ah, young disillusionment. Not that the situation was any less abhorrent to someone twice her age. Saitou stepped forward quickly, putting a hand on her head and startling her out of whatever she’d begun to retort. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Few people are willing to put honor and dignity over their own lives. If your only goal is to survive, after all, those things are useless. Give them up and live like an animal, and you’ll live.” Intentionally he spoke loudly enough for everyone present to hear him, but he knew it would have little effect. Men that had allowed themselves to sink so far could rarely be brought back by mere words.

And, indeed, it only made them angry. Mutters spread through the little crowd, but even so it was a washed-out murmur: a little anger, a little guilt, but mostly just noise for the sake of it. Truly, they were little better than animals.

“No matter what you say,” the old man finally insisted, “we can’t allow you to remove the bodies, and you must leave at once.”

Himura stepped forward without a word, and Saitou found himself watching breathlessly, taking in every slight motion of that small frame with a rising feeling of pleasure. Yes… yes… he’d been wrong. So very wrong. The fire had never gone out, nor even waned. The flames had just shifted hue, so Saitou had not at first been able to make them out — but he was beginning to see them again, a figurative light around the former assassin. That was why he really stood out.

Purposefully displaying his uncanny speed in the action, Himura severed the ropes that held the two corpses, his sword vanishing back into its sheath before anyone present except Saitou could mark its movement. Then, kneeling, heedless of the blood and not flinching at the touch of cold flesh, he began to untie the ropes from the dead couple’s necks.

Saitou walked toward him, finding as he did so that any desire he’d been harboring to keep up his stubborn denial about this particular matter had been swept away. It was about time he admitted that this Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai; that Saitou wanted him just as much now as he had ten years ago and even, as long as he wasn’t in denial anymore, every day for that long decade.

He toyed with the idea of admitting some other things as well, but he didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The concession he’d just made had been quite enough for one day.

The girl was cheering, the villagers protesting loudly, but Himura, who had straightened and looked away from them all, ignored the sounds, his face grim and determined. Saitou stopped at his side, his gaze directed at the villagers rather than Himura for fear he might say the wrong thing. “You see how the people of this place have degraded themselves,” he remarked softly. “If Shishio has his way, the same will happen to all of Japan. People will be controlled through fear and violence, and in struggling just to survive they’ll forget the real reasons they were living in the first place.”

“Saitou,” Himura said quietly, “did the government truly abandon this town?”

With a frown and a sigh Saitou replied, “It isn’t just this one. At least ten villages have been lost to Shishio and his men. The police have given up all efforts at recovering them.”

“I don’t get it,” the girl said. She’d drawn closer as Saitou spoke. “If the police can’t do anything, why not just send in the army?”

“Ahou,” he replied, not even bothering to look at her. “It’s barely been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army were to be mobilized again so soon, it would show every foreign power exactly how weak we are at the moment.”

“How can you say something like that, you heartless–” her shrill voice came from his side, but he cut her off sharply:

“Even if that weren’t the case, we’d never get the authorization for any kind of military action. Nobody who’s in a position to give the order wants to share Ookubo’s fate.”

“I see,” Himura nodded. “The army could certainly retake this and the other villages, but whoever planned the operation would undoubtedly be assassinated in retaliation.”

Saitou finally looked at him. “You of all people should know how little the government can do to prevent such things,” he replied quietly. Then more loudly, “In the end, politicians and officials are only human. They all value their lives and hope someone else will handle the problem.”

“Someone else?” the girl shrieked, waving her arms. “Someone else?! Who else is there? Who’s going to help this place, and avenge that kid’s family?!”

“Who else indeed?” Saitou asked, and Himura would know the question was directed at him. “The village, the police, the army, the government… nobody can stand up to Shishio Makoto.” He met Himura’s eyes, and finally let his gaze stay there as he saw that the former assassin had come to the same conclusion Saitou was vocalizing: “That’s why men like you and me are needed for something like this.”

He was searching for any sign that Himura had also come to the conclusion Saitou did not vocalize– That’s why I had to hurt you and your lover. It was never random… never malicious –an avowal he wouldn’t have bothered to make even mentally if he hadn’t decided to leave his comfortable denial. But apparently he was looking for too much, on this occasion, for the only glint in Himura’s eyes was that of determined purpose.

The girl must have wondered why they were just standing there staring at each other, for she was making impatient, angry noises like some kind of trapped rodent. Saitou realized in that moment that it might be every bit as dangerous having admitted what he had as the denial had been before. He was already starting to get a little distracted by these ideas, and it had barely been ten minutes.

“We’ve located the inn where Shishio is currently staying,” he said, resolving not to think about any of it right now when it was potentially perilously intrusive; he would resolve this later. “I think a visit is in order. Will you be coming with me?”

Himura was silent for a long moment, but it didn’t seem he was deliberating… or at least, it didn’t seem he was trying to decide how to answer that question. Finally he replied with a simple, intense, “Yes.”

Chapter 9 – Still Not Obsessive

The last time he’d been left behind by someone he loved because he wasn’t strong enough, that person had then been beheaded.

That this was a different kind of love and different kind of situation didn’t make any difference; the worry was the same. Not that he’d actually worried at the time, ten years ago — he’d never expected what had happened, as he’d been steadfastly convinced Sagara-taichou was invincible. But during the nights when those events repeated themselves in his dreams, he did worry… he hoped things might play out to another ending this time around. But by the time he awoke, they never had. And he had the same firm belief in Kenshin’s infallibility as he’d had as a child in his captain — a belief perhaps equally childish. No one could exist without taking a defeat at some point, and it was about Kenshin’s turn, no matter how good he was.

The point was that Kenshin might need all the help he could get. The point was that Sano didn’t want to be left alone again. The point was that he would get stronger and keep things from happening like they had ten years ago. He just didn’t quite know how yet.

He was still lost, and sweltering in the spots between tree-shadows. And he couldn’t get his mind to stop bouncing around like a hyper child in a small room. It was a little sad, but more annoying, that even after having cooled off somewhat, slept, stopped punching trees, ceased picturing Saitou’s face everywhere he looked… still the moment he exhausted that minute’s store of Kenshin-thoughts, they were replaced by thoughts of Saitou.
It was perfectly clear to him now that he must get stronger just as much to prove to Saitou he was worth something as to prove to Kenshin he wasn’t a weakness. Less clear was why these were so equally weighty in his mind… something about that man’s derisive eyes, and “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed…”

So he walked on and on, his thoughts moving in an endless circle of Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou, the link between them that same tiresome, inciting mantra of stronger, stronger, stronger that had punctuated his mental process since he left Tokyo. He couldn’t get any of it off his mind, and it was giving him a headache. Again. Still.

Please wait for me.

“I can see I’m wasting my time with you.”

An idea had suggested itself to him so subtly that he hardly recognized it at first. But once he did, he fought against it with vigor and ire. Obviously he was dealing with this emotionally, because he was an emotional person… but even he didn’t just react at random. There were sensible reasons he felt the way he felt, and it was logical to want what he wanted. Hadn’t he just finished reflecting how possibly similar this was to the situation of ten years ago? And he wasn’t dwelling on this too much; it was natural for him to be thinking the way he was. Anyone would do the same in his shoes. And that stupid idea could just go jump of something high and precipitous.

Yeah, he was scarred. Yeah, he was therefore maybe a little overreactant. Yeah, he was in love and, yeah, he was incensed. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was obsessive.

***

There were times he felt totally convinced, and there were times he was less sure. He couldn’t recall ever having lost faith, but on occasion he was tested. It was a distinctly different pair of mind-sets: the one in which he felt he was doing the right thing with his life and could be strong in the resolve he’d made no matter what kind of pressure was on him, external or internal; and the one in which he feared he was fighting an unwinnable battle for principles that were perhaps wrong and useless. The first feeling, which was greatly strengthened by the support of those he loved and respected, he’d come to associate very much with Sano. The second… he was beginning to connect quite a bit with Saitou.

However, despite Saitou’s proximity and Kenshin’s overwhelming consciousness of his presence, this was nothing he could afford to dwell on during as important an event as his first confrontation with Shishio. Still, with Saitou standing beside him undoubtedly wishing he would spring forward and decapitate their enemy, it was a difficult thing not to dwell on. The scene was certainly tense to begin with, but it became even more so because of this.

He didn’t think Shishio could tell there was something on his mind that had only a minor connection to the matter at hand, but he felt sure Saitou could. It was a bit bothersome, though. He didn’t need Saitou’s approval and didn’t want to want it, but he did want it, and couldn’t help thinking that if Saitou would just accept the way he was, things would be a lot easier. But it was Saitou’s job at this point to expect a killer of him, wasn’t it? Kenshin found this rather annoying.

He didn’t always enjoy fighting, but the conflict with Senkaku was a welcome release. But when even Shishio, who didn’t even know him, started in on his ideals, Kenshin found himself wishing, just a little, that Sano were here. Not because he needed someone to defend him when his lifestyle was questioned, but because this whole affair was so dreary and almost demoralizing that some happiness, some increased confidence in himself, would have been a comfort. He didn’t like going into battle feeling like a champion of a lost cause — though the exchange of sword-blows with Soujirou did not turn out to be quite as much of a ‘battle’ as he had been expecting.

And now his sakabatou was broken. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was dreading it, but he didn’t look forward to Saitou’s comments on that. Then he was somewhat distracted by Eiji, as there were things that could not go unsaid and it wouldn’t do to be selfish (and he was fairly certain Saitou wasn’t going to say them), but soon enough he had returned to his own problems. Saitou, too, seemed distant, and his orders to his subordinates, as those men cleaned things up around Shingetsu and took Senkaku away, were curt. Even genki-genki Misao seemed to have been put in a dark mood by the proceedings.

“This village is my home,” Eiji was remarking. “I’m glad something good could happen to it.”

“That reminds me,” Kenshin said. “What is Eiji going to do?”

“I’ll take him to stay with Tokio,” Saitou replied absently. “He can determine what he wants to do from there.”

“Tokio?”

Saitou looked over at him, and, though Kenshin could have been imagining things, for some reason he appeared slightly startled. But it passed quickly, and he answered calmly, “My wife.”

It was such a shock that Kenshin could not even complete his first resultant reflection, I thought I knew everything about… Saitou was married? He wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise, given that there were several years of the man’s life he hadn’t followed obsessively, and a wife could easily have entered the picture during that time… but… Saitou was married?! Kenshin couldn’t quite figure out, also, why the thought of Saitou being with a woman was so strange — unsettling, even — but it was. He supposed he’d just always assumed that… well, he didn’t know what he’d always assumed.

He was lucky Misao was equally shocked, as otherwise his prolonged staring silence in response to the revelation might have seemed more than a little odd. As it was, he found himself absently responding to her whispered comment with something that was probably unduly insulting to Saitou — not that he cared. Actually, the man seemed rather amused by whatever Kenshin and Misao were whispering, so Kenshin struggled for a moment to remember what it was — something about saints… Saitou was married?!

Misao was having a relatively cheerful conversation with Eiji now, and Saitou had taken two steps toward Kenshin with that usual inscrutable expression on his face. “You go straight to Kyoto,” he said. “And it should be obvious to you after that fight — you couldn’t even take Shishio’s advisor: you can’t fight Shishio the way you are now.” Kenshin braced himself for censure, irritated once again at the same time that this man had such an effect on him. But Saitou’s next words were the second shock of the last few minutes: “We need your old strength, so figure out some way to get it back even if you don’t plan on killing him.” And with a hand laid briefly on Kenshin’s shoulder, his leave-taking was at an end and he was walking away, calling Eiji to follow.

