He Can Be Taught

He Can Be Taught

Section 1

A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He shouldn’t be so melancholy, now Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.

He tried to believe his depression was based in a right hand that would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the concept of disappointment that he’d never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.

The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.

Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…

And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.

So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.

The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.

Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that stemmed merely from being around her all the time; you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?

“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko demanded from his side.

Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”

Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”

“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”

“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”

This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some she pointedly lacked.

He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.

Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.

But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.

Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.

And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.

The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.

Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.

***

“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”

Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolition or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.

Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.

Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to demonstrate he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.

Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.

“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”

“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”

At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.

But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.

In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.

Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than himself, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.

But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?

He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.

As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.

Not Aoshi, then.

Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give in, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…

On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.

The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of sobriety that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.

Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!

Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–

–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!

Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”

Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.

An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.

But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.

In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.

His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.

And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”

***

As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.

Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.

“Yo, tori-atama!”

Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.

“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.

“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.

A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience how many of these lined the corridor, and that the cops only lit each one when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t about to point it out, Chou stood precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one generally a good deal more straightforward.

“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.

“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”

Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”

Squint momentarily not so tight, Chou stared at him in bemusement. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”

Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.

Now the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wouldn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he’d gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought of Saitou alive?

“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.

Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in an unaccustomed voice pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that.”

Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say, bakayarou. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”

Sano just grunted.

“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”

On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.

Once he determined Chou had really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou no longer blocked, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…

“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was simply because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”

“All right, Kenshin!”

Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…

…for a week.

By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!

He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.

And then one day they let him go. Half asleep, as wasn’t infrequently the case where he had no other pastime, he was dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out an incoherent oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.

Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing aside watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.

With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”

Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.

“By who?”

Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”

Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?

One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?

The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards proved that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”

“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”

But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise couldn’t be sure whether or not Chou knew some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not be sure, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.

***

All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. It was unmistakable, even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice his tail. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.

Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, with Sano crossing the dojo grounds in a direction unpropitious for entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of washables.

“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; possibly the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the muddy results of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.

Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”

The distress mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the dirty appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.

“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone barely cracked with the faintest touch of unhappiness.

“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.

Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”

Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”

As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”

“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.

“Sanosuke!”

Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.

“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.

“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”

“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”

The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”

This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”

Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”

With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”

In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.

“Um, no…” Sano gave his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”

For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”

Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.

“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”

Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.

And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.

***

If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained — possibly because his attitude made even less sense to him than it would have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.

This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.

And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he found himself about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.

Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. Too bad Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…

He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, with all of that done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.

But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he’d survived as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!

Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the month was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles loosened and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity started to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.

Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.

He started to plan.

“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”

Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.

“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”

That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…

“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”

Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.

“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”

Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.

Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not Tokyo was the most likely place. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.

“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to revisit, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…

Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.

This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and that not exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.

In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.

And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”

Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying spiraled as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only a messy growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.

“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”

Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-completely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop it, he blurted out, “That was you?”

“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.

“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.

“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”

“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that dirtied his chest and probably bruised it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”

An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”

Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”

“Again, why should they be?”

“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.

The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”

“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano swatted frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”

Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”

Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground. “Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.

“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.

By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.

“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.

Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”

“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”

Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.

Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.

“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”

“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”

“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”

Sano blushed and scowled.

“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”

“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.

This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.

“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano considered himself in uncharted waters.

“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.

Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words formed in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.

“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”

“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.

“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”

Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”

“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”

“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”

With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”

Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”

And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”

“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”

For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)

Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”

Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”

Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice held just the tiniest bit of strain — so faint Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”

“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”

“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.

Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form blocked the light again as he entered the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.

This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”

Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”

“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”

Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.

At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”

These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.

“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if out of suggestions.

Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.

“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.

“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.

“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.

“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.

“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.

With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”

Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”

Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”

After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”

“I did.”

“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”

“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.

Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he’d come here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”

“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”

Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”

From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the promise of food kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”

“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”

“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”

“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”

A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”

“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.

“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.

The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.

The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and Sano quickly centered it (roughly) in the living area and started loading it up. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he didn’t quite know, Sano joined him.

The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef weren’t as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.

After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it — hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.

“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”

Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”

“I’m kidding!” Sano could laugh, because Saitou’s threatening statement had restored a more accustomed atmosphere between them. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”

“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”

“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.

At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”

“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”

Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.

***

The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.

As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.

So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.

He whistled as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he would be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them fled his thoughts after not too long, though, as he began to remember last night’s dreams: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was totally worth it.

By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head swam in warm, misty thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought of stepping so definitively onto the path to his goal.

Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!

Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, the load didn’t seem too heavy, but was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.

Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books distracted his eye. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.

On the other hand, practically nothing needed to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only wanted washing once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.

So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.

All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he’d said this would be more work than Sano expected. If the young man hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but since he had, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’

Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, obviously this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano wasn’t such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wouldn’t do when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.

To this eventual seduction, Sano deliberately avoided giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.

This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.

The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.

So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.

Whether he looked forward to or dreaded the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.

The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.

Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the knowledge that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.

Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip; and as his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”

The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”

With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”

“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.

“Isn’t it?”

What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wouldn’t admit to Saitou just how at-home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.

Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.

Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then vomit it all onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.

“I thought that might be the case: adaptive for your subspecies.”

Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was an insult. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.

Their meal consisted of the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they’d finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.

As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he examined Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made the kenkaya a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”

Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano suddenly felt a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”

***

The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while a more or less forgivable reason for it: Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.

A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, if at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.

When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.

He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, damp laundry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou would have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.

This task finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.

With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his hectic day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.



2>>

Section 2

That wasn’t the last time Sano spent the night at Saitou’s house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the last time Sano spent the entire day and then the night at Saitou’s house. The routine developed quickly, almost enforcedly: wake up, usually with a throbbing skull and aching body that was bizarrely more encouraging than dismaying; do the chores, which became easier and quicker as he developed a viable pattern, but never seemed like less overall work; practice whatever Saitou had ordered, by which he was reminded of Yahiko’s ten thousand repetitions of some move or other at Kaoru’s bidding; eat dinner, often with Saitou, who hadn’t shown himself nearly as averse to feeding Sano on a daily basis as Sano had expected him to; and then spar in a somewhat one-sided, vigorous and educational manner until he passed out and was able to rest for the next day’s fresh start.

In one corner of his mind, he’d rather expected Saitou wouldn’t be willing to maintain this arrangement for very long. They still annoyed each other, after all, and now Saitou not only gave up time and energy to Sano’s goals, but also food (alternately known as money) to Sano’s admittedly rapacious stomach. He even, despite what he’d said the first evening, allowed Sano the very occasional cigarette. And he got his house cleaned and his laundry and dishes washed, sure, but still was probably doing this only out of a passing interest in beating Sano up routinely for a while, and must eventually get tired of it. Either that or he wouldn’t trouble himself too much about the teaching, and that aforementioned beating up of Sano would be the full extent of their training together.

But this, Sano found, was not the case. Saitou might not be the most personable teacher ever to harass a student, but he knew very well what he was doing. His criticism, though irritating, was always accurate and comprehensible. He showed Sano how better to balance his weight so as to be ready to receive attacks as well as deal them out; he helped Sano recognize subtle changes in an enemy’s stance so he might have some chance at knowing what was coming. He gave cogent explanations and practical demonstrations, and even refrained from taking too great an advantage, with those iron fists of his, when Sano entirely failed to predict and properly react to the next incoming blow. They hadn’t yet progressed to a point where Saitou was ready to draw his sword, but that Sano was making progress couldn’t be denied, and Saitou didn’t seem to be tiring of the pastime.

Only after almost three weeks of this did Sano realize he hadn’t seen his friends, or even Tokyo in general, in quite some time. And though he was more than a little pleased at the maturation of his plan, he felt all of a sudden like a hermit. His scummier friends probably thought he’d finally lost his life by picking a fight too tough for him (which, in a way, was true), and surely Kenshin must have noticed his absence this time. So he made a special effort to rise early one morning, got the chores done as quickly as possible, and left the house in an anticipatory mood for the Kamiya Dojo.

It was odd, but with all the work he did these days — cleaning, practicing, and dealing with Saitou — he’d hardly given Kenshin a thought lately. Not that the rurouni had never crossed Sano’s mind, but there hadn’t been nearly as much leisure to dwell on him, and Sano hadn’t once… well… imagined him as he had during those days in jail. He hadn’t dreamed about him much either, but that might have been because ‘sleep’ and ‘unconsciousness from too many blows to the head’ were difficult to distinguish one from the other nearly every night. But since the whole rigmarole aimed at eventually getting Kenshin’s attention, that goal could easily take the place of obsessive thought.

Presently he caught sight of a familiar figure not far ahead of him, she having just turned from another street onto the one he walked, perhaps heading the same place he was. As quietly as he could, he ran up behind her and slipped his hands over her eyes with a sly, “Guess who!” But he withdrew his arms quickly the next moment as he felt his fingers grow slick with moisture.

Megumi gave him a furtive glance like a wounded animal even as she began hastily wiping her eyes dry with a sleeve of her doctor’s smock. “Oh, Sanosuke,” she acknowledged. And that was all. No real greeting, no pointing out that he was the only person impudent enough to play that childish game with her and therefore she had no need to guess who it was, no inquiry as to where he’d been for the last couple of weeks, and no explanation of her tears.

“What’s wrong with you?” he wondered. And though he didn’t say it without sympathy or concern, perhaps he could have worded it a bit better.

She turned away from him and resumed her walk. “It’s nothing,” she replied as he jumped to follow.

“Someone like you doesn’t cry about just nothing,” he prodded.

“Even you should realize I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what? Seriously, what’s wrong?”

Her face screwed into a tight, painful grimace. “I knew you were a jerk,” she spat at him, “but I didn’t think you’d go this far.”

“Look, I’m trying to be nice here.” Sano’s concern gradually gave way to anger. “You don’t have to get all bitchy on me!”

“If you really haven’t been paying attention all this time… if you really don’t know how I…” Her expression hardened so her face was transfigured into a mask of anguish, skepticism, and disgust. “Or are you just taunting me? I thought some things were beneath even you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Why the hell would I… taunt you… about what? I really truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Very convincing. Maybe you are just that clueless.” Megumi quickened her pace. “There’s no need for you to walk with me any further.” And the tears never ceased their steady trail down her cheeks as she left a confused and very angry Sano behind.

He stared after her until she disappeared around another corner, then muttered, “What the fuck was that…?” He looked around for a stone to kick, but, not finding one, just kicked at the ground instead. Here his first sojourn out of his new little life was already turning out weird and unpleasant.

Well. Kenshin would cheer him up. The rurouni might even know what was bothering Megumi, which might help Sano eventually patch things up with her. Maybe. Not that he cared. Clueless about what?

The first thing he noticed as the familiar outer walls of Kaoru’s property came into sight was a dejected-looking Yahiko sitting in a little ball outside the doors. Glancing up at the high sun and down at the glum boy, Sano was puzzled; shouldn’t Yahiko be practicing about now? He usually was at this time of day, and it took some serious distraction on Kaoru’s part for him to get out of it. Of course, Sano was truanting on his own practice time at the moment, so he couldn’t really accuse.

“Sano!” Yahiko yelled, jumping to his feet and running to meet him. “Where have you fucking been?”

“You better watch that mouth,” Sano grinned. “You’re starting to sound like me, Yahiko-chan.”

“Oh, you–” Yahiko cut himself off without bothering to vent his frustration at the honorific. “Never mind. Where have you been? You haven’t been around here for so long, you haven’t heard the news!”

Stopping just outside the doors, Sano looked at Yahiko askance. He couldn’t quite tell what the expression on the kid’s face meant. Was it unhappy? Frightened? It was definitely agitated. Agitating news, then… and Megumi was crying somewhere across town, and had expected Sano to know why. He suddenly gripped Yahiko’s shoulders and demanded, “What’s happened?”

“Calm down,” Yahiko protested, trying to shrug the heavy hands from him. “It’s not like something happened, exactly…” There was a touch of resignation to his demeanor in addition to the agitation.

Sano didn’t understand. “Well?”

“All it is is that Kenshin and Kaoru are getting married.”

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

“Ittaai, Sano! Get your hands off me! Hello?! Sano! Let go!”

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

Feeling somewhat dizzy all of a sudden, Sano finally released the grip that had been mercilessly squeezing poor Yahiko’s shoulders. He straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets, where they immediately clenched into fists. His teeth ground with a horrible sensation, which was perhaps the reason for the sudden painful pounding in his head. It didn’t explain the painful pounding in his chest, but you had to start somewhere.

“Sano?” The boy’s voice sounded tentative now. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, kid; it’s just a surprise, that’s all; nothing’s wrong.” Sano knew he spoke a little too quickly in a little too-high-pitched a tone, but it was the best he could do. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the balls.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not recently… So, when’s the wedding?” His attempt at sounding casual failed miserably, and Yahiko’s head had practically started to smoke with frustrated curiosity. Smoke… Sano suddenly wished for Saitou’s presence, just so he could beg a cigarette off him.

“Something like three months,” Yahiko said, still staring at Sano’s face with his jaw thrust out contemplatively. “I don’t know the exact date.”

Sano had just reached down to ruffle Yahiko’s hair and thank him, then turn and walk away to find a wall somewhere to pound his head against in an attempt to beat away the pain and perhaps improve his equilibrium. But at that moment a voice called from inside the dojo grounds: “Yahiko? Yahiko, where are you?”

“Coming, Kenshin!” the kid replied as he glanced in that direction. This gave Sano, in addition to a hard shiver down his spine, the chance he needed to escape. He heard Yahiko behind him wondering where he was going, but the query faded as Sano pelted away as fast as he thought he’d ever left the Kamiya Dojo before.

He could probably run forever. The pounding of his feet seemed to mix with his heartbeat in a drumming rhythm that punctuated his shock and despair: Kenshin! and Kaoru! Kenshin! and Kaoru!

So she had won. And Sano hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

This was what he got for acting slowly, for putting things off, for living a lifestyle that left him little recourse for the plan he’d conceptualized and the end he wanted to achieve, for being a lazy good-for-nothing, a pathetic little boy with no talents, no future, no personality. He deserved to lose Kenshin… but was Kaoru any fitter to win him? He decided to keep running forever… or at least until he came to an ocean, where he could end it all like the miserable bottom-dweller he was.

He had not yet reached an ocean, however, when he changed his mind and headed for a bar instead.

***

Saitou ate slowly, occasionally scowling but trying not to. He really shouldn’t, he kept telling himself, be annoyed at Sano’s absence. Just by looking around he could tell the young man had done the chores, and any time Sano chose to spend away from Saitou’s house thereafter could only hurt his own cause, not do any damage to anything Saitou cared about. And it was only natural that he should want a break after eighteen days of the rigorous routine they’d fallen into. But it would have been polite to inform Saitou of such a plan before carrying it out, so Saitou could make his own plans for the evening.

Not that Saitou would have. If he wasn’t required to stay late at work or go out on some spying venture after dark or attend some event, he cherished his evenings as the only time he could relax and think about something other than the state of the country. Well, he never really stopped thinking about the state of the country, but at home he could at least allow other considerations to take center stage. And perhaps he’d grown more accustomed to having company over and after supper than he’d realized, and didn’t appreciate being abandoned. He left the dishes for Sano.

Probably because he’d developed a new habit of exercising just before bed, Saitou found himself very restless — far too restless to sit quietly reading. He stalked back into the great room and went through some moves, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the same. Glowering, he returned to the study.

Paperwork, though nothing he particularly relished, at least usually had the power of seizing his full attention since it reflected the pursuits to which he was devoted, but even this, tonight, was insufficient to occupy him. He decided in his frustration that he might as well just go to bed early. As he stripped down to nothing in his bedroom, he couldn’t help feeling a little confused about his own state of mind. When had he ever been so bound to a routine that he couldn’t function when it was disrupted? This was stupid.

It seemed he’d barely fallen asleep when his ever-wakeful instincts warned him of someone standing outside at the front door. Footsteps sounded loud and clumsy on the porch, and there was a fumbling at the latch. With a soundless dexterity inversely proportional to that of the unknown party, Saitou rose, slipped into yesterday’s pants, took sword in hand, and moved toward the hall. The intruder had the way unlocked by now, but seemed to be having difficulty getting through it. Sliding the bedroom door open a fraction, Saitou peered through into the faint light cast from outside.

Then he dispensed with secrecy, flinging the door fully open with an impatient gesture and stepping out. “Ahou, what are you doing here?”

The figure dimly silhouetted by starlight in the doorway reeled in startlement, clutching at the frame as Saitou’s sharp voice assaulted him. After a moment, appearing to remember who Saitou was and where they both were, he slurred out in reply, “Wz comin’ to do th’ chorzz.”

Saitou moved toward Sano, grimacing as he caught the remarkably strong smell of sake. Reaching out a bare arm, he seized Sano’s gi and yanked him inside, tossing him carelessly to the floor as he closed the door with his other hand. “Get your drunken ass in here before you wake up the neighbors. Do you know what time it is?”

Not bothering to pick himself up, Sano whined something unintelligible in as miserable-sounding a tone as Saitou had ever heard from him. The officer stalked past him into the great room and lit a lamp, waiting for the moron to get to his feet and follow. Eventually the moron did, unsteadily and with his head hanging, and, staggering into the middle of the room, collapsed again into a heap.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Saitou said, looking down at him, “that this is how you choose to spend a night off. Attack any walls this time?”

From where he’d buried his face in his arms, Sano made another wretched sound, and Saitou was a little startled to realize what it portended.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, moving a bit nearer.

Sano looked up, eyes clouded and tears streaming down his face, and almost wailed, “Ke’shin’s ge’ing married!”

His annoyance suddenly tempered by amusement and perhaps even some pity, Saitou knelt down. He reached out to punch Sano’s shoulder, though the blow and his subsequent tone were a little softer than usual. “That was inevitable, ahou. Even you must have seen it coming.”

Without warning, Sano broke down entirely, sobbing his heart out. More surprising still, he threw himself forward onto the other man, burying his face once again in his arms, but this time in Saitou’s lap. Though taken aback, Saitou made no move to forbid Sano his little drunken bout of self-pity. In fact, he had to combat a sudden extremely unexpected desire to stroke the spiky locks close beneath his hands that had risen in his initial surprise. The gesture probably wouldn’t have helped to comfort Sano in any case.

When Sano’s wailing eventually subsided, his sobs shaking less of his body and his state more propitious for hearing anything said to him, Saitou asked him calmly, “When is the wedding?”

“I dunno,” came Sano’s muffled voice. “Yah-Yahiko sayziz in three monsur sothin.”

“Then all this does is give you a deadline,” was Saitou’s businesslike reply, “and an incentive to work harder.”

Sano sat up, gazing lopsidedly at him. “Harder?” he echoed. “I’m nafuckin ge’ing anywhere!” His lip trembled. “I’m nalernin; I’m jussa stupid kid; I’m…”

“While I would have to agree that you are a stupid kid,” Saitou interrupted, “you’re wrong if you think you’re not learning. You’ve come much farther since we started than I could have expected.”

The brown eyes widened, and perhaps grew a shade less bleary. “Serious?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied with conviction. “Now go to sleep.” He leaned forward and pushed Sano hard, easily sending him to the floor. Standing, he moved to the hearth where the folded blanket Sano used for sleeping here generally stayed, and threw it at him. “Since I know you’re the kind of idiot that never gives up, I know you’ll show your usual resilience and get back to work tomorrow.”

“Buh Saitou…” Sano clutched at the blanket like a child with an indispensable toy, looking up at the wolf despairingly.

“Shut up and sleep,” Saitou commanded as he moved toward the lamp to put it out. Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was almost kind; it surprised even him. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” Certainly Sano wasn’t, to bury his face in Saitou’s lap!

Sano’s compliance was evinced by the silence, but for sniffling and a slight shuffling of blanket, that accompanied the click of the lamp’s snuffing, and Saitou returned to his bedroom in relative peace.

***

All right, he’d now been awake for twenty seconds at the most, and had already done a lightning-speed search of his memory in order to confirm that this was the worst hangover he’d ever had.

Yes – it – was.

How the hell much had he drunk last night? And why the hell had he gotten that drunk? He didn’t dare move for fear of making it worse, nor open his eyes to what felt through his lids like the light of mid-afternoon. He wasn’t even sure where he lay, couldn’t remember a thing about the entirety of yesterday. His head felt far worse than usual after a spell even of heavy drinking, his bladder swollen to twice its usual size, and his stomach threatened to do what it never did and actually regurgitate something. Also, where was he, and what had happened last night?

Well, the surface beneath him seemed to be a hard floor, and the blanket atop him smelled clean and felt soft. These combined clues led him to believe he’d slept at Saitou’s house. Why did he have a gladiatorial hangover at Saitou’s house? Saitou wouldn’t have allowed a drunken Sano into his house, would he? Ah, but Sano had a key. So that explained how he’d gotten in… but what time had that been?

He didn’t remember training yesterday, and the pain in his head wasn’t the type that usually came from Saitou’s fists. Some extremely blurry images of wandering around town becoming increasingly drunk were beginning to trickle back. People he’d talked to… acquaintances he’d had drinks with… in bar after bar after bar… after bar… why?

Then there’d been Megumi, right? She’d been crying and wouldn’t tell him why. And Yahiko, who’d been sitting outside the dojo for some reason, and…

“Shit!”

In a single rapid, jerky movement he sat up, his eyes springing open as he remembered, and immediately fell back to the floor with a loud groan, pulling the blanket over his face.

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

Well, the multiple jugs of sake might have had something to do with it.

So he’d been so miserable yesterday after hearing the news that he’d run off and gotten drunker than he’d ever been, then somehow found his way back to Saitou’s house for no reason he could comprehend in a more sober state, and collapsed here. Saitou must have been irate. Nothing later than about the fifth bar could Sano remember, but he’d be willing to wager he was in for a more intense beating than usual later. He’d better get the chores done quickly… especially if it was, as he’d guessed upon first awakening, mid-afternoon; he could probably start now and still not be quite finished before Saitou came home.

But he seriously didn’t want to get up. Wow, this one was bad. And he doubted Saitou had any of the ingredients for his usual remedy.

But if he didn’t get up soon, there was no chance he’d be done in time, and Saitou might refuse to train with him. Since Sano was already probably in trouble for skipping out last night and then barging in drunk at whatever wee hour, he doubted the wisdom of further angering the officer. As much of a bother as it was, it seemed he would have to act like a responsible adult, get up, and do his job.

The great room blazed cruelly bright despite the shouji not letting in any more light than usual, which was yet insufficient preparation for actual daylight; making his way to the necessary facilities outside was a tortuous process. Even once he’d recovered the safety of indoors, he still squinted hard as he shuffled into the kitchen to see if anything might be lying around that he could make half a breakfast of. It must actually be half a lunch he sought by now, but he didn’t care what the meal was called as long as it was edible. Saitou usually left at least some rice around…

What he didn’t usually leave around was a single cigarette atop a box of matches in the cupboard next to the tea jar.

Sano stared at the thing for what were probably minutes, though he kept no track of time in his efforts to fight his overall discomfort and make sense of what he saw. The thought that finally sluggishly struck him was this: Saitou never took a cigarette out of the package without smoking it. And he kept his matches in a desk drawer in the other room. There was simply no reason in the world for the presence of this solitary cigarette and box of matches in this cupboard at this time… unless Saitou had intended Sano to find them there. And there wasn’t any reason for that either.

He tried to tell himself Saitou had meant to smoke this after breakfast, or that there was some other unfathomable rationale behind its being here like this, but he knew the officer’s habits too well by now to think he would ever put one cigarette and some matches in the cupboard like a portent… or a present. There was obviously nothing for it but to smoke the thing.

So did this mean Saitou wasn’t mad at him? What a miracle for his hangover, anyway. Maybe Sano had explained about Kenshin’s engagement, and Saitou was just being… who the hell did he think he was kidding? Saitou just being sympathetic? Just being a decent person? Just proactively trying to comfort Sano? Beyond nonsensical.

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

Later, having finished washing up after what appeared to be last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast, reentering from dumping the dirty dish-water, he could tell by the fresh scent of tobacco that Saitou was home. Unsure what to expect, he hung around fidgeting by the back door until the officer returned to the great room, then tried his hardest to sound casual as he greeted him.

Saitou eyed him, said nothing, and moved into the kitchen to start making supper.

Shit. Maybe Sano was in trouble after all. “Sorry for ditching practice last night,” he tried.

Still the officer remained silent.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Was that a touch of panic in Sano’s tone? He fought it off as he continued, “That was just how things worked out.”

Finally, more or less easily, Saitou broke his silence. “Some temperance might be advisable, but, considering the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven this time.”

A pressing feeling of concern suddenly eased out of Sano’s chest, and he realized that his smile was the first he’d worn all day. “Seriously? I thought you were going to kill me!”

Far too much amusement sounded in Saitou’s tone as he replied, “I thought about it at first, but after your little crying fit I didn’t have the heart.”

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

“You don’t remember?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

Saitou merely laughed, obviously enjoying this. But Sano wasn’t. Just how drunk had he been? ‘Fit’ might be a malicious exaggeration, but he didn’t think even Saitou would invent such an episode wholesale; some tears must have been involved. In front of this guy, of all people? What potentially embarrassing things might Sano have let slip during such a lapse in control?

“What did I say?” he asked before he could think of a more diplomatic way of finding out.

“You confessed your own stupidity, among other things.”

What other things?”

“Just some pathetic wailing about Himura, I believe. It was rather late,” Saitou added pointedly; “I can’t be expected to remember your every word.”

Wondering what to say next (and certainly not about to say, “But I bet you do, you bastard”), Sano remained silent for a moment. He still couldn’t be sure whether Saitou was mad at him or just having fun being a jerk as usual, nor what should be done to allay the man’s possible ire. Finally, “Well, sorry about that,” he decided on.

Saitou made no reply.

Glancing at the tofu that waited on the counter to be worked into tonight’s meal, Sano volunteered, “Why don’t I help you make supper?”

“I think I prefer my kitchen in one piece.”

Sano bristled, forgetting his attempt at penitence. “Hey, jerk, I can cook just as good as you can!” When the only response was a skeptical sound, Sano strode forward and seized a knife, turning toward the tofu.

“Careful with that,” the officer cautioned. “It’s called a ‘knife,’ and one of the edges will hurt if you touch yourself with it.”

“Very funny, asshole.”

Saitou grinned and made a conciliatory gesture. “If you think you can mange it, ahou, go ahead.”

A little later, when they sat down at the table, instead of starting right in on the meal, Sano watched intently as his companion did so. He was confident Saitou would confess what an excellent cook Sano was and admit he couldn’t possibly be upset with him any longer, and then everything would be fine. But Saitou merely continued eating without a word or any change in demeanor.

Finally Sano couldn’t stand it. “Well?”

With a mildly dubious expression Saitou said, “Outside. I should think you’d know where it is by now.”

“I mean the food,” Sano growled. “I’m a good cook, huh?”

Saitou looked down at his supper with a soft, “Hn.”

“What the hell ‘hn?’ What do you think of it?”

“I think…” Saitou continued to stare pensively at the food in front of him. “I think I will add making supper to your list of chores.”

Sano’s jaw dropped. That was not the commendation he’d had in mind.

The corners of Saitou’s lips twitched, but he prevented the expression from becoming a full-blown smirk by taking another bite. Then he said in an admonitory tone, “You’d better eat, ahou. We have a lot for you to learn tonight, considering how much time you’ve got left.”

Oh, yeah… he had a deadline now, didn’t he? He had to win Kenshin away from Kaoru before they could get married and ruin Kenshin’s life forever! He had to work harder.

It occurred to him to wonder why he wasn’t as depressed about this as he’d obviously been yesterday. Had drinking really made him feel better? That would be… unprecedented. Something had made him feel better, though. As he thought about it, his hand slowed in bringing his chopsticks to his mouth and eventually hovered just short of it. Was he merely thinking wishfully, or did he hazily start to remember Saitou saying something… something nice… about him… last night?

He took his bite and chewed, still struggling to remember. Finally he felt he had to ask. “So how am I doing, anyway? Think I’ll beat you any time soon?”

“No,” Saitou answered immediately and bluntly. “But you’re not hopeless.”

“Guess that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” Sano said wryly. In actuality it was a pretty meaningful concession, but he wasn’t going to say so.

“Probably. Your friend’s wedding is set for July the 22nd, by the way.”

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

“Sometimes, ahou, if you ask someone something, they tell you.”

“Who’d you ask?”

With the customary raised brow Saitou said, “Battousai?”

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou merely nodded.

Sano was still eating when Saitou, who’d had a head start, laid down his chopsticks and sat back, as he usually did after supper, to light up while he drank the remainder of his tea. This, of course, reminded Sano of something he didn’t really want to mention (in case he’d been wrong) but felt like he must. Fixing his eyes on the contents of his bowl he said, “Oh, and thanks for that cigarette this morning.”

Saitou’s tone was easy as he replied, “Don’t mention it.”

***

Things progressed for the next few weeks much as they had for the first few, save that now Sano worked doubly hard to meet Saitou’s increasingly harsh demands. He’d decided July 15th would be the big day — the day he would tell Kenshin his feelings — and that sometime before that he must, obviously, take Kenshin out somewhere and get into a fight in order to set things in motion by making a solid bid for the rurouni’s attention and admiration.

But he felt that, before he could do this, he needed to get a move past Saitou. He had to. Though this wasn’t a line he’d deliberately set for himself — at least not consciously — it had popped up from somewhere, and he saw it as an undismissible marker of progress, one he must reach before he could stop this relentless training. He’d hit Saitou before, of course, but only ever on his own terms. He wanted to get in a decent shot by Saitou’s rules. And he felt like he was running out of time awfully quickly.

It frustrated him, therefore, when Saitou mentioned one night that they wouldn’t be able to train the next evening, as he was expected to attend a party that would probably run late. Observing that Saitou didn’t seem much more pleased at the prospect than Sano was at the disappointing news, the young man inquired about the details. Apparently the officer would be officially representing the police at the inauguration of a respectable Kyoto manufacturer’s new branch of operations in Tokyo, but his real objective was to try to sniff out any connection between this manufacturer and a recent increase in modern weaponry on the streets.

Though he’d asked, Sano was surprised Saitou had answered so openly — and pleased as well at this sign of trust. And seeing the importance of trying to control the presence of firearms throughout the country, he tried to stifle his annoyance at having to miss another training session. At least this would give him a chance to go remind his friends that he still existed and see, once again, whether or not Kenshin had missed him.

But his visit to the dojo came to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it encouraged him, rather, to pick fights. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano still fumed in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t been an option, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat would be outright bullying… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. Most frustratingly, it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to an unusual degree; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all; it wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy longhouse.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the lack of a belt and the slight sag of the pants, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar, he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been building up, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed.”

“Poor ahou: always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me! Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This electrified Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” So overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone had returned as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this couldn’t relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love… or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it made perfect sense that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the person in question. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. Funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have considered that possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected query. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on making sexual advances toward Himura?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t put it exactly like…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to make sexual advances toward him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be pretty pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly ever have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response involved. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to. Saitou, on the other hand, stood there motionless.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters feigned.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision would provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light hit their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. No, no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well built his body and how well suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that still made him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he should avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but obviously he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano lay back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment remained how he could feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time.

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — not even that could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment he could accurately say he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face seemed more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He’d been in here for a long time, and had really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he excelled at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip sounded in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked.”

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old lech,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he couldn’t be sure exactly what he would do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions tumbled vigorously into the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised worried him not at all. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou didn’t plan to ask plainly Sano didn’t plan to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou would have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano would have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking whom seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company did not at all appeal to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing would help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. What a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the bratty man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The rich guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. Time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; rather, he launched into some smooth self-promotion: “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was out of the question, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though there was surely no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind remained on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on it. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief to abandon the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are concerned about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

How Sano endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned, Sano wasn’t at all certain. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too careful. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He’d been shamelessly sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding careened toward them faster every day, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though the night was hot, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he sensed vaguely a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores, every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things weren’t turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he considered himself (grudgingly) satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he’d enjoyed this exchange, and he definitely enjoyed having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he truly was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze crossed the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”

Section 3

Days passed, and suddenly it was July. How could time have been moving so slowly when it was already July? Looking at the calendar on the wall in Saitou’s office, despite how meticulously the officer kept to the current page, Sano still felt there must be some mistake. It could only be the beginning of June at the very latest! Even the weather didn’t seem to believe it could possibly be July; this was the mildest summer he could remember.

Though he never definitively brought it up, and Saitou never questioned, Sano began pushing himself harder than ever in all areas. Technically he could probably entirely abandon the combative part of his training, since the goal of impressing Kenshin had been accomplished… but Sano felt he wasn’t quite getting something, that something lay just barely beyond him; he was sure if he only reached far enough, trained thoroughly enough, he would understand. If only Saitou would giver him some positive feedback! As Sano had predicted all those weeks ago, ‘not hopeless’ was the best he would ever get. Even just a word or two of specific encouragement would do him a world of good.

This overwhelming desire for an expression of approbation from his mentor brought Sano to the realization of just how reliant he’d become on Saitou, and forced him to a reluctant decision: regardless of what remained for him to learn, he needed to extricate himself from this dependency. So on July 8th, having finished his chores early enough to be done before Saitou appeared, he went home… though that phrase didn’t feel entirely accurate anymore; his run-down apartment seemed almost unfamiliar after so long. It was definitely cold. Very cold, particularly at night. And the lack of a certain heat during those hours was not the least of the circumstances he needed to acclimatize himself to. He should only be thinking about Kenshin now, even at night — especially at night — and he needed a clear head for the upcoming trial.

And he was prepared, wasn’t he? In the important areas, at least. He’d built up better defensive skills than he’d ever had, could easily continue practicing them on his own, and had caught Kenshin’s eye with his abilities and his willingness to change and grow. He’d learned so many lovemaking tricks that he hadn’t even gotten a chance to test half of them yet, but he sure as hell knew what their effects on him were; he figured if Saitou could do it to him, he could do it to Kenshin.

So why did he still feel there was something serious, something vital, that he hadn’t figured out yet?

In searching his own head for the answer, in trying to lay everything out neatly in the hopes that he would be able to spot the missing piece, he found only confusion. Of course lately he’d been confused on a fairly regular basis, and he assumed it would clear up once he was triumphantly and happily settled down with Kenshin, so he attempted not to worry too much about it.

Settled down with Kenshin? Now that he thought about it, this circumstance seemed unlikely. Sano’s intentions were going to destroy or at least severely damage some of the friendships they had here in Tokyo and — he hadn’t considered this before — effectively evict Kenshin from the Kamiya Dojo, at the very least until Kaoru recovered. A single glance around assured Sano he couldn’t very well invite Kenshin to stay here with him in the limited space under this leaky roof… it was about time he made some concrete plans.

First, the confession.

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I put my hand on his shoulder and step up close. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time. A really long time. Maybe ever since I first met you.” Dammit, even in my own fucking imagination I can’t spit the damn phrase out.

So Kenshin says, “Yes?”

“Kenshin… I love you. And I don’t want you to marry jou-chan.”

Then he stares at me like I’m crazy and says, “But I love Kaoru! I am sorry, Sano.”

Fuck! No! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. How about this…

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I take him for a walk away from the dojo and make sure jou-chan doesn’t follow, and once I get him somewhere private I give him a kiss — a really good kiss, like the kind where Saitou…

He shifted in discomfort and annoyance where he lay on his moldy futon staring at the ceiling. It took several moments to get his thoughts under control again.

Yeah, so I kiss the hell out of him, and while he’s all breathless afterwards I say, “I love you, Kenshin. Please don’t marry jou-chan; it’ll break my heart.”

And he’ll look at me and realize he’s loved me all along and was only going along with jou-chan because… whatever; anyway, he’ll see that me and him just have to be together, and he’ll say, “Oh, Sano, I am so glad you told me this! I might never have realized, but of course I love you! I must cancel my wedding to Kaoru-dono.”

Again he was derailed. Because that was going to fucking kill Kaoru.

He’d never given more than marginal reflection to this topic, but now he supposed it was time to focus on it squarely. Kaoru loved Kenshin. Kaoru had supported Kenshin, emotionally and financially, almost from the very moment she’d met him. Kaoru had waited ages for a return of affection from Kenshin. And once Sano had won Kenshin away from her, had broken her heart, how could he live with himself?

And yet… shouldn’t she have picked up, after those platonic ages, that Kenshin would only marry her if she pressured him into it? By this time she should be braced for the possibility of never actually having him. And it wasn’t as if a lengthy period even of the impressive type of unwavering support Kaoru had been providing entitled her to romance; she shouldn’t expect it! And, honestly, did Kaoru really love Kenshin? Was there a proper bond of souls there, or was she merely dazzled by Kenshin’s awesome amazingness?

Besides, Kaoru was strong and resilient… she’d recovered nicely once before when Kenshin had left her. Even if the emotion she felt toward Kenshin and the expectation of living happily ever after with him were both serious and deep, even if the series of events Sano planned on initiating did break her heart, she would eventually be fine. She would go on to find a love more properly suited to her, and perhaps even, someday, reinstate her friendship with the two men.

Though far from satisfied, Sano steeled himself. That was the best he could do, so he pushed thoughts of Kaoru’s part in all of this firmly aside and went back to meticulous planning of his conversation with Kenshin. “Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

This set of reflections left him much closer to satisfied. He believed he had things worked out reliably well, having come up with a general plan of attack, specific arguments against any weak excuses Kenshin might provide, and some really delicious mental images of how things would go from there. Then he would suggest they remove to Kyoto for a while — he could do some work for the Oniwabanshuu or something to support them — as a sort of honeymoon. It gave him shivers just thinking about it.

Over the next couple of days, he took to practicing the persuasive statements he had in mind whenever he was alone — which, given that he’d come home specifically to concentrate and not be distracted by anyone (mostly by Saitou), he usually was. As long as he didn’t botch his delivery (and possibly even if he did, depending on how near the surface lay Kenshin’s subconscious love for him), he didn’t think anything could go wrong.

That at least some aspects of the affair still had him feeling undeniably, skin-crawlingly wrong he continued attempting to ignore.

And July 15th arrived. Sano didn’t have to make any special effort to rise early, for he’d been awake all night. Once the light of dawn touched his unsettled figure in its twisted blanket, he gave up trying to sleep and commenced pacing instead. Hands in the pockets of his freshly washed pants, he chewed his lip in between hours’ worth of broken further rehearsals of what he was coming to consider his lines for the day.

Finally, “What the fuck am I doing?” he grumblingly demanded of himself. Throwing open the door with decisive vigor, he strode out toward the Kamiya Dojo and his conquest.

***

Though Sano raised his arm toward the dojo property’s outer door, his fingers seemed to shrink back toward the palm of his hand rather than extend to open it. Was he really that nervous? His steps had been sluggish all the way here, and his mind was in a turmoil. He was more than ready for this, so why the hesitation?

He brushed the handle, which was good for a start. He had to stop overthinking. Had to set worry aside and just go in there and do this. It was his own happiness he sought; delay would do nothing for him. What was wrong with him? After a deep breath he intended as steadying and encouraging (little as it functioned thus), he clenched the muscles in his arm to fling the door open.

“Sanosuke.”

He froze. Not having heard the other man’s approach was nothing unusual, but the use of Sano’s actual name was.

“Sano.”

And his nickname, even? Sano turned slowly. Under other circumstances, he might have been annoyed with Saitou for throwing him even farther off balance than he already was with the unprecedented name-calling, but he found himself bizarrely pleased at the officer’s presence. The very sight of him there puffing away at the ubiquitous tobacco fix braced Sano unexpectedly.

“Hey,” was his weak greeting. “Come to wish me good luck?”

“Since you didn’t bother to say goodbye a week ago…” That the generally articulate Saitou didn’t finish the sentence struck Sano as odd, but he took his point. Actually it was touching — and surprising — that Saitou would wish him well, so far even as to show up here specifically today.

Sano smiled faintly. Saitou had been really nice all along, hadn’t he? Nice and supportive and a lot more of a friend than Sano had ever expected to find him. It would have been appropriate to thank him for that at this point, but an unspeakable ocean of things Sano needed to say already threatened to drown him. So he just gave the older man a wave that probably didn’t convey much as he turned toward the door again.

And then Saitou said his name for a third time. The sound of those syllables in that voice was so unusual and so compelling that Sano turned back immediately. He noticed now, as he looked closer, that Saitou’s appearance differed somewhat from that of last week: he was worn out, Sano thought, and perhaps a little thinner… haggard, almost. He’d clearly been up all night as Sano had. He must be working on a difficult case.

Though Sano sympathized, he couldn’t handle delay. Still, he tried to keep any unfriendliness from his tone as he asked, “What do you want?”

The period Saitou then spent staring, cigarette near but not quite touching his lips as if he’d forgotten about it, lasted so long that Sano would have thought his own patience shouldn’t have covered it… and yet he made no move, nor attempted to break the silence. And finally Saitou said, “You’re finding this difficult.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Sano muttered.

“Why?”

“If I knew what was wrong, I’d have kicked its ass by now.”

One corner of Saitou’s mouth lifted. “Pithy, as always.” He came a step closer, looking abruptly so pointedly determined that Sano shivered. Those golden eyes seemed ready to stab into him every bit as devastatingly as Saitou’s sword had once done. “My point,” he said, “is that you don’t actually want to go through with this.”

Sano stiffened. “What? What the hell do you mean?”

“Maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you don’t really want Himura.”

“What the fuck would you know about that?” He managed to make this demand in a decently defiant tone, and the feeling of fists forming from what had previously been lax, sweating hands encouraged him somewhat, but mentally Sano was even more of a mess now than before.

“I was sleeping with you for two months, a week, and three days. It makes sense that I would know some things about you.” Saitou’s smirk lacked something; it looked put on, like a mask behind which his true feelings were completely unreadable.

“And you came all the way over here to tell me this at the last minute?”

“I came all the way over here at the last minute,” Saitou said slowly, as if struggling for words, “to tell you that I don’t want you to go through with this.”

At this the final strands of Sano’s annoyance and impatience unraveled, leaving behind thin-stretched nervousness and a condition, newly revealed, that seemed very much like unhappiness. But there was curiosity too, and something else he couldn’t quite define, in response to Saitou’s words and unusual demeanor. “What? Why?”

The officer stepped even closer, so that only a short distance remained between them, never removing his piercing gaze from Sano’s. “I am in love with you.”

Inability to breathe or, for several moments, to formulate a coherent thought in the wake of the sort of reality implosion that had just taken place inside him left Sano stammering and dizzy. What kind of a development was this?

All these months practicing at… at… everything… had all been real to this guy? All along? Or else since when? And Saitou claimed Sano didn’t want Kenshin, which carried the obvious implication that there might be someone else Sano did want… and Saitou had an infuriating habit of being right most of the time. And Saitou was not only capable of love, willing to admit he could and did love, but loved Sano? Enough that he would actually say it in such unmistakable, uninsulting terms? How had that happened?

Everything was spinning, and Sano suddenly found himself leaning on the frame of the door he’d been trying to open just minutes before. The figure in front of him had become more of a concept, a puzzle he was being forced to solve, than a proper visual, and seemed to be flickering in and out, repeatedly replaced with a different concept, a different puzzle, a torment to Sano’s eyes and brain. Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou… what was he going to do?

***

As the silent mental wrestling match progressed, Saitou watched in raging anxiousness, unmoving and equally silent. He didn’t miss a single expression that crossed the young man’s face as Sano furiously contemplated this upheaval, but what to make of those expressions he didn’t know. He feared his own interpretation must be miserably biased, but interpretation was all that could occupy his mind at the moment.

No, that wasn’t true. In addition to this, his mind was full to bursting of any number of things, many of them emotion-charged images and memories: Sano jumping in mud puddles and kicking rocks; Sano yelling until he was pink in the face; Sano lounging around Saitou’s home as if it were his own; Sano complaining in colorful language about the littlest, silliest things; Sano sitting across from Saitou at the supper table, laughing at something Saitou was telling him about work; Sano twisting and attacking during their training, somehow simultaneously stubborn and responsive; Sano straining upward as Saitou thrust deep inside him… Everything was Sano: cheerful, infuriating, funny, beautiful Sano. It was all Saitou could do to keep from shaking in fear at the thought of losing what he’d so unconsciously come to treasure.

The only person that could hide anything from Saitou with any success, he reflected bitterly, was Saitou himself. He’d certainly repressed this well, at any rate. Exactly when it had started — exactly how long he’d spent denying what he felt, coolly claiming that the entire arrangement with Sano was nothing more than a source of entertainment, eventually easy sex, and perhaps something like unexpected friendship — he still didn’t know. He probably would never have admitted it even internally if he hadn’t been forced to.

When Sano had disappeared so abruptly without a word of explanation, Saitou had tried to tell himself first that he wasn’t surprised, then that he didn’t regret the loss, then that he missed Sano only as he would miss anything he’d become accustomed to having around, that he would soon cease to notice his absence. But just the consciousness of that absence — the awareness that Sano might never come back, that Saitou might never see him again or perhaps encounter him only as Himura’s lover — had roused in his suddenly racing heart a sharp, squeezing pain that increased with every lonely moment and every thought of Sano. He’d been overcome with a furious and nearly unconquerable desire to go after the idiot, drag him home, and never let him go again, and this had made plain to him the full scope of his own emotions.

And now what? He’d been encouraging Sano’s plan to win Himura — at first because it was so amusingly ludicrous, but eventually because it seemed to mean so much to Sano — and therefore hadn’t made any provisions against falling in love with Sano himself. If he’d even recognized that as a possibility, he would have been more guarded, probably wouldn’t have slept with him, would at least have watched himself for symptoms and nipped any budding of what he would have considered a very inconvenient and counterproductive attachment.

Or, if the attachment had been inevitable, which he was more than a little inclined to think, if he’d merely known his own heart earlier, he could have spoken then and avoided the badly timed outburst of today… the one that, every moment, he expected to have thrown back in his face with anger and derision… or, even worse, stupefied pity.

But he hadn’t been lying when he’d postulated that Sano didn’t really want Battousai. Wishful thinking it might be, but not dishonesty. To him, Sano’s behavior over the last few months, not to mention the way Sano spoke of Himura, indicated nothing more than a superficial infatuation. Saitou certainly didn’t believe Himura had any romantic interest in Sano, but, again, wishful thinking might be skewing his perception.

If Sano continued his plan, walked in there now and made his confession, what would be the result? And if it turned out Saitou was the only person around here that actually understood his own feelings, might not irreparable harm be done to more than just him by the decisions made behind these doors?

Of course, even if Sano didn’t love the rurouni, and even if he could acknowledge that, it did not necessarily follow that he loved or could acknowledge he loved Saitou. There were any number of ways in which these events could end very badly.

Sano’s emotions tended to be printed across his face like words on a page. Saitou therefore watched all the more carefully, looking for any sign of favor in those eyes, those lips, that set of jaw and level of brow. But though every feature seemed active, the whole was also almost unreadable in its chaos. As Saitou had predicted, Sano didn’t really know what he wanted, and was at the moment overwhelmed with confusion — better than outright rejection, than a dogged clinging to his supposed love for Himura, but horribly tormenting in the interim. What would he say?

Nothing, it turned out. Instead of speaking or even attempting to speak, Sano spun jerkily and ran away.

Saitou released a tense little sigh as he watched the white-clad figure tear off down the street like a madman. That Sano wanted time and privacy to think things over meant more hope for Saitou, but the latter would rather be with Sano than know he was dealing with turmoil and confusion alone. The presence of one of the causes of that confused turmoil probably wouldn’t improve Sano’s mood or assist his thought, but still Saitou would like to be with him during this difficult time. At the very least, he would like to know immediately what conclusion Sano came to.

Deciding that, in any case, he would prefer to remain as close to him as possible until the crisis had ended, he tossed away his cigarette and lifted his leaden feet to follow.

***

It felt as if Sano had done a lot of running lately — a lot of leaving behind of problems, a lot of avoidance of things he didn’t want to face. But he couldn’t go to a bar and drink this away. He was literally running, but he couldn’t outdistance this issue. He had to stop moving, stop mentally reeling, and face this.

What did that mean, “I am in love with you?” Sano knew it meant, “This changes everything.” He knew it meant, “I won’t lose you to Himura.” He knew, as surely as if Saitou had said it aloud, that it meant, “Stay with me.” Maybe forever, because that was the kind of person Saitou was. It held an entire world of meaning, the earnestness of a strong heart and unwavering character directed toward Sano with the piercing purpose and desire he’d observed in Saitou’s eyes just now. It held the offer of everything Saitou was, and the life that could create for Sano, for both of them. Because that was the kind of person Saitou was.

But how could it be possible? After all their training on various battlefields for today’s trial, that Saitou would be the one to back down had never seemed remotely likely, had never occurred to Sano. He hadn’t even thought the officer particularly invested; Saitou had just been getting his chores done and some nightly entertainment, hadn’t he? But now it turned out that in fact Saitou loved him. It didn’t make sense.

Without having given any thought to where he was going, Sano found himself approaching the river near the spot where, just over a year ago, Kenshin had taught him one of the most important lessons of his life. Perhaps the singular appropriateness of the place had drawn him. He clambered up onto the wooden wreckage that had changed very little since he’d last seen it — certainly far less than he had — stared out over the sparkling water, and essayed to make some sense of his racing thoughts.

He tried to think of Kenshin, or at least to give equal time to the two most prominent men in his life, but apparently his memory had other ideas: Saitou moving with that spare but graceful stride; Saitou mocking him with a gleam of eye stating that, although he meant the insult, he didn’t mean any hurt by it; Saitou sitting across from him at the little table, surprisingly easy and pleasant company; Saitou training him, his concise words and precise movements teaching Sano more than he’d ever learned from anyone else; Saitou conjuring up reactions from his body that he couldn’t have imagined… Although he’d come to accept some time ago that Saitou was not the heartless bastard he’d long thought him, he hadn’t realized until it was laid out in front of his mind’s eye like this what a wonderful person Saitou really was.

But Sano wanted Kenshin, didn’t he? He’d always wanted Kenshin! Since that first day here at this very spot, when his life had been turned upside-down, he’d wanted him. Kenshin was gorgeous; he had eyes you could melt into and the world’s sweetest smile. He could move like nobody could, and he’d done things nobody else could have done. Kenshin was kind and admirable and amazing. You just couldn’t help loving Kenshin. Of course Sano wanted Kenshin.

Even if Kenshin never paid Sano much attention, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing or notice when he was gone. Even if conversation with Kenshin rarely progressed past the superficial, and Kenshin was never willing to spar with him. Even if the connection Sano felt with Kenshin didn’t really go far beyond that of one comrade deeply indebted to another. Even if memories of Kenshin came in discrete little bursts like recalled interesting moments from an otherwise unmemorable play he’d seen at some point — unlike those memories of Saitou, which grasped him in an unshakable grip, rolled him over, climbed on top of him, and started kissing his neck. Fuck it all. Everything was snapping into focus.

Sano was in love with Saitou.

The whirling of reality seemed abruptly to cease, and as Sano gazed out over the calm river he thought his eyes were continually adjusting as if he’d been falling and had suddenly been righted.

No, he never really had loved Kenshin. Not the way he’d believed he did. He gave a hoarse, wild laugh, in fact, as it occurred to him that the feelings he’d vaguely attributed to Kaoru in his attempt to excuse what he planned on doing were actually, more accurately, his own: not love — not romantic love, at any rate — but rather an awareness of the heroic, mysterious image of the hitokiri-turned-rurouni, who had taught him such an important lesson and done such impressive things, that had dazzled him. Dazzled and blinded him so he couldn’t see anything else, even what should have been glaringly obvious.

Of course there was some legitimate physical attraction there, but what did that mean? A lot of people Sano met or noticed in passing were physically attractive, and he wouldn’t necessarily want to spend his life with them. Of course Kenshin was a comfortable friend to have around, but Sano was realizing now that this friendship had a sort of stagnation to it, an unchanging complacency and a lot taken for granted. And of course Kenshin had revolutionized the way Sano lived, and Sano would always be grateful for that… but love didn’t necessarily follow. He could appreciate without idolizing. Hell, he could even, if it came to it, idolize without desiring.

He needed someone to saturate his existence, someone whose presence in his mind was more than just a disconnected series of isolated events; someone that didn’t consider him merely a groupie, and had a real emotional reaction to his presence, whether that was good or bad; someone that knew him well enough to understand his thoughts, and was actually interested enough to pursue them; someone that would surprise him instead of sticking to an endless routine; someone uncontrollable and perfect. He needed Saitou, and if he went back to the dojo now he would be making the biggest fucking mistake of his life.

***

A tall blue figure stood on the long bridge over the river, a smoldering cigarette held to his lips, watching the unceasing sparkle of sunlight on the water beneath him. The bright spots burned his eyes and remained in negative, obscuring his vision, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

He should be at the police station right now; he should be working. God only knew what kind of mess Chou would be making there without him. Somehow Saitou couldn’t quite bring himself to care.

Presently he found his cigarette had shrunken to a butt, which was farther than they usually got before he threw them away — though it was possible he’d only let it burn down rather than actually smoking the thing to this point. He allowed it to fall from lax fingers into the water, and there lost track of it. Another would be nice, for the comfort of the thing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to search one out and light it. He merely stood still, perfectly still, waiting in silence.

Sano wasn’t far off. He’d stopped at a point just out of sight of this bridge that seemed to hold special significance to him, and Saitou had come here to wait without even taking care not to let Sano see him following. And here he waited.

He tried not to think about Sano, tried not to think about the situation or the last few months or the possible future. But the burning sun and its unpleasant effect on his body in a relatively heavy jacket, the coruscating whiteness of the river water, the case he was currently working on and the harm Chou might do it while left alone, the state of the country in general… none of it could take his thoughts off Sano. Just as the officer had been unable to do anything recently, even sleep, without thinking of Sano, so Sano dominated his thoughts all the more in this crucial moment.

What would he do if the young man went through with his plan, went back to the dojo and the clueless, undeserving Battousai? Wait around like a faithful hound in case he might have a chance at second place? No, never. He was Saitou Hajime, and he could deal with this as he’d dealt with any pain or loss he’d ever experienced. If Sano rejected him, he would leave Tokyo and move on. He’d been alone for years; he could do it again.

And yet, if Sano did go through with his plan, and was, as Saitou believed he would be, rejected by Himura, he would emerge from the dojo heartbroken and probably in greater need of support than he’d ever been. Could Saitou bear to abandon him at such a moment? Just because the plan was idiotic didn’t mean Sano would suffer any less when it failed.

But approaching him at that point, even purely as a friend offering comfort, would be like pressing his suit, taking advantage of Sano’s frame of mind to insinuate himself as a replacement for the originally desired prize. There were many circumstances under which Saitou would have no objection to such underhanded methods in pursuit of a worthwhile end, but in this case his pride would not allow it. He would not be satisfied with attentions from Sano under any pretenses not completely straightforward. He would not take second place, and he would not take advantage.

But if Sano needed him…

Finally he lit another cigarette, using jerky, irritable movements and viewing the package and matches only imperfectly through the burn spots on his eyes. Then he turned back toward the water and continued to damage both his vision and his lungs.

Not quite knowing what to do was an unusual state for him. He was half inclined to go seek Sano out, half to go home. Which was the wisest course he couldn’t tell, and the awareness that nothing he did was likely to make much difference, that the outcome of this situation lay entirely out of his lands, made the decision seem pointless in any event. He was Saitou Hajime, who had outwaited enemies in the most uncomfortable of circumstances and whose work often required immeasurable patience… but this extended ignorance, he thought, might well kill him.

How long he’d been standing here he wasn’t sure — it could have been minutes or hours — but eventually he felt as if he was at last ready to move. Where he would go and what he would do he likewise wasn’t sure, but the moment finally seemed right. So he lifted his hand to toss what remained of his latest cigarette into the water unfinished before he turned to walk away, but found himself frozen as a figure appeared in the corner of his eye and footfalls sounded across the planks of the lengthy bridge.

He knew Sano’s tread as well as his own, and he thought his heart slowed with each step toward him until it stopped entirely. He ached to look, to see the noontime brightness picking out the subtle differences of shade in Sano’s hair, gilding his smooth skin, sparkling in his eyes, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t move. What he might see in those eyes when he turned his own in that direction kept him paralyzed. He was Saitou Hajime, dependent on no other person for his own fulfillment, and yet he could not move.

These continual reminders of his identity were having little effect. The terrible, wonderful presence nearly at his side was enough to make him forget himself in an instant.

Hotter even than the July sun, ready to burn Saitou into nothingness with his verdict, ready to send him from this place in agony, Sano paused a few feet away for several moments without a word. Finally he came to lean on the railing beside Saitou, reaching out a casual hand to nab the forgotten cigarette from dangling gloved fingers. “So,” he said after a long drag, “why the hell did you wait so long to tell me?”

Under other circumstances the question might have been ambiguous, but here Sano’s tone and the language of his body made its meaning plain. And as if Saitou had been entirely suffused with anxiety so great it was almost despair, swollen and tight with it, he seemed now to feel this wretchedness draining out of his sensitized tissues and spirit and dissipating. He was conscious of relief in every part of himself, every muscle and bone, every corner of his mind; it left him embarrassingly weak. And yet his motions were strong and sure, energized by the same outside source that had freed him from his fears, as he turned and reached out.

Crushing, jealously clutching, he drew Sano to him, flush up against him, fitting them together as they were meant to fit, as perhaps they always had been. One hand at the base of Sano’s spine and the other on his neck, Saitou did not allow any space to remain between them as he tilted Sano’s face upward and descended on slightly parted lips with his own. Sano gave a muffled sound of surprise, but the squirming motion of his body was clearly intended only to wedge himself even closer as his own arms circled Saitou’s back and held tenaciously.

Overwhelmed as he was with relief and happiness and desire, Saitou had no other way to express himself at the moment. He could only kiss Sano as he never had before, as he’d never allowed himself to, as he’d never felt the need to, trying to communicate thus what he could not, at present, convey in words: all the fervor and adoration that had been building during the last few months and had now broken over him like a thunderstorm.

Eventually, dizzily, panting, lips swollen and internal temperatures significantly increased, they were forced after some unknown period of time to stop kissing each other, at least for now, and acknowledge that the world around them still existed. Saitou, however, only saw it reflected in Sano’s eyes, which were at the moment extremely bright and clear and still very close to his own, as the two hadn’t loosened their mutual embrace. Sano stared at him with a shocked expression that might presently turn into a grin but at the moment was still too much blown away for anything but astonishment.

“You… never kissed me like that before,” he gasped.

Before Saitou could even reply, he had to kiss him again, but he made it brief this time. Then, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” he explained, every bit as breathless as Sano.

“Shit.” Somehow Sano’s eyes managed to widen even further. “Have you been holding back there too?”

“Come home,” said Saitou, conscious of a thrill like electricity at a phrase that suddenly held an entire new world of meaning, “and I’ll show you.”

***

During a kiss that had seemed to last forever, to promise forever, and yet hadn’t been nearly long enough, Saitou’s feelings had required no clarification, but the fact remained that Sano couldn’t read Saitou nearly as well as Saitou could read him. As they embarked on the long walk across town, Sano couldn’t shake the impression that Saitou was still worried, and he wondered if he was imagining things.

It would make sense, though… he didn’t like to think what his poor wolf must have suffered waiting for Sano to make up his stupid mind. How long Saitou had loved him Sano didn’t yet know — it was one of a number of questions he wanted to ask — but every moment that emotion had been recognizably present in Saitou’s heart while Sano mindlessly pursued someone else must have been a torment. And recovering from that kind of ongoing concern and agitation must take more than just one kiss, especially given that the conclusion Sano had come to had been reached over the course of less than an hour’s reflection.

The silence that settled over them as they walked, however, seemed to forbid speech. The thousand things that needed to be said — reassurances, queries, explanations — busily lined up in Sano’s head and quickly lost patience, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. He wasn’t uncomfortable walking next to the officer, but he did feel… well, impossible as he would otherwise have considered it, he really did feel… shy… and he believed the revolutionary nature of the kiss on the bridge had caused it. Their relationship, the entire scope of their interaction, and, in fact, Sano’s whole spinning world had changed… and he doubted what to do or say now.

But the need to reassure Saitou was overwhelming; the thought of him still skirting the edge of fear and sorrow, and Sano doing nothing to steady him, was unbearable. Somehow he had to demonstrate the seriousness of his decision. So he reached out — almost without looking, lest he deepen the blush that already rode his cheeks — and took the closest gloved hand in his own. As he interlaced their fingers, he thought he saw from the corner of his eye an expression turned toward him that seemed to say, “Right out in public, ahou?” Yet Saitou didn’t pull away. In fact he never pulled away, throughout the entirety of that lengthy walk.

As the familiar house came into view, Sano’s heart gave a little throb. “Come home,” Saitou had said. This was home. At the same time, the silence became discernibly heavier and more expectant than before, and Sano wondered what Saitou believed to be the cause of the increasing sweat on his palm that must be palpable through the glove. In any case, he finally disengaged his grip as they went inside, closed the door behind them, and removed their shoes in continued wordlessness.

Sano had to admit he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted at the moment. Well, he knew of several things he wanted very much, but in what order they should be accomplished and how each should be carried out he couldn’t tell. His body longed for the sex Saitou had promised him — somewhat annoyingly perpetually demanded it, actually — but those thousand things he had to say clamored with equal noisiness in his mind. His heart, full of a variety of emotions, was making the obviously erroneous claim that it would be quite content doing nothing more than simply being here with Saitou, while simultaneously informing him that the unprecedented post-bridge shyness had only become stronger.

With all four doors closed, almost no light shone in this hallway, and Sano had never before felt so grateful for that circumstance. It meant the intensity of his blush couldn’t be seen as Saitou pulled him close in the darkness, though the pounding of his heart would undoubtedly be felt. Saitou didn’t kiss him this time, but drew him into a tight embrace as the silence dragged on. And Sano got the feeling, somehow, that he was still worried. Sano himself was nervous, but that overwhelming need to prove himself and the truth of his feelings was as strong as ever. Words still weren’t quite working, so, until they were, actions would have to do; that at least helped to clarify what the order of events was to be at the moment.

He stepped back out of Saitou’s arms, but, catching hold of one, urged the man toward the door for which the fingers of his other hand fumbled. Then the dim light of the shuttered bedroom filled the passage, and they moved together into it.

Sano caught his breath at the sight of the room, and was at last able to speak. “You left your futon out this morning.”

“Is that really what you want to talk about, ahou?” Though the tone was one of skepticism nothing alien to Saitou, yet there was a hint of evasiveness to this answer — as if he was reluctant to admit to a morning state of mind so distracted and unhappy that he hadn’t bothered to put his futon away… a state of mind that was, perhaps, still lingering in traces.

Instead of forcing Saitou to discuss the unpleasant details of earlier hours, Sano turned to him with a grin. “Your housekeeping’s hopeless without me, isn’t it?” He trailed down the arm he had hold of until he caught Saitou’s hand, then began walking backward onto the futon in question.

“Don’t get too high an opinion of yourself,” Saitou admonished, smiling crookedly as he allowed Sano to pull him down to his knees on the bed.

Kneeling, Sano immediately leaned forward to kiss Saitou. And though this was something he’d done many times over the last couple of months, he was blushing harder than ever now — which probably explained why the kiss started out so soft, though it didn’t stay that way long. For Sano pressed closer eagerly to taste the cigarette flavor of Saitou’s mouth, and Saitou teased Sano’s tongue out with his own.

With so much blood heating his face, that there was any left to form an erection down in the sudden tightness of the wraps beneath his pants was astonishing. Sano’s chest rose and fell rapidly with the intensity of his breaths; and, wanting to get some part of Saitou in between his legs, he squirmed closer to him in an attempt to rearrange their limbs a bit, rendering their kiss messy and difficult to maintain as he moved. The desire he felt to be closer to Saitou was like an explosive force expanding within him… and it was this very desire, seemingly contradictorily, that slowed him.

Because words from earlier, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” had come back to him all of a sudden. Saitou had clearly been teasing with that statement, but the memory of it reinforced Sano’s awareness that his current actions could be interpreted in more than one way and might not be as reassuring as he intended. He throbbed for Saitou in every part of his body, and he fully planned to use that body to convey his emotions… but he had to preface that with words. He couldn’t proceed one step farther in this process, couldn’t so much as kiss Saitou one more time, before he’d done so.

His lips tingled as he drew back, and his heart felt much the same as he looked Saitou in the eye. He found himself abruptly overwhelmed with a feeling of vulnerability like nothing he’d ever experienced even when he’d been specifically encouraging Saitou to attack him. Everything that had gone before had been mere play compared to this moment; with this he would be opening himself up to Saitou, exposing his heart, as he never had. It was a breathtaking sensation.

“I love you,” he said in something of a rush, quietly and hoarsely. “Don’t think, just ’cause I realized it all of a sudden, I don’t mean it. I’m just sorry I didn’t notice sooner.”

Saitou smiled, and if there had previously been any trace of worry in his expression, it had now vanished. “I only realized a few days before you did,” he said. “For once, I’ve been just as stupid as you.”

Sano grinned in return. “I don’t think either of us have been stupid.” He was able to speak more easily now that the soul-baring moment was over. “This shit is crazy; we couldn’t have predicted it.”

The smile on Saitou’s face widened to match Sano’s. “And for once I think you’re right.”

Leaning forward again, Sano half growled as he approached Saitou’s lips, “Why don’t you stop insulting me and fuck me already?”

Saitou’s chuckle was muffled and then cut off completely.

Of all the garments between them, Sano’s gi was historically the easiest to remove, and it wasn’t long before sliding gloved hands had pushed it down off his shoulders and Sano had pulled his arms free so it could be tossed aside. Then he replaced his own hands on Saitou’s neck, where they ran continually up to the man’s ears and chin and back down to just beneath the collar of the blue police jacket. Though he’d actively taken Saitou’s clothing off on numerous occasions and knew exactly what the officer looked and felt like underneath, Sano found himself inexplicably nervous about initiating this process at the moment — and simultaneously hungrier for Saitou’s nakedness, more eager to get at his skin, than he’d ever been before.

And then, in a hasty movement almost impatient, Saitou gave a brief, teasing twist to one of Sano’s nipples, ran one knuckle down the wraps beneath it over stomach and waistband, and took hold of Sano’s erection. Sano stiffened, his lips breaking away from Saitou’s with a groan, at the very unsubtle touch. As Saitou began a massaging motion through the cloth of Sano’s pants, he murmured, “I think you’re even harder than usual.”

Sano’s attempt to answer was an incoherent failure, and where he had previously been working on the buttons of Saitou’s jacket he was now clutching pointlessly. Eventually, in a clumsy-fingered trance of pleasure, he resumed his previous activity, though his aim wasn’t likely to be accomplished any time soon. Presently Saitou turned his full attention to stripping his companion, and Sano took advantage of the brief removal of direct stimulus to hasten his own efforts in that direction as well. He’d barely managed to remove the jacket when Saitou’s arms, returning from shrugging that garment to the floor, encouraged Sano upward so as to shed his pants.

The moment the latter had fallen around his ankles, Sano would have relinquished the standing position, but Saitou held him steady as he rose up on his knees; and suddenly it was Saitou’s mouth rather than his fingers that worked against Sano’s cock, now with minimal material between. The sound of pleasure Sano let out was sharper than before, and his legs trembled and stiffened as the world seemed to be tilting sideways and threatening to take him with it. This made Saitou chuckle, and the vibrations of the laugh tingled against sensitive skin and only increased Sano’s imbalance. His hands came down heavily on Saitou’s shoulders as he struggled not to fall right over.

Gloves, soft but rougher than the hands they covered, lightly brushed against Sano in one spot after another, teasing, as Saitou deftly unwound the wrappings around Sano’s abdomen and crotch. No sooner was Sano’s erection freed to throb in the open warming air than Saitou’s tongue ran along it, eliciting further absurd noises from Sano’s throat and more pronounced trembling of his legs. Then, though Sano wouldn’t have thought there had been a chance for Saitou to remove his gloves (not that he was probably observing time properly at the moment), bare, calloused hands were exploring his exposed buttocks and the space between them, making it nearly impossible for him not to writhe.

In response to growing pleasure he thought soon must become overpowering, Sano forced himself to make the somewhat half-hearted protest, “You’re gonna… make me come… way early… like that.”

Again Saitou chuckled, with much the same effect as before — an effect that was augmented by the vibrations of his words: “I want you to come early. Then you can come again late.” And so saying, he took the head of Sano’s cock in his mouth and began sucking it deeper in.