This time, Kenshin managed to recover much more quickly, quite possibly thanks to a self-preservation instinct reminding him that Misao’s list of insistent questions would probably double in length if she caught him staring after Saitou like… like… he didn’t fancy any of the analogies that came to mind, and didn’t think Sano would either.

But Saitou… well, it would be silly to say he approved or agreed or anything so positive, but obviously he suddenly didn’t mind the way Kenshin was. Kenshin had no idea how the wolf could possibly have come to that conclusion during the events that had just transpired, but… Had he been thinking it would ‘make things easier’ to have Saitou’s acceptance?

What a weak description.

He was elated.

And he didn’t care anymore that that might be an overreaction.

***

Just a minor slip of the tongue, really. It happened sometimes when he was distracted, though only in the presence of those he didn’t really worry about telling things. In other words, it rarely happened at all. And now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d known this would be distracting, but he hadn’t counted on it being quite this distracting. He just couldn’t get the image out of his head of Himura’s shocked face. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it and wondering whether this was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, Himura’s surprise had apparently not been of the pleased variety. And surely there was hope if Himura disliked the idea of Saitou being married! Not that he needed to be thinking about hope or the furtherance of his desires… but he was. On the other hand, supposing Himura’s inclinations had ever tended toward him at all (and Saitou could not help thinking perhaps they had), in a mind such as Himura’s, the knowledge that Saitou was already spoken for would only add to the weight of moral obligation to forget him. And there obviously hadn’t been opportunity to discuss the details.

It was fortunate Eiji was being quiet. Saitou didn’t think he had the patience to answer a lot of questions at the moment.

All very irritating, the whole affair. Why, in the first place, did such feelings have to develop and get in the way of sense and activity? This desire he now had, to explain to Himura the entire situation with his wife, seemed unlikely to go away; most likely it would plague him throughout his dealings with the other man until he found some way to fulfill it. But he just didn’t have time, at the moment, to make any attempt at winning Himura over, and how if not in such a light could he bring up such a subject? He supposed he could possibly…

This was no good. A certain kind of philosophical pondering was one thing, but this sort of pointless speculative musing was entirely another. And he was stronger than this anyway. With painful determination, he wrenched the greater part of his thoughts from the topic they most wanted to hover around and sent them with great force toward the much more important business of saving the country. Which is not to say they all went obediently, but at least for the moment he could be pleased with his level of self-control.

***

He was lying on the ground in exhaustion, taking a break, just a brief break, from his training — he deserved it after three unflagging days — holding Kenshin’s note above his face and rereading certain words over and over again without really taking in their individual meanings.

Sanosuke Sanosuke –

He had to hold it carefully, to avoid getting the paper dirty with the blood that ran from his mangled knuckles; he’d gone at that last set of rocks a bit carelessly.

…I feel I I I feel feel…

Of course, blood could only make the words brighter, because to have earned the love of someone like Kenshin was…

…go go go to…

He wasn’t making sense.

…I feel I…

Too tired, no doubt.

…must I must must feel I must…

They all had duties… why, when there was love, did those duties have to conflict? Or did they only think they did?

…go to Kyoto go to Kyoto go to go to…

Yes, he was going to Kyoto. He’d show them both.

Please Please Please Please…

Kenshin didn’t really need to beg him.

…protect protect protect the…

How could he protect anyone if he couldn’t even master something so simple as hitting a rock twice and making it shatter?

…the others protect the others…

But it wasn’t for Kenshin that he wanted to do that, was it? There was an other, indeed.

…while I’m gone…

No, Kenshin, nothing happened while you were gone… I still love you…

…wait wait wait…

The words seemed almost accusatory. I swear I still love you…

…wait for me…

Desperate, maybe? Even if I…

…please wait…

Even if I…

…for me for me for me me me…

Even if there’s maybe something…

I love you.

…someone…

– Kenshin Kenshin Kenshin

It was about time to get up and start working on that Futae no Kiwami thing again.

Chapter 10 – In Another Light

He’d never really intended to come back here. He didn’t feel that subjecting himself to an endless stream of horrific memories was necessary to his penance, and this city was the Bakumatsu to him. It was here the path of his life had led down through a pool of blood and forever colored his footprints. It was here he’d met Tomoe, who had represented at once a victim of and someone to be protected by his sword; represented everything terrible he was and everything noble he could become. As little as he’d actually felt anything in those days of repression, she had almost been his first love… except that it was here he’d first seen… well, he hadn’t ever intended to come back to Kyoto. And yet here he was.

The girl seemed pleased. No, ‘seemed’ was an unnecessary description for Misao at any time, since she let everyone know exactly what she was thinking and feeling in a manner so unambiguous — indeed, often so overstated — as to put the matter beyond speculation. And she did make him smile a little. But not much. Kyoto was too sobering, and he was beginning to see things in the colors of the old days — deep blues and bloody reds and all with edges of gold. It was like being plunged into a dream more corporeal than anything he’d ever experienced, while at the same time real life went on all around him — to a certain extent: he saw and heard and spoke, accepting the help of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu in finding the people he knew he must seek, but not really conscious of any of it.

It was his own fault for allowing the spirit of the past thus to overcome him, but he couldn’t remember having felt this lonely for years.

***

The Kyoto chief of police was giving him a lot of unnecessary details he already knew and that probably weren’t relevant to the interrogation he was about to conduct, but to which he couldn’t object as, firstly, he personally wasn’t infallible and was capable of forgetting things; and, secondly, he personally wasn’t infallible and had of late been in an inordinate state of distraction that could do with a good healthy dose of unrelated data.

And really didn’t need to be aggravated by the sight of Sagara Sanosuke sitting, glowering but at his ease, in the shadows of one of the lesser cells.

He’d already come to a halt in front of the latter even before Sagara greeted him, even before he’d decided that stopping and looking toward the boy was a bad idea. Having halted, having decided, there was then not much to do besides throw his impassive gaze at an angle between the slats of the wooden door and try to be as ambiguous as possible about whether or not he was listening to what the boy was saying.

And only half listening he was in reality, as certain thoughts from previous days reiterated themselves with alarming mental volume. It was the first time he’d seen Sagara, had that aspect of recent realizations (or admissions) forced onto his mind, since those realizations or admissions had taken place, and perhaps he wasn’t as well prepared for the ensuing reflections as he could have been.

…it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement… Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai… pointless speculative musing… I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you…

Oh, come, now! He wasn’t… This little pathetic nineteen-year-old didn’t have that power over him, did he? With that perfect body and those warm eyes and that unguarded, passionate nature that seemed to be just exactly what Himura needed these days…

No, no… As Saitou looked him over again, he resisted the urge to shake his head. If he were jealous, he would certainly be experiencing different sensations here and now, especially having entered this encounter entirely unaware and unprepared as he had. He would surely be conscious of a much more lively, bitter disliking of the young man before him than the same passive disdain that (he was fairly sure) had been his attitude toward Sagara’s existence ever since the beginning of the roosterhead’s association with Himura…

Indeed, the only distinct feeling he could admit to now, besides the aforementioned disdain, was the other he’d had since the beginning: curiosity as to what in the world a man like Himura could see in a boy like Sagara… at least, what he could see that would hold him, would prompt him to write such words as he had. It was an unforeseen desire, strong enough for its vigor also to be rather surprising: to find out what there was to the idiot beyond what met the eye and ear… to know, if it came to that, exactly what he was up against. A strategic desire, but simple… and unmistakably ill-timed.

Perhaps his recent acknowledgment had not been inappropriate, but, as he’d reminded himself more than once, anything that purported to move beyond mere mental acceptance into the realm of planning or actual deeds was totally out of place at this point. He had neither time nor opportunity to do whatever it was this new and rather odd attitude toward Sagara was prompting him to do — get to know him better or be nicer to him or any such thing. He tried to tell himself he didn’t want to either, but denial was getting stale and he didn’t relish it as much as he used to. He had other things to do.

Pulling forcibly out of these reflections, he found himself, as he had once before, staring fixedly into Sagara’s dark eyes. And though he would not go so far as to say it was startling, the sudden recollection that, somehow, Sagara had on certain recent occasions been able to read him better than Himura had left him abruptly just the tiniest bit unsettled. Not that he had any fears regarding the privacy of his thoughts and feelings… but this was a potent reminder, more even than his own remonstrances to himself, that he didn’t have leisure to try to define the look in Sagara’s eyes.

So when the police chief ventured into the thick silence, “Do you know him?” Saitou merely replied, “No, not at all,” and walked on. And while he wasn’t entirely thrilled at having done it, such was necessity.

***

Had Kenshin been aware someone somewhere was consistently struggling not to think about him, he might have been comforted. He’d been thinking about himself all night, struggling not to think about Sano.

Hiko had said there was something wrong with him, something he was missing… this was not exactly news, and though its bearing on his ability to master the technique was as much a mystery to him as it was, he couldn’t be surprised at the necessity of facing whatever it was before he could complete his training.

But he couldn’t contemplate the state of his life, the interior of his soul, without thinking about Sano. Much as his lover had to do with those things, Kenshin was sure this issue was deeper within himself than Sano could reach — or at least could have reached by this point — and thinking about him was therefore outside the purpose of the night’s meditation. It was also outside his ability to avoid. Without throwing any blame on Sano, Kenshin blamed this for his lack of results. Not that he’d ever really needed any additional reason for having no answer to What is wrong with me?

Hiko had shed his mantle. Kenshin didn’t remember ever having seen him do this with sword in hand, and a shiver ran through him so heavy it left him feeling almost paralyzed.

He shook himself, trying to break free of the spell. Why should I be afraid? he demanded. Either I master the technique, or he kills me. I have already said I’m willing to die for this… why should I fear his killing me?

The answer to that came a little more easily than whatever other answer he was seeking: there rose immediately into his mind with piercing clarity faces… words… experiences, past and cherished, future and anticipated…

“I believe in you. You won’t lose.”

“That’s why men like you and me are needed.”

Obviously, then, it wasn’t the act of dying he feared, but the separation it would bring about from a certain person… certain people… he’d rather not part from so soon. It was selfish, certainly… he, with the blood of so many on his hands, should not hesitate to die for a righteous cause just because he wanted…

And then it hit him, swifter and harder even than a blow from his master — that no matter who or what he was, what he’d done, what he deserved, he did not want to die. It was something he’d never considered, the difference between being willing to die for the protection of the weak, if it came to it, and having entirely lost the will to live. For this, it struck him in a half-moment as that fine difference came to him all at once, he had not done.

It was not selfishness to desire life; it was a basic human instinct… and, in trying to repress it, had he not repressed a part of his own power and ability along with it? He hadn’t realized it, as he’d never thought about it, but he knew now, suddenly, almost overwhelmingly… he was not going to die if it could be helped. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to live. He would live. Hiko Seijuurou was not going to kill him here.

He put his hand to his sword hilt.

***

Saitou had pretty much continued being just as much of an asshole as usual, but somehow it wasn’t bothering Sano like before.

For one thing, the cop was confident they would meet Kenshin soon; though volunteering very little information, from what he had said Sano got the impression there was a kind of general police lookout on for Kenshin throughout Kyoto ever since he’d trashed that Chou guy and caused a commotion outside some shrine.