At this, Sano’s fingers dug into Saitou’s shoulders, and he made another inelegant noise. This was followed by a few more, voluntary sounds, which had been intended as words but didn’t come out resembling anything of the sort. Eventually, though, he managed to articulate more or less comprehensibly, “Rather… have you… inside me… better that way…”

“Hmm,” Saitou said, wringing an inadvertent groan from Sano once more. The officer drew back so as to disengage his lips and tongue, then remarked, “I can’t say no to that.” He licked the tip of Sano’s erection again briefly before he added, “We’ll see if you can last that long.”

Determined to prove he could, Sano was nevertheless unsure; he was so affected by Saitou’s stated intention to make him come multiple times, by the awareness that Saitou specifically wanted to give him pleasure, that every touch threatened to send him over the edge. It came extremely close when Saitou’s fingers, on returning to the crevice between Sano’s buttocks, proved now to be slick with oil that eased their quick slide into the opening there.

In fact the only thing that kept Sano from orgasm was the sudden distracting mental query as to why the oil had been near the futon at all. Whenever they weren’t actually busy fucking, it was always put away neatly in the cabinet. The room didn’t stretch far in either direction, but the cabinet was definitely too distant to reach from here… so the jar must already have been on the floor nearby.

The ensuing theory — that Saitou must have had some personal use for it very recently — would have been enough to make Sano come hard as the mental image of Saitou masturbating hit him like a hot blow, but for the accompanying pathos at the thought of the man he loved attempting in desperate loneliness to recall physical sensations that were all he had left of someone he believed he might never see again.

Prompted by this miserable image, “I love you,” Sano gasped even as Saitou’s fingers pushed deeper inside him.

“And I love you.” Saitou sounded as if he would like to know why Sano had felt the need to make that statement just at that particular moment, but he didn’t ask; he just licked Sano’s cock again as if he wanted something less comprehensible instead. He got it. It wasn’t merely the tongue, though, or even the fingers; it was the words. Sano had never realized how amazing it could feel to hear them like this, to exchange that declaration in such a context. It rendered all of this so much more meaningful, as if they were operating on a totally new level. Now more than ever he wanted Saitou inside him.

And it was time, as evidenced by the withdrawal of fingers and Saitou shuffling backward slightly into a cross-legged position right at the end of the futon. Gratefully Sano dropped to his knees even as Saitou unfastened his own belt and the buttons of his pants. Before he could bring out the instrument with which he would more thoroughly penetrate and pleasure Sano than his fingers could, Sano growled, “You let me do that,” and pushed Saitou’s hands aside.

Yet again Saitou chuckled, though the sound disappeared as Sano leaned forward and kissed him while his hands dove into the blue pants and found what he sought. He thought as he did so that Saitou, too, was harder than usual. Never had he loved any texture as much as the hot, silky skin of Saitou’s cock, and couldn’t help rubbing it up and down, smearing the pre-ejaculate from the tip as far across the length as it would go. Of this substance he could taste traces of his own in Saitou’s mouth, and he could feel the moan in Saitou’s throat as he continued to massage his erection with one hand while the second pushed impatiently at his pants.

He had to break off the kiss a moment later in order to look around for the oil jar, and while his head was turned Saitou began mouthing his jaw and neck. Locating the lubricant and scooping some messily up to dribble onto Saitou’s cock, Sano rubbed the latter down again — partly to ensure even coverage, but partly just because he wanted to return the pleasurable teasing Saitou had given him.

Saitou groaned, and his teeth closed on the flesh of Sano’s shoulder, causing Sano also to make an abrupt noise in surprise. The older man’s hands pulled at the younger’s body, trying to draw him into the closeness they both wanted, and, as Saitou had remarked not long ago, it was an invitation Sano couldn’t deny. He clambered forward fully across Saitou’s lap, ignoring the slight discomfort of a starched waistband and a belt buckle against his exposed flesh, and positioned himself somewhat awkwardly while keeping hold of and guiding Saitou’s erection.

The moment he’d been waiting for was exquisite, and, as he ground down onto the long solid shaft, he felt he was allowing more into his being than just that. Physically the sensation was the same as ever — the stretching tightness and fullness, both somewhat uncomfortable in an absolutely wonderful way — but the feeling of deriving mutual pleasure from taking part of his lover inside him was maddeningly heightened. The awareness of having opened himself to Saitou as never before had only increased, and the intense intimacy this led to was augmented to a nearly unbearable pitch by the certainty that Saitou would not take advantage of that vulnerability. There were times, of course, when any weakness of Sano’s was fair game, but this was not one of them; at the moment, Sano thought, Saitou was every bit as open as he was, relishing this honest show of Sano’s feelings and pleased at a soul-deep level by Sano’s presence.

Overwhelmed by all of this, Sano pressed hard against Saitou in a full-body shiver, flexing around the stiffness that now filled him and giving a helpless groan. This mingled with Saitou’s sound of pleasure, and they more or less stilled with the officer’s hands tense against Sano’s lower back and Sano clutching at Saitou’s shoulders. The messy, hungry kiss that followed did little to stop Sano’s noisy gasping or Saitou’s moan as Sano continued to clench around him and shift in his lap. And when one of Saitou’s hands sneaked into the limited space between them to grasp Sano’s aching erection, Sano went from panting to crying out.

Clearly Saitou’s ability to articulate was in a state similar to his partner’s, but it seemed fairly sure that what he whispered roughly into Sano’s ear was along the lines of, “Is this what you wanted?”

Sano felt as if he’d been stripped not just of his clothes, but right down to his most sensitive organs, and once again the consciousness of Saitou’s devotion to his pleasure seemed to lance straight into his bared heart — which was, of course, connected directly to his entire sexual system. There was absolutely no way he could respond coherently to the question that had affected him so strongly, but Saitou seemed to understand that the answer was a riotous affirmative. As he pumped his oil-slicked hand up and down Sano’s length, he growled something that sounded very much like, “Then come for me.”

At times Sano didn’t enjoy being ordered around by Saitou, but now he did as he was told. With a cry, stiffening, clutching at Saitou tightly, Sano let the ecstasy spread explosively across his body and the less physical realms of thought and emotion that appreciated it, perhaps, even more.

Upon returning from the prickling mists of insensible pleasure to the more mundane but still astonishingly enjoyable world he knew, Sano found Saitou slowly kissing his neck beneath his upturned chin. And as Sano looked down again, Saitou transferred his attention to the young man’s lips, leisurely working them open, trailing his tongue over them and over Sano’s. His movements seemed smug, somehow, and he was still hot and solid inside Sano’s ass — and the fact that he, yet unsatisfied, was so pleased with having brought Sano so hard made Sano shudder and cling to him again.

Though this current position, seated and entwined, was a little awkward, Sano didn’t want to move from it just yet. He didn’t want to move at all, in fact, savoring the fading throb of orgasm, and couldn’t be sure how long he sat flush against Saitou breathing in the scents of the hot air. Moreover, he loved the feeling of precision that came with penetration in such a position — they way they fit together so perfectly, as if they’d been cut from a single pattern of the same material — and how even the minutest motion tested the boundaries of that connection and reaffirmed it with little jolts of sensation.

He also loved — particularly loved — how Saitou reacted to each of those minute motions, those little jolts. Sano was very tight around him since coming, and even the movement of his calming breaths seemed to tug at the hardness inside him and make Saitou moan.

“So…” Sano said at last, softly, when his mouth was free for a moment. “Was I really pathetic that first night?”

“Yes,” replied Saitou at a whisper. He was unfastening the last of the wraps around Sano’s upper body — unnecessarily, since they covered nothing relevant to the task at hand, but Sano did not begrudge it him.

Slowly he squirmed, reveling in the fullness and solidity and, most of all, how affected his lover was. “Really?”

Saitou’s hands clenched almost convulsively against Sano’s back, and his whisper was broken as he replied again, “Yes.”

Sano stopped his teasing movements and scowled. “I thought for sure you were just being an asshole when you said that.”

“You…” Saitou kissed the corners of Sano’s pouting lips. “…were an awkward scared virgin who was thinking about someone else and came after about thirty seconds.” As he drew back a bit and observed Sano’s increased glower, he grinned and added, “And I enjoyed it very much. You could have done a lot worse and I would probably still have enjoyed it.”

Placated, Sano also determined, now, to wring more distinct praise out of his lover. He ran one hand up under Saitou’s black shirt, which was sticky with Sano’s ejaculate, to pinch one of the officer’s hard nipples even as he started squirming again more pointedly against the hot length that filled him below. “You don’t think I’m pathetic now,” he growled.

“No,” Saitou gasped, his eyes closing briefly and his whole body tensing beneath Sano. “Not at this, anyway.”

Sano couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not even going to ask what you still think I’m pathetic at.” His motion had taken on a rise and fall that began gradually to mimic thrusting. “I’m so not-pathetic at fucking now that you want it all the time.”

“That’s right.” It was half a chuckle and half a groan as Saitou pulled Sano closer against him. The rubbing of Sano’s flaccid cock on Saitou’s stomach as he did this wasn’t entirely comfortable, but that didn’t matter much.

“You can probably never stop thinking about me.”

“Possibly.”

“Even at work when you’re supposed to be thinking about other things.”

“Maybe.”

“And even Aku Soku Zan and all that isn’t as important anymore.”

“You’re getting… too high an opinion of yourself… again…”

Sano grinned. “Just checking.”

Breathless as he returned the expression, Saitou replied, “Ahou.” And as his unblinking gaze bored into Sano’s, there was a feeling of something snapping, as if even the patient, powerful Saitou couldn’t bear this any longer. His arms tensed around Sano and his entire body shifted, and Sano was suddenly propelled downward to land heavily on his back on the futon with Saitou atop him. Then there was barely time for a desperate kiss and some brief disentangling of limbs before Saitou was thrusting into him hard and fast.

Sano’s abruptly shattered thoughts as he shouted in surprise and pleasure had something to do with the idea that if this was what happened when he got Saitou’s cock inside him and started teasing, he would definitely have to try that more often. He wasn’t quite ready for a second erection of his own yet, but in this new heat and speed and intensity — not to mention the awareness that Saitou had been driven to it by Sano’s words and actions — he knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.

A noise of frustration forced its way through the happier ones Saitou was making, and suddenly, dismayingly, he was pulling back — pulling out — and getting to his feet.

The sight of Saitou yanking his clothes off with quick, determined movements was exactly the opposite of disappointing, but Sano was yet compelled to make a disappointed sound at the constriction and emptiness caused by the removal of the hard length that now stood out from Saitou’s bare body beyond Sano’s reach. And Saitou was so desirable, so perfect in every way that mattered to Sano… beautiful, even, if such a word could be thought to apply… from the hair he’d mussed with the removal of his shirt to the scars that dotted his shins — the only scorch marks he’d borne from Shishio’s fortress, as Sano, upon inquiry, had discovered the first night. (‘Horribly burned,’ indeed!) Even the white socks, which often seemed out of place with Saitou’s dark clothes and that now looked downright silly, Sano loved.

At the pitiful noise Sano made, the officer looked down as he kicked his pants aside. And it seemed the complaint had actually been counterproductive, for the quick return movement toward which Saitou’s body had tended was now stilled, and he stood staring in silent pensiveness. The lust in his demeanor had not diminished, but he obviously felt the need to take this moment to scrutinize, from that height, the young man lying propped up on one elbow at his sock-clad feet, naked and ready for him.

Sano’s shyness and the piercing awareness of their increased intimacy was ongoing, and he knew he was blushing as Saitou’s glinting eyes traversed his body. But this was no one-sided or disconnected appreciation; the mutual approval and admiration and desire were palpable between them, tying them together like a hot cord along which thoughts seemed to run from mind to mind without words. It sent a shiver through him that was something like discomfort or nervousness, or what these conditions would be if nearly all unpleasantness were stripped from them.

Saitou’s intent gaze didn’t leave Sano as he dropped to his knees and blindly sought out an auxiliary helping of lubricant, the application of which made him gasp, before crawling forward. Somehow the half smile on his otherwise serious face served to render his entire expression more intense, and Sano groaned not only at the sight of it but at the mere touch of Saitou’s hand on his leg. That second erection was very close now.

And then Saitou was pushing into him again, and Sano was groaning not just in pleasure but in something like relief. Saitou didn’t wait this time, but immediately began thrusting. His skin, now free of encumbrance, slid against Sano’s with hot friction as he curled down atop him and kissed his face with such imprecision it was as if finding his lips was not merely impossible but unthinkable at the moment. Up and around Saitou’s tense back Sano slid his arms, fingers spread wide to feel the shifting of muscle beneath them. Then he drew his knees up as far as they would go and began running his curling toes at random over Saitou’s lower body.

The change this occasioned in the angle of constriction on Saitou’s cock made the wolf groan out his lover’s name in between his panting breaths, and that was enough for Sano, in a prickling rush of sensation, to start becoming hard again. His moan matched Saitou’s, and immediately he tried to press closer to the shifting body above him so as to trap this new erection tightly between them. Unfortunately, this left not quite enough of him against the futon, and Saitou’s next thrust slid him right off one edge.

The floorboards were unexpectedly cool beneath his shoulders, and he gave a little cry of surprise in which was mixed some pleasure, equally unexpected, at the temperature contrast. Saitou laughed breathlessly and, without bothering about the fact that Sano was half off the bed, adjusted his position. He braced himself more firmly with strong arms on either side of Sano, and kept at what he was doing.

Some tiny segment of the burning, spinning, out-of-control part of Sano that claimed to be his mind insisted that later he would have to remember this new angle and try for it again, because it was fabulous. Everything besides Saitou atop him and inside him, Saitou loving him, had faded rapidly from his awareness; he’d practically forgotten his own identity, except as far as he was Saitou’s lover, and didn’t particularly mind. And by the gorgeous expression on his face and the increasingly pleased and eager noises he was making, Saitou seemed to be enjoying it too.

How long this went on Sano couldn’t guess; such mundanities as seconds and minutes (and caring about them) seemed inapplicable to this ecstasy. He held tightly to his beloved, moved with him, felt with him, and nothing else really mattered. And then, as that full-body tingle of second orgasm swept through him, compelling him to cry out in an attempt (not very successful) at Saitou’s name, he tightened every part of himself that was locked to Saitou, clenching most notably and somewhat painfully where Saitou still moved inside him. It made his outburst of pleasure even louder, in which he was joined by his partner as Saitou ground into a suddenly much smaller opening. Saitou quickened his pace for the last few deep thrusts it took him to come as well, with a moan as formless as Sano’s had been.

They celebrated this accomplishment with a few kisses almost exhausted and certainly uncalculated, then lay mostly still, breathing hot mist against each other’s skin for quite some time. Things besides Saitou and Saitou’s body and Saitou’s love were reminding Sano that they existed, and he wanted to laugh as he discovered how well he and Saitou together seemed to fit into them. Everything was perfect right now, even if they were still lying half off the futon and had, he was fairly sure, spilled the oil jar at some point.

Eventually, with a sigh and the kind of wincing care he never exhibited under any other circumstances, Saitou lifted himself slowly out of direct contact with Sano as he pulled gradually out of him. Then he shifted so that when he settled again, it was lying properly on the bed, and he pulled at Sano to join him. Sano squirmed over and into the arms that awaited him, pressing back against Saitou’s hot flesh and kissing him briefly on the neck before stilling with an echoing sigh. They fell silent, except for breaths calming only in their own good time, and Sano, analyzing the silence as he had often done since he’d met Saitou in the street that day that seemed so long ago, classified it as ‘exquisite.’

All silences, even the most beautiful, must end eventually, especially between two such men, and Sano didn’t mind when he felt he couldn’t refrain from speaking any longer. “So you weren’t lying. You really were holding back before.”

“Because I was trying to simulate the boring sex I imagined you having with Himura.”

Later Sano would have to explore the interesting idea of Saitou imagining him having sex with Kenshin. At the moment, however, the reference was extremely awkward. “Shit, please don’t mention Kenshin at a time like this.”

“Good.” Saitou sounded very pleased as he ran a hand up and down Sano’s back in response to the younger man’s shudder. “I’d rather have you thinking exclusively about me anyway.”

“You might want to be careful… I can get kindof obsessive…” Though Sano grinned as he said it, there was a touch of embarrassment to the warning.

“I’ve seen how you can get when you think you’re in love; I’m very interested in how you get when it’s real.”

“You’ll probably still think I’m an idiot, though.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t love you half as much if you weren’t.”

“I’m going to quote you on that.” Sano wondered if he would be receiving nearly this many declarations of love once the current atmosphere of intense emotional connection between them had faded, and believed keeping this latest one firmly in mind would be extremely useful in the future when Saitou was talking down to him as usual.

“I’m sure you are,” Saitou chuckled.

Sano angled his face upward to look into Saitou’s, and found the older man smiling fondly at him. He smiled back, upon which Saitou nipped at the tip of his nose and then kissed it. Sano kissed him back, but on the mouth, and then drew away with a thoughtful expression. “You know what you never have showed me?” he mused.

“Hmm.”

“How to fuck you.”

“No… in the previous context it seemed unnecessary.”

“This is not the previous context.”

Saitou’s eyes narrowed. “It certainly isn’t. Do you think you can handle more lessons from me?”

“I’m pretty sure I could spend the rest of my life figuring out better ways to be with you.” The lightness of Sano’s tone did not hide the fact that he meant this statement, in all seriousness, on multiple levels.

Again Saitou smiled at him. “Well, we’ve discovered you can be taught, so I think it’s worth a try.”

***

Sano’s gorgeous new life (which, honestly, almost mirrored the old life, except that he understood it better) had progressed only a few days before he ran into Kenshin. He hadn’t expected this quite so soon — he’d believed nothing but the wedding itself, which he obviously couldn’t miss, could tear him away from Saitou for the next long while, but the work of Mibu no Ookami waited for no man and didn’t always keep the most convenient hours for newly declared lovers. The fact that Saitou was likely to be out all night drove Sano from home with afternoon just turning to evening; visiting the dojo wouldn’t help with the pining and worrying that would torment him later when he went to bed alone, but it could at least prevent him from starting in on those pastimes several hours earlier than absolutely necessary.

Kenshin was just emerging from the main doors with a shopping bag over his arm, and Sano immediately reflected how funny it was that, only a few days before his marriage, nothing had changed for the rurouni. Somewhat unthinkingly, he stepped forward and remarked on this aloud — which was fortunate, because after that thought came a whole slew of others that he had to work through before he could possibly speak again.

Perhaps nothing had changed for Kenshin, but everything had changed for Sano. He almost couldn’t believe he’d previously considered himself in love with this man. Of course he loved him — in fact, a warm wave of affection washed through Sano as he looked Kenshin over now — but it was a comradely love, even a brotherly love, and that he could ever have mistaken it for anything else seemed absurd. Sure, looking with less bias now than before, Sano could still admit Kenshin to be damned attractive (though ‘tall and lean’ took a firm first place on his list of desirable physical attributes these days), but this was nothing more than an impartial observation such as he might make about anyone he met. There was no trace of active desire.

What there was was guilt, and even a certain measure of horror. The awkwardness Sano had planned to thrust upon Kenshin had been unkind and unfair, and the heartbreak and betrayal he’d callously declared perfectly appropriate for Kaoru had been unforgivable. How grateful he was that they knew nothing of it! How immeasurably more grateful he was that Saitou had snapped him out of his lengthy trance of inconsiderate stupidity before friendships could be strained or even destroyed. Saitou hadn’t rescued him merely from emotional turmoil, but from actually making a worse person of himself. Not that having considered it in the first place didn’t weigh pretty heavily yet… but at least now Sano had the chance to improve, to avoid a repetition of such reckless thoughtlessness in the future. Thank god, once again — and Saitou! — that Kenshin and Kaoru would never know.

In direct contrast to the mixed nature of these feelings, Sano was struck by a straightforwardly pleasant irony in the reflection that he had originally intended to get to Kenshin by way of Saitou, then ended up doing just the reverse. It only made the sight of Kenshin, regardless of any other emotions simultaneously called up, that much more welcome to Sano’s eyes. He could make amends, whether or not Kenshin and Kaoru guessed what for or even that he was doing it. He’d been learning a lot lately; surely he could learn to be a better friend too.

At the moment, Kenshin was wrapping up his explanation of what he needed to shop for and why it was necessary that he rather than Kaoru do it; and, though Sano hadn’t caught most of the exact words, he could easily read his friend’s mood.

“I’m glad you’re happy, Kenshin,” he said with earnest sincerity. “Really glad.” It was all he could do not to ask how he could help keep things that way, which would just sound silly.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, equally intent. Then he gave his companion a brief, sidelong look whose meaning Sano didn’t recognize until Kenshin continued in a somewhat cautious tone, “And you, Sano? It looks as if you have made up with Saitou, so I assume things are going well for you…”

Torn abruptly and violently from schemes of better friendship and personal improvement, Sano stilled with a jerk and stared, gaping, as Kenshin kept walking a step or two before stopping as well. Hoarse and quiet, Sano echoed, “‘Made up with…'” and could say no more.

Turning to face his friend, Kenshin looked as if he regretted having decided to ask. “If you would rather not talk about him…”

“No, that’s not…” Sano cleared his throat and shook his head vigorously, feeling a blush creeping over his face to replace what had probably been an unusual paleness there a moment before. “I just… didn’t know you knew about us.”

“I couldn’t be sure I was interpreting things correctly,” Kenshin admitted, “until that night at the Haiirobou, when you were so embarrassed when I asked whom you had been training with. I thought you must be worried I would disapprove.”

This conversation had gone in a direction so completely, so stunningly unexpected that Sano could say nothing but, “And… do you?”

“I did at first.” Kenshin sounded apologetic. “Especially because you did not come to see us very often, and seemed so agitated whenever you did. But I believe I am used to the idea now. It is your choice, after all.”

They’d resumed walking, and Sano was speechless. Kenshin trusted him in a way he hadn’t done Kenshin the honor of trusting him: to make a rational decision about his own love life. And he’d known all along — the entire time Sano had been training and scheming and deliberately overlooking sense and morality — all along that Sano was involved with Saitou. As Sano perceived clearly the precise depth of the abyss he’d so narrowly avoided flinging himself into, the true scope of the embarrassment and misery he’d only been saved from by the care of another, he was hardly able to breathe for horror and chagrin.

“Saitou was stalking around for a week or so as if he was ready to kill someone,” Kenshin went on when Sano said nothing. “That is, he always looks like that, but this was worse than usual. But when I’ve noticed him over the last few days, he has appeared much happier.” In a tone of pitying resignation he added, “I assume there will be plenty of fights between the two of you, but, once again, it’s your choice… and after that business with Hasekura, I did worry less.”

Sano still had no grip whatsoever on this discussion, and could only repeat blankly, “‘Business with Hasekura?'” The name was vaguely familiar; he thought he remembered Saitou mentioning it at some point… one of the government officials on the ‘to be investigated eventually’ list, wasn’t he?

Now Kenshin gave him an inquiring look that turned quickly to one of surprise and even disbelief. “You did not know?”

“I still don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“Saitou never said anything at all about Hasekura Susumu?”

“I’ve heard the name, but he never told me anything specific about…” Sano’s presence of mind got no support from the nearly astonished expression on Kenshin’s face.

“Sano, the man you fought in the street that night — the same night I mentioned, when we went to that restaurant — his father is Hasekura Susumu, of the Ministry of Finance. Hasekura was so angry at what you did to his son that he was going to bring charges against you — you really know nothing about this?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

“The police were searching for you for a week. They came to the dojo almost every day.”

“But…” Thinking back, Sano remembered that he hadn’t left Saitou’s house for quite some time after the incident in question. “But Saitou knew where I was that entire time!”

“I suspected as much when he suggested you were in hiding. He contacted both me and the young woman we met that night for an unofficial hearing. Any charges against you were dismissed when the police chief heard two witnesses describe the circumstances and the fact that the Hasekura boy actually attacked you first. And you will be happy to hear that he was ordered to stay away from her.”

Sano nodded blankly. It was good news, but nothing he could concentrate on at the moment.

His mind reeled and his heart throbbed with the thought of what Saitou had done for him. The officer had gone out of his way to free Sano from trouble he must have assumed had arisen during the pursuit of a goal he considered ill-judged in the first place. He’d taken time from the busy schedule of essential work he had to do for the country to smooth over that little issue for Sano, who at that point had not even been his lover. Saitou’s sense of justice had undoubtedly come into play, but Sano liked to think consideration for a friend had also been a part of why he’d taken such pains. And he hadn’t said a single word about it — had neither held it over Sano’s head as a favor that would one day need to be repaid, nor taunted Sano for getting himself into such a situation.

“Thank you,” Sano managed at last. “For telling me, I mean.” In the midst of his shock at everything that had just been revealed, he was conscious of a hot joy spreading through him as he considered everything he would be saying to Saitou when they next met. First there was this little matter of secretly rendered services to address… Saitou might never have established it as a matter of future repayment, but would be paid for it, with interest. And then there was the fact that Kenshin had known about them all along — known about them even before there was really a ‘them’ to know about — and held his tongue the entire time. This would probably amuse Saitou to no end.

Lastly, the point Sano could least likely express aloud but that he would surely find some other way to show his appreciation for, there was the unexpected newly arisen idea that Saitou, of all people, might be able to teach him to be a better friend. For Sano’s new goal of making amends to Kenshin and Kaoru and himself as true to them as they deserved, it appeared he needed to look no farther than the man that had helped him with his previous goal, the man that had saved him from destroying that friendship entirely, the man that had already taught him so much. The man he loved with all his heart and only respected more with every new thing he learned.

There was a big stupid grin on his face as he considered this. Kenshin, probably thinking he knew the reason for the expression — and certainly understanding at least part of it — smiled in return as he said, “You are certainly welcome, Sano.” And together in silence they walked on into the evening.



<<2

He Can Be Taught was one of the first Rurouni Kenshin stories I ever wrote. It was quite popular as I originally posted it, and won the 2002 Rurouni Kenshin Readers’ Choice Award for the yaoi category. Then, in 2013, as I reread it intending just to touch it up a bit, I realized it needed rewriting entirely. The result is what you find here.

The events of the story have remained completely intact, though a couple of them may be approached from a slightly different angle now. The biggest overall change, besides a quality of prose that I consider much better and the transition from chaptered to nonchaptered, is that certain interesting ideas only teasingly touched on in the original have been expanded in the rewrite. There’s a greater depth to it, very much for the better, I believe. And though nearly every other RK fanfiction I ever wrote was based on the manga rather than the stupid anime, in this case I found anime-specific references too numerous (and generally too innocuous) to do away with.

I’ve rated this story , one of the few perfect fives on my site. I consider the romantic development in this rewrite the best and most touching I’ve ever written.

His Own Humanity: Cross-Cancellation

The current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was.

Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre make good use of the beginning of a short vacation to think extensively about each other.

“You know, you guys don’t all have to go completely silent like that every time I back out of a parking space,” Duo was grumbling as he slowly guided Heero’s car in the manner specified.

“I was already completely silent,” Trowa pointed out.

“OK, Trois, you’re exempt. But you two–” Duo glanced at Heero, who sat in the passenger seat, then into the mirror at Quatre in the back beside Trowa. Ironically, he wasn’t able to tell these two what he thought of their behavior, since the accusatory movement of his eyes toward them in preparation for doing so caused them to break in with almost simultaneous protests that he needed to be watching what he was doing.

Duo was right, though: the car had fallen suspiciously silent the moment he’d started it up and moved to leave the parking space… but Trowa wasn’t certain this had been due entirely to the nervousness of his passengers about his ability to negotiate the lot — at least where Heero was concerned. Because Trowa and Quatre had only just gotten into the car at that point, and it was nothing unusual for Heero’s general volume to drop in direct proportion to the number of people around him.

Instead of whatever facetious rant he’d had in mind, Duo was grumbling, “…just because I still suck at parking lots…” and giving more attention to the latter than the rant probably would have allowed.

“You know, Heero,” Quatre grinned, “I was pleased with myself for getting our time off arranged right this time — the right number of days in advance, vacation pay set up, and everything — but I realize now that what I really should have done was updated my will.”

It was Duo that replied, this time with mock haughtiness. “Well, I wasn’t planning on driving us off a cliff, but now I’m having second thoughts.”

Shaking his head with a regretful sigh, Quatre seemed to lament this inevitable sealing of his fate. “I just hope Goldensea is worth it.”

“If we get there at all,” Heero put in. And because Trowa’s thoughts had drifted in that direction, he specifically marked the tone in which Heero said it. ‘Theatrical,’ he thought, was the best description for it, though that did imply more drama (and perhaps volume from the diaphragm) than he could ever imagine a speech of Heero’s containing. But there was definitely a performing quality to it, a consciousness of audience, and far more calculation than candidness.

Duo now shifted to offended dignity, and almost managed to make his portentous accusation with a straight face. “You two are no true friends.”

In general, however, Duo’s driving was not so bad. Trowa had found he wasn’t terribly fond of being a passenger in any car, but he hadn’t yet actively feared for his life with Duo at the wheel as his companions pretended to do. And despite the tendency of those companions to try to micro-manage lane-changing, acceleration, usage of turn signals, and most especially the distance maintained from other cars on the road, Trowa knew they would both offer reassurances to Duo, in between their teasing, that everything was actually fine.

In fact, he thought Heero was already doing so. Trowa couldn’t quite make out what he was saying in that low tone up there; four adult bodies in the car on a July afternoon required more air conditioning for comfort than would allow any remark not specifically aimed at everyone to be heard by everyone.

Trowa himself had repaired the air conditioner, which apparently hadn’t functioned correctly for many years, with a few spells a few days ago in preparation for this little road trip. Evidently more out of interest than skepticism, Heero had then insisted on examining the vehicle’s internal workings, and had emerged, greasy and fascinated, probably with a better understanding of what the magic had done than Trowa possessed. But even if the air conditioner hadn’t been working, Trowa did not doubt that Heero would have found an opportunity to murmur whatever statement he wanted to make to Duo in privacy great enough that he could deliver it in one-on-one mode.

Of Heero’s array of interpersonal settings Trowa had pieced together his awareness after a great deal of observation that had never been intended to unearth any such information. Several instances of coming into Heero’s apartment very quietly (ready to retreat immediately if it seemed that something private was going on), and overhearing thus how Heero behaved with Duo, had displayed the fact that this behavior was subtly but markedly different once Trowa joined them. He’d had occasion to observe Heero alone with Quatre once or twice too, and, though of course there was no romance involved, the openness and ease of Heero’s manner at such moments were much the same as with Duo.

At first, very naturally, Trowa had attributed this to the fact that Duo was Heero’s boyfriend and Quatre his longtime best friend, but after a couple of months observing and interacting with Heero he’d realized there was more to it than that. Because Trowa himself had been alone with Heero a few times, trying, at Duo’s urging, to assist Heero with magic. That process hadn’t gone very well, but the experiences had been enough to prove that, though Heero might not have quite the same degree of openness and friendliness toward Trowa that he displayed with Duo or Quatre, those aspects of his behavior yet remained — up until even just one more person came in.

When that happened, Heero seemed deliberately to shift gears. It had taken Trowa a while to realize that what Heero was actually doing at that point was closing off, putting up barriers, since Heero did it so smoothly: he did become quieter, yes, but he also seemed to start more carefully calculating everything he did say so as to cover up the fact that he was so much less inclined to speak at all.

They stopped for gas at a busy station, where Duo flirted shamelessly with the women at the next pump and then clearly startled them a bit when he replied to their teasing remarks about the apparent age and dilapidation of his car that it was actually his boyfriend’s. Said boyfriend and car owner maintained his stony silence and stillness in the passenger seat.

Before they’d left Heero’s apartment complex, when Duo and Heero had been the only ones in the vehicle… well, Trowa had been busy talking to Quatre at that point, but even the briefest glance at the others had been enough to show the greater level of responsiveness and candid animation in Heero’s demeanor, as he and Duo looked over the map to their destination on Heero’s phone, than in a moment like this when surrounded by people and observed by strangers.

And earlier than that, when Trowa and Quatre had come from Trowa’s house, where they’d been changing clothing and retrieving what luggage they meant to bring with them (and Quatre had insisted Trowa pack, on the grounds that teleporting back home in search of needed items defeated the entire point of a vacation), they’d found Heero’s apartment full of the sound of Duo’s excited discussion of the reception they’d all just attended, as well as the wedding that had preceded it — and Heero animatedly agreeing with him on many points. But of course he’d changed his tone when he’d realized Trowa and Quatre had arrived, because it was evidently impossible for him to behave the same with three people as he did with one.

Though it was obviously not just the type of relationship Heero had with those around him, but also a simple matter of arithmetic, Trowa deemed it still made a difference that those three were friends; he had no real idea of how Heero behaved around other types of people. It hardly mattered, though, since the overall point remained the same: subtly, even somewhat unexpectedly, Heero was shy. This was a brief and simplistic description of a complicated set of attributes, and Trowa had been a little surprised when he found he’d boiled Heero’s behavior down to that one word in his head, but there it was… and Trowa worried that it might cause problems one of these days.

Not with him, of course. While he wouldn’t have applied the same description to himself, he had definitely developed certain social anxieties and dislikes, and some extremely withdrawn tendencies, over the many years, which couldn’t leave him anything but sympathetic with anyone else’s desire to avoid social situations. No, he worried it might cause problems one of these days with Duo.

The latter had finished filling the car and said goodbye to his admirers, and was now, to the sound of some fairly idiotic but no less amusing banter, guiding them toward the interstate. There, Trowa knew from prior experience, Heero and Quatre would be a little less inclined to backseat drive, as long as Duo refrained from ‘riding the ass’ of the car in front of them as he was, apparently, wont to do; to Trowa, who was far more agitated by constant non-joking harassment of Duo than he was by any minor traffic law infractions, this would be a relief.

The conversation had turned to Duo’s job prospects and all the money he planned on making. “It’ll be so cool to do my taxes next year,” he was saying.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that,” Quatre replied with a laugh.

Eagerly Duo said, “I’ll do yours for you too!”

“Thank you, Duo.” Quatre’s tone made it very clear that this service, which removed his immediate influence over a part of his finances, was one of which he would never avail himself.

Picking up on this, Duo made a sulky face that Trowa could only partially see from this angle. “I’ll just have to do Heero’s taxes,” he declared.

“Hmm…” Heero’s reluctance was every bit as pronounced as Quatre’s.

“You can do my taxes,” Trowa offered.

“I will do everyone’s taxes!” was Duo’s fierce insistence. And he started listing all the people whose taxes he would do — though it sounded more like just a list of all the people he could think of, starting with his friends, broadening to acquaintances, then people he didn’t really know, then strangers whose names he’d seen on billboards and TV ads and people he wasn’t likely ever to meet. It probably would have continued into historic figures and fictional characters, but before that could happen, George W. Bush joined the roster, and this led to an energetic and very silly tangent.

Describing Duo as ‘outgoing’ was understating the fact. Duo had always been interested in people, which usually translated to his being equally interesting to people, which made friendliness levels rise exponentially when he was in company. If Trowa hadn’t known it perfectly well after growing up alongside Duo’s jovial and usually reciprocated interest in everyone they ever happened to encounter, those brief months of money and upward mobility just before the curse would have proven it. Duo had been politely invited to someone’s party the first time because he was Trowa’s friend; he’d been enthusiastically invited the second time because they’d realized that the gathering simply wouldn’t be complete without him.

As far as Trowa could tell, Duo’s time as a doll, being passed from one person to another for nigh on a century, had only given him a deeper and broader understanding of humanity in general, and done nothing to lessen his interest; if anything, he was more socially inclined now than ever before. He didn’t have a phone yet, since apparently he wanted to start earning his own money before thinking about that kind of monthly bill, but he did have at least one email address, and appeared to have made friends with just about everyone in the apartment complex in addition to several of Heero’s co-workers (somehow).

Trowa didn’t think Duo had started intensively hanging out with his new friends yet, inviting and being invited, but he assumed it was only a matter of time, especially once an income and a phone entered the picture. And what was Heero going to do then? Trowa feared the result of the first wanting to mingle and the second to avoid people would inevitably be constant discomfort and possibly pain on at least one side; surely, even if they managed to meet halfway between Heero’s preference for interacting with as few as possible and Duo’s for as many as he could, those two conflicting desires were going to drive them apart.

On the other hand, Heero had proven himself both adaptable and tenacious thus far… and Duo’s sociability, naturally, included a talent for overcoming interpersonal conflict… they would surely figure something out.

“No, obviously Heero will be my running mate,” Duo was saying, “if JaMarcus Russell says no.”

“Our junction’s coming up,” Heero pointed out. “You’ll want to be in the right lane.”

Since the difficult process of exiting and merging onto a different highway was apparently an engrossing prospect to Heero and Quatre, all conversation that held any immediate interest to Trowa ceased for the moment. Which simply meant he could carry on his contemplations uninterrupted.

Of course his friends’ relationship wasn’t strictly any of his business… but not only had disinclination to see Duo hurt become more or less a way of life for him, his own level of sociability had come into play as he’d been realizing that having friends again meant once again being both entitled and obliged to care about them. And he cared about Heero. They weren’t exactly close, but Trowa thought they liked each other well enough — and that he understood this potential problem, at least to a certain extent, from both sides.

That didn’t mean there was really anything he could do about it… he certainly wasn’t going to bring it up with either of them, especially while it was only hypothetical as yet… He would just have to wait and see how things developed.

*

General conversation had faded into pensive, window-gazing quiet, as it not infrequently did on long drives. Heero was fine with the relative silence, but unsurprised to find that his boyfriend was not; in fact Duo was squirming somewhat alarmingly in his seat, attempting to get something out of the pocket of his jeans with the hand that was required for the gear shift. It turned out to be his iPod, which (rather than allow him to attempt to connect it, while still driving, to the cassette adapter in the stereo) Heero immediately took from him.

“Thanks,” said Duo. Then in a sly tone he added, “If you just let it play from where it was, that’ll be fine.”

Heero rather suspected he knew what he would hear when he obeyed this injunction, and thus was braced for it. The back seat, on the other hand, had no prior warning, and the look on Trowa’s face at the first sudden sound of Baby, baby, baby, no! from the speakers was priceless. Quatre, who wasn’t much of a popular music fan in general, raised such a protest that Heero (nothing loath) had to skip the song and promise to avoid anything else by that particular artist for the rest of the drive.

Duo made a sound of exaggerated disappointment and an absurdly sad face.

“I’ll make it up to you.” Heero hid his smile in favor of the solemnity necessary for this promise.

With a sudden grin Duo said, “Hah! see, just a couple of lines of that song put you in the mood to make it up to me.” And at Heero’s expression he added, “I know, I know, it’s really weird that Justin makes you want me; I totally admit that. But since we’ve discovered that this is a true, proven scientific fact, there’s no reason not to take advantage of it, right?”

Even as Heero echoed skeptically, “‘Justin?'” wondering since what point Duo was on first-name terms with the celebrity in question, he glanced reflexively into the mirror on his sunshade to determine whether or not Quatre and Trowa were listening to this ridiculous exchange. Observing that they had begun a conversation of their own, nothing of which Heero could hear over the music and air conditioner, he deemed himself safe.

The mirror did inform him that he was blushing a little, though; he would have pushed the visor away so as to ignore this fact if they hadn’t been driving straight into the sunset… which just meant he had more opportunity (or perhaps excuse) to watch his friends in the back seat. So, giving one ear to Duo’s continued, excessively silly Justin Bieber talk (talk that eventually transitioned into energetic singing along with whatever was currently playing) and one eye to a surreptitious watch of Quatre and Trowa, Heero sat in silence for a while.

There was often, he had noticed, an almost severe earnestness to Trowa’s demeanor when he conversed privately with Quatre, as if Trowa threw everything he was into these interactions. Under most circumstances, Heero would have considered this a good sign, a proof of devotion and engagement… but with Quatre, he was afraid it was actually something more the opposite.

Duo had once declared that Heero loved fixing things. And while Heero didn’t necessarily think this inaccurate, he felt it might apply to Quatre equally well or perhaps even more than to him. Or, at least, where Heero loved fixing things, Quatre loved fixing people. Certainly Quatre was drawn to people that needed help, the pathetic, people to whom he thought he specifically could be of use… so it amounted to about the same thing.

Heero couldn’t count the number of times he’d received from a yawning, ring-eyed Quatre a report of all-night counseling sessions with the latest disturbed boyfriend — nor the number of times Quatre had mentioned having been called away from something he was doing, up to and including formal family functions, to see to some problem that really shouldn’t have been Quatre’s in the first place.

He couldn’t count the number of times Quatre had unburdened himself regarding the personal issues he just couldn’t manage to solve for Eric, Gabe, or Scott — issues that, while perfectly legitimate, were unlikely ever to be solved when Quatre seemed to be the only one working on them.

He could, unfortunately, count the number of times Eric, Gabe, Scott, or any of the rest, had made even the most pathetic attempt at returning the favor, at offering the same level of emotional support they so consistently demanded of Quatre. That he could count on one hand.

Abruptly Duo stopped singing, and remarked with intense complacency, “I am going to run down the beach in slow motion for two days straight.”

Though the sentiment was nothing new — Duo had been listing all the things he was going to do at the beach on and off ever since they’d decided on this little vacation, and the list became more and more elaborate with each repetition — Heero had still been deep enough in his own thoughts to be taken unawares by the statement. Thus he wasn’t in time, before Duo went on, to reply that he hoped this wasn’t all Duo intended to do for the next two days.

“And I’m going to get a towel and a drink with a little umbrella in it and lay in the sun all day.”

“You won’t be happy if you get a sunburn the first day and have to spend the rest of the time inside,” Heero smiled.

Duo returned the expression, but his was more of a somewhat sheepish “Actually, I probably would” smile. He still took an inordinate amount of pleasure in anything that reminded him he was human. Rather than admit this out loud, however, he began to wax enthusiastic about how long it had been since he’d visited an ocean beach (a couple of years), how many times he’d been to a beach in total (fewer than ten), and how many of those instances had taken place while he’d been human (a big fat zero).

The excitement Duo manifested at such moments never failed to make Heero smile… but since, similar to the description of what Duo was going to do at the beach, there was nothing Heero hadn’t heard before in this particular dissertation, he wasn’t required to pay minute attention, and could resume the train of thought regarding Quatre and Trowa he’d been busy with a minute or two ago.

There was a name for the kind of treatment Heero had observed in Quatre’s past boyfriends: abuse. None of them had meant to do it — Heero would give them that much — and in fact he didn’t think any of them had even been aware of the extent to which they were taking advantage of Quatre’s unfailing kindness. But that didn’t change the facts.

And Quatre, with his determination not to give up on someone he cared about, his confidence in his own abilities and good will, and the disciplinary side of his managerial inclinations dampened by the personal nature of the situation, continued to enable the abusive behavior long past when he should have given the effort up as a bad job. Eventually he tended to turn each boyfriend loose in what was probably worse shape than when the guy had caught Quatre’s eye in the first place.

And as for the number of times Heero had attempted to suggest tactfully that perhaps Quatre should be a little more choosy about his partners, and had his friendly advice completely ignored… he didn’t even want to try to count. It had been a source of more or less constant frustration for seven or eight years, but Heero supposed he couldn’t really blame Quatre for a faulty behavior born of an overdeveloped sense of pathos combined with a perseverant desire to improve people’s lives… and perhaps, in this, Heero was every bit as enabling as Quatre was.

“Oh! And I’m going to get drunk,” said Duo complacently.

This was new. “Are you?”

“Yes! I’ve barely ever–” He raised his chin and his voice. “Trowa! Tell Heero how much money we had to spare for alcohol back in the 1910’s.”

Breaking off whatever he was saying to Quatre, Trowa turned with a skeptical expression Heero pretended not to be able to see in his sunshade mirror. “We occasionally had alcohol, but whether we ever once had money to spare for it is a different story.”

“So I’ve never really been drunk,” Duo concluded. “And the Goldensea website said something about a happy hour. Quatre, you got the happy hour thing in the reservation, right?”

“I think it applies to anyone who stays there,” Quatre smiled. “So you can make up for everything you never had money to spare for back then.” And his expression took on a speculative, perhaps even somewhat suggestive interest as he went back to his quieter conversation with Trowa. Trowa, with whom the current problem lay… a problem that would probably not be in any way improved by the application of alcohol, however curious Quatre might be.

After how long Heero had spent irrationally jealous of and unfriendly toward the magician, he hated even to entertain the thought, but it just wouldn’t go away: Trowa, as Heero had specifically feared back when Quatre had first mentioned they’d become lovers, fit the prevailing pattern. As far as Heero could tell, Trowa’s self-esteem was easily as detrimentally low as Eric’s had been… he was about as unhealthily reclusive as Gabe… and he had more tragedy in his past to overcome and put behind him than even Scott had.

And Heero liked Trowa. He was pleasantly tranquil to have around, though he could also be unexpectedly amusingly sarcastic when he wasn’t too busy effacing himself. And the world of magic with which he seemed to be thoroughly, unpretentiously familiar was very interesting. But none of that, nor even the fact that he was Duo’s best friend, mattered in the slightest if he was going to be abusing Quatre.

They appeared happy enough in the back seat right now, but that didn’t really mean much; of course there must always be periods of happiness, or else Quatre wouldn’t be in these relationships in the first place. It was just that the trade-off was usually so painfully imbalanced.

“You know, to be honest, I never really liked the taste of alcohol much.” Duo admitted this as if it were a little embarrassing. “Which might just be because everything we got our hands on back then was so cheap… but still… it might actually be kinda hard to get drunk, if it all turns out to be as gross as I remember.”

With a slight laugh Heero replied, “You know there’s a whole world of experiences out there, right? Getting drunk isn’t strictly necessary when there’s a big percentage of the list you already know you won’t get to in one lifetime anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s true, but getting drunk is way easier than, say, skydiving. Hey! skydiving didn’t even really…” Duo paused thoughtfully. “Well, actually, I guess it did. But it wasn’t so much of a recreational pastime back then, and I definitely never could have done it.”

“We can go skydiving sometime, if you want,” Heero offered. He’d seen advertisements occasionally for someplace relatively local offering that service, and, though it was probably fairly expensive, he didn’t think that would bother him much if it would gratify Duo.

The latter threw him a sidelong grin. “Oh, you’ve already taken me skydiving,” he said, with an emphasis that made his meaning clear.

And Heero blushed faintly again, not necessarily because of the words themselves but because they’d been spoken in such close proximity to others. This, of course, dragged his thoughts once more to the people in the back seat — not that those thoughts had strayed too far even during this last exchange. It didn’t help that just then the song changed to some kind of hip-hop number that seemed to be about both getting drunk and sex, the appropriateness of which absolutely forced Duo to sing/rap along and Quatre to glance up with a wearily skeptical expression so Heero was able to study his face minutely in the rear-view mirror.

Heero had been, Heero was always watching for the signs: Quatre sluggish from lack of sleep, perpetually downcast, and losing weight; Quatre seeking Heero out, looking first for random conversation to distract him and then, breaking down, talking at length about the actual problem; Quatre refusing reasonable invitations (of a type he usually accepted) from his friends because he was too busy dealing with the boyfriend or too emotionally spent to consider other entertainment… but then taking up the type of invitations he usually didn’t accept in order to distract himself even further with more alcohol than he typically indulged in… On a couple of occasions, when things had gotten particularly bad, Quatre’s father had actually emailed Heero looking for insight or at least commiseration.

Quatre had been ignoring his other friends quite a bit lately; Heero knew because he was always eventually contacted by them, when this was the case, so they could find out what was going on. Heero believed at the moment, however, and had assured them, that it was just the first phase of a particularly engrossing relationship causing this behavior, that Quatre would get back to them eventually.

Heero had also noticed a bit of baggy-eyedness in Quatre over the last couple of months… but, again, he believed this was due to nothing more than the enthusiastic nighttime activities of that aforementioned first phase — the same could probably be said of Heero. So, having carefully examined and dismissed the only two possible symptoms (he didn’t consider that little spark of interest in alcoholic experimentation a minute ago a symptom), Heero was cautiously withholding condemnation of Trowa for now.

He hoped he would never have to condemn Trowa. He wanted this one to work out for Quatre. No, ‘for Quatre’ wasn’t expansive enough — Heero hoped this one worked out for everyone’s sake. It would be great to see Trowa, whom he really did like, happy and making good psychological improvement without tearing someone else down in the process. Then, the current arrangement of lovers and friends was so neat and desirable, it would be most convenient if it stayed the way it was. And if it didn’t… if Trowa and Quatre didn’t work out… it would hurt more than just the two of them.

Mostly he just didn’t want to see someone mistreating Quatre and Quatre determinedly toughing it out again. Quatre, the beloved friend whose support, understanding, and companionship had always been invaluable to Heero, deserved better, and Heero had always been discontented with his own lack of influence in the thus-far-unpleasant area of Quatre’s love life.

He’d never been able to do anything about Quatre’s awful boyfriends before, but this time he felt he might have to try harder. Which would be even more difficult than in any previous scenario, given that Quatre’s boyfriend was Heero’s boyfriend’s best friend. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have any idea what he thought he would even try, or how he would stave off the awkwardness and pain that might result. So for his own sake as well as everyone else’s, he hoped this worked out.

*

Quatre and Trowa really didn’t seem to notice, but if Heero thought Duo didn’t see him watching them in his sunshade mirror, he underestimated how practiced Duo had become at observing him. By now Duo knew perfectly well that Heero suffered at least a touch of discomfort about the relationship between their friends, and it was not difficult to guess that this was on his mind right now as he kept a surreptitious eye on their interaction in the back seat.

Not wanting to hear Trowa criticized, Duo had never inquired into the particulars of Heero’s discontent; and, unless Heero decided at some point to make his concern public, Duo saw no reason to discuss it at all. It was a topic on which it was only natural that Heero should be biased, given not only the strong devotion of long standing that existed between him and Quatre but the pretty obvious neediness Trowa had going on these days.

Of course Duo knew Trowa well enough — or at least, despite how his friend had changed, Duo had confirmed the continued presence of traits he’d known and loved in the old days even if in altered form — to be aware that the difficulties Quatre must face in being Trowa’s boyfriend were definitely worth the trouble. Heero couldn’t know that yet, and therefore must be forgiven his doubt. Whether or not he recognized the potential issues in the relationship that arose from the other side of things was uncertain, as was to what degree his probable blindness in that quarter should also be forgiven. But Duo saw them.

Earlier he had laughed to himself as he’d watched Heero and Quatre subtly butting heads over the arrangement of luggage in the trunk. It was a silly argument, since they were only staying three nights and didn’t have all that much luggage to begin with. It was an argument they probably weren’t even aware they were having, since they certainly weren’t unpleasant to each other. It was an argument Quatre eventually won (as far as it was winnable) when Heero, with an unusually expressive gesture (“This is not worth this much effort”), walked away from it.

After that, though Duo had been too busy looking over their route on Heero’s cool phone to pay close attention, yet he hadn’t missed the debate between Quatre and Trowa before those two got into the car. Evidently Quatre was insisting Trowa wear sunscreen, and Trowa protesting on the grounds that it smelled bad. Several shades paler than it had been eighty-seven years before, Trowa’s skin had already demonstrated a tendency to burn since the onset of summer and a new lifestyle that included the occasional outdoor activity, so this seemed reasonable. But Quatre eventually lost that argument (as far, again, as it had been winnable in the first place) when Trowa cast a protective spell instead.

So Quatre had been one and one when he’d entered the car, but his tally of wins and losses didn’t really matter. It all went as further evidence of a fact to which Heero had once alerted Duo and that Duo, since then, had never doubted: that Quatre was every bit as controlling as he was kind.

Of course Duo had always thought this exactly what Trowa needed. Trowa had long been in emergency mode, with all functions not absolutely necessary shut down, all power channeled into a primary purpose to which he was honed sharp and hard — and a way of life that had lasted the better part of a century was a difficult habit to break. He’d needed a skilled organizer to help him rearrange his priorities and reallot his energy, remind him that, with that primary purpose fulfilled, it was all right to relax and diffuse at least a little. He’d needed someone with the will to insist, the determination to persist, and the kindness to try it all in the first place — and Quatre had fit the bill in every respect so precisely it was as if some force of destiny had been involved in bringing them together.

But as Duo watched a second little scuffle over the luggage in the trunk upon their arrival at their destination, he had to admit he could see how Quatre’s nature could eventually become somewhat… annoying… to his boyfriend, at least under certain circumstances.

This scuffle took place solely between Quatre and his own sense. Duo, hearing the sound of the ocean as he disembarked and full of a glee that had been growing ever since the highway had brought them close enough to catch the occasional glimpse of it, would have run off eagerly toward the building in whose parking lot they now found themselves, but had been restrained by Quatre’s authoritative reminder that they had things to carry inside.

Then Quatre had wondered whether it wouldn’t actually be more practical to go check in first and bring the luggage afterward, since there would probably be another entrance more convenient to their rooms that would save them an unnecessarily circuitous walk. And if that might be the case, whether three of them hadn’t better wait out here until the fourth had gone inside and come back with keys and more certain information. The others, none of them having any opinion worth voicing, remained silent as Quatre rhetorically debated this and cast calculating eyes between the trunk of the car and the entry to the building.

Moving into an appropriate position in front of Quatre, Duo placed a half-clenched hand near his mouth and said, “This is Duo Maxwell of KTVU, coming to you live from the parking lot of a fabulous beach place where world leader Quatre Winner is pondering the fate of the nation. In just a few moments — or maybe, like, twenty minutes, since something this important requires a lot of thought, apparently — Mr. Winner will reveal his plan to end world hunger, stop all wars, and force them to make more seasons of 24. Mr. Winner! Do you have any comments for our viewers?”

Into the invisible microphone, Quatre laughed. “I never watched 24.” He seemed to have taken the point, though, as he added, “Heero, can you open the trunk?”

Shaking his head, Heero moved to comply.

“‘Never watched 24,'” Duo muttered, turning away in disgust. “You and Trowa deserve each other.”

Of course when you were sick you wanted a doctor around… but the last thing anyone wanted was to have a doctor looking over their shoulder when they were well, berating them on every little thing they were doing unhealthily. Trowa’s conditions might take a lot of doctoring, but what then? Once he was convalescent, how would he respond to Quatre’s well-intentioned decisions about what was best for everyone he was concerned with?

As they crossed the parking lot, luggage and all, Duo’s attention was split between observing Trowa and Quatre in much the same manner Heero did (though undoubtedly with rather different thoughts) and looking around excitedly. Lines of hugely tall palm trees marched along between the rows of cars, reminding visitors that this was a venue where a luxurious ocean-front atmosphere was to be had. Though palm trees were not particularly rare at home, these ones seemed to have a particularly special vacationy atmosphere about them, and Duo grinned up at their ragged heads in great pleasure and anticipation.

Inside the first building — Duo didn’t know what it was called, but it seemed to be the main check-in area and other administrative bits of the resort — they made their way past an array of potted plants, some of which looked fake but all of which looked nice, and a lounge-like collection of furniture that was probably very comfortable but that Duo didn’t really see much use for. Who was going to be hanging around here in front when there was a beach in back?

As they approached a tall driftwood reception counter in the center rear of the room, the guy behind it greeted them with scripted cheer, “Welcome to Goldensea Resort! Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes, it’s Winner, Quatre,” the latter said.

“OK, let me get you…” The desk guy trailed off as he began working the computer in front of him. After a few moments he asked, “OK, how’s that spelled?”

“Last name’s Winner,” Quatre reiterated. He added with a smile, “I wouldn’t ask you to try to spell my first name.”

The guy chuckled a little, though it didn’t seem he’d actually found what he was looking for in the computer yet and therefore couldn’t yet know how Quatre’s first name was spelled. Then several long moments passed in silence. “OK…” he said again finally. “It’s Winner, like, you won?”

“That’s right. You can probably guess what people who wanted to make fun of me called me as a kid.”

Again the employee chuckled, and, though it seemed more genuine this time (in response to a joke he actually understood), it also seemed more nervous as he continued to work at a computer that evidently wasn’t giving up the information he wanted. “Well,” he said, obviously trying to cover his difficulties, “you all are going to love– how long are you staying?” When Quatre informed him that they would be leaving on Tuesday after lunch, the guy completed his statement. “Well, you’re going to love it here; the Sugared Rim bar out on the walk just got renovated, and it’s really great. If I could just find your…”

“Don’t you love these unintuitive programs?” Quatre commiserated. “The people who design them are never the people who actually use them.”

Heero made a low noise of agreement.

Appearing much comforted by these kind sentiments, the desk guy nevertheless continued to type and click in vain — but at least his growing panic had been quelled.

Finally Quatre leaned over the counter to peer around at the monitor. Given the manner in which this presented his posterior for everyone’s admiration, Duo looked immediately to see whether Trowa was duly appreciative. Observing that he was, Duo turned back with an approving nod in time to see Quatre pointing at something on the computer. “Where it says ‘Seasonal’ there — is that your problem?”

“Oh, yeah,” the guy said in a tone of enlightenment. “I’m in the… OK, I see… yeah. Thanks.”

Quatre, having resumed his natural stance on the floor, just smiled.

“Yes, OK, here we go. Winner, Quatre.” He pronounced it wrong despite prior indications, but sounded relieved as he added, “Everything looks fine. Yes. OK, two rooms; let’s see…”

The guy was quite visibly relieved when they at last walked away with key cards, directions, and pamphlets, and Quatre’s reassuring smiles definitely had something to do with that. Which was why it was almost a shock when, upon entering a long glassed-over outdoor hallway between this building and the next where their rooms were, Quatre remarked in a low, amused tone, “I give that guy a month.”

Duo’s laugh sounded his surprise at this cold assessment. “After you went out of your way to make him feel better and everything?”

“Everyone has a talent,” Quatre shrugged. “And receiving isn’t his.”

It would have been nice to look forward to Quatre being a little less blunt about Duo when he eventually started working at Winner Plastics, but Duo couldn’t really entertain any such hope. This mixture of criticism and sympathy was Quatre’s nature; though he might go a little easier on people he cared about, it was neither likely, nor would it feel at all right, for him to exaggerate even the kindness that was so integral to that nature.

And as Duo considered the matter further, he came to the reassuring conclusion that it would be equally unlikely for Quatre to exaggerate his dictatorial side. He was overall, Duo thought, a well balanced person. In his compassion he might feel like taking control of everything around him to an improper degree so as to make sure things got done optimally, but that same compassion would probably temper the desire and produce only rational behavior. Duo had seen this type of personality before in others, and thought it was a safe assumption that it would follow the pattern of his prior experience.

Heero, apparently, was finished with today’s (or at least this moment’s) contemplation of the relationship between Quatre and Trowa, for he was giving his attention more completely to his surroundings. He seemed interested and anticipatory about what he saw, Duo was pleased to note; it was about time Duo followed suit and wrapped up his own thoughts about their friends.

This was easy enough to do. The long and short of it was that, though he could see the potential for problems, he had no real fear of their developing to any worrisome extent. He trusted his best friend, trusted the best friend of his lover and the lover of his best friend, and believed they were a good enough match both to be of mutual benefit to each other now and to adjust their interaction appropriate to any personal changes made by either of them in the future.

Over the years Duo had learned at lot about optimism. For one thing, he’d learned that when he wasn’t legitimately feeling it, he wasn’t very good at faking it. But he’d also learned to draw it from a number of seemingly mundane sources. These days, when he was surrounded by, inundated with such sources — things that, to others, while they might provide pleasure, could never mean as much as they did to Duo — it was impossible to remain pessimistic about anything for very long.

It didn’t matter that he was starting to have nightmares on a regular basis about his time as a doll; it didn’t matter that he still worried about his level of independence and to what extent he qualified as a real person; and it didn’t matter that he could see potential complications in a romance between people he loved. In the end, the optimism came welling back up in response to anything and nothing — the taste of the sea air, the feel of cool glass against his trailing hand. In the end, he had to be happy.

Trowa and Quatre would be fine. More than fine; they would surely be every bit as happy as Duo was, if probably for different reasons. They were all very happy at the moment, if not perfectly so; everything was pretty great. The only imperfection Duo could even acknowledge right now was that Heero was not as confident of this as Duo was. But even that would come with time. Everything was going to be fine.

*

Duo had been entertaining Quatre’s peripheral attention all day with his constantly increasing excitement and glee, but now all of a sudden he seemed to have had an exponential jump of sorts. Quatre had seen this in him before, and, while it was almost alarming in its intensity and abruptness, it was also a pleasure to watch for more reasons than one. Beyond just the simple joy of seeing a friend so satisfied and the amusement that arose in response to Duo’s apparent ability to manufacture severe happiness out of no immediately evident material, there was also the effect it must always have on Trowa to consider.

Duo’s contentment was still one of Trowa’s highest priorities, and Quatre might have thought Duo sometimes, with this in mind, showed more than he actually felt… if this intensity of emotion — any emotion — didn’t seem to be pretty standard for Duo and therefore totally unnecessary to fake. And the reminder and reassurance it represented for Trowa — that the curse was broken and Duo was more than all right — was not just pleasant; it was invaluable.

“Aha!” Duo said in a triumphant tone, as if their rooms had been deliberately eluding them and the effort it had taken to catch them in the act had required a great deal more cleverness and heroic endeavor than a mere walk of hallways. But as he drew level with the door to his and Heero’s, he put a pensive hand to his face. “You know I’m not sure if this room is going to work?”

Worried, Quatre wondered why.

Instead of actually explaining why, Duo threw Heero a sly look. “Yeah, I definitely think it’s going to need to be pretty thoroughly inspected first thing. Before we do anything else. You know… to make sure it’s OK.”

“Oh, I see,” said Quatre wisely as Heero rolled his eyes with a slight grin.

Duo turned an expression of deep concern on Quatre. “You guys should check your room out too. Right away. I mean, you can’t be too careful.”

“I think you’re right.” Quatre struggled to school his features. “I should probably have Trowa do some magic, even, to make sure everything’s OK.”

“Oh, yes.” Duo nodded vigorously, lips twitching wildly. “Magic is a very good idea.”

“And then we can go check out the bar or something. Let’s say we meet back out here at–” Having no free hand to pull out his phone to see the time, Quatre moved to set down his bag, but Heero gave a slight vetoing wave.

“I’m not going to commit to any specific length of time,” he said levelly.

“Oho, aren’t you?!” Duo chortled, turning on him.

Heero just gave him a look and held out his hand toward Quatre for the key to their room. And Quatre relinquished it, mind busy with something that had been rising from his subconscious probably over the course of the entire day but that had only just emerged into his real awareness during the last ten minutes or so.

Could noticing something because it was ceasing to exist be called an epiphany? In any case Quatre didn’t really have another word for it. He supposed that was what it must have been, and also that everyone probably had moments like this: a moment in which it occurs to you suddenly that you’ve been believing a certain thing or thinking a certain way a while, for years and years in some cases, possibly for your whole life, without ever noticing it or recognizing the folly of your own attitude; and the abrupt, startling realization is so overwhelming that for quite some time it’s all you can think about.

It had occurred to him suddenly that he’d been subconsciously feeling a little threatened by Duo all along. Jealousy he’d been aware of, at one point, but never until now this more widespread sense of threat — pertaining, he saw, not merely to Duo’s relationship with Trowa, but also with Heero. What caused him to realize this was the consciousness of a weight he hadn’t even recognized being removed from his mind as that sense of threat gradually eased: he was noticing it suddenly only because it was fading.

His initial reaction was to look back at all his interaction with Duo, ever since the first day he’d seen him in plastic form on Heero’s kitchen counter, in great apprehension lest he’d ever been rude to him. He didn’t think he had; he didn’t think he’d ever shown it. If he had, he probably would have recognized the attitude sooner.

This was a relief, since Quatre was very much attached to Duo and would have deeply regretted ever having mistreated him. But he knew he was going to be looking at Duo in a different light for the rest of the weekend, if not for the rest of their acquaintance, now that he’d come to this startling conclusion.

Heero had been the origin of the problem, Quatre felt, because Quatre loved Heero very dearly. Heero’s friendship was much more profound than that of any of Quatre’s other friends; Heero understood him on a much deeper level than anyone that wasn’t a blood relation (and many that were), and was endlessly tolerant and supportive despite knowing all of Quatre’s worst characteristics. In response, Quatre had always taken an almost proprietary interest in Heero’s life, and any difficulties therein, and been a bit frustrated at how little a difference he’d apparently been able to make.

To impose order and keep control over a world that intimidated him a bit, Heero liked to compartmentalize things, liked rigidity in many areas of his life. This was a fabulous trait when it came to organizing just about anything — sales data, for example — and therefore a trait Quatre, who deeply appreciated organization, could never complain about. But it often caused Heero to compartmentalize himself right off from things that might have done him good.

To Heero, there was some behavior that was appropriate in one setting but not in another, or between people in one type of relationship but not between those in another — and this was part of the reason he’d never been able to flirt successfully. His inability to break down certain walls made him come across as cold and withdrawn to many people, which therefore also formed part of the reason he’d dated so little and had (whether he realized it or not) been so consistently lonely.

Obviously Duo hadn’t encouraged Heero to date more — except as far as jumping right into a live-in relationship with Duo himself counted as dating more — but he certainly encouraged him to flirt more. He’d slipped in and solved a number of problems relating to Heero’s walls that Quatre had been working on for years. It was no surprise at all that this performance should present a subconscious threat to Quatre, especially since, in some areas, Quatre still wasn’t even sure how Duo had managed it.

And as for Duo’s relationship with Trowa… of course it was only natural to feel a little threatened by someone your boyfriend had frankly admitted he’d once been in love with. But there was more to it even than that.

Earlier, as they’d pulled out of the gas station after a rather lengthy process of tank-filling, Quatre had remarked very innocently, “I could have sworn you just exchanged phone numbers with those girls, Duo.”

“Email addresses,” Duo corrected. Seeing that he was trying simultaneously to drive and look down at the scrap of paper he now held, to the possible detriment of everyone’s safety, Heero snatched the object from his hand and read out the first halves of the two addresses it contained:

“‘hottkitten91…’ and… ‘tattooed Jen,’ I think — ‘tattoo-3-d-j-3-n’. They sound like just your type.”

“We’re going to discuss hair care,” Duo said righteously. “There are so many products these days!”

“Quatre uses enough of that stuff to tell you everything you need to know.” Heero’s jealousy over Duo’s flirtation with strangers right in front of him probably held a touch of perfect sincerity, but still he made it clear that he was teasing; in any case, Duo seemed gratified by it.

“That’s right,” said Quatre, rolling his eyes. “Unlike Heero, apparently, Quatre is extremely gay; he can give Duo hair-care tutorials better than any girl.”

“Ooh, Quatre’s offering to give Duo private lessons,” said Duo in that over-the-top licentious tone of his that never failed to make Quatre laugh.

“No,” Trowa contradicted levelly. “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

“Oh, well,” Duo sighed. “Poor Duo. At least Quatre has good taste.”

“Heero is wondering,” said Heero, “why everyone is suddenly referring to himself in third person.”

Duo groaned at the use of what he perceived as a grammatical term, and the conversation shifted (as it often did, since Duo wasn’t over it yet) to the G.E.D. he’d recently passed. But one statement from the silly prior exchange stuck in Quatre’s head — “The only person Quatre is interested in private lessons with is Trowa.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed this: Trowa had reached a point where he could tease Duo more or less easily, but Quatre doubted he would ever be able to threaten him, even in the context of such a playful, meaningless conversation. If Heero — an utterly absurd thought, but for the sake of argument — if Heero had been the one to make that suggestion directed at Quatre, Trowa would have put a threatening tone into his reply at the very least, possibly even made an entirely different, overtly threatening remark. But to Duo…

It wasn’t unlikely that even joking threats between friends were better eschewed in any case, but the point was still that there were certain relatively innocent lines Trowa could not cross with Duo… and this gave Duo a sort of unconscious power over Trowa. Duo could probably say anything in the world to Trowa without fear of even mental recrimination; he could probably treat him however he wanted, and Trowa would accept it without question, be that acceptance as detrimental to his development as it might. So in a way, Duo had a disproportionate amount of control over Trowa’s mental recovery. And to someone concerned with the latter, that would of course feel threatening.

The gradual diminution of this sense of threat had only just progressed to a noticeable level, which drew attention both to itself and to the condition to which it was a response. Because Duo was nothing but careful and kind in his behavior toward Trowa, to the extent that it seemed almost as systematic and instinctual as Trowa’s treatment of him; Duo was obviously devoted to Trowa’s good, and, though he might not be consciously aware of the power he had over his friend, it seemed just as unlikely that he would ever take advantage of it.

The memory of the gentle tone in which Duo had jokingly lamented the failure of his flirtation with Quatre must be Quatre’s surety… that and his trust of Duo himself. And that had been solidified by Duo’s treatment of Quatre.