For another thing, Sano couldn’t help thinking of the way Saitou had looked at him downstairs in the cells — both right at first and then in that unexpected moment of total agreement after talking to Chou. Something had changed. There was something in Saitou’s bearing toward him now that seemed to imply, however strange it might be, that Sano had been just then truly noticed by Saitou for the first time. This really made no sense, as Saitou had paid him plenty of attention in the past… what with the stabbing, staring, beating, and possibly kissing… and Sano really should be mad that even after all of that it was only now Saitou saw him as something other than an object — either tool or obstruction. He should be mad, but he couldn’t… for though Saitou’s overtly displayed opinion of him didn’t seem to have changed, and though he still refused to fight Sano again, it had been from the moment of Sano’s Futae no Kiwami on the cell door that Saitou had ceased to make any real objections to Sano’s coming with him. Which meant Sano’s efforts had made Saitou take him more seriously, and how could Sano be angry in such a moment?

While he didn’t think he’d won a particularly large amount of respect, having won any at all just confirmed how much he wanted more. Of course he still hated the bastard, but at the same time found himself elated even with such an understated rising esteem. In fact, he had a rather stupid, childish urge to make the first thing he said to Kenshin, when he saw him again, “I showed him!!!” After he punched him, of course. He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

“You’re in a very good mood for someone who’s been in a jail cell all day,” Saitou remarked dryly, looking at Sano over the top of the paper he’d been studying with a grim expression.

Sano thought this an oddly conversational (that is, relatively un-insulting) remark, and was not averse to answering. But there was no way he was going to admit the already somewhat disturbing fact that his good mood had a lot to do with Saitou himself. “I’m looking forward to punching Kenshin in the face,” he said.

“How affectionate,” murmured Saitou.

Sano only bristled mildly at the scornful tone. “Like you’d know,” he muttered.

Though Saitou’s eyes had turned back to whatever he was reading, Sano thought they flashed as he answered, “And how would you know what I know?”

The younger man snorted. “Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” He found Saitou’s response strange, though, and a little unsettling. Certain worries regarding Saitou and relationships had never entirely been cleared from the back of his mind, and the confusion of the dojo was suddenly beginning to reawaken.

“My wife would probably agree with you,” Saitou nodded without looking up again.

This didn’t do much to keep the confusion off.

“Your… wife…?”

After a few moments, Saitou set aside his paper and stood in an abrupt movement. Withdrawing a cigarette case and going about the business of matches, he left Sano in inexplicably agitated suspense for nearly a minute. Then, through a fresh haze of smoke, he answered in a still oddly casual tone. “She’s been trying for a ‘relationship’ with me for years. Either I’m not good at it, or she’s not nearly as attractive as she thinks.”

Sano was skeptically horrified. “So she likes you but you don’t like her?” What was wrong with this man?! “Why the hell’d you marry her?”

Saitou snorted but had no other answer. Actually, Sano was surprised such a topic had even come up at all, that he’d gotten even that much of a response to such a question. But he had to admit, their last conversation in Tokyo (if an argument that ended in blood could be called a conversation) had also concerned rather personal serious subjects. Sano had even shown him that note he hadn’t been planing to show to anyone, hadn’t he? This, perhaps, made them even, in that case. Sano liked that thought somehow, but at the same time, it threw Saitou’s wife into contrast with… Sano couldn’t help remarking, “Figures you’re even a bastard to your wife.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow and preceded his response with a long drag of his cigarette, as if sustaining himself through the unpleasant subject. “And it figures you’d blame me for not returning some stubborn idiot’s feelings.”

“Well, I bet you didn’t even try,” Sano retorted a little huffily.

“Should I have?”

“You said ‘years!’ A woman’s in love with you for years and you can’t even try to like her back?”

“Would you apply that logic to anyone?”

“What do you mean?” Sano asked a little warily.

“If someone you didn’t like was in love with you, would you try to like them back?”

“Of course,” insisted the uneasy Sano.

“Even if you already loved someone else?” The glance Saitou threw him as he said this, though brief, was piercing, and Sano’s confusion was great. At first he was, as Saitou seemed to be admonishing, putting himself in the unfortunate position of being in love with and promised to one and sought after by another… but after a moment the particular significance of that statement as made by that speaker struck him.

“Wait, so, you do?”

“Hn.” Saitou returned to the desk.

Sano watched him, unsure how to react. Short as it had been, that discussion had given him much food for thought. Saitou’s words and behavior could add up to a couple of conclusions, but they were in areas of Sano’s mind he’d pretty much forbidden himself to enter, and now he was agitated. He was angry, too, with Saitou for bringing it up and then leaving it hanging — but what more could he do besides reiterate a question that was maybe (hopefully) none of his business, that would lead him to thoughts he definitely didn’t want?

And what the hell did it mean that Saitou had entered so readily into such a conversation, anyway? In the middle of police shit, too, with a plot afoot to burn down Kyoto, why would Saitou waste time on a totally irrelevant discussion? That didn’t seem like him. He must have had some specific purpose…

Sano suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Exceptionally quiet, this police station. After they’d finished questioning Chou, Saitou had consulted briefly with the fat chief, most of the cops who weren’t out already had been ordered off on different assignments, and the building was left big and echoing and empty. Except for this room where Saitou was doing whatever he was doing — some kind of research or something, combined with a stack of local reports of some kind; Sano didn’t really have any concept what the prospective result was — in here the air was thick with the hovering remains of that conversation, with thought and implication, mostly ideas Sano wanted to avoid.

After several tense minutes passed in silence but for the shifting of papers, the chief bustled back in and, with a curious and slightly disapproving glance at Sano that matched the ones he’d given him before, started talking to Saitou about patrol patterns and something else that sounded like it might actually be interesting if Sano cared to listen. Instead it seemed that he, only half-realizing what he did, was taking the opportunity to slip out of the room. As he resumed a leaning position against a shadowy wall in the corridor, he found it wasn’t much more comfortable out here than it had been in there. In fact, if anything, he felt more restless and agitated than before, because now he had the vague sensation of having somehow backed down from something, retreated from some challenge. Which was stupid, since there hadn’t been anything of the sort within… just Saitou and the totally immaterial and extraneous fact that he had a wife he didn’t love and maybe a love he hadn’t admitted to.

Eventually the chief emerged, gave Sano the same expression of confused disapprobation, and hastened off about some other task. Sano fixed his eyes on the door and contemplated moving toward it, but somehow never did.

Whether his thoughts kept to the same tether was another business entirely.

Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.

Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

Chapter 15 – The Point of Strength and Fire

Saitou had reached a point he had never thought to see, had experienced something that, for all his careful planning, all his meticulous calculations of possibilities and the outcomes of various paths, he had never anticipated — nor would quite have known how to deal with if he had. The shock of this, he thought, did him little good at this point. It increased his pain, clouded his thoughts, and further reduced his ability to get hold of himself and the situation.

It wasn’t his failure that took him so much by surprise, for even that possibility was part of his calculations. The manner of his defeat was also no great surprise, as he’d been very aware of what a threat Shishio’s strength posed. No, while it could dismay, this in general could not surprise him. Nor was he entirely willing to classify this as ‘failure’ yet in any case. But a number of other aspects of what was happening found him so thoroughly off guard he thought he must spend the rest of his life — however much longer that was likely to be — wondering at them, at this point he never would have expected to reach.

He would never thought he could regret so deeply a plan of his own concoction, nor wish so desperately he could have altered or even abandoned it. Not that he would have — his level of dedication to the country and its good lessened for no man (or men) — but that he wished to was enough to startle him. And as he’d stood behind the closed arena doors listening, striving to keep his intentions neutral and suppress the ki that might otherwise betray him, taking in the unmistakable sounds of a battle not proceeding in Himura’s favor, he could do almost nothing but wish it could have been otherwise — that some other decoy could have been found or some other arrangement made to give them an advantage. Hell, even a straightforward battle with no gimmicks would have been better than this.

When had he ever wished, honestly, for a battle to be straightforward?

He’d never thought to reach the point where a difficulty he had anticipated would prove a genuine setback. That unexpected hurdles would arise he accepted perforce; he planned as best he could, and considered himself by no means deficient in foresight, but the unexpected would always take a part, for good or ill, in any venture. But for something he had foreseen, something he had specifically expected and readied himself to combat, nothing that had taken him blind but something of which he’d been long aware — for such a thing to have become a stumbling block he almost could not believe.

And yet, despite his awareness that his growing unrelated emotions might interfere with his ability to carry out his duty, despite his belief that he had this under control, the sound and feel of Himura’s defeat on the other side of those doors and the far worse sight of Himura senseless and bleeding on the ground had absolutely undone him. Which begged the question of just how much under control he really had things; of just how foresighted he really was when he hadn’t predicted or even considered this.

Or perhaps he simply hadn’t realized the strength of his own emotions. If that was the case, it was yet another surprise.

For one vital moment, all he’d been able to think or feel was the desire to kill Shishio. Of course killing Shishio had been the objective all along, but if Saitou had had his head about him, hadn’t been so utterly overcome, he might have aimed more responsibly. He didn’t entirely believe, in general, that emotion was the antithesis of rational thought, but it certainly had been in this scenario. It had been utterly irresponsible of him to fail in the sneak attack that had been the purpose of the whole operation, and the blame rested with his overactive sensibilities.

And now as he fell, unable to stop his descent, unable though he struggled to regain any sway over his injured form, conscious of almost no physical sensation beyond overwhelming pain, the last thing he heard as everything plunged into agonized darkness was Sagara’s cry of rage and despair. At least he had not yet fallen. There was little hope he would remain standing, so the emotion resultant upon hearing the shout partook very little of that foresight Saitou still believed himself to possess — but for the moment, thank god, Sagara had not yet fallen.

Saitou would never have thought to reach the point where comfort so destined to fail, as doomed to fall as Sagara was, could mean so much to him.

***

“This is my fight,” Kenshin had said, with that distant look of ten years past, that look Sano hated more than anything, that look that spoke of a responsibility that really shouldn’t have been his. This had faded somewhat, though, as Kenshin had taken in Sano’s expression. “I must ask you…” And he’d trailed off and smiled faintly, silently acknowledging his inability to continue under that stare.

Sano had known Kenshin wanted to ask him to stay out of the coming battle, both because of that damned unfair sense of responsibility and because he was still trying to protect him. But that was absurd; Sano hadn’t come this far to watch. And the impossibility of Sano giving the promise Kenshin wanted had translated into impossibility of Kenshin even asking it. But even if words could not, the concern in Kenshin’s eyes had demanded something of Sano. With an effort the latter had said, “I’ll do my best.”

Then they’d stared at each other for a long moment, and Sano had fought off the temptation to pull Kenshin to him for what might be their last kiss or remind him that he loved him. They were not going to die here, and any statement or gesture of such finality as to imply he thought they might could only have lowered morale.

As if understanding and concurring with this unspoken thought, Kenshin had nodded and turned toward the walkway. He certainly had understood Sano’s words, brief though they’d been — that Sano would try to stay out of the battle, try to let Kenshin handle it… but that he had his limits.

It turned out his limits lay just below the sum total of what he felt at seeing the two people most important to him cut down in front of him.

Seeing either fall singly, he thought, would have caused the same shock, the same body-and-spirit-encompassing leaden despair that had gripped him when Kenshin’s limp form hit the ground. But seeing them both fall, whichever fell first, was enough to inspire a hotter rage, a deeper pain, and a greater need to move, to fight, to kill, than he in his nineteen years had ever before felt.

With a scream he launched himself, fists clenched and aching, with no more complex motive than this desire to destroy and very little awareness of anything beyond his anger and his agony. Anger and agony were all he took into the collision, and were all he found there, and the only additional reflection that could pierce the chaos and the blackness that swiftly began to swallow him as he hit the wall and saw the world dimming in a spray of blood was that Shishio was right — he really wasn’t strong enough for either of them.