Duo gave no signs of truly disliking anyone — he seemed to have a talent for finding something to like about even the most unlikable people, for speaking with jovial fondness about even those that specifically annoyed him — but Quatre had heard his intense disapproval expressed about circumstances and concepts; and the conclusion he’d reached was that if Duo really didn’t like someone or something, he probably wouldn’t be either inclined toward or capable of concealment. If Duo disliked or disapproved of Quatre, Quatre would undoubtedly know it.

Even the exchange in the parking lot just now, wherein Duo had pretty specifically pointed out that Quatre made more of mundane circumstances than perhaps he should in an attempt to control situations that perhaps didn’t actually need controlling, had been nothing but friendly teasing. And pointing out someone’s flaws with no hurt intended nor edge to the words seemed rather a sign of affection, of real friendship, than antipathy or falseness.

In this Quatre was reminded of middle school and its frantic pubescent worries whether or not his friends really liked him. Maybe it was juvenile, but it seemed just as important now as it ever had to his twelve-year-old self. And he was convinced not only that Duo did like him, but that there was no rivalry between them. Quatre’s relationships with Duo’s boyfriend and friend did not appear to be any sort of threat to Duo, and — out of respect for Duo as much as any other consideration — Quatre could do no less than to consider the inverse true as well. Or at least working toward becoming true.

Quatre was not the type to allow distraction to mar his ability to deal with the world around him, so, though his head had been abruptly flooded with these thoughts, he’d had no problem finishing up the banter that was apparently required before anyone could leave the hallway. And now he had entered the room he would be sharing with Trowa, and was exiting his whirlwind reflections at almost the same time. He’d pretty much reached a satisfactory conclusion to them, even if the ramifications of his realizations might last a while; and the room, with its huge tinted window overlooking the boardwalk and the beach beyond, demanded undistracted examination.

Trowa seemed to have noticed that Quatre had something on his mind. He probably wouldn’t ask — which, though less than a perfectly desirable behavior in general, was for the best in this instance where Quatre felt no need to share — but Quatre liked to have Trowa’s attention in any case. As he moved slowly into the room and looked around at its pleasant furnishing and decoration, aware of Trowa’s eyes following him, he started to set his small suitcase down on the bed, but thought better of this placement and put it on the floor nearby instead. Unzipping it there, he bent at the waist all the way over to start rummaging through it. He wasn’t actually looking for anything, though. At least, not anything in the suitcase.

“Duo is probably right, you know,” said Trowa from much closer behind Quatre than he’d been only moments before.

Yes, Duo was probably right — right to be happy and optimistic, planning all sorts of pleasant activities at this resort, looking forward to times thereafter that would provide further and greater pleasure, without, apparently, worrying too much about what might go wrong.

“Duo’s a smart guy,” Quatre replied in satisfied agreement, not straightening up just yet. “We should probably do what he suggests.”

Trowa did not answer in words, and gave Quatre no chance for any further coherent conversation either. Very soon the suitcase lay forgotten as the two of them followed their wise friend’s advice (and undoubtedly example) in making a thorough examination or test run of the room the first step to enjoying their vacation.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How accurate are all the assessments made by these guys as they think about themselves and each other? Sometimes any assessment, accurate or otherwise, tells more about the assessor than the assessed. I’ll leave you to interpret.

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

This story is included in the His Own Humanity: Through July ebook.



Saitology

It seemed so random, and he’s just not a random type of guy. So I’ve been paying attention — making a study of it, you might say.

A very important branch of scientific study. For Sano, anyway.


There are four cells they typically use for short-term containment at the main police station. Sometimes, when there were a bunch of people involved in whatever they’re getting arrested for (like a brawl or something) they’ll open up the long-term cells, but most officers usually just grab the four worst offenders and toss us into short-term for a night or two as an example. I say ‘us’ because ‘worst offender’ usually describes me pretty well, so I’m often one of the examples. If he’s the officer, I’m always one of the examples.

Funny thing is, even though he’s about the most consistent person I know and even though he always drags me in first so he’s got his choice of cell, he doesn’t always put me in the same one. The main reason I started thinking about this at all was because it seemed so random, and he’s just not a random type of guy. So I’ve been paying attention — making a study of it, you might say — because it seemed weird. And I’ve begun to figure out the pattern; of course it’s not really random.

The first cell is just opposite the entry. That means it’s the first one you see when you come into the cell area, and the only one you see if you just glance down the stairs. The police chief likes to see that cell occupied, since I guess he thinks that means his men are doing their job. He also likes to see it clean, and I’m pretty sure that’s more just because he’s a bit of a neat freak than for reputability or concern for prisoners’ health. But that does mean it’s the cleanest of all of them.

The chief doesn’t much like to see me in there, though; it makes him nervous, mostly because I’m Kenshin’s friend but partly because he knows how much damage this fist of mine can cause the premises if I really don’t want to be there. Saitou hates station politics, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of them… so unless he specifically wants to make the chief nervous (which, occasionally, he does), he usually keeps me out of the first cell unless every single other prisoner would actually look worse in there than me.

And one time when he practically had no real reason to arrest me at all — seriously, it was totally for show, and even Saitou admitted it — and the chief was out working on something at another station for a couple of days, Saitou let me hang out in that most comfortable (least uncomfortable) cell. Usually when I’m in there, Saitou’s annoyed, but not actually at me… so he sometimes comes by to chat. Usually about the things that are annoying him, which, when that’s not me, is pretty funny to listen to.

But the second cell… well, that one’s just the opposite. That’s the most uncomfortable cell, because it’s drafty and damp and, since it’s half hidden behind a pillar so you don’t really see it unless you’re purposely over there to look, it practically never gets cleaned. He tosses me in there when he’s mad at me: when whatever he arrested me for was actually my fault or particularly stupid — or he thinks it was. And I hate to say it, but when he thinks that, he’s usually right.

I like to claim he’s biased and totally unreasonable, but, since I’ve been paying such close attention to this cell thing, I’ve been forced to admit… well, I think he still overreacts, because that’s how he expels stress, but I do sometimes do some pretty stupid shit, and… I can’t really blame him for getting mad. Just don’t tell him I said so.

Anyway, he sometimes comes to visit me when I’m in the second cell, too — I mentioned the pillar, right? so there’s pretty good privacy… but when he’s mad at me, the conversation’s a little different from when he’s just arrested me for show. Still interesting, just usually a lot more painful.

The third cell and the fourth have a brick that comes out of the connecting wall. It’s easy to work free from the third side, but not so much from the fourth, especially if you don’t know it’s there, so it’s kinda considered a fixture of the third cell. Sometimes Saitou wants to get someone talking, for whatever reason, and if he’s in the mood to trust me he’ll sort of assign me to do that. And I do it, not only because it’s interesting but also because he’ll reward me for it in one way or another. Plus it’s nice to be trusted.

You’d think at that point he’d put me in the third cell, but it’s actually when he puts me in the fourth that I know he wants me to talk to someone next door, since the prisoner in the third cell is more likely to mess with the brick and initiate a conversation with a fellow prisoner (and even if he doesn’t, I still know how to get the brick out from the other side).

He only puts me in the third cell when he’s still worried about the situation even after arrests have been made. It took me a while to figure this one out, since I’ve never actually seen the cells evacuated, and at first I thought it was just wishful thinking, but by now I’m pretty sure I’m right. The third cell has the newest lock of the four, ever since someone who totally wasn’t me broke the old one — the easiest and quickest to open where the key never sticks. And when whatever situation landed me in there isn’t quite done with, and some unknown element still exists that might, for example, want to eliminate witnesses or get some kind of revenge on the police by attacking at the station, apparently Saitou likes to feel like he could get me out in a hurry if he needed to.

Of course that’s him being a control freak; I could break out of any of those cells in twenty seconds without his help, and I only really stay in ’em in the first place out of respect for him (only don’t tell him that), and there’s no unknown element that would be any kind of threat to me… but it’s exciting (and a pretty big triumph!) to know he cares.

My favorite cell isn’t any of those four, though. What I like best is the other downstairs hallway, the long-term cells. See, even though they’re a little smaller, those ones have solid doors and thicker walls, less traffic going by, more privacy in general… you get where I’m going with this?

Maybe it’s weird that my favorite cells are the more intense ones intended for the real kind of criminal I’m really not (most of the time), but I guess it’s no weirder than having a favorite at all… or that he only puts me in those more serious cells when he’s actually pretty happy with me.

The thing right now is, there are four long-term cells since that hallway matches the other… and I don’t have the faintest idea why he chooses which cell he does over there. Does it correspond with something specific he’s in the mood for, or what? Since I’m pretty much in the mood for anything any time, I haven’t really noticed. Which seems pretty unscientific of me. I don’t have enough data.

Which is why right now I’m trying to keep quiet out back of this shop I heard some whispers about earlier, looking to stop a crime but maybe cause a little damage in the process.

It’s going to be hard to orchestrate a situation where I’ve done him a favor but he still has to arrest me, where he’s got someone better than me for visibility and he doesn’t need me to talk to any of the other guys… but in the name of my research I’ve got to try. And if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll try again. And again. For science, you know?

Yeah, for science.


I’ve rated this story . I remember being inspired by the word “cytology” that we were discussing at animal school once upon a time. In case you don’t get the pun, cytology is the study of cells. Brilliant, eh?

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


His Own Humanity: Fast Decisions

The Wal-Mart electronics department was a stormy sea of temptation in which Sano, when foolish enough to venture there, not infrequently foundered. The broad ‘electronics’ heading simply held too many items he would be more than happy to own for him to approach even such a homogenized selection as this without going into a sort of trance in which all thoughts of prudence or the need to eat for the next month were swallowed up in the desire to shoot enemy soldiers and/or aliens underscored by some badass guitar.

Today, however, he had a specific and reasonable purpose — even an inevitable, necessary one — and hoped to avoid spending too much on anything he didn’t need by concentrating hard on what he actually did.

His cell phone provider was cheap in every sense, and the part of the rack that bore their logo had the smallest variety of phones of any of the assembled companies — but they had, at least, finally acknowledged modern times with a single smartphone option, and over this Sano lingered longingly. It looked a bit outdated compared to those from other providers — though still five or six times more expensive than the plainer phones from this provider — but in any case it had to be worlds better than the device Sano had come to replace, which was by this time not so much on its last legs as ignoring its vestigial organs in favor of a sidewinding slither.

Of course he always had the option of switching providers. It would be more expensive per month, but also nice to have voicemail included in the plan rather than as an add-on, as well as, probably, some other little features he’d been entirely doing without all this time… and then he could get a much prettier smartphone than this one here. Like one of the new iPhones made with indestructible helicopter fiberglass or whatever. He could see what that Angry Birds thing was all about.

But did he really need to see what that Angry Birds thing was all about? And aside from games he could play anywhere, how did a smartphone actually compete with the less intelligent kind? Of a phone, after all, he only required standard communicative functions, and that purpose had been adequately fulfilled by a much crappier one this whole time. What use could he possibly have for a smartphone?

Stupid question. A smartphone was a little computer, and nothing like a computer could ever be a bad thing to own or a waste of money, right?

But if he wanted to buy a new computer, wouldn’t it be better to buy an actual new computer?

This train of thought was, presumably, the reason he found himself looking at laptops when he’d come to find a new cell phone. His desktop occasionally crashed for no apparent reason, and some games the video card in particular just couldn’t handle. It would be nice to be able to take notes at school in a more organized fashion, too.

But it wasn’t strictly necessary. He hadn’t made any real attempts to do anything about his current computer, and a system restore — a much less expensive option than an entirely new machine — might solve its solvable problems. It seemed extravagant to buy a new computer outright when the old one still functioned at a high level. And he needed a phone in any case, and certainly wouldn’t get a laptop and a smartphone.

On the other hand, laptop prices had come down drastically in the last few years… four or five hundred dollars would give him the chance to stop rocking XP Professional and finally try out that copy of The Saboteur he’d never gotten to work, and then he could grab the least expensive phone his current provider offered and come out of the shopping trip not too much poorer.

Who was he kidding? Four or five hundred dollars poorer when he’d come in planning on a twenty dollar phone?? Also, if he did decide to switch providers — which seemed like a good idea, on the whole — that would cost him extra to get started too. And he might still actually want a more advanced phone than the least expensive one available. More than twenty dollars, sure, but less than four or five hundred.

But it still seemed silly to buy a miniature computer instead of an actual computer. And he wanted a laptop.

But he didn’t need a laptop.

“If you know you don’t need a laptop, walk away from the laptops. Don’t stand here staring at them like some broke idiot who’s wandered into a bar hoping someone will buy him a beer if he just looks thirsty enough.”

“I wasn’t doing that!” Sano turned to face the suit-coated man that had appeared unexpectedly at his side. “I wasn’t doing that at all!”

“Close enough.” Hajime, obviously picking up on Sano’s brainwaves, couldn’t possibly miss the rush of joy that always filled the younger man at the sight of the older; but in this case, before Sano’s effort at keeping his thoughts in check (an automatic response to Hajime’s presence) took hold, there must also be a rush of annoyance as the exorcist moved to stand between him and the computers on display. “You clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a communicator,” Hajime went on, putting a firm hand on Sano’s shoulder. “It’s bad enough that I have to hear irrelevant thoughts from half the people around me… then someone like you comes along and starts broadcasting his problems.”

Though Sano immediately protested that he hadn’t been broadcasting, he allowed himself to be directed — almost pushed — away from the laptops and back toward the cell phones.

“I could hear you from all the way across the store.”

Sano grumbled something mostly indistinct, but he did recall what his mental state had been before Hajime popped out of nowhere. Though not about to admit it, perhaps he could see how he had maybe been broadcasting just a little. That it seemed to have summoned Hajime, though, like a genie at the rub of a lamp, wasn’t likely to make Sano think too badly of the activity.

“You were radiating indecision like a criminal who wants to get caught so he can get help. So here I am to rescue you from your complete lack of self-control.” With the final shove necessary to reposition Sano before the rack he’d originally been examining, Hajime also came to a halt. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason,” he continued in a businesslike tone, “for you not to switch carriers and buy a reasonably priced smartphone if that’s what you want. In this society a reliable phone with reliable service is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As long as you know you’re up to the monthly bill and won’t let the phone get damaged so you have to replace it.”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t broadcasting, ‘Hey, Hajime, come over here and lecture me,'” Sano muttered.

“I’m not lecturing.” That Hajime released Sano’s shoulders at this point was a mixed blessing. “I’m reminding you of what you already know. Make up your mind about your new phone and then come find me in grocery.”

Sano felt a little thrill at the command, as it pretty much guaranteed this chance meeting would lead to them hanging out. And though that was a fairly standard result of a chance meeting between them, with Hajime chance meetings weren’t so plentiful, nor friendly declarations of such low value, that Sano could fail to take pleasure from them. So, much more gleefully than before, he turned his attention seriously back to the rack he’d come to examine.

All of a sudden the choice of carrier and model didn’t seem nearly as complicated as it had a few minutes ago. In fact, it was now perfectly obvious which company would be the best option and which smartphone he wanted. And though veiled laptop desires still danced, sparkling, at the edge of his awareness, they no longer significantly tempted him.

It turned out he had no need to go find Hajime in grocery. The process of obtaining the fixed attention of an employee qualified in the workings of cell phone accounts, then waiting while that person set him up with a monthly plan and initiated a port process, necessitated a longer time spent in the electronics department than Hajime could possibly take looking for and even purchasing food and whatever else he needed throughout the store. He rejoined Sano just as the latter had finished setting up an automatic recurring payment on his debit card and was receiving lengthy and repetitive instructions on how the service switch would progress over the next twenty-four hours.

And as Sano, ridiculously pleased at his new acquisition and excited to play with it extensively, finally turned away from the counter to the sound of the employee’s polite goodbye, Hajime asked with just the tiniest touch of impatience, “Do you need anything else here?”

“Nope, this was everything.” Triumphantly Sano held up the box containing his new phone.

“You came in your own car?” And when Sano confirmed this, Hajime replied, “I’ll bring you back here later to pick it up, then.”

Under some circumstances, Hajime’s dogmatic assumptions about coming events, what people around him would do, irritated the hell out of Sano. But he could never be annoyed by the assumption that the two of them would be spending the evening together. And anyway he would only be exploring his new phone all night regardless of where he was. He did wonder a little, though, how Hajime would react if he told him he had somewhere else to be.

“We can’t finish season two if you’re not going to be paying attention.” Hajime, now sounding somewhat amused, had clearly foreseen Sano’s primary activity this evening. Without divination, even.

“You’re right,” Sano admitted regretfully. “It’ll have to be something else.” And his inevitable preoccupation ruled out a number of options — any show he particularly cared to see, all games of any type — but Hajime never had a problem finding something to do while Sano hung around pointlessly. That this was the case blatantly delighted Sano.

“The movie I just rented is supposedly extremely funny,” Hajime informed him, lifting a shopping bag through which the shape of a DVD showed vaguely among the obscure purchases. “We’ll see if it can distract you from your new toy.”

“More like I’ll be distracted watching you,” Sano retorted as he waited for the click of lock to let him know he could climb into Hajime’s car, “to see if you’ve grown a sense of humor lately.” Since Hajime generally seemed to enjoy laughing at what he considered folly in Sano more than at anything else. Which Sano actually didn’t mind much.

Whatever Hajime said in response was largely inaudible between the crackle of his shopping bags settling into the back and the closing of one door before he opened the other and took his seat behind the steering wheel, but, judging by a familiar tone, Sano thought it must be some variation of, “Idiot.”

Only belatedly, as they left the parking lot, did Sano realize his old phone was due to stop working any time and the new one might require some figuring out. With this in mind, the text he immediately sent might have been just a little more hastily composed and poorly spelled than usual, but he believed his friend would get the gist of it.

Sensing a mental outreach from Hajime as he would detect something he didn’t want to collide with in the dark, Sano glanced over at the other man and remarked, “You know I’ll tell you what it says if you ask? You don’t actually have to intercept them.”

In a tone that acknowledged the truth of this Hajime replied, “And you don’t have to cancel all your other plans every time you run into me.”

Sano grinned crookedly. “You were the one who just decided I’d be going home with you without even asking.”

“I assumed you’d tell me if you had other plans.”

There were a few things Sano could say in response to this. Unfortunately, “You really think you’re not first priority?” was probably too much of a come-on, which type of remark always seemed to irritate and put off Hajime. And, “Funny how you assume I’ll tell you things when you suck so much at doing that,” might well start an argument Sano’s good mood wouldn’t tolerate at the moment. So what he decided to say was, “It wasn’t really plans, just ‘we’ll hang out if nothing else comes up.'”

And then Hajime did that mixed message thing where he seemed silently pleased that he counted as ‘something else coming up,’ but would obviously get miffed and more offensive than usual if Sano were to make some leading comment about this pleasure.

Never before had Sano gone this long liking someone without saying something openly about it, and he often wondered whether this indicated an interest stronger than or different from any previous crush, or that the two of them simply weren’t meant to be more than friends. Because two months was an extremely long time not to raise the issue definitively, especially with someone he saw in person with tolerable frequency; and it just wasn’t his style to wait around hoping for the development of reciprocation from someone already aware he was interested.

Admittedly logic (something that, whatever Hajime had to say about it, Sano did regard) was on his side in not behaving in a manner that would push Hajime away while he waited for the jerk to return his feelings or at least explain why he never would… but it couldn’t last forever. A sense of novelty hung about this unusual patience and forbearance, but even that couldn’t maintain his silence indefinitely. And Sano was watching with some fascination, with a sense almost of detachment as if he were outside the situation, to see how long it would take him to snap and demand Hajime like him the way he liked Hajime.

In the meantime — and this was undoubtedly the only reason he’d held out for so long and had any hope of continuing to do so — he could still enjoy the exciting and not infrequently aggravating company of a man he should probably consider himself lucky to have even as a friend.

*

Not entirely to Hajime’s pleasure, Sano was sitting there thinking about their relationship again. He did that for at least a few minutes, if not off and on the entire time, whenever they spent time together; and though he appeared aware that bringing it up aloud would be counterproductive, and though it didn’t agitate his companion enough to make avoiding him a better option, Hajime still disliked it.

The eventual decision that to state bluntly his total disinterest in romance would probably drive Sano away unhappy, and that Hajime hated that thought, had involved them in a sort of waiting game: Sano waited for Hajime to suddenly feel like falling into bed with him, and Hajime waiting for Sano to get over his infatuation. The wild card of Sano’s impatience would force both of their hands sooner or later, since Hajime was never going to feel like falling into bed with Sano, and then everything would probably be ruined; so Hajime had been working to resign himself to the fact that this friendship was a temporary arrangement. And in response to this knowledge, there might have been some of the dictatorial assumptions Sano always accused him of: he wouldn’t waste chances to be with Sano while he still had them.

Thinking-about-relationship time ended when Sano’s friend returned his text. Incoming messages were much more difficult than outgoing ones, since, if you weren’t reaching unceasingly to catch anything that appeared, you had to know when they might be coming to know when to reach at all — it took a lot of practice to get any warning of an approaching message, and Hajime didn’t quite manage to read this one. Sano’s reply, an affirmative in all lower case, was easy enough, but gave no clue as to the question it answered.

Once again Sano noticed what Hajime was up to. “I think I’m starting to see how you do that.” He’d tilted his head as if a different neck angle served his magical senses better. “Sometime when you’re not driving, you should text me and see if I can grab it.”

Thinking this worth immediate pursuit, Hajime pulled so abruptly into a turn lane pointing toward a gas station that Sano made a surprised noise. Soon he had the car in park and his cell phone out. He would be interested to see whether or not Sano really could do this trick without ever being specifically shown how.

Sano held his old phone closed before him, staring at it with an amusing degree of concentration, as Hajime sent his first message, and frowned slightly with effort as Hajime sent his second. His mental nets were perhaps a little too intense, certainly very unsubtle, but he did seem to have the general idea of how this worked. After an unusually long time, the dilapidated phone chimed only once. Still frowning, Sano opened it, compared the text with what he’d picked up magically, then waited impatiently for the other to arrive. As he realized the transition of service was probably just taking effect and had robbed him of the second message, at least for the moment, his frown deepened into a scowl even as some of his previous excitement about the new phone reappeared to mix with the annoyance at having the experiment interrupted.

“I think I got both of them,” he said at last. He threw his old mobile a dirty look. “But I only know for sure I was right about the first one.”

Hajime, who had already repocketed his own phone, moved to leave the parking lot. “And?” His first message had asked, Why were you worried about spending a few hundred dollars on a computer anyway? The second had added, You can’t have spent all the money Gains gave you already. Now that he was satisfied on whether or not Sano could teach himself to intercept text messages mentally, he wanted answers to his other questions as well.

“Oh.” Sano cleared his throat. “I kinda… gave half that money to Kaoru.”

It took only a moment’s consideration for Hajime to reply, “I can’t say that comes as a big surprise.”

“It just seemed too unfair.” And Sano’s quick response just seemed too defensive. “Sure, we did Gains a favor, and it was a pain in the ass — and the shoulder — but it was his boss’s fault her husband died and her life got fucked up. Why should he just give us money?”

Hajime chuckled. “Your logic’s a little flawed, but I’m sure she appreciated it.”

“My logic’s just fine,” Sano insisted. “You’re just a jerk who wouldn’t ever think about someone needing money in a situation like that.”

Hajime believed Sano’s defensiveness resulted from an internal battle between concern for Kaoru and old indoctrination that money was to be retained as long as possible at all costs. That Hajime found Sano’s hang-ups about money entertaining and more or less adorable would be taken exactly the wrong way by Sano, the exorcist knew well, and he didn’t plan to mention it. Instead he said, “Just because I have no interest in being her friend — especially since you seem to have that base covered — doesn’t mean I have absolutely no sympathy for her or her situation.”

Sano gave him a disbelieving look. “Yeah, but I don’t think you would have given her any of your share.”

“Which would be normal behavior. You went above and beyond in your usual extravagant way; don’t expect the same of me.”

“I don’t,” Sano muttered.

“But in any case, even with just half the payoff left, you should still have plenty of money. Why was the computer such a problem?”

“Because I’m trying to save that other half,” said Sano irritably. “You fancy exorcists with your inheritance and stocks and house that’s already paid off and shit might not know what it’s like for poor college students who work at a cheap-ass restaurant.”

Hajime, not bothering to point out either that his house was not, in fact, paid off, or that Sano’s plurals were getting a little confused, merely laughed at him again.

Though he opened his mouth to continue, Sano reclosed it as he seemed struck by a thought. In pensive silence he turned to his phone packaging, then the puzzle of how the battery and back cover went into or onto the device; and, though a certain interested part of his attention was genuinely caught up in getting the thing powered on, a large part of his consciousness seemed to be grinding away furiously at whatever had just occurred to him. Curious though he was, Hajime continued the drive toward his house in equal silence and relatively solid patience.

Finally, as they entered Hajime’s neighborhood, Sano said, “You know what I should do…” His tone sounded distracted, and light from the new phone glittered in his eyes, but he went on almost immediately: “I should have you hold onto all the money I’m trying to save. That way, whenever I wanted to spend some of it, I’d have to tell you what I wanted to buy, and then you’d give me hell about it; and plus even if I still decided to go through with it, it would be a huge pain to get the money back to my account. So I’d really have to want whatever it was, and it would force me to really think about it.”

Normally Hajime had a prompt reply for anything Sano said, even if only “Idiot,” but this one required an unexpected amount of thought. In continued silence, therefore, he pulled into his driveway and shut off the car. Then he turned toward Sano. The latter appeared to have his full attention on the phone in his hands, but this did nothing to lessen the impression of sincerity in the proposal he’d made. He really had just thought of this idea, given it perhaps a minute’s contemplation not undivided with more frivolous thoughts, come to a conclusion, and presented it immediately to the other party involved. Perfectly simply.

Whatever nickname Hajime chose to give him, Sano was not actually unintelligent. And that an intelligent person could reach and divulge such an important decision so quickly without seeming to worry about it at all was… well, stupid. But in a way it was also impressive. And something about such an alien manner of seeing the world, of thinking about things, fascinated Hajime, too. Stupid, impressive, fascinating… it was almost Sano himself in miniature.

He must also consider the issue of Sano’s apparent level of trust. Though Hajime remembered with unusual clarity the unhesitating way Sano had told him, “You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to,” in regard to a certain fairly serious injury a couple of months back, he hadn’t properly recognized, even then, to what degree Sano trusted him. At the moment he had not only the evidence provided by what Sano had put forward, but a mental sense of that confidence not terribly difficult to pick up on now he actively looked for it.

Of course Hajime had no intention of betraying or taking advantage of Sano in any way — and didn’t anticipate any unless in the unlikely event there arose some moral demand superior to that of not betraying or taking advantage of a friend — but despite Sano’s trust in him being (probably) perfectly justified, its level after this amount of time seemed easily as precipitously attained as Sano’s other choices. Simultaneously, though… no matter how silly it was and no matter how logically Hajime argued against the sensation… he liked it. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever trusted him to that degree, and that Sano did specifically and recognizably pleased him.

Perhaps equally pleasing was a sense almost of domesticity about the suggested arrangement — the idea of stronger ties to Sano and perhaps a lesser degree of brevity to their friendship than Hajime had previously been assuming. Unfortunately, despite the allure of these concepts, he couldn’t fail to recognize their other implications as well. Domesticity did rather go hand-in-hand with romance, or at least often formed its natural result, and there was an almost marriage-like quality to this type of financial cooperation. Entering into this agreement would not have to indicate increased interest in a romantic relationship on Hajime’s part, but that indication would undoubtedly be fabricated by the eager Sano. And it was this more than any other consideration that determined Hajime against the idea.

“No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t think so.”

Raising his eyes from his phone and appearing to realize for the first time that the car had stopped, Sano gave Hajime a petulant look. “Why not?”

“You don’t really need my help with this. You’re perfectly capable of controlling your own spending habits.” Not that the idea had been entirely unreasonable… but it also wasn’t necessary, and could be dangerous.

“Hey, you just swooped in to rescue me from buying a laptop,” Sano reminded him with some defiance.

“You wanted someone to swoop in. What you really wanted was for someone to swoop in and give you permission to do what you already wanted to do but knew you shouldn’t.”

“But I got you instead.” Whether Sano considered this better or worse — or simply different — than whatever rescue or justification he’d subconsciously desired was not evident. “What do you think I would have done if you hadn’t come along?”

“I don’t know what you would have done. But I know you could have made the right decision even without me.” Hajime said this fairly casually, but Sano would know just how seriously he meant it. Sano’s trust, and the satisfaction the offer thereof had unexpectedly raised in Hajime, deserved that serious response. More typically shallow interaction could resume afterwhile.

“Really?” One corner of Sano’s mouth and part of each of his eyebrows rose, apparently almost against his will, to change his somewhat annoyed expression into a dubious half grin. “Because I’m pretty sure you said I have a complete lack of self-control.”

“Your self-control is fine. When you’re not being too lazy to bother with it.”

“Well, then,” Sano demanded, both gratified and irritated, “why won’t you help me with my laziness?”

“I will.” It had occurred to Hajime that, though he couldn’t respond the way Sano wanted, he also couldn’t respond to the not-entirely-unreasonable idea and the pleasing indication of trust with cold and complete refusal. “But not the way you suggested.” He spent a lot of time shooting Sano down, but at the moment it needn’t be to such a depth as was often the case. He could return haste for haste, and hopefully keep from injuring his friend more than necessary. “Here’s my offer: whenever you’re tempted to buy something stupid you don’t need, call me.” He gestured to what Sano held. “You have a phone that should be reliable at any time of day, so you’ll have no excuse not to. Call me, and I’ll tell you exactly what I think of whatever you’re planning.”

“So you’re saying… I’m allowed to call you any time of day.” Sano’s tone was almost perfectly flat but for the tiniest hint of skepticism. “Just… call you whenever. Doesn’t matter what time it is.”

“Yes.” Perhaps this had been a bit impetuous, and perhaps that worried him slightly, but Hajime held steadfastly to his stated purpose.

“Just so we’re clear: ‘any time of day’ means any time of day?” Now a feeling of impending… something… colored Sano’s voice.

“Yes.” And perhaps Hajime hadn’t entirely considered the possible ramifications of this course of action… but that was the price of fast decisions. Sano probably didn’t appreciate Hajime’s willingness to pay that price for his sake, and would only have taken it the wrong way if he’d known.

“So, like, three-in-the-morning any time qualifies as ‘any time?'” It was glee building up in there, taxiing toward a runway Hajime could practically see behind Sano’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“All twenty-four hours? For real?”

“Yes.”

A sudden suspicion seemed to put a momentary brake on the takeoff. “But you’ll have your phone off half the time.”

“I won’t. Why would I miss a chance to tell you you’re an idiot? You call, I’ll answer.”

And they had left the ground. Sano made not the faintest attempt to hide the pleasure this exchange gave him: his mouth spread into a wide grin, his eyes crinkled at the edges, his entire body seemed invigorated by his rising elation. “Really? Even if you’re in the middle of something?”

Hajime nodded. Unwarranted as this level of happiness seemed at the promise of something so simple, so nearly meaningless, it was nothing but a joy to observe. He’d always loved to observe Sano’s emotions, and the contagion of his happiness in particular was at times only just short of thrilling.

“What if you’re meeting with a client or something? Or in the shower? What if you’re on another call?”

Again Hajime nodded. And maybe an offer like this, and the exercise of Hajime’s apparently stupidly great influence over Sano’s mood, provided the young man with undue encouragement — though not nearly as much as Sano’s suggestion, had Hajime accepted it, probably would have — but Hajime couldn’t regret having excited such felicity even if it did.

“What if you’re in the middle of a nail-trim on Misao?”

Here Hajime hesitated. Of course the perseverent Sano would find an exception. “If I actually have Misao pinned down so she can’t move, I may not answer the phone even for you.”

“Man, I wish someone had been around to take that out of context — hey!” Abruptly Sano started laughing, and his late exclamation indicated it wasn’t so much at the notion of someone getting incorrect ideas about who and what Misao was and what Hajime might be inclined to do to her as at some new thought. And eventually he had to be prodded, since, though Hajime had been practicing getting at people’s thoughts in spite of their mental barriers, he hadn’t mastered the technique yet. But in response to an impatient demand, Sano seemed perfectly willing to share: “I’m going to give Misao my old phone.”

To Hajime this intrigued more than amused, since chances were that having her own phone would deter Misao from climbing people trying to get at theirs. He didn’t really mind her climbing in general, but sometimes her interjections into serious conversations, such as with potential clients, were somewhat problematic. “Not a bad idea,” he told Sano. “But you’ll have to remind her what will happen to it if she constantly leaves it where I’m going to step on it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll remind her you’re an unforgiving tyrant,” Sano promised. Neither his broad grin nor his overflowing happiness had faded. “Come on, let’s go tell her.” As he reached for the door with one hand, the other held up his new phone so he could glance at it once more before leaving the car. And the look he gave it seemed extraordinarily pleased, now for more than one reason.

Was the assurance of an answer to a call at any time really so wonderful? Wonderful enough to make Sano completely abandon his previous idea with no apparent regret? Though Hajime loved to see Sano happy, he doubted the rationality of the origin of that emotion. Sano clearly read more into this than was intended. But that had been inevitable, and Hajime still couldn’t truly regret it. Their interaction could only ever be full of mismatches, and Hajime thought it was probably worth it.

So he disembarked with a faint smile at the pleased agitation of the young man waiting now beside the kitchen door, took up his shopping bags from the back seat, and headed toward the house and an evening that both he and his companion were likely to enjoy despite any possible — even probable — ambivalence to the proceedings.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.

Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

Wafting incense smoke and the cheerful greeting of the most cheerful of the various cheerful young ladies that worked here assaulted Hajime as he stepped into Forest of Four. He’d grown accustomed to the first — apparently no self-respecting follower of shallow mysticism would set foot in a store that did not reek of incense, and he recognized the need to appease the customer base — and, to be honest, he didn’t mind the smell too much. The second, however, was consistently jarring.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” the clerk chirped. Her thoughts, though noisy, primarily related to work, and Hajime could appreciate her professionalism if not her mental control. When he nodded at her, she went on, “He’s with another client right now, but you can wait for him over by the hall.” She pointed to the area in question, with which he was familiar enough, and he nodded again.

The chairs against the wall beside the corridor leading to the employees’ area were, to all appearances, designed for people waiting for friends in the fitting room. Hajime didn’t appreciate being mistaken for the companion of someone that would shop a place like this, but had little choice; fortunately, Aoshi usually didn’t keep him waiting too long. Aoshi didn’t care much for people — living people, at least — and even this circumstance of having two appointments on the same morning was unusual.