***

He couldn’t sense them.

Kenshin was half dead of blood loss and pain, more unconscious than otherwise, battered and shaken and anguished, and he couldn’t sense them.

He could feel Aoshi’s presence, weary but undaunted, and Shishio’s looming black-hot ki; he could vaguely make out the presence of the other two people on the platform. He could even hear a little of their discussion, though it was distant and garbled and incomprehensible as if he listened from under water. But Sano… where was Sano? Somehow Kenshin was sure Saitou was here too… how he knew this was less important a question than where Saitou was. Kenshin knew they were there, but he could not sense them.

He had to… he had to

Why couldn’t he sense them?

In a movement of will closer to slow and steady than passionate or determined, he pushed against the haze that shrouded him. With growing awareness came an increase in pain, which only paved a quicker path to full consciousness, and still he could not sense them.

Working, struggling, battling to awaken, straining for any indication past Aoshi’s chill and Shishio’s heat that Sano and Saitou were still with him and still alive, Kenshin forced his senses back into place and his eyes to open.

One glance was all it took to tell the tale: what Shishio had done, what Aoshi had done and why… what Saitou had done, what Sano had done… what Shishio had done to them. The blood running from Sano’s brow down his cheek onto his neck and chest… the wounds to Saitou’s legs and torso as he lay motionless… their pained, insensible faces… Saitou’s fallen sword, Sano’s limp fist…

Kenshin had felt all along that this was his fight, but only by extension of old loyalties and events of ten years past, only because a burden he’d taken on his shoulders during the Bakumatsu had seemed to include a certain responsibility for the actions and choices of some of his confederates.

Now Shishio had made it personal.

Kenshin could burn too. It was time to see who burned hotter, to test the black flame against the white. It was time to save them, to put all his desire to protect on the line and see if it measured up.

It was time to end this.

Chapter 16 – The Color of 120°

Gazing across the gap in the path that was clearly too wide to jump, Saitou watched as everything wavered in the rising heat that here and there even gave way to high-springing flame, and wondered how in such conditions he could possibly be so cold. How could he look over there, meet Sagara’s eyes across that divide, take in the devastation Himura’s body had undergone, and say nothing, do nothing in response? Sagara was screaming at him in a tone of such despair that his emotions were borne across the burning chasm as clearly as his voice was; how could Saitou listen to those words, those feelings, and respond by lighting a cigarette and smiling?

Had he been this cold watching from the deck of the Rengoku as Shishio ordered Sagara gunned down? Had he been this cold bursting through the arena doors to see Himura lying motionless on the ground?

No, never this cold. Tense, breathless, irate, bloodthirsty, horrified, terrified. No, never cold at all, except perhaps on the exterior, and even that had cracked at least once in both instances.

But in both instances, it had been they, not he, in danger of their lives. Had been a member of a pair that should not be separated, that he could not bear to see separated. This time it was merely a lone wolf that was only in the way. He’d done his job as best he could, considering the terrible dual distractions, and now could fade away — die perhaps — and leave them to each other as they were meant to be. This was the best of all possible endings, after all.

He was going to miss them, though, if he got out of this alive. More than just a little, if the pang that went through his heart at his final glance at Himura’s unconscious face was any indication. Still, he’d played a game against each of them and lost — lost more than he’d ever thought he had to lose — and he knew it.

“Ahou,” he remarked softly as Sagara finished his tirade in a voice that would echo in Saitou’s ears forever. I expected him, but not you, he did not add out loud as he took one last look and turned away into the rising flames and billowing brown smoke.

***

The closer Kenshin drifted toward the shores of consciousness, the greater the pain. But with the memory of the battle against Shishio and those preceding it fresh even in his hazy mind, this was no surprise to him. However, innumerable glimpses of Sano’s worried face and tortured eyes, indistinct and half viewed through barely opened lids as he repeatedly struggled and failed to reach the waking world — that was something he could not entirely explain. They’d come through the ordeal together alive, regardless of what state he would find himself in when he was at last able to take stock. Why should Sano appear so miserable? Kenshin didn’t think he was dying… but why else would that utterly forsaken look be so constantly painted across his lover’s face?

Unless… unless something had happened to one of their friends, and Sano was just waiting for Kenshin to regain lucidity enough to break the news. But how — when, even — could that have happened? Soujirou had informed them that the Juppongatana had been defeated at the Aoiya. Could he have neglected to mention it had not been a perfect defeat? Then, Kenshin remembered both Aoshi and Saitou standing, if not entirely healthy, well enough to walk and converse, after the battle on the platform. Might something have happened to one of them after Kenshin had blacked out? But though Sano would regret it, he wouldn’t worry so much communicating bad news about Aoshi — would not harbor such terrible pain in his eyes over that loss. Nor, Kenshin had to admit, about Kaoru or Yahiko or anyone else involved in this except for…

But Saitou was…

Kenshin knew he must have lost quite a lot of blood. Because Saitou was not invincible, and anything even approaching such a protest spoke of muddled thoughts.

His struggles for consciousness redoubled, and eventually through sheer force of will he managed to rouse himself sufficiently to whisper to Sano, who was seated at his side still with that horrifying pain in his gaze, “What happened?”

“Kenshin,” Sano whispered, “Saitou…”

Kenshin took a deep, tremulous breath, closing his eyes and sinking back into the haze.

He floated through memories, distant and recent. Blue haori and headbands mingled with blue police uniforms and cigarettes, a haughty smile presiding over all. A smile that had been turned toward Kenshin in genuine pleasure — there was no mistaking it — as he disembarked from that carriage at the police station and Saitou greeted him from the window. A smile whose absence had been conspicuous during the ride to Osaka, in as awkward a silence as three men could possibly attain and that had answered more questions than any words could. A smile that had never changed over all those years. A smile he would not be seeing again.

When he was finally able to open his eyes and look around without immediately falling back onto the pillow in profound exhaustion, he wondered what the point had been, as, excepting (thankfully) Sano, all the colors in the world seemed to have faded to a dull brown.

***

Sano couldn’t think clearly, and he didn’t know why. He couldn’t remember having been in this much pain at any time during his entire life. And he couldn’t be sure whether the pain was due more to the agony in his hand and his head — the memory constantly replaying itself of that walkway, explosions, fire, and unexpected loss — or the look in Kenshin’s eyes, as if the older man had just been stabbed, when Sano had told him.

He didn’t know whether or not seeing Kenshin hurting was worse than the loss he felt in his own heart, and it didn’t seem to matter much anymore whether or not that represented unfaithfulness.

Hugging himself in the corner of a window-seat in the room he was sharing with Kenshin in the Aoiya’s upper level — not the same room as before, as that had been destroyed in the battle — Sano stared blankly through the glass at the failing day. He felt so cold.

Of course no one could be invincible. He’d reminded himself of that fact when Kenshin had left Tokyo, but still somehow then put Saitou in another class, in a different category than Sagara-taichou and his lover. Possibly because he’d thought for so long that he hated Saitou, and therefore whether Saitou lived or died had less to do with Sano… or something like that. He couldn’t even think straight, and it was all Saitou’s fault.

He remembered how Saitou had looked at him through the door of that cell, the first time they’d seen each other since Tokyo. How after that incident it had seemed a matter beyond question that Sano would be accompanying Saitou at least until they found Kenshin, if not… well, forever…

“Damn you,” he whispered, letting his head fall so his face rested against the cool glass.

He was startled just then by Kenshin’s hand on his shoulder, the first sign of the other man’s presence. Sano looked up in silent surprise to meet his lover’s weary eyes, that gaze that seemed to hold every bit as much pain as he thought his own must. Kenshin touched his face wordlessly and joined him on the window-seat, curling up with him, his head against Sano’s chest, breathing laboriously just from the effort of moving here from his futon in his current condition. “You are thinking about Saitou.”

Sano nodded with a sigh.

Kenshin echoed the latter, but didn’t seem to have any further comment.

“I’m just so…” Sano growled out an inarticulate syllable before he concluded, “…pissed!” That wasn’t the right word at all, actually. “I just can’t believe he… he’s… dammit…” But there was no way he could finish that thought.

“Sano, you do not have to try to hide that you loved him.”

Pressed against him as he was, Kenshin might have felt Sano’s heart stop beating completely, but would not have been able to see how pale Sano’s face went or how his lips moved silently not knowing what to say.

The tone had been soft, containing no accusation or reproof, nor any more pain in particular than anything else Kenshin had said since their return from the fortress — and yet how could Sano answer? How did you reply when your lover told you he knew you were in love with someone else? Sano should probably start by reassuring Kenshin that he didn’t love him any less or any differently, which was quite true… but no matter how he began or what he professed, it would eventually come down to confessing that he had also loved Saitou so desperately that even with Kenshin here now, his heart was breaking. How did he admit to that kind of duplicity? He couldn’t stand the thought of hurting Kenshin any further, and yet… he just couldn’t deny what his lover had said, any more than he would have been able to deny that he loved Kenshin.

He took a deep breath, still unsure of what he was about to say… and suddenly found Kenshin’s hand gently covering his mouth, halting him. The redhead had raised himself and was looking Sano in the face, solemn and sorrowful.

“I loved him too,” he said, and his eyes closed slowly as he laid himself once more against Sano’s chest.

Neither one spoke again, for the true comfort they could offer each other was love and mutual understanding and this tight embrace. Their torn hearts beating out the same rhythm, they sat in the glow of a sunset that really seemed somehow more brown than crimson, and watched it fade slowly away.



<<15

Once upon a time, Aletsan was writing a fic called Healing Broken Things (though that was not its title at the time), and this story she updated every single day. Thinking this would be an interesting challenge, I too decided to write a story I would update every single day. As you can probably guess, each segment of this resulting fic was one of these daily updates, except for one or two that were long enough that I split them and wrote the halves on consecutive days. And it was an interesting challenge. It led to a story that felt different from anything else I’d ever written.

Of course the fic is steeped in hyperdrama from beginning to end and is chock full of hit-or-miss gimmicks. The first chapter sets the groundwork, and then it gets a lot… I don’t want to say ‘worse,’ because I find I like this story surprisingly much for all that. But it gets a lot… more.

At some point around the early teens (as the chapters currently stand), I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.

I’ve rated this story .

Clinical Treatment


The force with which Saitou threw Sano to the floor of the treatment room at the Oguni clinic sent blood spattering from the gash across his chest to the wood on which he now sprawled. Sano didn’t mind a little rough handing, especially from Saitou, but being practically dragged along the ground all the way from the bar to the doctor was something he didn’t much appreciate.

At their abrupt entry into the room Megumi had started a little, but now she only watched, calm and wordless, as Sano swore incoherently at Saitou. It was neither the first time this had happened nor particularly uncharacteristic.

“I told you I could get here just fine on my own!” was the first thing Sano managed to articulate properly. It was a pointless statement, however, since he had told Saitou that several times on the way over, and Saitou hadn’t listened then any more than he was likely to now.

“I’m not done with you,” the officer answered ominously.

“Shouldn’t you be dealing with the rest of that brawl?” wondered Sano, surly but not honestly wishing Saitou were anywhere but here.

“The men can earn their pay for once.” Saitou was glowering down at Sano as the latter shifted into a kneeling position and glared back. “Do you have any idea who that was I pulled you off of back there?”

“Yeah, I–”

“Sugiyama Shinichiro is an influential tradesman with connections all over the country. He’s one of the richest men in Tokyo and one of the most ruthless. A word from him could have you killed and your body hidden so no one would ever find you, and a second word would make sure nobody even looked.”

“Well, isn’t it your job to take care of guys like that?”