It would be an even more unusual circumstance if the medium had three appointments on the same morning, but a young man sat crookedly in the chair closest to the hallway very much as if he too awaited a conference with Aoshi. This was a little irritating; now Hajime would be forced either to sit beside this stranger, one of whose legs was drawn up so the foot protruded under the armrest onto the next chair over, or take the seat closest to the fitting room. Disliking both options, he decided to remain standing. He did give the young man a dark, somewhat annoyed scrutiny, though.

The guy didn’t really seem to fit here. He didn’t sparkle, for one thing. He didn’t have that empty-headed look Hajime had seen on the faces of so many patrons of this establishment — the look that promised to believe (and consequently purchase) anything at all that said ‘cosmic’ somewhere on it. Actually, the best word for this kid was ‘punk’ — assuming Hajime had his subcultural terms straight, that is; he was fairly sure the absurd hair, excessive jewelry, spikes, and chains signified this. In general it strengthened the impression that the young man had come to see Aoshi and not to shop.

The young man had been mirroring the examination, and now asked lazily, “Exorcist?” He gestured casually to the sword in Hajime’s hand.

Hajime nodded, his guess confirmed. Nobody here just for an ‘I do believe in faeries!’ bumper sticker would have made the connection between his weapon and his profession.

Removing his foot from the chairs and stretching spiky-black-jean-clad legs out in front of him, the young man said, “You can sit down… I don’t know what’s taking him so long, but he’s gotta be finished soon…”

Tacitly declining the invitation, Hajime glanced down the hall at the closed door to Aoshi’s office. “You’d think with as much as he prefers to be left alone, he wouldn’t schedule appointments so close together.”

The young man laughed. “You’ve met him, huh?”

“Many times.”

“And here I thought I knew all his regulars.” The young man, Hajime found when he turned back, was gazing thoughtfully up at him. “I must just have missed you every time. You come here a lot?”

“Sometimes.” Hajime’s tone was slightly skeptical at the prying question. He didn’t really care who or what the guy was, or he would already have pushed past the somewhat blaring thoughts into a deeper part of his head to find out, but he couldn’t help feeling a little curious about a punk teenager he’d never seen before that seemed to know Aoshi as well as he did.

“He dig up for work you,” the kid wondered, “or what?”

Hajime raised a brow. “None of your business.”

The young man scowled faintly, coiling back into a less relaxed position. Hajime was interested to see a slight aura appear around him at this, but it faded along with the scowl as the young man shook his head. Then he reached out. “I’m Sano,” he said.

Wondering why they were doing this, Hajime stared at the extended hand for a moment before shaking it and giving his own name.

“I see red,” Sano explained unnecessarily, stretching his legs out again and putting his hands behind his head. “Aoshi keeps me medicated.” His grin turned somewhat harried. “I especially don’t need to be dealing with this shit this week; I’ve got papers to write and finals.”

Hajime nodded his understanding. Sano, he guessed — actually, it was more of a sense by now than a guess — went to the local college, and angry shades were undoubtedly distracting at the end of a semester.

“You really can sit down.” Sano patted the seat next to him.

“I have no desire to sit on your dirty footprints.”

“Wow, fine.” There was that aura again, flaring up with Sano’s annoyance. “Jerk.”

Hajime smirked. “You don’t just see red,” he observed.

“No,” Sano replied, a little wearily. “I absorb ’em for people sometimes; good way to make money, which you probably know, but then I have to find a way to get rid of it all.”

With a disdainful laugh Hajime said, “Stupid of you to absorb anything when you knew you had finals coming up.”

As he’d expected, Sano flamed again. “Hey, I’m not just going to–” But his anger faded as he realized Hajime had done it deliberately. Then he seemed torn between mild appreciation and continued irritation at being manipulated. Eventually he settled on a low simmer, his angry aura minimal and his face merely resigned.

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

At that moment, the door at the end of the employees’ hallway opened, and they heard someone saying, “Thank you very much, Mr. Shinomori!” in a tone far too bright for Mr. Shinomori to be likely to appreciate. Sano stood and watched the cheerful customer emerge from the hall. Then he turned to Hajime and smiled slightly. “Well, it was good to meet you,” he said with a wave. And for some reason he actually seemed to mean it.

Hajime hesitated, then nodded. He saw no reason not to, since he would probably never run into the guy again.



1>>

Part 1

To dial the number he’d been given, Sano found himself a little hesitant. The man hadn’t exactly been pleasant to him when they’d met before, after all. What eventually convinced him was the reflection that the worst that could possibly happen was Hajime being rude to him again and perhaps hanging up without listening to everything he had to say — whereas the best that could happen was getting rid of this little problem. Sano glanced over his shoulder, grimaced, and hit the ‘send’ key on his phone.

“This is Hajime,” came the voice he’d expected after only a few rings.

“Hey,” Sano began. “You probably don’t remember me, but I met you at Forest of Four, like, last December…” He cleared his throat. “My name’s Sano… I see red… You were there with a sword…” He paused, waiting for Hajime’s acknowledgment. Hajime, however, said nothing, and eventually Sano went on. “Well, Aoshi says you’re good, and I’ve got a problem. There’s this shade that’s been hanging around for a couple of weeks now — I mean hanging around me, specifically, not just around somewhere where I go or anything; it’s like the damn thing is haunting me, but I have no idea who it came from or why it would be — and I can’t get rid of it.”

“Red?” Hajime asked.

“That’s the thing!” Sano turned to face the shade, which was still drifting around his living room. “It’s perfectly red! I should be able to deal with it, but every time I absorb it it just comes back! It’s weird, too; it’s not… solid… like they usually are. There’s this empty shape of a person, and the red’s around that like an outline.”

Hajime’s tone sounded completely different than before as he asked, “When you say you absorb it and it ‘comes back,’ what exactly do you mean?” He seemed far more interested all of a sudden.

“I mean the same anger comes back,” answered Sano in some aggravation. “It’s like it never ends; no matter how much I absorb, there’s always more! And I can’t just keep taking it in, or I get so mad I start destroying stuff!”

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

“Do you know the park off 32nd street?”

“Uh, yeah?” Sano was fairly certain he did, anyway. “The one by that toy store?”

“Can you meet me there in half an hour?”

“Um…” This was not what he’d expected at all. “Yeah, sure.” Of course, he’d been basing his expectations on the one brief conversation they’d had and Aoshi’s warning that Hajime was neither a people person nor likely to want to do any kind of work for free.

“I’ll see you there, then.” And Hajime ended the call.

Sano’s car being a piece of shit, he didn’t greatly appreciate having to drive to a park twenty minutes away, and from the suggestion of locale he guessed Hajime didn’t live in the Asian district. He hadn’t objected, though, since he was the one essentially demanding favors in this situation. He did wish Hajime had named a longer space of time, however; he could have taken the bus.

The place had a playground, a field with a backstop, and its own parking lot. Here Hajime waited, when Sano arrived, beside a really nice car. Although individual jobs tended to pay fairly well, being an exorcist was still an uncertain profession at best, given the inconsistency of the work, and Sano wouldn’t have thought anyone in that trade could afford such a nice vehicle; Hajime must have some other source of income.

As when they’d met at Aoshi’s store, the exorcist wore a suit and tie; it looked great, but Sano had to wonder if he dressed that way all year round. March wasn’t too bad, but in a month or two most days would be far too warm outside for a suit coat. Hajime also carried a sword again, though Sano wasn’t entirely certain it was the same sword.

Hajime didn’t bother with a real greeting, only asked, “Where’s the shade?”

Sano had been absorbing so much angry energy lately, thanks to his unusual visitor, that it was good to have an object on which to release some of it. “Hi to you too!” he said in annoyance, and stalked out of the parking lot toward a bench near the playground. Hajime followed, and as Sano took a seat he informed him with less indignation, “It sometimes takes him a while to catch up when I go somewhere unfamiliar. I tried to lose him that way for a while, but he always found me again.”

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

“‘He’ like ‘aitsu,'” Sano shrugged, citing a pronoun that, while it carried a masculine connotation, was not necessarily limited to it.

Hajime nodded. So obviously he belonged to the relatively large segment of the city’s population that spoke Japanese, whether or not he lived in the Asian district. Not that this surprised Sano, given his accent.

“So what’s your deal?” Sano wondered somewhat idly, slumping down so as to lean his head against the back of the bench. “I mean, what do you see?”

“Everything.”

Sano sat up straight. “Really? That’s awesome!” Those that could see shades of all colors were incredibly rare.

Hajime seemed to add, “In white,” almost against his will — as if he felt compelled to be honest but was as irritated at the compulsion as he was at the fact.

“Oh.” Sano sat back again. That made it less significant. Still must be fairly convenient for exorcism, though.

“So tell me about this unusual shade,” said Hajime in a somewhat dictatorial tone.

“He showed up, um…” Sano had to think for a moment.

“You should take better notes on things like this,” Hajime broke in derisively. Sano believed this particular statement was meant to be provoking, and didn’t mind at all. If Hajime could handle his anger, it was definitely a relief to let it out.

“I’m not a pro, OK?” was his irritated retort. “I only take notes at school. Anyway, I think it was just at the end of February… the twenty-fifth, I’m pretty sure. So it’s been almost exactly three weeks — not long enough for him to get used up… except, like I told you, I’ve used him up I think five times now.”

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

Sano scratched his head. “Homework? I think. No,” he corrected himself, “I think I’d finished what I was working on and was just messing around online.”

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

“What?” Sano was more surprised than anything else. “Is that supposed to make me mad? It was just normal websites and shit.” Who really got their porn from the internet, anyway? That stuff was brutal; no amount of anti-virus or spyware-killing software could make that sex safe.

Hajime smirked, and continued with his interrogation. “Had you done any magic any time beforehand that might have attracted the shade?”

“I don’t really ‘do magic,'” replied Sano, scratching his head. “So, no. Least not that I’m aware of.”

“No friends at your home casting spells? No recent séances?”

“Nope.”

“Have you tried the medicine you get from Aoshi? Does it inhibit your ability to see this shade?”

“Yes and no. I usually don’t take the stuff except when something’s going on I really need to concentrate on, because…” Actually there was no real reason to get into that; Hajime undoubtedly wasn’t interested. “Anyway, yeah, I tried it; it didn’t work. I mean, it worked a little, but not enough. This shade’s pretty strong; I could still feel the anger.”

Hajime nodded, and then unexpectedly asked precisely what Sano had just been thinking he wouldn’t be interested in knowing.

“Oh,” replied Sano with a shrug, “I don’t take it when I don’t have to because it makes my head…” He gestured vaguely to the organ in question. “Fuzzy. Blurs my magical senses, I guess, is the best way to put it.”

“And that bothers you, even though you don’t really do magic?”

“Yeah, it’s like… it’s like having a sinus infection: there’s this unpleasant feeling that maybe doesn’t actually stop you from doing anything, but you can’t ignore it.”

Again Hajime nodded. He was about to say something else (possibly criticize Sano’s incomplete description of sinus infections), but at just that moment Sano felt washing over him the anger that had become all too familiar these days. “Oh, fuck,” he growled, interrupting his companion. “Here he comes.”

Part 2

The shade appeared exactly as Sano had described it. That is to say, to a necrovisually colorblind exorcist, the shade could easily be pictured as exactly what Sano had described. What Hajime actually saw came close enough: a glowing white haze approaching across the park’s green field at that uncannily swift but somehow leisurely speed shades usually moved with; something more oblong than the typical amorphous but generally spherical shape favored by the collections of mindless emotional energy people often left behind when they died — and, indeed, as it drew closer, visibly hollow inside. Once it had begun hovering around their bench, in fact, Hajime thought he could make out the vaguely humanoid shape of its center.

Sano stood and walked a few paces across the sidewalk into the grass. He turned, and, with a scowl, flung out his arms. “Meet my stalker,” he said as the shade moved to resume its orbit around him.

Hajime also stood, unsheathed his sword, and approached. The glowing figure in the air didn’t seem to react to him at all, only drifted slowly and apparently aimlessly around Sano. This was odd; usually angry shades were (predictably enough) aggressive, one of the reasons they were a problem. But this one just floated.

The sword Aoshi had modified for him in December had so far proven worth every one of the considerably many dollars Hajime had spent on it, and did not let him down now. As he drew nearer, the blade smoothly, quickly turned red — at which Sano made an admiring sound, but said nothing. Bracing himself, concentrating on the removal of the shade from existence, Hajime thrust the sword into the glow in front of him.

Whoever had left this anger behind had been strong-willed and persistent, and perhaps a little crazy. The anger itself was fierce and gave the impression, somehow, of being only the tip of the iceberg — wherever it came from, there was a lot more of it. And for all this, it wasn’t a problem to deal with. The aura writhed, clinging to the figure in its center, did not counterattack, and soon gave way to Hajime’s steady desire for its dissipation. Slowly the air cleared; the aura vanished, rendering the floating figure invisible.

Invisible, but not absent. Without the shade anger, in fact, it was discernible on its own, though Hajime couldn’t have described how he sensed its presence. But there was one thing he felt at least closer to certain of now. He returned to the bench and sat down again, thoughtful.

Sano joined him there. “Too easy, huh?” he commented, gesturing to the air where the shade had been. “But then it always comes back.”

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

“I think…” Hajime said, “that you’ve got a real ghost here.”

Again Sano sat bolt upright in surprise. “What? Are you serious?”

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

They sat still for a while, staring at almost nothing — though Hajime thought he could already see a faint glow gathering around the invisible spirit again.

Finally Sano muttered in wonder, “A ghost… a real ghost…”

Shades, Hajime’s stock in trade, were a measurable, understandable phenomenon. But ghosts… ghosts were another story. Nobody knew why, every once in a great while, a human soul with thoughts and emotions and memories intact would remain after its body had died. An exorcist considered himself lucky to hear about a ghost cropping up somewhere during his career. Dealing with a real ghost could make an exorcist’s reputation. Which was why Hajime had come out here to meet Sano at all upon hearing the description of the apparition haunting him.

From the white aura that was definitely gathering again, Hajime looked down to the sword that lay for now across his lap. Interestingly, the blade had never quite lost its red tinge, as if the angry aura had never actually gone.

“But who would be haunting me?” Sano finally wondered.

“You have no idea?”

“No! I haven’t had anyone die any time recently… my grandma went about five years ago, but that’d be way too long for her to be showing up now, and she wasn’t this angry anyway.”

“You’d probably know if it was a close relation in any case.”

Sano nodded, and another long silence followed as they watched the ghost’s aura grow and Hajime contemplated. Finally he said, “I’d like to have my familiars take a look at this.” He had hesitated about this because taking the ghost anywhere would involve taking Sano to the same place, and inviting a client to his own home pushed some boundaries. But so did encountering an actual ghost… and, considering they hadn’t actually discussed services and payment yet, Sano wasn’t exactly a client anyway.

Sano seemed less interested in those particular boundaries, and instead commented, “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of an exorcist with familiars before.”

Hajime shrugged. “I’m more of a communicator than a necrovisual.”

“Oh.” Then Sano sat up straight yet again, demanding, “So does that mean you’ve been reading my mind this whole time?”

Hajime smirked. “Not if I could help it.”

“So why are you an exorcist, then?” Sano asked this in some haste, a little flustered, making a very obvious attempt not to think anything he didn’t want Hajime to hear. When people did this, the result was usually that the thought they wanted to repress got broadcast loudly enough for Hajime to catch it even without trying. In this case, somewhat to his surprise, it was, …probably heard me thinking what a sexy voice he’s got…

Young men finding Hajime’s voice sexy — or, rather, anyone finding anything about Hajime sexy — was an extraordinary (and unsought) occurrence, and he had to admit it threw him off a bit. Fortunately, Sano’s question was one everyone even a little involved in magic asked when they found out he didn’t make his living in the branch where he had the most natural talent, so he had a ready answer. “None of the communication career options appealed to me.”

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

“Mostly to monitor and control the general awareness of magic.”

“So you’d rather be beating up shades than brainwashing people?” Sano shrugged slightly. “I guess that makes sense.” Hajime got the feeling Sano thought so because the idea of beating something up was so much more straightforward than that of brainwashing.

This largely pointless exchange had moved them past the bulk of Sano’s nervousness regarding Hajime’s telepathic abilities (as well as the bulk of Hajime’s disorientation regarding Sano’s thoughts about him), so Hajime stood and said, “My familiars may be able to confirm whether or not this is a real ghost.” For good measure he added, “Since you obviously can’t tell.”

It worked. Sano jumped up as well, flaring bright again, and retorted, “Well, neither can you!”

“Why don’t you follow me to my house?”

Sano’s angry aura dissipated and was followed by no notable resurgence; he seemed to have a significant excess of internalized energy that couldn’t possibly be making his day-to-day life any easier. And since it was amusing to watch him get mad, Hajime would gladly try to draw it out. So as he headed toward his car and Sano hastened to catch up, he commented idly, “And try not to rear-end me or anything.”

Part 3

The next thing Hajime said to Sano, a few miles later, was, “You can’t park there.”

“Wha-” Sano looked around and observed the fire hydrant he hadn’t noticed before. “Oh. Well, how long do you think this is going to take?”

“At least long enough for your friend to catch us up,” Hajime replied dryly. “And beyond that, I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” Sano started to consider whether he could get away with leaving his car in a no-parking zone for an afternoon in an area like this, but eventually based his decision on the expression on Hajime’s face. This was the third time now he’d had to start his car today at Hajime’s bidding.

It was a nice old neighborhood, the kind filled with an eclectic blend of housing styles in an equally extensive range of sizes. Hajime’s home didn’t look extravagantly big, and had a very boring, plain front yard, but the property values around here were probably pretty high, so Sano thought the odds were still on Hajime having some kind of income other than what he made chasing shades.

The legal spot he found to park in was halfway down to the next street, so Sano was grumbling by the time he got back to the small driveway entirely occupied by Hajime’s car. The older man gave a condescending smile and gestured for Sano to follow him across a patio to the side door he’d evidently already unlocked.

Hajime was perhaps five feet into the house, and Sano, just closing the door behind them, had barely had a chance to start looking around at the kitchen into which they’d walked, before a cat, jumping off the counter nearest the door, wrapped itself around Hajime’s legs with a long, screeching meow. Hajime nudged the animal out of the way so he could step further into the room to allow Sano to do the same; then he bent and picked the cat up by the scruff of its neck. It didn’t seem to mind; in fact, it immediately climbed onto his arm and ran up to his shoulder, where it began nuzzling his head.

“I’ve told you to stay off the kitchen counters,” Hajime said to it.

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

“That doesn’t excuse you,” Hajime replied.

A second cat appeared in a doorway that apparently led from kitchen into a hallway. This one didn’t seem nearly as excited as the other, younger cat, and after a brief meowed greeting sat aloofly looking on. It was mottled brown and grey and black, whereas the smaller one on Hajime’s shoulder was black with white paws.

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

Sano could do nothing but stare. Cats? Really? And one of them of a decidedly kittenish nature? These were the familiars of this harsh, suit-clad, sword-wielding exorcist?

Hajime looked over at him with a faint smirk. “What were you expecting?”

Sano didn’t worry much that Hajime had been intentionally prying into his head at that moment; his astonishment and skepticism had undoubtedly been plain on his face. He did, however, try his best to suppress the mental image of a sleek rattlesnake with hypnotic yellow eyes that sprang up in response to Hajime’s question — to no avail, if Hajime’s faint snort was any indication.

Just then, the little cat launched itself unexpectedly from Hajime’s shoulder across four feet of empty space onto Sano. It didn’t fly quite far enough, and scrabbling claws dug into Sano’s shoulder as the animal tried to get onto it. With a noise of surprise and pain, he raised his hands to help the cat up and try to keep it from ruining his t-shirt. Once it had its balance, it bumped its little head into his ear and meowed at him.

“He’s bringing a shade here,” Hajime answered the cat’s question. “I think it may be a ghost, and I want you two to take a look at it.”

The little cat’s whiskers tickled Sano’s ear, and he couldn’t tilt his head far enough away to make it stop. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that the other cat had come into the room and now sat at his feet, looking up at him. “Hey, stop!” Laughter colored his tone despite his best efforts as the little one continued pushing at him.

Smirking again, Hajime let this go on for a while before stepping forward to the rescue. Lifting the cat off Sano with one hand, he said, “This is Misao.” He replaced her on his own shoulder. “And that’s Tokio,” he added, pointing to the other. She gave a dignified meow.

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

Misao was still looking at Sano curiously, and now said something in shrill cat-talk.

“Probably not,” Hajime replied. “The shade follows him around, so it will catch up with us soon.”

Bending to pet the older cat, Tokio, Sano continued to listen in bemusement to the conversation he could only understand half of. Misao said something excited, to which Tokio replied disdainfully, and then Hajime said, “Tokio, your self-righteousness isn’t fooling anyone. Misao, you had some this morning.”

Crawling down Hajime’s arm and then dropping to the floor, complaining the entire way, Misao proceeded to jump on Tokio and start wrestling with her rather ineffectually (considering Tokio was at least twice her size).

Sano stood straight with a laugh, withdrawing his hand from what had become a swift-moving bundle of batting paws and gently biting mouths. He had no idea what to say.

Hajime gave him a look that said he didn’t need to say anything, which gave Sano something to say: “Stay out of my head!”

“I’m not in your head,” Hajime replied mildly. “You’re just projecting. Haven’t you had any training?”

The anger abruptly flaring off Sano in response to this clearly stopped the cats’ mock battle (which had ranged to the other end of the kitchen) and caught their interest, for they came over to him again — one eagerly, the other sedately. Misao stopped just in front of Sano’s left boot, and, after a couple of heaving, wiggling motions, leaped straight up to dig her claws into his knee and scrabble upward. Sano made a noise of pain at the same moment the kitten let out a similar protest when her stomach evidently came into contact with the spikes at his knees.

“Explain your pants to Misao,” Hajime commanded, turning away toward the refrigerator.

“My… what?” Sano was helping Misao up onto his shoulder again, though precedent indicated she probably wouldn’t remain there long. Recovering, however, he directed his next words at the little cat. “Yeah, my pants have spikes on them. Probably not the best thing to climb. Can you understand me? I’m not a communicator…”

She gave a chirping mew pretty clearly an affirmative, while at about the same moment Tokio from the floor had something to say as well.

“Now explain to Tokio what you do,” was Hajime’s next instruction. He emerged from the fridge with a couple of cans of beer, one of which he non-verbally offered to Sano.

Accepting the Asahi Dry with surprised gratitude, Sano crouched down to pet Tokio again, setting the can on the floor and opening it absently with his free hand. “I see red,” he told the cat. For all he knew cats made some of the best familiars available, it still seemed strange to be talking to someone whose eyes were slitted and head tilted as he scratched her jaw. “I absorb angry shades, and then I always have extra anger left over. Would you stop?” This last was aimed at Misao, who was bumping again, tickling him with her little whiskers once more as she meowed something right into his ear.

“She wants to know why your pants have spikes,” Hajime supplied from where he leaned against a counter, drinking his beer and watching in amusement.

“Why are my pants important?” Sano wondered, talking half to the cat and half to its human familiar.

“It’s important to her,” Hajime shrugged.

Tokio said something at this point that seemed to irritate Misao again, for once more the kitten flung herself off the shoulder she’d made her seat and attacked the older cat. Sano took up his beer, stood straight, and watched Tokio bat Misao around the kitchen. It might not have been what he’d expected, but this was really funny. With familiars like these, you’d probably never get lonely. Of course, their effectiveness at recognizing ghosts had yet to be seen.

“Tokio’s been with me for four years now,” Hajime said, whether in response to Sano’s unspoken thoughts, or just because he felt the right moment to explain this, Sano couldn’t guess. “Her senses are well developed. She’s never encountered a ghost before, as far as I know, but I have no doubt she’ll be able to tell the difference.”

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

Misao clearly realized she’d just been undervalued, for she flung herself at Hajime’s ankle, little claws blazing. Sano laughed as Hajime bent to pick her up again and the cat twisted and clawed her way around his hand onto his arm and up to his shoulder. Hajime’s suit looked nice at a glance, as had the one he’d worn when they’d first met in December, but now Sano bet that a closer inspection would prove them, and probably any other piece of clothing in his wardrobe, full of little claw-pricks and pulled threads.

Misao began batting at Hajime’s ear, which action he placidly ignored. “Let’s go sit down.”

He led Sano into a small front room somewhat sparsely furnished in a mixture of American and Japanese styles. Sano had already guessed the man had either moved here from Japan or at least come from a more strongly Japanese background in America than Sano had, but thought this wasn’t the moment to ask. They sat on the sofa — leather; must have been expensive — and set their drinks on coasters on a chabudai used here as a coffee table. The cats accompanied them, Misao having at some point, unseen by Sano, abandoned Hajime’s shoulder again; and now the little one leaped onto the table, skidded right across its smooth surface, and fell off the other side.

Sano was beside himself with laughter at this sight, Tokio made some disdainful remark from where she sat primly by Hajime’s leg, Hajime reminded Misao she wasn’t allowed on the coffee table either, and Misao herself couldn’t seem able to decide whom to assault first. She leaped at Tokio, who neatly dodged her and jumped up onto the sofa; she dove for Sano’s feet, but was thwarted by his boots; and finally she went for Hajime’s ankles again, since above the tops of his shiny businessman shoes he was unprotected except by cloth. And at about this point Sano’s laughter faded and he started to lose track of the situation when he felt the shade — ghost? — once again drawing near.

The cats sensed it not long after he did. Tokio jumped down from where she’d apparently been waffling over whether or not to sit on Hajime’s lap, and Misao abandoned Hajime’s legs with a perky swiveling of head and pricking of ears. They watched the opposite wall with the taut attention they might have given the sound of a skittering mouse, and Sano half expected them to leap forward to the attack the moment the shade appeared. He only wished it were something as innocuous as a mouse…

Part 4

It was definitely a ghost. So Tokio stated after sitting, placid but for the twitching end of her tail, staring up at the thing as it moved gently across the small living room.

Definitely a ghost, added Misao, who’d been galloping around beneath and occasionally rising onto hind feet. And to the counterance of anyone’s suspicions that she hadn’t sensed this herself but just piggybacked off Tokio’s pronouncement, she added that it was a ghost, but covered in shade.

Hajime nodded, thinking this an apt description. And a ghost covered in shade would probably prove somewhat difficult to deal with.

Sano had been laughing at Misao’s antics, but simultaneously growing more and more tense as the cats examined the glowing form. At Hajime’s nod he demanded impatiently, “Well?”

“Oh, yes,” Hajime said as if he’d just remembered, “you can’t understand them.” He was already developing a theory, though, about Sano the casual necrovisual that claimed not to be a communicator but was comprehensible to familiars and didn’t like to have his magical senses clouded…

When Sano’s usual irritation appeared, Tokio remarked that it was the same as the energy surrounding the ghost.

Hajime replied to her instead of to Sano, just to see if Sano would become more angry. “Yes, he’s been absorbing it trying to deal with this, but it hasn’t been working.”

Tokio believed this no wonder, because… but Hajime couldn’t catch the rest of her statement as Sano interrupted:

“Stop having conversations I can’t fucking understand and tell me what they think!”

Chuckling at the vehemence of the command, Hajime obeyed, briefly. “It’s definitely a ghost.”

Sano turned brown eyes beneath knitted brows toward the glowing shape, which still circled him aimlessly, and commented (not for the first time that day), “Shit.”

Misao complained that she couldn’t hear anything from the ghost, and wondered why it didn’t talk. Which was a good question.

Taking the last sip of beer from the can and replacing the latter on the table, Hajime stood and began to follow the ghost’s slow progress back and forth through the room. Up close, it felt slightly different, and he concentrated on that difference, trying to describe it to himself. Finally he decided that the angry shade energy swathing the ghost and the ghost itself had each a distinct sense about them; and one, in wrapping the other so thoroughly, masked it to the point where the ghost could only be detected through the anger at close proximity.

The anger gave him a headache at that proximity, however, so he finally stepped back. How had Sano lived with this thing for three weeks? Not to mention absorbing all the anger off it five times?

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

Hajime continued pensively watching the object of their discussion. “Now that we know it’s a ghost,” he finally said, “we need to find some way to communicate with it. But the shade energy is probably going to get in the way.”

“How can someone be a ghost and a shade?” Sano was clearly about to elaborate on his confusion, but evidently couldn’t quite articulate it and decided not to try.

Hajime understood him, though: shades were merely leftover strong emotion combined with the energy of death, and, since they were created at the moment of death, were limited to a finite amount. Once that moment of death had ended, no more death force remained to create a shade out of an emotion… so even if the ghost was angry, how did that anger continually translate into a shade? Or did the very presence of a ghost generate an ongoing death energy?

But with so little information documented about ghosts, this made only one of a thousand questions that might be answered if they could just talk to the thing.

Hajime was primarily only familiar with the basic techniques of communication magic: enough to keep his own thoughts in check, access the open surface level of others’, and so on. Though he’d picked up a minor skill or two here and there, he’d never bothered with distance telepathy or brainwashing or skimming power from memories or the like, mostly because he’d never been interested enough in what went on in other people’s heads. He wasn’t sure to what extent any level of talent or practice in communication would help with the undead, and necromancy was a skill he’d never had occasion to develop. But he might as well make the attempt.

Resuming his seat on the sofa, he focused on the ghost even more pointedly than before, working to order his thoughts into a direct channel toward it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even begin to sense a mind in there, nor any thoughts at all analogous with his own. Whether this was due to the shade energy blocking him, or because his powers of communication simply didn’t work on a ghost, he couldn’t tell. So he resorted to the next best thing, or at least the only thing he could think to try next, which was his line of sight: he simply directed his outgoing message at the figure on a physical basis.

Beside him, Sano shifted restlessly, clearly aware Hajime was up to something but restraining himself (for the moment) from demanding to know what. At Hajime’s outgoing thought (merely a greeting and the idea that he wanted to communicate), he stiffened a little; the cats also reacted, looking over at their human somewhat accusingly. Misao wondered what he was trying to do, Tokio remarked that she didn’t think anything was likely to reach the ghost, and Sano demanded, “What was that?” The ghost, however, as Tokio had predicted, didn’t even seem to receive the thought, let alone respond.

“I’m trying to get through to him,” Hajime explained, frowning. Communicative magic probably wouldn’t work, which meant they might have to do the séance thing, and he didn’t think he had any candles.

“Maybe if you got up close…” Sano suggested.

Hajime nodded and rose from the sofa once more. He didn’t approach the ghost again quite yet, but instead went into the kitchen to retrieve the sword he’d set down on the counter when they’d entered the house. He didn’t plan on getting any nearer to that thing than he had to until after dealing with at least some of the angry shade.

Sano made no comment when Hajime returned, nor did he have anything to say as the exorcist drew the sword and advanced on the ghost — but Hajime got an impression from him that he doubted this would work any better than it had before. Hajime rather thought so too, but it had to be attempted.

As previously, the angry energy, though volatile, was worrisomely easy to defeat; Hajime almost thought he could even have done it without the sword. Having replaced the latter in its sheath and set it aside, he then returned to the now-invisible ghost and raised a hand into the space it occupied.

He could definitely sense its presence, but still no trace of a comprehensible mind. He tried first to send another thought at it, then to open himself up to any message the ghost might be trying to broadcast; but the former had no discernible effect and the latter only gave him an instant headache boost.

“It never all quite leaves,” he muttered. He couldn’t see any remaining shade energy, but when he opened himself as he just had, he felt as if he were being battered by a hot, heavy wind.

Sano stood. “Let me see if I can get the rest of it.” Hajime nodded; a combination of techniques might be exactly what they needed.

The only time the ghost seemed to react to anything was when Sano moved. Hajime had been slowly pacing the room in order to keep right next to it as it drifted, but when Sano approached, the thing finally held still. Could it sense that Sano wanted it to? Perhaps, despite claiming not to be a communicator, Sano might have a better chance than Hajime at talking to it.

Now he’d reached up so his hand hovered in the air near Hajime’s, and his face had taken on an expression of angry concentration. Shades had a certain resonance that varied from one to the next, and people that absorbed shade energy did so by matching that wavelength precisely. It was about the only field where a talent for feeling a particular emotion became a trade skill. And it seemed Sano was particularly good at getting angry — either that or he’d been around this specific spirit so much that it only took him a moment to attune to it and draw off the last remaining shade energy into himself.

But it wasn’t the last. Or at least the action didn’t help. Continued attempts at communicating with the ghost, either giving or receiving ideas, met with the same failure as before, and that sense of being attacked (and the near-migraine that went with it) did not diminish. Hajime still couldn’t begin to sense a consciousness anywhere in there, and not knowing whether or not he should be able to only complicated things.

So did Sano’s increasing anger. The young man hadn’t moved from where he stood facing Hajime (across the ghost, as it were) with his hand in the air, but he’d closed his eyes and was looking — and feeling — more and more angry. The sense of its growing radiation interfered somewhat with Hajime’s concentration on something that wasn’t working anyway; so finally Hajime put his own raised hand over the younger man’s, which had by now clenched into a fist, and pushed it out of the ghost’s space.

“This isn’t working,” he said quietly.

Sano’s eyes started open, the irate gleam in them surprisingly hot and strong. It occurred to Hajime, looking into what seemed at the moment an inferno of unfathomable depth, that Sano might be dangerous if he absorbed too much anger; not that it was likely to be anything Hajime couldn’t handle, but they must remember to keep the lethal weapons out of Sano’s reach at such moments.

Sano jerked away from Hajime and the ghost, turning abruptly to stalk back over to the sofa and throw himself down. “Damn right it’s not,” he growled. “You were right: there’s just no end to the fucking stuff.”

Hajime also stood back, out of the way of the headache-inducing energy, letting his mental shields rise back into place, and nodded again. It looked like they really would have to try silly séance business, candles and all, and it was so hard to get cats to sit still for things like that, and he honestly didn’t think it would work any better than what they’d already done — though, once again, the attempt had to be made.

He glanced at his watch. It was getting to be mid-afternoon already, somehow, and they’d made no progress except to confirm that the thing was, in fact, a ghost. If the lack of results continued and Sano got much angrier, he might decide to take his ghost elsewhere. And though not exactly a paying customer (yet… though Hajime sensed ‘ever’ might be a better term), he’d presented the exorcist with a unique opportunity Hajime didn’t want to lose. He would talk to this ghost, no matter what it took. Which meant he needed to try to keep Sano happy.

“This might take a while,” he said. “How do you feel about ordering Chinese?”