Saitou completely ignored this remark. “Just because his brother is every bit as worthless a deadbeat as you are does not make him a good target for your idiotic weekend games.”

“He wasn’t a ‘target!'” Sano protested with, he thought, a fair imitation of honest outrage. He was outraged, of course, but it was just the usual anger at Saitou’s treatment of him, not because the accusations were untrue. “He just happened to be there when that fight got started, and–”

“Just shut up, ahou. This is the fifth time in the last two months you’ve gotten yourself into this kind of trouble and I’ve had to get you out of it; I’m sick and tired of wasting my influence on you. You can’t just stick to lowlifes like yourself, can you?” Sano had rarely seen Saitou this irritated; it was very picturesque. “No, you have to seek out and start pointless fights with the highest-profile people you can find and get yourself into situations you need a government agent to get you out of alive.”

“It’s not like I go out looking for them,” Sano lied. He had struggled to his feet by this point, but here Saitou stepped forward and shoved him to the floor again.

“Is there some reason you keep doing this?” the officer demanded harshly, towering over Sano with fists clenched. “Some reason that fits into any logical human rationale? Or are you really every bit as brainless as I’ve always thought you?”

It was consistently marvelous to Sano how Saitou could enrage and electrify him at the same time; how Sano could have come to crave emotions he normally would have considered negative simply because they were the best he could expect from that source, desire this rough treatment only because it was closer to what he wanted than anyone else’s gentleness… and yet grow irate when he received it. Although he opened his mouth to answer, he couldn’t be sure what he planned on saying. He certainly wasn’t about to admit the reason he kept doing this, whether or not it would fit Saitou’s idea of ‘logical human rationale.’

But Saitou didn’t give him a chance to say anything at all. “This is the last time I step forward to help you out of a mess like this; do you understand?”

Sano tried not to show just how much of a stab this statement was. “But I thought the commissioner said–”

“I don’t care that you came to Kyoto and I don’t care that you’re Himura’s friend; it’s not my job to clean up after you, so next time you can just get yourself hanged so we can all be free of your idiocy.”

Sano had scrambled back and was moving to stand again, in response to which Saitou took a menacing step toward him, but at last Megumi spoke. Her tone was placid, and the spark in her eyes expressed plainly that the delay in her intervention was no accident. “Now, now, I can’t have you worrying my patient to death.”

“It would save you a considerable amount of trouble,” Saitou replied. He stared down at Sano with burning eyes for a long moment before striding abruptly from the room.

Once it had slammed shut, Sano tore his gaze from the door with an effort and rallied himself not only for the remonstrance he knew Megumi expected him to make but also for the entire conversation that must follow.

“You couldn’t have stepped in before he started ripping me a new one?”

“No,” she replied brusquely, “because then I would have had to do it, and I have enough to do with you tonight as it is.” Her hands were gentler than her tone, however, as she helped him to the patient bed and began examining his injuries. “Besides,” she added with a somewhat evil smile, “he’s so good at it. It would have been a shame to interrupt him.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “Yeah, he’s made an art out of being an asshole.”

“Trouble attracts trouble, I suppose,” she said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

She’d been muttering something of her own at the time — “I’m going to have to stitch this,” he thought — and hadn’t heard him. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“But really,” she went on as she washed her hands in the basin by the door, “have you noticed we only see him when something goes wrong?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

The glance she shot him was more confused than anything else, but there might have been a hint of suspicion to it.

“That I keep having to be helped by him,” Sano explained quickly.

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe you should get a clue and stop getting into this kind of trouble.”

“Yeah…” Sano murmured, glancing again at the door. Then he added more quietly, “Where do you s’pose they took that Sugiyama guy…?”

“It’s probably best not to ask,” Megumi replied. “And lie still.”

There was something a little untrustworthy about her tone, and Sano speculated immediately, “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Megumi laughed musically and, Sano thought, a little uneasily. “Why would someone like that come to this clinic when he undoubtedly has a private doctor back at his estate?”

“Because it’s closest. Ow! shit! warn me before you stick fucking needles into me!”

She made a disdainful noise and continued stitching up his worst injury.

“Anyway,” Sano grunted, “he was only half-conscious when I last saw him, and he didn’t seem to have enough of a brain to get himself to the right place even when he wasn’t drunk off his ass and kinda beat-up… by me…”

There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Megumi said with a roll of eyes, snipping off her thread deftly and concisely wiping the blood away from the newly-sewn-up wound. “And don’t jump to conclusions.”

Contemplatively Sano watched her apply bandages to the fresh stitches and what other of his hurts required them. “If they’d brought him here, he’d probably be in the opposite corner room,” he mused.

Rolling her eyes yet again, Megumi stood abruptly. Applying pressure to a rather uncomfortable spot on his chest, she forced him to lie down. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” she remarked, and went to wash her hands again.

“Pretty sure you’re not the only one who thinks so,” Sano grinned, putting his arms casually behind his head.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to look in on.”

“Including Sugiyama, right?” Sano abandoned his relaxed pose almost immediately after assuming it, sitting up.

“You need to lie still for a bit,” she admonished, not entirely without the air of one making excuses, as she reached for the door.

“Why should I lie around at all?” demanded Sano, a triumphant grin growing on his face. “You didn’t give me any drugs or nothing. You’re running off to get him out of here before I can get at him, aren’t you?”

She drew herself up with dignity. “As I said, I have other patients to look in on. It has nothing to do with you. And you need to lie down because I’m your doctor and I said so.”

Sano jumped up, fully prepared to follow her wherever she was going and see if his guess was correct. As if to escape him, she opened the door quickly and took a step forward… but then fell back a pace with an inadvertent gasp. Even Sano’s progress was stopped in his surprise.

“I’ll handle this, doctor,” Saitou said, stepping through the door past Megumi, his dark, irritated gaze locked on Sano’s face.

Megumi could recover her presence of mind quicker than anyone Sano knew. “I would appreciate that,” she smiled. “Thank you, officer.” And she was gone.

Saitou closed the door and advanced. He did not look happy.

Sano was torn between pleasure that Saitou had returned (or perhaps never left) and wondering if Saitou might actually deliberately injure him this time and give Megumi more work. But all he said, in a tone of relatively indifferent defiance, was, “What are you doing still here?”

“Making sure you don’t do exactly what you’re trying to do right now.”

“Oh, really? What do you think I’m doing that’s so awful it requires your personal attention?”

Saitou gave a frustrated sigh. “You weren’t angry enough tonight to justify a follow-up visit to that overdressed idiot, so the only reason I can think of for you to be stalking him now is to draw attention to yourself again.”

“Draw attention to myself?” Sano echoed, trying to sound surprised at the accusation and, he feared, failing. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know, ahou; why don’t you tell me? I’ve had the feeling you were getting yourself into trouble on purpose all this time, but even of you I almost couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for you to be that stupid? Or are you suicidal?”

“Something like that,” Sano muttered. When Saitou’s impatient, irritated glare indicated the insufficiency of this answer, it was Sano’s turn to sigh. “You’re the investigator,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the narrowing of Saitou’s eyes at this. There wasn’t, he believed, any way Saitou could really be completely in the dark about his motives… unless he did simply think Sano suicidally stupid. Well, Saitou had said this was the last time he would help him out of a situation like tonight’s, which meant this little game had to end here. So, Sano figured, he might as well finish digging his grave before trying to evade it. He’d known, after all, that this moment had to come eventually; he hadn’t really been prepared for it (if that was even possible), but he’d certainly known.

“I noticed you help me out way more than makes sense unless… And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he really…'” Sano gave a half laugh and shrugged. “The truth is,” he said after a deep breath, “I kinda li–”

The confession, the very syllable was cut off by Saitou’s hand over his mouth as another clamped down on his arm to hold him in place. Sano’s eyes went wide in surprise as he half-choked in the cigarette scent of the glove and stared into Saitou’s face that was suddenly very near his own. This behavior at another time might have angered him, but with Saitou so close, and Sano just having said (or started to say) what he had, all he could feel was the overfast pounding of his heart.

“Ahou,” the wolf admonished in a low, intense tone, “think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.” For a long moment he paused, while Sano waited breathlessly to see where he was going with this. “Because if you invite,” Saitou finally continued, “I’m not going to refuse.” Feeling his eyes widen and his pulse intensify even farther, Sano wondered why on earth Saitou was phrasing this like a warning. “But if you’re looking for something soft and romantic,” the officer finished, “you’re better off with that woman.”

Sano wasn’t quite sure what woman Saitou could possibly be referring to. As a matter of fact, he really only had an amorphous concept of what a woman was at this point, given that the world had narrowed to the hot, expectant space he and Saitou occupied and nothing else seemed to exist.

The hand over his mouth pulled slowly away. As his lips were grazed slightly by Saitou’s fingers in this movement, Sano found his face tilting forward slightly as if to ask them to stay. And now he couldn’t think of anything to say. Saitou’s caution, after all, was valid enough; Sano knew perfectly well that, the moment this moment was over and the strangeness and anticipation had passed, he was certain to be irate at the cop again for something or other.

But, hell, that would be then. This was now.

“I’ve been starting brawls and getting myself stabbed just to get you to show up,” he replied hoarsely, “and you think you’re gonna scare me off with a vague little threat like that?”

The smile that spread slowly across Saitou’s face sent an intense, prickling shudder running through Sano’s entire body. Though not much different on the surface from the man’s usual predatory smirk, yet it somehow suggested he was deeply satisfied with Sano’s answer — as if his warning had been a test and Sano had passed particularly well.

And then Saitou descended on him like some force of nature made flesh, kissing Sano suddenly and fiercely. Rough gloved hands gripped him, pressing painfully against his injuries; possessive arms encircled him, making him feel always just a little off-balance and, for the moment, utterly dependent; and at their uppermost point of connection Saitou seemed to be attempting to devour Sano alive and whole. Sano didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so wonderful.

“I shouldn’t be rewarding you for your stupid ideas,” Saitou murmured after a while against Sano’s lips.

“Admit it,” Sano triumphed (though perhaps that was the wrong word when he could still hardly believe this was happening) — “you couldn’t stand the idea of me getting hanged or whatever, so you kept showing up to help me even when it annoyed the hell out of you.”

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

“That’s an unusual way of handling it,” Megumi commented suddenly from the door.

It was like that old story where the guy got a look at heaven only to find years had passed during the brief glimpse. Surely it hadn’t been long enough for Megumi to deal with some other patient — possibly to the point where he could be discharged — and decide it was safe to come back into a room where Saitou was supposedly raging? And why didn’t she look nearly as surprised as Sano thought she should?

Meanwhile, Saitou had, very unfortunately, released him and turned an amused expression on the doctor. “Nevertheless, the situation is under control,” he said.

“The end always justifies the means with you, doesn’t it?” Whether the disapproval in her voice was real or feigned, or to what exactly it referred, Sano couldn’t quite tell.

“In this case a more accurate idiom would be ‘killing two birds with one stone.'”

Megumi looked as if she had some issue she wasn’t vocalizing, and in any case she didn’t smirk nearly as well as Saitou did — but she still definitely had her own style. “I trust, then, I won’t be seeing him in here again.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow with a brief laugh. “I’m taking him in hand, not miraculously giving him a brain. You still have the pointless fights he’s always getting into, self-inflicted injury, and whatever I do to him to deal with.” At this point Sano protested rather loudly, but they both ignored him as Saitou finished, “Situations like tonight’s, however, you no longer need to worry about.”

“Then I suppose I won’t have to move Sugiyama-san after all.”