Part 5

Sano had always believed himself persistent, but Hajime was absolutely indefatigable. They had tried everything: they’d used every communicative technique Hajime knew, and looked up others online; they’d performed various types of séance — most of these also gleaned off websites, many of dubious authenticity; Hajime had attempted to get the cats to make some sort of mental connection with the ghost so he could talk through them; and they’d eventually just tried to exorcize the thing rather than communicate with it, which Sano could see annoyed and dismayed Hajime, who wanted very much to get information from the ghost.

This last negated any guilt Sano might have been feeling about essentially asking the exorcist to work for free: Hajime was clearly more than a little eager to interact with the ghost, and didn’t care whether he got anything else out of the situation. This was extremely fortunate, since Sano, who between tuition and rent was always low on funds, didn’t know how much longer he could put up with this angering distraction in his life, but also didn’t know how else he might get rid of it.

Not that any efforts toward dealing with the ghost had paid off so far. Nothing had seemed even the least bit effective, and Hajime’s thin lips had set into a tighter and tighter line as afternoon turned into evening and then night, until he appeared almost as frustrated as Sano was. The two of them had taken to bickering over every little thing, and violence was only barely averted on a number of occasions. Even the cats had become increasingly irritable, and at one point Misao bit Sano’s hand so hard it drew significant blood.

Sano had firmly vetoed the suggestion that they order Chinese (since he worked at a Chinese restaurant and already suffered nightmares about never being able to eat anything else for the rest of his life), so they’d ordered pizza instead and argued heatedly about toppings. Sano had been forced to give in on that score when reminded that Hajime was paying. Then they’d eaten pizza and drunk beer as if they were hanging out having fun instead of futilely and increasingly frustratingly trying to get into contact with a ghost they could very plainly sense in their immediate presence but couldn’t talk to no matter what they tried.

At one point Sano had suggested they attempt inducing possession, and volunteered himself for the process when Hajime evinced obvious distaste for the idea. However, even once Hajime had been reluctantly convinced this was worth giving a try, yet again it hadn’t worked. Sano had been disappointed — he would have said ‘secretly disappointed’ if he hadn’t been in the same room as a communicator — not solely because it was another blocked avenue to getting rid of or at least talking to the ghost, but because he thought it would be pretty cool to be able to say later that he’d been possessed. Even if the outcome might have been unpleasant, it would have been an interesting and unique experience.

It was the damn shade that had unendingly gotten in the way. There was always more of the stuff no matter how much Hajime diffused or Sano absorbed; and no matter how quickly they dealt with it, they couldn’t seem to cause even a momentary break in the flow to allow them through to the ghost beyond. He supposed it wasn’t a bad method of protection, and reflected further that if he were undead, he would probably be wreathed in the same impenetrable anger.

The annoyance he felt at the circumstance must have caused him to project this last thought, for Hajime had remarked in response, “Undoubtedly.”

Eventually, frustrated, aggravated, worn ragged on a magical level, they’d given up — at least on dealing with the ghost under their own power. To Sano, who in calling Hajime in the first place had already admitted this defeat, it hadn’t been as annoying a concession as it obviously was to Hajime. But the exorcist had been the one to suggest the alternative they probably should have had in mind all along: taking the ghost to Aoshi. The latter was a skilled medium; if anyone could talk to this damned thing, it was he.

Unfortunately, Aoshi was unavailable on weekends (and Sano had to work on Sunday in any case), which meant another day of trying to restrain the shade from hovering where other people might unknowingly walk through it and take ill effects from the invisible anger. It was just such a fucking pain.

But now, finally, Monday morning, he’d risen earlier than he generally ever wanted to during Spring Break, and headed toward Forest of Four to meet Hajime there and hope Aoshi had a free moment sometime before lunch. Well, more than a moment: if Aoshi could communicate with the ghost, he and Hajime both were sure to sit there asking it all kinds of questions probably for hours on end. Sano was already bracing himself for a lengthy period of boredom, since, although he believed it would be interesting enough at first, he also knew those two necrovisua nerds would drag it out far past the point of easy endurance. He only hoped they wouldn’t forget about him and his predicament in the process and fail to ask the ghost the all-important question of what they needed to do to get rid of it.

Aoshi’s shop was never terribly busy, and when the little parking lot began to fill up it was usually mostly for the market next door. Sano didn’t see Hajime’s car yet, though, so he loitered around outside. Since this destination was a negligible distance from his apartment, he’d come on foot, and therefore hadn’t outdistanced the ghost. It maintained its customary slow, elliptical orbit as he stood on the curb and looked idly around.

A couple of guys hanging out pointlessly in front of the used CD store on the far side of the market kept glancing over at him, and some market shoppers stared likewise as they emerged with full bags. He wondered if he seemed angrier than usual, or if it was just that he’d used blue gel in his hair today.

Someone actually here to shop Forest of Four gave a startled look to the ghost as she emerged from her car, then a pitying one to Sano; she probably thought he was here for advice on how to deal with a red shade and politely waiting for his appointment time outside where it wouldn’t disturb the business. He was tempted to tell her, as she passed, that he was perfectly capable of dealing with red shades all on his own, thank you very much, but just then Hajime pulled up.

Glad at the prospect of taking out some of his anger on a relatively willing victim, Sano went to meet him at his car. Hajime’s yellow eyes, on stepping from that vehicle, were not on Sano but on the ghost, and he looked a little surprised. “How long have you been waiting?”

“Since nine.” Sano stuck his chin out and did not add, “You know, the time you said to meet you?” Hajime probably took Sano for the unreliable type just out of his teens that was never on time for anything, and therefore hadn’t hurried to get here. Greatly disliking that sort of assumption, Sano was pleased he’d come on foot and already had the ghost with him in order to give the impression of having been here a while.

Unfortunately, Hajime seemed to pick up on this, and, with a glance around the parking lot, which of course did not contain Sano’s vehicle, smirked faintly and gestured they should go inside. Hajime’s car, which reminded Sano a little of gangster cars in movies, was evidently new and well-enough-favored to merit locking and arming, which made Sano faintly jealous as they headed into the store.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” The girl at the counter sounded surprised, but no less cheerful for that. They were always cheerful in here — all of them except Aoshi, who seemed to have made it his goal to weigh a personal balance against the combined peppiness of his entire staff.

“We need to see Aoshi as soon as possible,” Hajime told the girl as they drew up to the counter.

Sano, had he been behind that counter, would have reacted to the dictatorial tone with annoyance; all the girl did, however, was widen her eyes a bit as she looked past them both. “Is that–”

“It’s a ghost,” Hajime declared, clearly and perhaps overloudly.

“Really?” the girl breathed. Sano finally remembered her name now: Omasu, who’d turned him down when he’d asked her out the very first time he’d come in here. “An actual ghost?”

Hajime nodded. “I assume Aoshi will be interested.”

“I just bet he will!” agreed Omasu in excitement. She was already pulling up the hinged counter segment and emerging. “Let me run talk to him!”

While she carried out her stated intention, Sano realized with an odd feeling why Hajime had practically announced to the entire store that a real ghost accompanied them. There were only two other visitors at the moment, and although one (the sympathetic woman from outside) had been browsing the books on crystal healing and the other the jewelry, it appeared that by some chance they were both necrovisual. And the moment Omasu was gone, they converged on Hajime without even any polite pretense, demanding to know about the ghost.

Admittedly Hajime handled it very well, never dropping a hint that they’d brought the ghost here because they couldn’t even begin to communicate with it or, almost, affect it in any way. He made it seem, instead, without actually saying so, that he was doing Aoshi a favor by giving him the opportunity to interact with an actual ghost. He didn’t mention Sano at all.

Of course this was only natural; an exorcist’s reputation could be significantly boosted by a situation like this, and Hajime would be an idiot not to take advantage of it. Logically Sano didn’t blame him, and also reminded himself that Hajime was helping him out for free when he might have been working on a paying job — but it annoyed him no less for that.

Worse, it wasn’t even Sano Hajime was taking advantage of here, but, rather, the ghost haunting him. Sano was accessory to the actual person Hajime was using to enhance his professional reputation. What the two eager necrovisuals made of the angry young man emitting the same energy that surrounded the purported ghost, Sano couldn’t guess. Maybe he was lucky and they didn’t see red. In any case, taking cue from Hajime, they largely ignored him.

Hajime ended up giving each of them a business card, and Sano ended up giving each of them a surreptitious gesture with a particular finger. Hajime seemed entertained by this, and was clearly restraining a chuckle as Omasu came hurrying back to them with the news that Aoshi had cleared his schedule for the entire morning in order to see them.

Even as they headed for the office in back, they could hear her starting to make calls to cancel all of her employer’s existing appointments. These probably amounted to no more than two, knowing Aoshi, but even so Sano felt a little bad about displacing them. Not nearly as bad as he would have if he hadn’t been haunted by a ghost he couldn’t get rid of and an exorcist that clearly regarded said ghost with far more interest than he did Sano. It would be nice to get this all dealt with.

Part 6

When they entered Aoshi’s office, the medium was in the act of moving chairs from before and behind his desk into positions facing the center of the room. His quick, vigorous motions declared what his face, morose as usual, could not: that he was excited and interested by the promise of a ghost. Hajime couldn’t help considering that Aoshi would be extremely, possibly dangerously disappointed if for some reason the ghost turned out to be something less than he expected or if by any chance he couldn’t communicate with it; and that he was already so worked up — and, indeed, that the cashier girl had run back so enthusiastically to talk to him — on nothing more than Hajime’s statement showed satisfactorily how much the exorcist’s word was worth around here.

Semi-darkness always hovered in this room, whether to create the atmosphere favored by its gloomy occupant or for legitimate magical purposes Hajime had never known or cared; but there also always seemed to be an unearthly gleam to Aoshi’s eyes even in the shadows. Today it was brighter than usual as he looked up at them. “Whose spirit is it?” he asked — which from him was a fairly typical greeting, since he rarely bothered with polite, meaningless phrases such as ‘Hello’ or ‘Have a seat.’

“We don’t know,” Hajime replied, having a seat. He tilted his head toward the young man entering behind him. “It’s haunting Sano.”

As Aoshi’s eyes shifted to Sano, the latter commented with just a touch of bitterness, “Oh, you want me to tell him?” He’d been annoyed outside about Hajime ignoring him and playing up the ghost to the other customers, but Hajime believed he’d also understood, which explained why he wasn’t flaring as brightly as he could be right about now. By suggesting Sano explain the situation to Aoshi, Hajime hoped to reassure the young man a little that he and his predicament weren’t forgotten.

Sano didn’t get the chance to explain, however, nor was he likely to think himself unforgotten. For at that moment the ghost moved into the office after him, through the door they’d closed behind them, and procured every last bit of Aoshi’s attention.

The pale glow of the shade contrasted enough with the shadowy room actually to illuminate objects that had previously been close to invisible. It was an uncanny light, and all the more eerie to Hajime for the thought that the other two living humans in the room saw it as red, and therefore, undoubtedly, the entire office as tinted by that color (and that many other living humans, had they been present, wouldn’t have been able to see it at all). It made Aoshi’s eyes glow an even brighter blue, but Hajime supposed that, from Sano’s perspective, they must have been purple or even entirely red.

The medium began to circle the ghost like a prowling panther, examining it from all sides meticulously up and down; and whether aware of this scrutiny and deliberately permitting it or for some totally unrelated reason, the ghost held still. Finally Aoshi asked in a half whisper, “Who are you?” It seemed intended as a rhetorical question, as he didn’t wait for an answer; evidently he could already perceive the difficulty with the shade energy.

“We’ve tried everything we could think of,” Sano put in at this point; it was clear by his expression, where he’d seated himself in the chair next to Hajime’s, that he couldn’t be sure whether or not Aoshi would even hear him. He went on anyway. “We haven’t been able to get through to him. There’s just too much shade in the way.”

Aoshi might indeed not have heard him, for all the reaction he gave. He’d gone perfectly still, staring unblinkingly at the ghost now, and looked as if he might remain that way for some time. Hajime caught Sano’s eye and shrugged; Sano, who’d been scowling, relaxed a little and actually smiled. Hajime had to smile faintly too when he caught from Sano the projected thought (deliberately this time, he believed), Should’ve seen this coming. Which was certainly true.

What he also should have seen coming was Aoshi, when he finally moved, beginning to go through the motions Hajime and Sano had exhausted the day before yesterday. He doubted it would take Aoshi nearly as long to realize the futility of standard communication or even standard necromantic efforts, but for the moment he sat back in the uncomfortable chair and watched only idly. Beside him, Sano had extracted from a spike-edged pocket a cheap pre-paid phone and begun texting someone.

Just to see if he still remembered how to do it, Hajime reached out mentally to read the departing message. Apparently Sano was responding with an apologetic negative to a request that he come in to work today, but Hajime couldn’t catch the exact wording — probably for the best, as he abhorred textspeak.

If Aoshi had bothered to listen to what they had to say about the ghost instead of completely shutting them out and wading in on his own, he could have skipped the steps he was working his way through now; but in all probability he would have made the attempt anyway, believing communicator-turned-exorcist Hajime and Sano, whatever Sano might be, weren’t as skilled at contacting the dead as he was — a natural enough assumption.

In any case, while Aoshi tried various methods of talking to the ghost, sometimes with verbal questions but more often in complete silence, Hajime somewhat absently continued to follow Sano’s text conversation. There came a reiteration of the work request and the information that the other maintenance guy had called in sick — apparently X, Y, and Z weren’t going to get done, and this was some sort of disaster — followed by a firmer, less apologetic refusal from Sano and his statement that he didn’t want any extra hours this week since he had a lot to do.

When Hajime caught an incoming message in reply wondering whether this week wasn’t Sano’s Spring Break, he was beginning to get a feel for the exact words in addition to the general meaning — but just then Sano glanced abruptly over at him with a suspicious expression, and Hajime withdrew his mental nets. Interesting that Sano could sense what he was doing when he claimed seeing and absorbing angry shade energy as the extent of his magical abilities. Hajime turned his full attention back to Aoshi.

It took fifteen or twenty minutes for the medium to determine his attempts weren’t going to work; but, despite this being quite a decent time in comparison to the hours Hajime and Sano had spent at similar pursuits on Saturday, Sano was by then shifting restlessly in his chair from one bored-looking position to another, and slowly, gradually, growing angrier. Why angrier? Why would Sano be absorbing the shade at this point? It wasn’t on a large enough scale to be of any use to Aoshi, and otherwise it just seemed stupid.

But Hajime didn’t have a chance to ask or otherwise figure it out, for Aoshi at last appeared to have remembered there were living people in the room besides himself. He’d turned toward where they sat, and, though the engrossed, fascinated gleam hadn’t left his eyes, the latter did seem a little more present now. “You’ve never once been able to communicate with him?” he asked abruptly. It was his usual saturnine tone, but for some reason he spoke Japanese; and this was no ambivalent ‘him,’ but a distinctly masculine pronoun.

“That’s right,” Hajime confirmed in the same language, and reiterated Sano’s earlier statement about the shade energy getting in the way.

Sano had sat up straight, and watched Aoshi with interest now. The medium’s face, lit oddly by the single lamp on the desk and the softer, less pleasant glow of the shade, was impassive as he turned away from the other humans again and regarded the ghost once more. He’d been standing right beside it this entire time, and Hajime wondered at his fortitude. That Aoshi was immune to most normal emotions Hajime had long facetiously speculated, so perhaps the shade didn’t affect him as it would normal people, but surely he must at least be getting a headache over there.

Now Aoshi began searching for something on one of the shelves full of arcane miscellany that lined the office walls. Hajime definitely sensed an eyes-rolling sort of Finally! from Sano, and had to agree; whatever Aoshi sought would undoubtedly be part of a more pointed and expert attempt at ghostly communication, which was, after all, the reason they’d come.

The next thing Hajime picked up from the young man to his left — was Sano deliberately projecting, or really that bad at guarding his thoughts? — was an image of the three of them lit by flickering candle-flame sitting cross-legged on the floor around an intricate set of chalked lines, holding hands, eyes closed, while Aoshi chanted dramatic nonsense. Hajime snorted, and saw Sano’s cheeks twitch against a repressed grin. Clearly he had intended Hajime to see that, and Hajime felt grudgingly impressed: a lot of legitimate communicators couldn’t send ideas that sharply visualized.

The object Aoshi eventually located and withdrew from an unnecessarily ornate wooden box on one of the shelves was small enough to be mostly hidden by his hand and wrist as he turned back toward the ghost. Even when he made a couple of quick motions through the space the ghost occupied — a diagonal slash followed by a quick stab in the same spot — Hajime couldn’t see exactly what it might be. However, Hajime and Sano were instantly on their feet in the wake of Aoshi’s movement, and had both taken a step closer with quick indrawn breaths.

As if whatever Aoshi held had cut a fissure right into the shade energy surrounding the ghost and laid the latter bare along that narrow line, Hajime could suddenly see hints of a human neck and collarbone and shoulder, glowing and translucent, in the midst of the shade. He wondered if it was the same grey-white hue to Sano’s eyes; if so, it must be a striking contrast against the red.

Aoshi’s inward thrust put his hand and the item it clutched inside the constricting fissure, which then closed around the medium’s wrist; it seemed clear he’d made it in; he’d managed to penetrate the shade that had so completely defied Hajime and Sano. The latter two had gone still after leaving their chairs, and only stared as Aoshi’s eyes fluttered closed and his entire body drew up with a deep breath and stiffened into total motionlessness.

Long, tense seconds dragged into one minute, then continued on toward two. Sano was shifting impatiently again, even more agitated now than before, while Hajime attempted to discern what Aoshi held. The shade glow and the darkness of the room combined to make this nearly impossible, but it seemed about the size of a pen.

To anyone not necrovisual this would have looked absurd: Aoshi standing there with one hand raised, appearing to be straining to keep what he held in place in the air; Hajime and Sano also standing, staring at him wordlessly; the atmosphere rigid, expectant. Hajime thought Aoshi’s face was paling somewhat with effort, thought he saw the medium’s frame tremble slightly, and therefore believed himself prepared for what would happen next.

When the break came, when Aoshi shuddered and abruptly jerked his hand back — indeed, jerked his entire body back all at once as if tearing away from some painful adhesion, drawing in another deep, unsteady breath — Hajime stepped quickly forward to support him. And what Hajime hadn’t been prepared for was Aoshi to collapse backward into his arms, eyes rolling up under closing lids, a completely dead weight.

Part 7

Sano knew Aoshi’s dramatic tendencies — indeed, had more than once been required to restrain a grin of mockery or a roll of eyes in the man’s presence — but, if Hajime’s sudden half stagger and evidently somewhat irritated attempt at regaining his balance under Aoshi’s collapsed frame meant anything, this was the real deal. It interested Sano, who had never seen anyone faint before.

He’d been restraining the ghost ever since he’d entered the room, holding it still in order to let Aoshi examine it without having to follow its drifting circle around Sano, but now he released it in favor of moving to help Hajime manhandle Aoshi into a chair. The medium didn’t actually weigh very much, for a guy just under six feet tall, and it was easier than he’d expected to get him into the seat — much more comfortable than the other two in the room — beside the desk. Hajime tilted the chair backward, and adjusted the knobs underneath to make it stay that way, so Aoshi would remain where they’d set him, then looked around.

“It’s so damn dark in here,” he grumbled. “He must at least have some candles somewhere.”

Sano gave a grimace indicating no ideas, glancing at the window that would have let in some additional light if it hadn’t been painted over in black and half-obscured by a bookshelf. When he turned back, he found Hajime taking Aoshi’s pulse.

“Should we get someone?” asked Sano uncertainly. “Or call 911, or…”

Hajime frowned. “I’m not sure what we’d tell the 911 operator. At least his pulse is normal. Look in that fridge and see if he has any water.”

Sano had visited this office a number of times, seated in one of the hard chairs in front of the desk while Aoshi, in the big leather one behind it, questioned him impassively about recent shade-related activity and eventually fetched and counted out the pills Sano needed from a plastic container he kept in a locked cabinet to the left of his desk. But he’d never taken much notice of the small refrigerator beneath the shelves on the opposite side. And he’d certainly never expected to see the eccentric medium lying pale and prostrate in that same big leather chair.

Now, trying to disregard Hajime’s dictatorial tone, he did as he was told. No water was to be found in the fridge, only a salad in Tupperware, seven different flavors of coffee creamer, and a couple of vials Sano probably didn’t want to know the contents of; however, he caught sight of the coffeemaker on a shelf (this one almost more of a countertop in an alcove) above the fridge. The device seemed to have a water line in, and a group of upside-down mugs stood beside it. One of these, full of lukewarm liquid, he handed to Hajime in short order.

As Hajime flicked water in Aoshi’s face, he issued his next command: “Make some coffee too, if you can figure the machine out; he’ll probably need it when he wakes up.”

“Or,” Sano replied crossly, “he’ll get annoyed that we’re messing with his stuff.”

“How often have you seen him in here without a cup of coffee?” countered Hajime.

Sano would have liked to make an angry retort, but unfortunately the answer to Hajime’s question was ‘practically never,’ so argument would be futile. Wanting to let out some anger, though, as he turned he demanded, “And what do you mean, if I can figure out the machine? How hard do you think it is to push buttons on a coffeemaker?”

“For you, or for the average single-celled organism?”

“You know what? Fuck you.” He’d expected an insult like that, however — well, technically, he’d expected something less funny — and it was weird to feel so angry, yet simultaneously relieved and satisfied… and disconcerting to consider this jerk kinda nice to have around, what with his willingness to be offensive and irritating at the drop of a hat, and his sexy voice…

Hajime chuckled quietly, then went silent as Aoshi stirred. From Sano’s angle it was difficult to tell, but he thought Aoshi’s eyes drifted open and his breath came out in a faint sigh. Sano hastened to finish dealing with the coffee package and filter and get the machine going, and, to the sound of its quiet hiss as the brewing cycle started, circumnavigated the big chair to see what exactly was going on.

Aoshi didn’t appear to be processing anything before him, though he had indeed opened his eyes, and Sano was in time to see Hajime grip his shoulder and give him a shake. Slowly a sort of fog seemed to lift from the medium’s gaze, into which the customary glint returned as he focused more and more coherently on the two men in front of him. “Oh,” he finally said. Then he struggled to sit up straight in his chair, and frowned slightly at the odd angle it was set to. He reached down to readjust the knobs Hajime had changed, saying nothing for several seconds, until he’d fixed his seat.

Next he looked around, still a little vague. His eyes fell on the active coffeemaker and seemed to stick there for several seconds as if in confusion as to why coffee was brewing when he hadn’t initiated that process. Then he shook himself slightly, nodded, and turned back.

“You OK?” Sano wondered.

Aoshi nodded again. “I believe I am.” And like the last few things he’d said before passing out, this brief phrase was for some reason in Japanese.

Hajime prodded Sano in the ribs suddenly, and when Sano looked in his direction he found him gesturing for movement. Realizing he probably meant it was a good idea at this point to stop towering over the seated Aoshi and resume their own chairs on the other side of the desk, annoyed at Hajime’s manner of expressing the suggestion but thinking it best to comply, he stuck out his tongue and did so.

Having turned the wooden chairs to face Aoshi and sat down again, they watched him draw close to the desk as if to use it for support against the weariness that was now evident in his face and movements. Then Aoshi fixed his eyes on Sano and said, “This was the shade you contacted me about, correct? The one that collects again even after you’ve absorbed it all?”

Sano nodded.

The quiet, dour gaze moved up and down Sano analytically, undoubtedly taking in the angry aura that lingered around him after his latest irritation at Hajime’s behavior. “It’s vicious shade energy,” Aoshi remarked at last.

“Tell me about it,” Sano muttered.

“Actually, tell us about the ghost,” Hajime corrected. “Were you able to talk to it?”

Aoshi shook his head. “I was only able to get general impressions from him.”

“So he is a guy, then,” said Sano.

When Aoshi nodded, Hajime put in, “And of Japanese descent, I assume.”

“Yes. How–” Aoshi paused, his brows twitching briefly inward. Sano got the feeling he was only just realizing he’d made an unexplained language switch some time ago and the other two had cooperated without protest. “Yes,” he finally went on, now in English again. “I would tentatively guess half Japanese, half American, born and raised in the States in a Japanese-style home, possibly here in this very Asian district.”

“Sounds like me,” Sano mused.

“I couldn’t sense much more about him than that. Even that was a vague impression I might be mistaken about.”

“It seems like a fairly specific impression to me,” Hajime contradicted. “Why that particular information?”

“I am a Japanese immigrant. It’s easier to sense how you’re similar to a ghost than areas in which you’re totally different from him.”

Hajime appeared a little suspicious as he remarked, “You say that as if you’ve met other ghosts.”

“This is the second I’ve encountered,” Aoshi replied.

Though Hajime sat back without another word, Sano couldn’t help thinking somewhat complacently that that news must be annoying the hell out of him; he’d thought he’d found a ghost before Aoshi had, and here Aoshi had been ahead of him all along and was one up on him now.

The coffeemaker had gradually stopped its gurgling, and Aoshi reached for the full mug in a movement so automatic he almost seemed unaware of what he was doing. Once he had the coffee on the desk in front of him, however, he definitively noticed it; and there followed a long process of selecting a creamer from the fridge and stirring it into the dark liquid, carried out in complete silence, that was amusing and frustrating to watch.

Next he unlocked the cabinet to his left and withdrew, rather than some magical pill or powder as Sano had seen him do before, just a bottle of standard painkillers. Sano knew the brand, which was targeted at migraine sufferers and caffeinated, and raised his brows at the amount of the latter chemical Aoshi planned to ingest.

After swallowing three of the pills and beginning to sip what must still be quite hot coffee, Aoshi finally continued in a dark tone. “I wasn’t able to sense more about him because I couldn’t maintain the connection through that intense shade energy — and also because he was projecting his anchor so strongly it overrode nearly everything else.”

“Anchor?” Sano echoed, unfamiliar with the term in this context.

At the same moment Hajime wondered, “Oh? What is it?”

Aoshi sighed faintly. “It’s the same anchor as it was for the last ghost I encountered,” he answered Hajime rather than Sano. “And, as far as I’ve read, for a majority of ghosts throughout human history. A woman, of course.”

Part 8

Aoshi’s theatrical announcement that a woman anchored the ghost to the living world failed to make much of an impression on Hajime. And perhaps Aoshi was a little disappointed that he didn’t gasp and draw back, wide-eyed, in response, but when Hajime instead asked, “What does she look like?” he answered calmly enough:

“A beautiful Japanese woman. It was more a general sense than a visual. I believe she’s in her mid-twenties. She may be a mother. He wants to go to her, and it’s clear he won’t be free until he does.”

“Why doesn’t he just do it, then?” wondered Sano in frustration. “Where do I come in?”

“She probably can’t see ghosts,” Hajime reminded him. “Maybe you were the first person he ran into who could tell he was there.” Though he had to think there was more to it than that.

Sano apparently did too, for he glanced at the ghost with a pensive scowl. Interestingly, it had started drifting around the young man again as soon as Aoshi fainted; Hajime wondered what had stilled it before.

Finally Sano said, “But if he’s so mad at this woman, why doesn’t he go do the usual thing? Give her headaches and make her pissed at the whole world and all that?”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “Because he’s not just a shade, idiot. Most people want the people they’re angry at to know why they’re angry.”

“She probably killed him,” Sano said, and, in the midst of the ire he suddenly gave off at being called an idiot, it was difficult to gage his level of seriousness. “In which case I’m sure she’d know why he’s mad.”

“Maybe,” Hajime pondered, “because you’re so good at getting angry, he thinks you’ll be willing to carry out his revenge for him.”

“Well, he’s got another think coming, in that case.”

Aoshi, who’d been sipping his coffee in silence through this exchange, finally said, “We’ll never be able to communicate with him as long as he’s so violently angry. At least some of that intense shade has to be cleared up first. And obviously this mysterious woman is the key.”

His tone had a rare edge to it, a sharp indicator of continued interest and some of the dangerous disappointment Hajime had idly predicted earlier. The statement had also been something of a command: Aoshi wanted to talk to the ghost even more than Hajime did, and at this point was essentially ordering Hajime and Sano to find the mysterious woman and get the dead man’s anger dealt with. Reminding himself of Sano as he did so, Hajime bristled at this. Unlike Sano would have, however, he didn’t let it show. The ghost had to be handled one way or another, after all, and finding the woman and dispelling the shade energy seemed the logical next step.

“If we do manage to find this anchor of his,” he told Aoshi, “the result will probably be him moving on. I can’t promise you’re going to be able to talk to him on this side.”

Aoshi fixed him with a piercing stare in which were all the same emotions and concepts contained in his earlier tone. “What you can promise,” he said, “is to relay anything you learn from him to me.”

Hajime stifled a sigh. True, they had new information and a new avenue to follow, but he almost regretted bringing the ghost here. Aoshi could be a trifle obsessive, and was unlikely to let this drop until he’d either learned something interesting or become convinced of the impossibility of doing so. Still, Hajime perfectly understood the desire, even if this wasn’t the first ghost Aoshi had ever met. After all, he, too, wanted answers from the dead man… and there would certainly be no harm in passing those answers along to someone that had assisted him. “Of course,” he said. “Anything else you can tell us that might help?”

Aoshi shook his head.

“Hang on…” Sano was obviously a little confused. “Are we going after this woman? Is that the idea here?”

Hajime stood. “That’s the idea here. Thank you for your help, Aoshi.”

Aoshi nodded.

Sano rose, face set in a scowl of annoyance and lack of understanding. “But how the hell are we supposed to know where to even start looking for her? She could be anyone, anywhere — she could be in Japan for all we know!”

Hajime didn’t bother answering the question or pointing out how unlikely it seemed that the woman was in Japan. He just turned away from Aoshi’s desk and moved toward the door, saying, “Do you want to be haunted forever? This is the next step to dealing with your friend, so come on.”

“But if we find the woman, this ghost is probably going to start doing horrible things to her with his stupid shade, and she’ll suffer, and it’ll be our fault.”

It was interesting to find Sano evidently so concerned with the situation itself, and the anonymous people involved, beyond merely as it affected him. Hajime could have responded to his protest in a number of ways, and most of them would probably have to be brought up eventually in any case, but the one he chose at the moment was, “Didn’t you say you thought she killed him?”

“I was joking!”

As they passed across the open space where Aoshi had made the best contact with the ghost of any of them thus far, Hajime glanced down to where the previously unidentifiable object had fallen to the floor when the medium had fainted. On sight of the slightly tapering surgical steel handle and small detachable blade, he nodded slightly; that made sense.

Outside Aoshi’s office and the little hallway that led to it, they were immediately the subject of scrutiny of every eye in the place. Clearly the cashier had been gossiping to the other customers about who the boss had in his office right now, and the effect wasn’t lessened by Sano’s saying, as they walked out of the room, “I don’t want to just sic this angry ghost out of the blue on some innocent woman!” This statement would be enough to pique the interest of anyone that overheard it — and, by the looks of it, most of them had.

Even if Hajime had been planning another round of posing, equivocal ghost-talk, however, Sano wasn’t having it this time. He said distinctly, “Heel!” and then… well, Hajime hadn’t been expecting it and didn’t quite catch what he did. But in response the ghost moved quickly over to Sano and followed beside and behind him — indeed, very like a dog coming to heel — as Sano, scowling faintly, stalked out of the store. Hajime, fighting not to appear startled and immensely curious, hastened to follow.

Outside, Sano took several steps away from the shop entrance before he stopped walking and turned to face Hajime. Whatever hold he had on the ghost he did not release — it maintained its motionless position at his side — and Hajime realized Sano must have been doing this before whenever the ghost had seemed unaccountably still. Moreover, it probably meant he deliberately hadn’t been doing it while Hajime had been absurdly following the ghost back and forth and back and forth through his living room on Saturday. Brat.

But at the moment Hajime was more interested in how Sano did it than why he’d neglected it two days ago. This surely answered the question of why Sano’s anger had been so steadily rising in Aoshi’s office: whatever method he used to hold the ghost still probably siphoned shade energy off into him, more gradually than if he were purposefully absorbing it but eventually to the same effect.

“So where are we going to start looking for our mystery lady?” Despite Sano’s having asked the question relatively calmly, Hajime could easily see and sense he was still annoyed in general; the young man could probably do with releasing some anger.

So in a tone skeptically derisive Hajime asked, “You really can’t think of a single idea?”

Sano flared and scowled, but instead of an irate retort he gave a surprisingly frank answer. “No! Unless by some weird coincidence she happens to go to my school and I run into her and ghostie-guy here reacts, I have no way of finding some random woman I don’t even have a name or description for! She’s Japanese? How’s that supposed to help? You know what kind of Asian population this city has! I mean, look at us — we were three Japanese guys in one room there; four, if you count him–” he jabbed a thumb toward the ghost– “pretty much just by coincidence! What are we supposed to do, just walk the Asian district until some woman comes running out and says, ‘Hey, is that my ghost that I lost?'”

The unspoken but overwhelming complaint behind this rant was, “I’m going to have to deal with this ghost forever. The one way to get rid of him seems impossible, and he’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.” Hajime honestly felt sorry for him, and couldn’t help giving him a less condescending smile than usual.

“Fortunately,” he said, “I do have an idea.”

The startled, open, hopeful look Sano gave him was rather gratifying. “What is it?”

“First, tell me how you’re forcing the ghost to hold still.”

Now Sano glanced at the spirit in question, as if he’d forgotten he was doing that at all. “Oh, uh…” He raised a hand and gestured. “I just sort of… reach in there… same as how I reach to absorb the shade… only instead of doing that…” He twisted his hand as if he were wrapping a mass of something malleable around it and drawing it back toward him. “It sortof opens a channel for the shade energy again, so it’s a pain in the ass to keep doing it… but at least I can keep him from bugging other people that way.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “You do realize that exercising any type of control over a shade like that is conjuration.” That is to say, a totally different area of necrovisual magic than the one Sano claimed solely to be skilled in.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” This tone was equal parts pensive and indifferent, as if this might be a good deal more interesting later when Sano wasn’t as concerned with how they could possibly get rid of the ghost that had been haunting him for weeks. “So what’s your idea?”

At this moment, a couple of customers emerged from Forest of Four. One of them elbowed the other and made what he probably thought was a surreptitious gesture toward Hajime and Sano. A few seconds longer and they would assuredly walk in this direction.

“Let’s go,” Hajime murmured. “It’s too early for lunch, but I wouldn’t mind some coffee.” The smell in Aoshi’s office had been suggestively pleasant, even if Aoshi did take his coffee with insane amounts of bizarrely-flavored additives.