“No,” laughed Sano. “Matter of fact, give him my best.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded wryly. “You’ve had all the clinical treatment you need for one night.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sano glanced slyly at Saitou, who seemed unable to restrain a faint smirk at the suggestion. Signs were good that Saitou had been in much the same state of mind Sano had ever since Kyoto, and Sano’s pleasure at the cleverness of his own plan (stupid as it had seemed all along) was overshadowed only by his pleasure at its outcome.

Megumi snorted and rolled her eyes. Then she fixed the latter somewhat severely on Saitou. “I’d better not see him back in here tonight, at least. I have other things to do.”

“Nah…” Sano felt suddenly a bit sheepish about all the trouble he’d given Megumi over the last couple of months in pursuit of an end he’d never really considered very likely. “Got no reason to go looking for fights now.” Especially since he could probably find one with Saitou now any time he wanted, and not even need to go to extreme measures to get the man’s attention.

As if reading his thoughts, Saitou punched him in the arm none too gently. “Ahou. That’s not what she meant.”

“God, asshole, that’s no reason to fucking hit me!” Sano’s hand went from rubbing the spot on his arm to striking out against Saitou, who stepped easily aside. “What the hell did you think she meant?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Saitou smirked. “Come on.” And he started toward the door.

“Where are we going?” Sano jogged after him.

“I’ll explain that too.”

“Hey, see you, kitsune!” Sano whirled, walking backward for a few paces, to wave at Megumi. Stumbling, his back running hard into the doorframe, he was soon forced to resume normal movement; but before he turned he saw her standing still watching them leave, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at him again.

She was smiling, though.


I’ve rated this story .

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


The Eyes in the Mirror

Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

Days keep slipping by while Heero, who desperately wants to step up his relationship with Duo, the taxi driver that always takes him to work, continually puts off confessing that he likes him.



Monday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab almost fifteen minutes later than his usual time, shook off and half-closed his umbrella, and tossed his briefcase onto the empty beige seat beside him with what would have been a grumble, or perhaps a sigh, if he’d given it any volume. Despite the relative subtlety of this expression and the complete muting by the rain of any sound he might inadvertently have let escape his lips, Duo, of course, noticed his mood.

“Moving a little slow today?” he said cheerfully, throwing an understanding grin over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. Only someone that knew Heero well enough to read the signs of his discontent would have been able to guess at its cause… Duo had driven Heero to work almost every day for the past few months, and had learned to read the signs earlier than most people.

“Yes.” Heero gave him a hard look, though not necessarily an angry one. He was irritated, but only at himself for getting off to such a late start; he supposed there probably were circumstances under which he could be angry at Duo… but he hadn’t found any yet.

Duo’s grin widened as he glanced back the other direction and pulled away from the curb. “You’re my third fare of the day who’s been running late. The first guy’s basement flooded, and then this lady told me an awesome story about her kid taking his diaper off and putting it all over his room, and she had to clean it up before she could leave for work.” He chuckled. “Think your excuse can top theirs?”

“No.” There was a touch of surliness to this answer, since Heero would much rather have had such an excuse, unpleasant as either situation would have been to deal with, than the infinitely weaker ‘couldn’t get to sleep for hours and then didn’t hear the alarm once sleep finally came.’ However, he found himself, for some reason, explaining this to Duo despite its lameness.

“Well, I think this is the first time I remember you coming down late,” the driver answered him in an easy, reassuring tone. “Nobody can be on time every day. I mean, me, the earlier I get up, the later I’m likely to be. If I have to be to class at eight and I get up at six, I’ll be late; but if I get up at seven fifteen I’m fine.”

At this Heero couldn’t help smiling a little; if he’d had to guess what Duo’s morning routine was like — and he spent more time guessing about Duo’s personal life in general than Duo probably had any idea — this would certainly have been part of it. He could easily picture Duo snooze-buttoning himself into rising five minutes before he needed to leave, then getting ready in forty-five seconds and showing up to work as dapper as usual.

Except for… “How long does your braid take?” The words were out of his mouth almost before he’d even fully formed the question, long before he’d consciously decided to ask it. That sort of thing happened a lot in Duo’s cab; Heero was almost used to it.

Duo shrugged. “A minute? Two minutes? Maybe?”

Heero raised a brow at the indigo eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t believe you,” he said, and noticed, as he often did, how serious his voice sounded — as if he were denying, rather than the length of time Duo claimed it took to do his hair, the possibility of a heinous crime he knew Duo incapable of committing, or the likelihood of some hideous natural disaster he would rather not believe had happened. No wonder they kept him off the phones at work.

Duo, however, far from objecting to Heero’s incongruously dire tone, seemed inclined rather to build on it. “I swear it’s true, your honor!” he protested, the edge of his face that Heero could see wrinkling in amusement as he squeaked out this appeal. “Don’t send me back to jail!”

“All right,” Heero answered, “I’ll let you off this time.” And though he still sounded unnecessarily serious, the slight grin that had taken hold of his mouth almost in spite of himself added a touch of warmth to his tone that he was sure Duo would pick up on.

“Seriously, though,” Duo went on, “it doesn’t take very long: pull it out, brush it, put it back in.” With a facetiously rakish expression that was discernable even from this angle he added, “It’s not like I have to spend forever in the bathroom to look fabulous.”

Heero pursed his lips against the response he was tempted to make — to wit, that he had no doubt this was the case. Fortunately, he was saved the trouble of coming up with an innocuous response when Duo turned a corner rather sharply and noticed Heero reeling a bit behind him.

“Seat belt!” the driver commanded, and Heero dutifully complied. Duo watched him in the mirror, eyes narrowed and jaw jutting out in an exaggerated expression of authoritative determination, until something on the road drew his gaze to where it probably should have been all along.

Heero was never quite sure whether he should worry when Duo looked at him rather than traffic, as he did rather value his life… but he certainly couldn’t complain if Duo wanted to look at him — even if it was only to be sure he was donning his seat belt as commanded — and Duo did have a remarkable talent for weaving through the lanes and avoiding other vehicles that often made Heero wonder vaguely if, with coordination like that, he might not be a very good dancer. So it was unlikely that Heero would protest until Duo actually wrecked them — and even that Heero might overlook, provided the circumstance was resultant upon Duo fixing him with that unexpectedly firm gaze in the mirror or half-turning to say something adorable over his shoulder.

Yeah, Heero had it pretty bad.

When Duo’s attention returned to him, both face and voice were companionable once again. “So are we still going to hang out on Friday?”

To Heero this was a somewhat awkward question, since his reply, “If you’re free,” was not what he actually wanted to say. He wasn’t really given to blushing, but he did busy himself with shaking the rain off his umbrella onto the floor beside his feet so as to avoid, just for the moment, meeting the eyes in the mirror.

“Only if you promise not to stand me up again,” Duo said.

Truly, obviously, Duo had no idea. ‘Stand me up’ was such a date term. And Friday’s arrangement — their second attempt, after last Friday’s cancellation on Heero’s part thanks to the demands of overtime, to turn the customer-client relationship into something more — was definitely not a date. Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

“Not this time,” he promised. “I told them I wouldn’t be working any overtime this week.”

Duo winced theatrically, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “If you told them with that face, I’m not worried!”

“What face?” Heero wondered, resisting the impulse to raise a hand to the area in question to attempt ascertaining with fingers the answer to his.

“That face where if you said, ‘I told them I wouldn’t be on the planet this week,’ I would totally believe you,” Duo chuckled. “And so would they. Man, when you get serious, you really get serious! You should ask for a raise with that face. I mean tell them you want a raise with that face. Or tell my boss I want a raise with that face.”

Heero laughed. This happened occasionally in Duo’s cab; he was almost used to that too. He did have to wonder, though, whether, if the driver had watched his face enough to know it so well, Duo had really never suspected…

Well, Heero reflected, his face probably wouldn’t show it. He wasn’t exactly a stereotypical gay man. The fact that he didn’t think he’d ever actually met a stereotypical gay man didn’t negate his belief in their existence, since his social circle — so called — was not wide enough to encompass any other gay men, and therefore he had no living model besides himself to compare with the mythos of television. But he hoped he was able to perceive the status he claimed for himself in others, if it existed — at the very least in someone he’d watched carefully — and he hadn’t yet observed any symptoms in Duo. And evidently Duo didn’t recognize it in him, either.

Which was why Friday’s meeting wouldn’t be a date.

…unless Heero managed to establish it as such before the time in question, and Duo accepted the arrangement — the chances of which seemed at the moment to range from slim to none, given that Heero hadn’t been able to bring himself yet to confess his crush and Duo probably wouldn’t be interested even if or when he did. Would probably, in fact, become uncomfortable, and would stop showing up conveniently outside Heero’s apartment at 7:45 every morning knowing he was guaranteed a fare that at least up until that point he’d seemed to enjoy talking to. That’s what Heero thought he would do in a similar situation, anyway.

“So Friday…” He began this phrase in the hope of tricking himself into finishing it without realizing. Generally he didn’t speak impetuously or lose control of what he was saying, but the moment he was in Duo’s cab he had a tendency to blurt things out spontaneously — which might lead, if he timed it correctly, to his saying exactly what he wanted to say and hadn’t yet been able to. His ingrained reticence and reluctance to emotional commitment won out over Duo’s influence, however, and he found himself unable to proceed.

“Yeah?” Duo wondered.

With an effort Heero forced out, “I’ll get that movie.”

“Cool.”

They were approaching the office now, so it wasn’t really the right time for a conversation beginning with an unprecedented declaration of gay admiration. He would prefer to have a little more leisure to discuss it, and be more adequately braced for possible rejection, in any case. Still, it wasn’t with a great amount of hope, as Duo swiped his card and then bid him a friendly farewell, that Heero reflected, Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab with every intention of getting the big question out before they reached the interstate. He’d spent breakfast working himself up to it, considering variants of phraseology on his part and possible responses on Duo’s as well as what he would say and do if Duo utterly rejected him. However, he was completely distracted from his purpose, as he pulled the door shut, by the heartily bizarre greeting from the driver: “Welcome to my dog!”

“What?” wondered Heero blankly.

“Oh, in the book I’ve been reading…” Duo began as he inserted the taxi smoothly into traffic.

“The same one?” Heero guessed.

In response to the slight skepticism in the query Duo just laughed. He’d been working on this particular book for almost two months now, if Heero was remembering correctly, ever since a class he’d been taking had studied excerpts and gotten him interested. “Well, it’s, like, a thousand pages,” he reminded Heero, without even a trace of shame at taking so long or at the subsequent admission, “and some parts of it are really boring.”

Heero restrained his head-shake. Duo was so enthusiastic about things — about life in general, it seemed — that even in something he did purely for recreation he enjoyed a challenge. Heero couldn’t help but admire the intensity as well as the intelligence that fitted Duo for such a pursuit… For any thousand-page book he wasn’t required to read that didn’t entirely hold his interest, Heero didn’t think he would have the fortitude.

It wasn’t that he objected to a challenge… just not when he was trying to relax. Maybe that was why he found it so difficult to relax most of the time: it was too damn challenging, so he avoided it. As if that made sense at all. Duo obviously had no such problem. Still, Heero might not necessarily want to be like that… but he definitely knew he wanted to be with that. There was about Duo an almost uncanny air of ease and simultaneous boundless energy that was somehow galvanizing and restful at the same time.

“Anyway,” Duo continued, “I got to this part last night where they called a dog a ‘cab’ — part of this thieves’ dialect-thing that was really interesting for almost the whole time the author went on and on about it — and it made me think I should name my car ‘Spot’ or something. It’s got those checkers on it; I think it’d make a good ‘Spot.'”

Heero had considered, on occasion, bringing with him on his taxi rides a little notebook in which to document the number of times Duo made him smile unexpectedly. “Do people name their dogs ‘Spot’ anymore?”

“Well, it needs to be a name people know is a dog’s name, or else the joke won’t work.”

“I think your ‘joke’ is a little too obscure for it to matter.” God, would he ever be able to respond to Duo’s carefree conversation with matching lightness, or was he doomed forever to this overly-serious tone? He struggled for greater levity of expression as he added, “You might as well choose a name you like better than ‘Spot.'”

As usual, Duo didn’t seem to mind Heero’s solemn tone; eyes crinkling with his pleased expression, he looked at his passenger in the mirror and said, “Well, and it’s a translation, too, so I guess that makes it even more obscure. We didn’t read this part in class, so I don’t even know if ‘cab’ was actually the word they used — so maybe the joke doesn’t even really work. Someday I’ll try the original and find out… but my French isn’t good enough for that yet, so I’m sticking with the English version for now.”

Had Heero been a more flirtatious man, or one possessed of easier powers of socialization — or, possibly, even just a bit more surety of his success in the present case — he might have tested on Duo the only French phrase he knew: asked for a translation in all innocence, or simply thrown it out as the admitted extent of his conversance, and gauged the reaction. As it was, he kept his voulez-vous coucher avec moi to himself. That, and admired Duo’s inclination and ability to learn a foreign language at all — something Heero had never managed. Unless programming jargon counted.

Heero had been fortunate enough to complete an accredited technical training program just out of high school on a grant, and had been making decent money in a relatively stable career field ever since. Duo, on the other hand — as far as Heero understood based on their conversations up until this point — had been painstakingly working his way through a four-year degree at the local college for the last decade, paying every penny of tuition himself by driving cabs and waiting tables. Heero, while not thinking of himself as overly transient in his interests or pursuits, couldn’t help looking up to that kind of long-term determination.

And now, as Duo inquired whether Heero had finished ‘that train robbery book’ (the most recent novel he had mentioned reading), there really was no way to introduce the topic Heero had entered the taxi determined to bring up; it would seem too jarring against the clever joviality of Duo’s book talk. Heero could only hope that they were not like that as well: too different ever to mesh, and in more ways than mere orientation (which information neither possessed, currently, about the other to any degree beyond assumption).

Heero knew perfectly well that he was gloomy and far too serious… or, at the very least, too outwardly serious for his own good. It made other people take him seriously, which was to his advantage, but it didn’t necessarily make anyone like him. And Duo was so cheerful… Still, Heero thought he had noticed — only a few times during their acquaintance, since taxi drives to work, however consistent, rarely afforded occasion for such — a deeply shadowed side to Duo’s vehemence of personality with which he thought he could readily identify. There was a well-rounded awareness of the often painful realities of life under that attractive grin; Duo simply chose to be cheerful on top of it.

The facts that they could probably connect on that level, that Duo’s sanguinity so often increased Heero’s, and that Duo didn’t seem to be bothered by Heero’s lack in the first place, surely made them perfectly suited for each other. Heero certainly saw it that way… but would Duo?

So the question went unasked that day as well; instead they discussed Michael Crichton until pulling up at the office and parting.

Wednesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab already on the phone. It was never a good sign when his work day started before he’d even left the apartment, and Duo apparently agreed; as the latter moved them out into the street, evidently realizing this was a business call, his face took on first a look of sympathy and then a dramatic expression of suffering and despair.

It was a statement almost never made of Heero that he could not keep countenance, but, as he explained the details of the current project (admittedly somewhat complicated) to his coworker, and Duo began responding to everything he said with increasingly exaggerated feigned misery, rarely if ever watching his driving, it grew more and more difficult not to laugh out loud.

It got so bad that Relena finally asked, “Is something wrong?” She’d probably never heard him smile over the phone before.

“No,” Heero assured her, tearing his eyes away from those in the mirror with some effort and smoothing over his grin. “But if you’re in the area this afternoon, I’ll talk to you then. Just make sure you call us if you do hear from him.”

She assured him that she would and said goodbye.

Almost before the call had even ended, Heero had again sought out the gaze of the taxi driver, who grinned unrepentantly at him. “Good thing I don’t charge for the entertainment!” said Duo, laughing at himself. “Good morning! Now that you’re done sweet-talking your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Heero shook his head at the idea as he snapped his phone shut and put it back into his briefcase. Then, in one of those disturbingly unguarded bursts of madness that Duo’s cab seemed so often to induce, he added, “I don’t date women.”

He felt the blood drain from his face and then return in a rush for an honest-to-goodness, hot-burning blush. Why the hell had he said that?? He could have explained the situation in so many other ways — ‘She’s seeing someone;’ ‘We’re just friends;’ ‘I’m not interested in her’ — all of them perfectly true and all of them a good deal less burst-out-of-the-closet-from-nowhere startling.

But all Duo said was, “Oh! That makes a difference, doesn’t it?” And while he did appear a little surprised, it faded quickly and was neither accompanied nor followed by any look of disapproval. Heero thought, though, in a stiff fit of ragingly awkward, conflicting feelings, that the driver’s eyes were turned away from the mirror a good deal more than usual throughout the rest of the journey.

Obviously the latter could no longer reasonably hope to contain the specific conversation Heero had wished it would. As a matter of fact, he almost felt like jumping out of the cab and walking the rest of the way from the next light, melodrama level of that gesture notwithstanding.

It was not heartening that he felt this way about a fairly smooth admission of homosexuality that could only bring him closer to his goal. The statement had, for all its serious tone, had the kind of unassuming, personal, yet not indelicate sound he would precisely have wished for… a sound he doubted he could conjure anywhere but here or probably to anyone but Duo, if he could come up with it at all. If this relatively well-delivered and well-received confession was attended by so much embarassment and confusion, what hope on earth was there for his planned ‘let’s-make-this-a-date‘ speech?

That this was really a fortuitous event he kept telling himself with all the firmness he could command. This meant one thing fewer to worry about getting off his chest; maybe it would make the asking easier. And wasn’t it a good sign that Duo hadn’t freaked out? Now he had merely to propose casually that they rename the get-together on Friday, no preamble required. It would no longer be a surprise on top of another surprise; the two shocks were divided conveniently onto separate days. Surely this was a good thing.

So he kept telling himself.

And yet he wished he could fall through the seat and into the road like one of those superheroes that went intangible at will.

He was hardly aware of a word they spoke during the remainder of that drive. Duo, after a minute or so of silence, reverted to that completely harmless conversational staple of his, amusing anecdotes about anonymous passengers — but Heero would certainly not remember any of them later. As usual when this subject arose, he did wonder vaguely and somewhat dejectedly whether he might not be the hero of any of these stories when someone else was in the back seat, but for once Duo’s pleasant cabbie chatter could not wholly engross him. Staring out the window, uncertain whether or not he was still blushing, he tried to make for his agitation a sort of balm out of the wordless sound of Duo’s voice that was all he could hear behind the noise of his reflections. He thought he gave noncommittal interjections occasionally, too.

By the time they reached the office, Heero had straightened his head out somewhat. Whether he actually believed it or not, he was ready at least to believe that this had been a step forward, and he was fairly sure the usual tan of his face had returned. And at least his expression (as far as he could tell) hadn’t changed this entire time to betray his embarassment and turmoil. There was something to be said for stoicism.

His emotions were still rather augmented, but hadn’t really changed. So, although he didn’t exactly expect it, the half-hopeful, half-painful throb his heart gave when Duo smiled at him as he said goodbye didn’t really surprise him.

Thursday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab somewhat damp, as it was raining rather torrentially today; even with an umbrella, just the walk from the apartment lobby doors to the curb could not but discomfort.

“Good morning,” he said.

…there was another thing Duo’s cab did to him: made him offer a greeting (to Duo) before he’d been greeted. Which only happened occasionally, since Duo pretty consistently got to it first.

Through vigorous repetition of all the positive thoughts he’d tentatively entertained yesterday, Heero had come to grips with his inadvertent confession and was relatively calm. Whether he was at all ready to ask Duo about tomorrow was an entirely different story, but he thought he could at least converse with some degree of normalcy.

Duo, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts. His good morning was lethargic, and he yawned expansively before pulling out into the street. The eyes in the mirror looked tired, the planes beneath them unusually dark, the friendly opening comments that usually accompanied their gaze markedly absent.

After a few minutes of pathetic silence Heero wondered, “Not feeling well?” Here was where the austere tone did him the most disservice: there was no way he could sound concerned with that voice. He could only hope Duo would read his sincerity some other way.

The driver threw a rueful smile over his shoulder. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Heero replied, and stifled a sigh at how stiff and purely conventional it sounded.

“Thanks,” said Duo. His smile, visible in the mirror as he tilted his chin up to get a clear look at the right lane, widened into something more like his usual transmittable grin; this comforted Heero a little for his inability to express himself the way he wished to… he wasn’t sure whether it was merely Duo’s professionalism that led him to act as if he didn’t care about Heero’s social deficiencies, or whether he truly didn’t mind — and this lack of certainty was a large part of why Heero was so reluctant to speak — but it was comforting. Even when he was sick or tired or both and not inclined to converse, Duo was a wonderful person to have around.

Whatever the case was, Heero forced himself to say something else to reiterate (perhaps to prove) his genuine sympathy. “I sometimes unexpectedly get insomnia, and I hate it. And I don’t even go to school,” he added, considering how that would complicate things.

Duo nodded, his expression still weary and rueful.

“Does it happen to you often?” Heero persisted.

“No,” answered Duo. “No, not very often.”

“Well, that’s good, at least.” And Heero could think of nothing more to say. Well, he could think of plenty to say; he just doubted his ability to say it naturally enough that it wouldn’t sound somewhat creepy. One didn’t suggest a certain type of pajamas and a glass of warm milk to one’s taxi driver unless one was a good deal smoother or outwardly friendlier than Heero was. Or just a little closer to said driver.

Which brought him uncomfortably hard up against the very solid and unpleasant reflection that perhaps it would be unwise, even unkind, to attempt a transition from business associates straight to guys that are dating without even a nominal stop at friends.

How well did he know Duo, really? How well could he expect Duo to know him at this point? Was it really such a good idea to try to initiate a more romantic relationship without finding out? And wouldn’t he be putting an awful lot of pressure on Duo by asking him to take that step without giving him the chance to get to know Heero under less businesslike circumstances than these taxi rides to work?

He didn’t know. How did most people go about this sort of thing? Maybe Duo would just provide some reasonable contingency involving a forerunning period of friendship. Heero could accept that. It would drive him crazy — closer even than the current arrangement, yet still not what he wanted — but he could accept it.

It was stupid, though, even to contemplate Duo’s specific response to the idea of dating him without knowing how Duo felt about dating other males in general. What was the latest word on population percentages? Two out of a hundred American men identified as gay? Seriously, what were the chances that out of, say, the hundred men on this stretch of interstate right now, the two gay ones were sitting in the same taxi?

Heero wasn’t the type to shy — for long — from something he was reluctant to do… he knew he would confess, he would ask, at some point. But it certainly wasn’t going to be today, and it might very well not be tomorrow either. Duo’s mood made it utterly impossible today, and tomorrow… well, he simply wasn’t sure it simply wasn’t too early for all of this.

There were moments in this cab, however, when he felt he could spill out all the words requisite to forming the confession and ensuing question, if not necessarily in perfect order, at least in some semblance of coherency. At these moments he really had no idea what was holding him back, and his agitation was extreme. He was fairly certain it still didn’t show in his face or sound in his voice if he happened to speak just then — and it might have been better if it had — but these were some of the most discommodious moments of any time spent with Duo. And this was definitely one of them.

It was not an entirely silent trip following the brief opening exchange; even through the bleak mood that had gripped him in his exhaustion Duo still had an apparently unquenchable urge to say certain things that came to mind. It was clear, however, that he was not inclined toward ongoing conversation, nor in the best humor with the rest of the world; he grumbled a few fairly rude comments in apostrophe at other drivers on the road — which comments were nothing unusual in themselves, only rendered so by the lack of the cheery volume and forgiving affability that generally accompanied them. He wasn’t exactly unpleasant to Heero, but the atmosphere remained far from what it normally was.

Still, he did make a visible effort at smiling and rendering his goodbye pleasant when Heero had paid and was readying his umbrella. “Have a good one,” Duo bade him wearily.

“You too,” replied Heero, and hesitated. After a surreptitiously heavy breath he added, “I hope you feel better. Get some sleep.”

Duo’s smile deepened, and just that was worth the effort of the extra, personal words. “Thanks,” he said sincerely.

Heero smiled a bit too, and got out of the cab.

Friday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab in a state of almost frantically desperate determination he seldom reached, knowing today was the day if any was. Yesterday’s doubts hadn’t made any significant difference to his overall resolve; he’d decided to try it today, if he could. For one thing, he thought it more than likely that he couldn’t, and therefore saw no reason to put it off since it would probably be put off for him anyway. For another… well… he really, really liked Duo, and didn’t want to turn him into a distant courtly love. Heero wasn’t the happiest person in the world, but simultaneously had little patience for that sort of counterproductive self-pitying lethargy.

Duo’s wonderfully cheerful, amusing, enticing demeanor was back in place today in full force. Before Heero could even begin to think how to work the discussion around to what he wanted to talk about, he found himself engrossed in some topic that with anyone else would have been utterly dull but with Duo was funny and interesting — yard work and gardening, he thought. He was afraid he was an even worse conversational companion than usual, though, since his mind was on such a different track. Duo, as always, didn’t seem to mind.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed on Heero in the mirror more often than on most days, and with a curiosity he didn’t bother to disguise. Heero thought that some of the agitation might actually be showing for once; it was certainly growing moment by moment — or, rather, street by street as they drew closer and closer to their usual goal of Heero’s place of employ and watched his opportunity shrinking.

And then, with a splash in the gutter beside the curb and a tenfold increase of inner turbulence, they had arrived. Duo put the car in park and turned a smile on Heero as he always did. “So I’ll call you tonight after class and make sure–”

Heero cut him off. “About tonight.”

Duo tilted his head slightly, wordless, his smile undiminished.

“I was wondering.” He sounded like a goddamn robot, absolutely flat and emotionless. “I was wondering,” he said again, feeling a bit faint. Apparently ‘I was wondering’ wasn’t the right way to start, though, since no other words wanted to emerge thereafter. He tried a different approach. “I’ve had a…” No, that wasn’t it either. “I have a…”

Duo’s brows went up, though he was still smiling.

And that was what did it, really. Rather than appear incompetent — especially to someone he liked so much — rather than keep dithering like an idiot — or, worse, start actually stammering or stuttering — Heero would bear all the rejection in the world. “I’ve liked you for a long time,” he said, coolly, clearly, and with perfect calm. “And I wanted to know if we could possibly call tonight a date instead of just ‘hanging out.'”

There. There was an end of that. He didn’t know if he could speak ever again, but there, at least, was an end of that. Now Duo would let him down gently and drive off out of his life.

For a long moment Duo stared at him with no change in the unconcerned expression on his face. Finally he said, “Yeah, sure, I guess we could.”

Dumbfounded, certain his face had gone white and that he had quite possibly stopped breathing entirely, Heero sat frozen, staring back. After what seemed like forever in the steady beat of the rain and the windshield wipers and the noise of cars outside and the stunned silence within he managed, “‘Yeah, sure?’ Just like that?” And again with the level, serious tone. Not that the flabbergasted squeak in which these words would have emerged from many another person’s mouth was what he wanted… but it probably would have been better to convey just a little of the utter shock that had overtaken him at Duo’s response.

Duo’s smile turned sympathetic. “If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t this calm about it on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Heero repeated. “When I…”

“Said that bit about not dating women? Yeah. I hadn’t even guessed! And I remembered on Monday you said ‘About Friday’ or something all hesitating…”

“You remember what I said on Monday,” Heero put in blankly.

“Well, unlike most people in this city, you say interesting things; I usually remember it. Anyway, on Wednesday I was pretty shocked, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it… I realized that you might want tonight to be a date and just hadn’t told me, and I didn’t really know…” He laughed a little helplessly. “I didn’t know what to do about that.”

“That’s why you were in a weird mood yesterday.”

“Yeah… sorry if I took it out on you… Wednesday wasn’t quite long enough to decide; it took me half of yesterday too.”

“And now…” This was really nothing like anything Heero had expected; he felt as if, in this conversation, he was largely along for the ride. How appropriate.

Duo shrugged. “I’ve had this thing in the back of my head for a while about whether or not I might like men, but it’s hard to decide that these days in this understanding country of ours.” He accompanied his airy tone with a casual wave of the hand, as if to indicate that this was a largely unrelated matter. “So since you’re an interesting guy, like I said, I figured you’re the perfect way to find out for sure.”

“I’m an interesting guy…” Heero’s voice trailed off into silence, probably a better indication of what he was feeling than anything he’d said to Duo all week.

“Yeah.” Duo grinned as he added, “Didn’t you know that?”

Heero saw no reason to try to fight off the infectiousness of that grin — though his own expression was more of a baffled half-smile. “No, not really.”

“You expected me to say no, didn’t you?” This was spoken a little more quietly than the previous statements, and the look in Duo’s eyes had softened a trifle.

Heero nodded.

Duo reached over the seat — which was awkward, yes, but neither of them really cared — and took Heero’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a brave man, Heero Yuy,” he stated solemnly. It was absurd that even his deliberate solemnity couldn’t match Heero’s most casual tone.

Feeling suddenly warm all over and the beginnings of an overwhelming, adrenaline-withdrawal-like jittery joy, Heero held onto Duo’s hand for a moment and just smiled.

“So I really will call you when I’m out of class,” Duo went on, returning the pleased expression as he pulled his arm back over the seat, “and let you know I’m on my way. Don’t forget to rent that movie.”

“I won’t,” Heero assured him, pulling his briefcase onto his lap. As he opened it and reached for his wallet, Duo waved dismissively.

“This ride’s on me,” he said.

Afterward (Saturday)

Heero slid into Duo’s arms where they welcomed him onto the sofa in the midst of a nest of rumpled blankets. They’d been up so late last night after the movie, talking about nearly every subject under the sun until even the laconic Heero was hoarse and dry-throated, that Duo had opted to stay the night — chastely, on the couch in the living room, since (even if Heero had been) he really wasn’t ready for any more intimate arrangement just yet. Apparently he was ready for some small-scale cuddling, though, and Heero felt no reluctance whatsoever — felt, in fact, a clinging, overwhelming eagerness — at settling into the mess of spare bedding beside and against him and returning the half-embrace.

“Good morning,” Duo said, a charming half-grin quirking his mouth. He brought his face very close to Heero’s as the latter echoed the greeting; Heero could feel Duo’s breath warm against his skin, and his own respirations seemed to have gone all uneven and shallow as Duo’s eyes roved meticulously across his features and that adorable little grin faded into a more absent, contemplative smile. Then, abruptly, Duo pushed forward and kissed Heero briefly but firmly without closing his eyes.

“This gay stuff isn’t so hard,” he murmured as he drew back.

For a long moment Heero had no power to respond, and Duo’s traditional hearty grin blossomed beneath his amused, crinkling bright eyes.

Finally Heero said, “No, apparently it isn’t.” He didn’t even bother lamenting the serious tone now.

Duo raised a brow. “‘Apparently?’ You’re the experienced one here, aren’t you?”

Heero’s own brows went down slightly. “I’ve only ever dated a couple of guys before,” he admitted, feeling a little awkward and suddenly hoping Duo wasn’t anticipating all-encompassing expert knowledge from him. “And it was never very… physical.”

Nodding his understanding and giving no sign of disappointed expectations, Duo asked, “And women? Did you ever see any women before you realized?”

“A few,” said Heero with a shrug. “It was pretty much the same with them.”

Again Duo nodded. “Well…” Again he moved his parted lips and intoxicating breath toward Heero’s face, and again Heero’s own breath became almost embarassingly erratic. Before they touched, though, Duo finished his statement, “At least this part’s pretty easy.”

He kissed him harder this time, and with a sort of shifting, caressing pressure that was almost more exploratory than anything else. Heero, through the hot steam of indigo and tan and golden-brown that seemed to have overtaken his vision and blurred his thoughts, felt the entire universe narrow to the circumference of the space they occupied; everything more than an inch beyond the boundaries of their bodies ceased to exist, and even the forest-green couch cushions on which they sat and leant and the blankets tucked around them were dimming.

Duo’s left hand running slowly up and down his arm; Duo’s right hand on his back, fingers bending and unbending in a sort of small massage against his pajama shirt; Duo’s thigh, clad only in shorts he’d been wearing beneath his jeans last night, the smooth tanned flesh of a shapely leg intermittently visible through the parted folds of the blanket, flush against Heero’s, warm and firm; Duo’s lips pushing against his in incomprehensibly world-melting patterns — this was really all there was to anything… and all with the tacit promise of an exponentially greater level of intensity once Duo got his bearings.

Heero was not ready to stop kissing Duo when Duo pulled away, but neither was he for several moments in a sufficiently lucid state verbally to request a return of Duo’s lips to his. During those moments, Duo brought one hand near his face and spoke into an imaginary sound recorder in a stodgy, mustached accent. “March 20, 2010. Experiment Report. Test subject responding favorably to prolonged oral contact with minor peripheral stimulus. Scientist responding pretty well too. Propose increasing complexity of interaction, but not today since scientist has to be driving at 11:30 and has probably already been here too long.” By the time he reached the end of this little dissertation, his voice had worked its way back to its usual sound.

Heero, meanwhile, had regained his composure, vision, and (to some extent) clarity of thought, and had overcome the urge to push Duo down onto his back and jump on him. Instead, he just grinned in response to Duo’s performance and said, “We should schedule another experiment, in that case.”

“Well, do you want to play basketball with me on Wednesday?”

“Yes,” Heero found himself saying, almost before the precise nature of the invitation had actually registered. He had a feeling that his answer to ‘Do you want to [verb] with me?’ spoken by Duo would be an unmitigated ‘yes’ for an indeterminate period of time to come. Once the meaning of Duo’s words did sink in, though, he added, “But we can get together next Friday too, can’t we?”

Duo grinned; perhaps he could sense Heero’s keen interest in the proposal even through the inadvertent facade of solemnity, now that he was aware of Heero’s keen interest in general. And if that was the case, Heero thought, there really was no logical reason to try to abandon that facade for the rest of the world.

“We have all week to discuss it,” Duo said.

“Or put off discussing it,” Heero replied with a smile.

To judge by his expression, Duo — like Heero — already knew what conclusion they were most likely to come to.


This story was written for Sharon as part of the “Help Haiti” auction in 2010. I’ve rated it .

I don’t think the perspective is correct in that picture, but whatever… if I were worried about anything in it, it would be the less-than-perfectly-straight lines of seat and dashboard that I couldn’t be arsed to use a ruler for.

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