Sano, who had also observed the gawkers at the shop’s door, nodded.

“And I need to make a phone call,” Hajime added.

Part 9

Hajime had one of those in-car hands-free phone systems that automatically synched up the moment he turned on the engine. Sano restrained himself from asking if he could mess around with it, especially when, as Hajime backed out of the parking space, he was already starting his call.

Nobody answered, and Hajime hung up as soon as the voicemail connected, so Sano got no clue as to who might have been on the other end. But, “He’ll call back when he sees my number,” the exorcist said.

“Who?” Sano wondered. But Hajime was glancing thoughtfully from one side of the street to the other as he drove, evidently trying to decide on a destination, and didn’t answer. This was, of course, very annoying, but instead of reiterating the question Sano just remarked, “Aoshi was way less helpful than I expected. I figured he’d be talking to that thing inside of a minute, and keep talking to him for hours.”

“At least he got through to him at all,” Hajime replied grudgingly. “That’s more than we managed.”

“I got all distracted by him fainting and talking about anchors and that woman and all that, and forgot to ask how a ghost can keep putting out shade energy.”

Hajime took his turn looking annoyed. “There were several things he probably could have told us if he hadn’t fallen in love with that ghost at first sight and forgotten we were there.” Sano took this to mean, “I got distracted and forgot too,” which could only make him smile. But if Hajime sensed and resented Sano’s interpretation of his statement, he gave no indication of it.

They ended up at a coffee place Sano had never heard of, though it was just outside the south end of the Asian district. Sano would have sat with idle hands at the table they chose beside the front window — gourmet drinks at pretentious little coffee shops were just too expensive for someone like him — if Hajime, somewhat impatiently, hadn’t insisted on buying him one. Sano never said no to a free… well, anything, really, but it felt a little weird to be accepting another favor from a man he technically should have been paying for his services instead of the other way around.

Hajime picked up on this and said dismissively, “Incidental expenses.”

Sano looked dubiously at his cup. “How often do you buy coffee for your clients?”

“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.

“But they’re usually already paying you money.” Hajime hadn’t even asked if Sano could pay him, which was probably for the best since Sano didn’t think he would have been able to refrain from making an only-mostly-facetious offer of gay sex in place of funds he didn’t have. (He felt he was getting the hang of controlling which thoughts went out and which ones stayed hidden, and to this one Hajime didn’t respond.)

“They also usually don’t give me the chance to talk to a real ghost.”

At this Sano mimicked Hajime’s shrug and decided not to worry about it any further. And the next moment, Hajime’s phone rang.

Sano sat forward, listening eagerly to this side of the conversation and what little he could hear from the other party — which wasn’t much, though he thought the voice was youngish and somewhat belligerent.

“Yes,” Hajime began the discussion. “It took you long enough to call back.” Then, after some apparently equally rude remark from the other end, “Of course. No, that’s over and done with. I need to know if there have been any Japanese men around here who have died lately under unusual circumstances. Yes. No. He’ll have left behind a woman, also Japanese — a wife or girlfriend or maybe a family member — someone close to him. Yes; when isn’t it? No, I’ve got a client being haunted by an actual ghost this time. Yes. OK, thanks.”

As Hajime replaced the phone — it was a nice-looking smart phone with a touch screen — Sano guessed, “So… cop?”

Hajime nodded. “He’s got no magical talent himself, but he’s been a believer ever since I dealt with a yellow shade he picked up somewhere. We have an unofficial arrangement that he can consult me on anything that seems magical, and in return he gives me information when I need it.”

“Sounds good,” Sano nodded. Actually he was more than a little impressed. Having a contact in the police like that was better than just knowing a good medium; not only did it sound like something super-cool out of a TV show, it also rather put Hajime into a higher league of effectiveness. He supposed that was one marked difference between a career exorcist and a guy that just happened, every once in a while, to absorb red shades for his schoolmates.

“So why are you an exorcist, anyway?” Sano had asked this question, or a variant, on Saturday, but now had a hankering for a more complete answer.

“It seemed interesting.” While Sano doubted this comprised Hajime’s entire reason for his career choice, he also got a feeling of truth from the words. But just then the ghost, in its sluggish circling of the table, moved right into the path of a customer getting in line, and Sano reached out and jerked the spirit toward himself to spare the poor woman some discomfort. Once she’d moved out of the ghost’s likely trajectory, Sano let the figure go again. He was conjuring, wasn’t he? He’d never thought about it before; the action had always just seemed to come so naturally…

Hajime, watching him with unreadable eyes, now asked unexpectedly, “What are you going to school for?”

Sano was always a little embarrassed when people hit him with that question. “I haven’t really decided. I’m just getting the general stuff out of the way right now.” He shrugged. “I should probably figure it out pretty soon here… but it kinda sucks how you only have a couple of years to choose what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”

“You don’t necessarily have to do what you major in forever,” Hajime said with a skeptical expression.

Again Sano shrugged. “It’s easier, though. And it seems like the cooler and more fun a profession is, the less likely you are to ever be able to get into it.”

Hajime chuckled. “Only if you lack ambition and drive.”

“And luck!” Sano replied, stung. “People with cool jobs were usually in the right place at the right time.”

“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.

“Yeah, well… you can’t go around training for every cool job in the world just in case a good coincidence happens to come along.”

“Fortune favors the prepared.”

“What does that actually mean, anyway?”

“I can see that a strong understanding of the English language isn’t part of any of your skillsets.”

“I understand English just fine, ” Sano said hotly. “Just old sayings and shit don’t always make sense.”

Hajime only laughed at him again.

Sano’s hand clenched tightly around the coffee cup, warping the cardboard with his irate grip, but he strove not to speak angrily. “I mean, like, ‘cutting the mustard?’ What the hell does that mean? Or, why does it mean what it means?”

Derisive smile unfaded, Hajime did at least admit, “You have a point there.”

Someone was about to walk through the ghost again, and Sano stood abruptly as once again he pulled the it quickly toward himself. “Come on. There’s too many people in here; let’s go outside.”

The walk wasn’t exactly picturesque; next door to the coffee shop stood a tire store that filled the air with an intolerable reek of rubber, followed by a gas station and then an apartment complex behind a tall fence. Sano was getting annoyed from dragging the ghost around so much, and it annoyed him to find himself getting annoyed for no good reason, and then he was annoyed at being annoyed at being annoyed. When Hajime evidently found this amusing, Sano at least then had good cause to be annoyed.

It fascinated him how cheerfully Hajime took his abuse. Sano was aware — and grateful! — that the exorcist was and had been provoking him deliberately so he could work off some of the stupid shade anger he’d been absorbing; he figured Hajime would do that for any client. But he seemed to enjoy it. Was he a masochist, or what?

He wanted to know more than this about Hajime. His earlier question about the man’s choice of profession had barely been answered, and he still wondered about the apparent improbable level of income, though perfectly aware it was none of his business.

“I guess if you want to know that desperately, I could tell you,” Hajime mused.

Sano swore under his breath. “I thought I wasn’t projecting that.”

“You were still giving off a general sense,” Hajime told him with a smirk. “That’s harder to control.”

With a growling expression of discontent, Sano threw him a dark look. “So you gonna tell me, or what?”

Hajime shrugged.

Deeming that as good an answer as he was likely to get, Sano tried to decide exactly what to ask.

Part 10

Sano had just opened his mouth for the first of what he inexplicably wanted answered when Hajime interrupted preemptively. “If you ask me something, you have to answer a question too.”

“What?” The startled Sano obviously assumed Hajime meant this as an expression of return curiosity.

“Equal exchange.” In fact, Hajime only wanted to minimize the time he had to spend talking about himself and, with the threat of reciprocation, prevent Sano from asking anything obnoxiously personal.

“O…K…” Sano was still surprised, and seemed to be wondering whether this meant Hajime wanted to be friends or what. He was improving at keeping his thoughts to himself, though, and remarkably quickly at that. Finally he said, “So what made you choose to be an exorcist? And just so you know, ‘It seemed interesting’ is not a real answer.”

“I’m afraid it’s still the truth.” Hajime gave Sano a moment to get good and angry at this, then continued. “What’s the next reason for anyone’s career choice, after money? Being an exorcist doesn’t pay enough for me to have any reason to do it other than that it’s interesting.”

“Fine,” Sano allowed, very frustrated, “but, I mean, why aren’t you doing something that pays more? Why aren’t you brainwashing people for the government or doing some non-magical job that, you know… pays more?”

“Exorcism seemed more interesting.”

Sano made an angry noise. “I’m about to throw this ghost at you if you don’t quit it.” It was his coffee he raised threateningly, though.

Hajime laughed. “You’re mostly wondering how I can survive on just an exorcist’s paycheck… Why is that such an area of concern for you?”

“I don’t have to tell you a damn thing until you answer my question first.” Sano’s jaw was set as the lowest part of an impressive scowl, and his movements had taken on an amusing angry stalking quality.

“And I don’t have to answer any of your questions,” Hajime pointed out. “Though, technically, I did. So it’s your turn. What’s your issue with money?”

“Can’t you just read my mind if you want to know?”

“I probably could. So what’s your issue with money?”

Through the midst of the bright angry aura that surrounded him by now, Sano suddenly laughed. “This is probably the stupidest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“It is stupid, but I would hesitate to assign a superlative when you’re involved.”

“You would what to what, now?”

“Your issues with money?” Hajime prompted.

Again Sano laughed, this time sounding defeated, though his aura was only fading slowly. “OK, fine. My ‘issues with money.'” He shrugged. “I don’t think I really have any. We never had a lot of money when I was growing up, but we weren’t what I’d call poor or anything… My parents saved so they could help me pay for college, and I didn’t get a lot of cool stuff… and we always had to ‘shop smart’ and shit like that, especially for food and clothes, so I never got to wear what I wanted, which you know what that does to you in high school?

“And my parents — especially my dad — were always lecturing me about how to manage money, like, every single time I got any; and I’ve been working since I was fifteen — do you know, if you work in a restaurant when you’re fifteen, you’re not allowed to go into the walk-in fridge? — and my parents made me save most of it and never get anything I wanted… but, like I said, it’s not like we were poor or anything.”

As Sano listed all these issues with money he didn’t think he really had, Hajime got an impression, from behind the words, of the value Sano’s parents had attempted to instill in him: a rigid frugality totally foreign to his careless nature that therefore manifested now, rather than as any sort of prudence, as more of an undiscriminating miserliness with occasional outbursts of extravagance. Good thing, after such mismanagement, they were helping him with his tuition.

“What are you grinning about?” Sano demanded suddenly.

“Nothing. Go on.”

Though Sano had originally been annoyed at being maneuvered into giving information first, and was currently annoyed at the implication that Hajime found what he had to say funny, he was also not unhappy to be complaining about his parents and this financial business. “My dad won’t leave me alone about money, ever. It’s gotten so I barely even want to talk to him, because every time I do I know there’s a million questions coming that I don’t really want to answer; and it kinda sucks not wanting to talk to your own dad just because of something like that, but, seriously, he needs to lay off!

“I mean, I’m twenty, for god’s sake, and I have my own apartment, even if it is kinda shit. And, yeah, they’re helping me pay for college, but does that really mean I have to do the classes they want me to take? I have to get my general ed out of the way no matter what I do, so it’s not like I absolutely have to decide right away, but my dad won’t stop getting on my case about choosing a major. He wants me to get some kind of business degree — you know, so I can make plenty of money — but I still don’t know if that’s what I want.”

“That’s what I have,” Hajime offered neutrally.

You have a degree in making money, and you’re still an exorcist?” As Hajime drew breath to answer, Sano added quickly, almost in a snarl, “Don’t you fucking dare say it seemed interesting.”

Hajime, who had been about to, instead restrained his grin at how much fun messing with Sano was proving and said seriously, “Yes. My magical talents woke up while I was attending college here in the States, and after I’d graduated and gone back to Japan I spent a couple of years thinking a career in magic would be much more interesting than the family business, where I was expected to stay forever. But in Japan it’s almost impossible to make money as an exorcist if you don’t do things in approved Shinto style.”

Sano gave a Why am I not surprised? laugh, and Hajime smiled a little as he continued. “When one of my grandparents left me a decent inheritance, I moved back here and took up exorcism as a career.”

Despite how little information Hajime had actually given, Sano seemed totally engrossed. Without even looking at the trash can they passed, he discarded the coffee cup he’d by now emptied.

“Let’s cross here and head back,” Hajime suggested, gesturing at the street. Sano complied, still giving him an expectant look all the way along the crosswalk as if Hajime might have forgotten he was in the middle of a story of sorts. Actually, his evident fascination seemed strange; Hajime’s brief narrative certainly wasn’t any more interesting than Sano’s talk of his parents’ financial eccentricities.

“Of course I’ve invested since then, to make sure I always have enough to live on when no one happens to need an exorcist.” With a shrug to indicate just how mediocre he found all of this, Hajime finished, “That’s all there is to it.”

Clearly impressed, Sano said, “So you didn’t just get lucky getting some money from a relative…” He’d obviously been planning on making fun of Hajime for this (to the extent he was capable), but had been forestalled by further information. “You had something in mind and you went for it as soon as you could, and then you made sure you could keep doing it. Damn.” He didn’t even seem to be trying to conceal that he found this simultaneously inspiring and unsettling.

Hajime too was just a trifle unsettled; he wasn’t used to inspiring people, and thought Sano was assigning inordinate weight to insignificant things. So he sought quickly for a reply that would bring their interaction back to a more appropriate level. “It doesn’t mean you need to lean forward and gape at me like that… you look like an orangutan.”

After the predictable (and predicted) reaction from Sano, the latter fumed for a bit and then, as far as Hajime could tell, returned to wondering at Hajime’s apparent equanimity in response to his anger. He was still reading significance into unimportant things, but there was really nothing to be done about that.

The car system announced an incoming call not long after they’d started back from the coffee shop toward Forest of Four, and Hajime answered immediately.

“Didn’t I mention my client is being haunted?” At this greeting, at his side, Sano’s brows went up over a skeptical smile; he obviously couldn’t tell yet that this type of rudeness and accusation was par for the course of these conversations, and assumed, therefore, that those involved must be more antagonistic toward each other than they actually were. Just to add to the effect, Hajime added, “Do you think I have all day?”

“You know I don’t really give a shit about your clients,” was the retort, sounding half lazy and half harried. “Ain’t my clients. And you better have all day, ’cause there’s no way I’m getting this shit done right now. I’ve got other shit to do, since I have a real job, unlike some bullying assholes I know.”

“When do you estimate you’ll have the information?”

“Tomorrow sometime… or not sooner than never if you’re a bitch about it.”

Hajime grinned. “Sooner than never sounds good. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath.”

“Thanks, Chou.”

As soon as he was convinced the call had ended, Sano laughed. “Wow, that guy sounds like a complete moron!”

“Oh, really?” wondered Hajime. “I was just thinking that he reminds me a little of you.”

“What??” It was terribly entertaining how easily Sano’s buttons could be pushed. “You know, I was just thinking how rude it was that he called you a bitch, but now I think my mind’s changing all of a sudden!”

In a tone of agreement Hajime said, “It can’t weigh too much, so I guess it shifts easily.”

“What does the weight have to do with it?”

“Not too much on it.”

“I think that one was a stretch.” Sano sounded both amused and annoyed, though.

When they reached the Forest of Four parking lot, after only a few more, similar exchanges and nothing of any actual consequence between them, Sano vacated the car with some alacrity, his motions similar to those with which he’d been stalking along the street earlier. With a smirk, Hajime stood out his door and observed his companion over the roof. “I’ll call you as soon as I have information,” he offered.

With a stiffness evidently born of aggravation, Sano nodded and turned away. He hadn’t been holding onto the ghost in the car, and it had yet to catch up; Hajime wondered whether its relatively rapid progress along the street in pursuit of Sano caused any of the inconveniences Sano sought to prevent elsewhere by conjuring it out of people’s paths. He supposed Sano couldn’t be held responsible for everything the ghost did, but it was beginning to be a little odd to see him without the glowing figure close by his side.
After Sano had taken a few steps away and Hajime had begun to move back in order to return to his seat, the young man stopped and turned. This time his stiffness seemed to have another basis entirely. In a voice that was half a grumble, “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.

Part 11

Sano supposed he would just have to get used to being forced to drive around in his car at times and for distances he otherwise would have avoided, at least until this ghost thing ended. And he really wanted this ghost thing to end, so he was probably less annoyed than he might have been when Hajime called him on Tuesday afternoon and requested (more or less; ‘ordered’ might have been a better word) that Sano come to his house to review the information his police friend had emailed him.

He got lost on the way there, of course. Any location he’d visited exactly once was most likely to lead to this result, since he became overconfident about finding a place he’d been to before and didn’t bother asking for helpful reminders such as what street it was on. So he was already angry by the time he finally reached Hajime’s house, and then having to park a block away and hike back didn’t improve matters.

Evidently Hajime recognized his mood (hell, he’d probably picked up on it with Sano still halfway up the street), for on opening the kitchen door at Sano’s none-too-gentle knock, he gave an extremely disdainful look and said, “So you finally decided to show up.”

“You know what?” Sano growled. “Fuck you.” And immediately felt a bit better.

Hajime grinned and let him in.

Misao was suddenly on his knee and climbing before he’d even recognized her presence in the room. And as these pants only had spikes up the sides, she made it through the potentially dangerous area without injury this time. Sano, on the other hand, felt anger flaring again at the painful pricking of her insistent claws all the way up his body; but since he would rather die the most horrible death he could imagine than loose his rage on a kitten, he worked even harder than usual to contain it.

Perhaps sympathizing with Sano, perhaps fearing for Misao’s safety, Hajime came to the rescue of both of them. “Those pants look even stupider than the other ones.”

Misao also said something, in her high-pitched meow, and bumped her head against Sano’s ear, but Sano ignored her in favor of an irate retort to her human: “At least they’ve got some individuality, so I don’t look like some faceless office drone.”

“No, you look like someone who wasn’t allowed to wear what he wanted in high school trying to dress under his age.”

Both because this remark hit close to home and because he couldn’t really turn the matter around effectively when Hajime looked so damn good in those suits he always wore, Sano felt compelled to repeat himself. “Fuck you!” And to make it relevant he added, “I like my clothes!”

Evidently satisfied for the moment, Hajime grinned again and turned away.

Sano found himself now in a fit state to greet the cats. “Hi, Misao.” He lifted her off his shoulder (away from his ticklish ear) and into the crook of an elbow, where she squirmed but allowed him to scratch her head. “Hi, Tokio,” he said next to the older cat that was by now seated with great dignity at his feet.

Whatever Misao had been asking before, she now resumed, and Sano somehow had a feeling Tokio’s more stately meow was a repetition of the question. He glanced at Hajime for a translation.

“They’re wondering where the ghost is.” The exorcist stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, leaning against the frame.

“He’ll probably be here pretty soon,” Sano grumbled, addressing one of the kitchen cupboards rather than the cats since this brought back his annoyance. “All that time I spent trying to find a place to park probably gave him a good chance to catch up.”

At that moment Misao squirmed so intensely and abruptly that Sano dropped her. This seemed to have been her intention, and she twisted in midair, landed on splayed feet with barely a sound, and ran out of the kitchen. Sano hardly had time to wonder what she was up to when she returned, dragging a whippy plastic stick by the little bundle of feathers on one end.

With the latter in her mouth, her meows came out more like squeaks, but evidently they were still intelligible to Tokio, for at Misao’s muffled explanation the older cat said something that sounded disdainful. Well, to Sano, most of what Tokio said sounded, but this one seemed to be specifically meant that way. Misao’s reply had an undaunted tone, however, as she fell onto her side right at Sano’s feet, curling up suddenly and viciously attacking the feathered end of the stick with fore and hind paws.

Regardless of his fluctuating levels of annoyance, Sano couldn’t help breaking into a grin as he watched Misao’s seeming life-or-death endeavor. In particular, the vigor with which her back legs clawed at the toy seemed calculated to disembowel it — or would have, if the thing had possessed bowels — and was pretty funny to watch. After a couple of tries, he got hold of the flailing other end of the stick and began to direct the little cat’s violent endeavors around the kitchen floor.

“She wanted to put you in a better mood,” Hajime explained, sounding amused. “But Tokio speculated she was really more interested in some play for herself.”

Laughing, Sano had to admit that, even if the altruistic purpose had been secondary, she’d succeeded at it.

“Don’t get used to it,” warned Hajime. “Cats aren’t known for their sense of charity; she’s sure to grow out of it.”

Again Sano laughed. It wasn’t as if he’d never been around cats before, but he’d definitely never fully appreciated the twistiness of frame that allowed at least this one to attack with her full body something wiggling just behind her left ear.

Unfortunately, his speculation about the ghost’s probable ability to catch up had been accurate, and he’d been playing with Misao for less than two minutes when the anger she’d done so well at shunting aside loomed once again front and center and full force.

“God dammit,” Sano muttered. He was so tired of being pointlessly angry all the time. Standing abruptly straight, he found Hajime and both of the cats looking past him, but he didn’t turn. He was tired of the sight of the ghost, too. Fucking ghost.

“Let’s see what we can find out about him,” Hajime said, moving back through the doorway out of the kitchen and gesturing Sano to follow.

The combination den and workroom, wherein another comfortable- (and expensive-) looking leather sofa, a TV, a number of bookshelves, and a computer desk were more or less crammed but still quite functional, Sano had already seen on Saturday. Now he stalked in and seated himself heavily on the arm of the couch with a frustrated noise.

“Sit properly or stand,” Hajime ordered as he pulled his own chair out from the desk.

“Fine,” Sano growled, and stood again.

The exorcist removed his dark blue suit jacket and set it carefully aside before taking his seat. This was the first time Sano had seen him make such a concession to his own living space, and he wondered whether it was because Hajime still thought of Sano as a client despite his non-paying status. If so, that was stupid.

Almost absently Hajime murmured, “I wouldn’t really expect you to understand professionalism.”

Sano was annoyed both at the statement and that Hajime had picked up on the thought, but also interested to note that it seemed to be the things more specifically aimed at his companion that went out more readily.

For instance, when, noting Hajime was wearing the third solid-color tie Sano had seen him in, he wondered mentally whether the man owned any patterned ones, Hajime murmured, “One or two” — whereas when Sano then reflected that solid colors were probably cheaper and easily obtained in packages of multiples, Hajime gave no indication of having heard. Of course, that might be merely because it had been a phenomenally boring thought not worth responding to, or because Hajime had pulled up the email from his police friend.

The latter might have come across as a bit of a jackass on the phone, but Sano had to admit this seemed a satisfyingly thorough report he’d put together. There weren’t a lot of names, but Sano supposed that was to be expected: how many Japanese guys could possibly have died under unusual circumstances recently in any given police jurisdiction? But for each one listed there were links to news articles regarding the incidents, and some specifics on the women they’d left behind. This, added to the brief biography of each of the deceased, forced Sano to say in a tone of grudging admiration, “Wow… this is good stuff…”

Hajime smiled wryly. “You’ll also notice he hasn’t given us much, if anything, he could get in trouble for disclosing. We could have found most or all of this online if we’d wanted to spend a week searching. He’s very good at his job, though you wouldn’t guess just by talking to him.”

Sano had stepped closer and was reading the screen somewhat at random. When Hajime obligingly scrolled back to the top of the email, he began reciting the provided names aloud.

It proved easier than he’d expected. The moment he spoke the third item on the short list, he suddenly felt he had the ghost’s attention. How exactly he could tell, he wasn’t sure, but something in the atmosphere of the room had changed. Whether from Sano or from the hovering spirit, Hajime too evidently recognized this. “Is that the one?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Sano. He stared for a moment at the words on the monitor, then turned to face the ghost in the air behind him, looking directly at it for the first time since it had entered the house. “Is this you?” he asked — rhetorically, he supposed, since even having the ghost’s attention probably wouldn’t make it any easier to communicate with. “Are you Kenshin Himura?”

Part 12

“It’s kinda totally unfair,” Sano was grumbling, “that to get anything from this guy we had to take him to a medium who had to cut through the shade energy with a scalpel or something and then fucking fainted after getting impressions from him for, like, two minutes… but ghostie-guy here can pick up on things we say no problem as long as they’re about him or whatever.”

‘Unfair’ wasn’t exactly the word Hajime would have chosen to describe it, but it certainly interested him.

Kenshin Himura, whose short biography provided by Chou matched Aoshi’s assessment of their ghost, had been shot in the head, an innocent bystander in a brief, unexpected gunfight near the bus stop he’d been waiting at one day last November. He had left behind a wife and three-year-old son. And to the verbal mention of this information, the ghost — Kenshin himself, presumably — definitely reacted.

And this seemed to represent an inexplicable aberration from the previously-noted inability for any information to pass the barrier of the shade energy without great effort. They still couldn’t deliberately communicate with Kenshin in any way, despite this development, but Kenshin had become visibly agitated — and, if Sano’s state was anything to judge by, started emitting anger even more strongly than before — at the presentation of facts about his death and surviving kin. Just one more thing to ask the ghost about if they could ever manage to get him to a point where questions and answers were possible.

Toward that end, the next step had not changed: they needed to get in touch with Mrs. Himura, find out what she could tell them about her husband and his death… and take note of how he reacted to her. Why did Kenshin’s anger appear to increase when his untimely end was discussed? If that increase was significant, what did it indicate? Hajime tried not to jump to conclusions when even the mere verbalization of the ghost’s name prompted the same reaction.

With that same seemingly uncharacteristic carefulness Hajime had mentioned to Sano before, Chou hadn’t included contact information for the various people listed in the email, waiting for Hajime to inform him specifically which one he needed to talk to instead of handing out addresses and phone numbers wholesale. As he hadn’t answered when Hajime had called, they were once again sitting around waiting to hear from him, and Sano was very annoyed. Yet only after a few unnecessary comments from Misao about how agitated the ghost was, and an equal number of insults from Hajime aimed at releasing some of Sano’s anger, did his cell vibrate and display Chou’s number.

“Kaoru Himura,” formed the entirety of Hajime’s greeting.

Chou must have had the information to hand, because barely a moment passed before he was reading out the address and phone number. These he followed up with, “And you didn’t get this shit from me.”

“I won’t expose your crooked dealings,” Hajime promised sarcastically.

“Oh, and you’ve gotta tell me about this ghost shit when it’s over.”

“We’ll have lunch sometime.” (Hajime ignored the subsequent unspoken query from Sano, Wow, what does it take to get this guy to ask you to lunch?) He said his fairly rude goodbyes with Chou, pulled the top paper free of the pad on which he’d been writing, and stood. “Let’s go.”

Kaoru Himura lived in an old, drab, but not necessarily uncomfortable-looking apartment complex in the Asian district, a part of town Hajime had been seeing a lot of this week. Sano grumbled when he realized where they were going, and — more from the thoughts the young man didn’t bother to hide than from his mostly-unintelligible verbal complaints — Hajime picked up that he felt like he’d wasted a drive of his unreliable car by going to Hajime’s house in it and then coming all the way back to the Asian district in a different vehicle. Nothing could improve that ironic situation, though, and the grumbling was entirely rhetorical.

While waiting for the ghost to catch them up, they sat around for a while watching apartment-dwellers come and go through the parking lot, arguing about whether they should have called ahead. Hajime won that argument with the dry query, “If you couldn’t see ghosts and probably didn’t know they existed, would you agree to meet two total strangers who called and said they were dragging around your dead husband?”

The afternoon sun shone full on the western side of the building in which the woman lived, rendering the outdoor staircase up to her floor quite warm. Later in the year this place must get intolerably hot. As they climbed and then looked for the correct door, Sano’s jaw gradually set so firmly that the muscles stood out at the corners; he was clearly taking a very hard grip on the ghost so as to prevent it from doing anything he didn’t want. Hajime nodded his approval.

The door, probably metal beneath its drab grey paint, was also hot as Hajime’s knuckles contacted it sharply three, four times. Then the two men stood still. Traffic on the nearby street made it impossible to hear any movement within the apartment, but Hajime had other senses that could inform him of what might be going on in there.

Eventually, after several minutes of tense silence waiting for any response to Hajime’s knock, Sano muttered, “You think she might not be home?” He shifted, uncomfortable and angry. “I mean, it’s the middle of the day… she might be at work or something…”

“No, she’s on the other side of the door,” Hajime stated flatly. “She’s just standing there wondering why people can’t leave her alone.”

Sano craned his neck as if he might see through the door if he looked from an angle that was different by a couple of inches. “She doesn’t know who we are, though!”

“But she knows we want to ask her questions, and she doesn’t want to answer any more questions. It’s a little suspicious.”

“Well, I don’t know about suspicious, but–” Sano cut himself short and turned a puzzled gaze on Hajime. “Why would you think it’s suspicious? It makes sense she wouldn’t want to answer more questions, and she probably doesn’t know we’ve got her husband with her, so…”

Hajime’s brows went down slightly as he attempted to catch any additional idea from the mind on the other side of the door. The woman’s mental guard, at least at the moment, was fierce and desperate; it didn’t feel as if she had formal training, just a solidly protective personality and a strong desire not to share anything with anyone. He shook his head. “She’s much better than you are at keeping her thoughts to herself.”

“Don’t you fucking start with that,” Sano growled, distracted from his suspicion about Hajime’s suspicion. “Not when I’m already practically lifting weights keeping this goddamn thing away from her.”

He was, too. Hajime had been peripherally aware of his struggle, but now, focusing more completely on him, noticed the small beads of sweat that had broken out on Sano’s forehead. Some of them, rolling slowly down from beneath his hairline, were red from where they’d picked up bits of his colored hair gel, and looked a little like blood; but this, while morbid and somewhat interesting, was not relevant. Obviously it cost Sano a much greater effort than usual to restrain the ghost, which was rigid in the air just behind him.

“He wants to go to her, I take it.”

Sano made another growling noise, this one completely inarticulate, but his clearly projected mental reply was, No shit, genius. And it was equally clear that Sano would continue to prevent the ghost from attaining this goal with every ounce of his psychic strength, and that it would be no good for Hajime to suggest he let the thing go just to see what would happen. His control might break eventually, but Hajime didn’t think it wise to test his limits at the moment — mostly because Hajime, for his part, wouldn’t be able conjure the ghost back away from the woman once they’d seen what it planned on doing to her.

Turning, he said instead, “Let’s go, then.”

Sano didn’t slacken his grip on the ghost until they’d made it back to Hajime’s car, and kept it in such a rigidly-controlled position all the way there that Hajime observed for the first time the effect it had on a person moving through it: an apartment-dweller they passed on the way down the stairs, after walking through the ghost and surrounding shade energy, could be heard a moment later swearing vigorously at her keys as she struggled to open her door above.

Even once they’d reached the car and taken their seats inside, Sano kept a dark, careful eye on the presumed Kenshin, obviously still concerned the ghost would want to return the way they’d come and do whatever he wanted to do to his widow. The glowing figure, however, simply took up its usual orbit of Sano in its usual relative calm.

Sano watched Kenshin’s leisurely movements around and through the frame of the car for several moments with furrowed brow and distinct frown. Finally he gave a frustrated noise and turned toward Hajime, his expression bordering on thunderous to match the thick aura of anger around him, which in turn almost perfectly matched that of the ghost.

“Well,” he growled, “what the hell do we do now?”

Part 13

As if deliberately to provoke him, Hajime didn’t answer Sano’s question, elaborate on what he thought the next step was, with any sort of promptness. Instead he just sat there, pensive, his eyes seeming to stare at nothing except whenever Kenshin’s roughly circular drift brought him into the exorcist’s field of vision. Then the golden irises locked onto the ghost’s figure and followed it until it was again out of sight. But still Hajime said nothing, and Sano was about ready to explode.

When Hajime did speak at last, what he had to say was, “She probably saw your stupid hair and decided it wasn’t worth her time opening the door.”

Your hair’s the one that looks like you just bought four separate black extensions and just glued them to your forehead.” Sano could actually feel the angry energy filling the words, departing from him in his voice, dissipating in the air. There remained plenty where that came from, but it was still a palpable relief.

Hajime gave a startled chuckle, as if he’d never heard his hair described quite like that before.

“Besides,” Sano grumbled, “there weren’t any windows.”

“There was a peephole in the door, idiot.” Seeming to judge (quite accurately) that even ‘idiot’ wasn’t enough to work through the worst of Sano’s current level of anger, Hajime added cuttingly, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you weren’t perceptive enough to notice it darken when she looked through it.”

“Yeah, in case you didn’t notice,” Sano growled, “I was too busy holding onto some pissed-off dead fucker to really be watching for things like that.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t come here alone, then; you would have completely botched this.”

“I didn’t botch anything! I didn’t do anything, except hold the fucking ghost! You knocked!”

“Like I said… she probably took one look at you and decided to stay safely inside.”

You’re the one who looks like a CIA agent or something in you stupid suit!”

“No, we established earlier that I look like a faceless office drone. To look like a CIA agent I’d need sunglasses.”

Though Sano remained some distance above even the level of anger he’d been at earlier, this exchange had helped, and the last statement made him laugh. “Well, whoever’s fault it was,” he said in a tone somewhat less irate, “that still totally failed.”

“So the next step is to call her.”

“Just a minute ago you were saying we shouldn’t call her.”

“I said we shouldn’t call ahead,” Hajime corrected. “But now calling is our only option.” He held out the paper on which he’d written Kaoru’s information. “So call her.”

“What, me? You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

“But… you’re the exorcist. And the one who understands professionalism.” Sano couldn’t help throwing that comment from earlier back at the other man.

“That’s certainly true…” Unexpectedly, the deliberate smugness drained from Hajime’s tone and gave way to a serious pensiveness as he went on. “There has to be a reason this man you don’t know is haunting specifically you rather than anyone else. It doesn’t seem plausible that he just chose you at random; there has to be some kind of connection. It may be that he sees something in you — god knows what — that drew him to you. Some characteristic that might have drawn him to you in life as well.”

“So, what, like, he’s… got a crush on me or something?” Sano wondered dubiously.

“At this point we have no way of knowing exactly why he chose you, but the fact that he did makes you less of a complete stranger to his wife than I am, so you probably have a better chance of convincing her than I do.”

Still uncomfortable with the thought of calling up a recently bereft person — to whom, no matter what Hajime said, he would still come across as a total stranger — and start talking about her murdered husband, Sano broadened the subject. “And what if we can’t convince her?”

“That’s when we start behaving like cads.”

“Like what?” Startled even out of his anger by the unexpected terminology, Sano laughingly repeated, “Behaving like what?”

Hajime smiled faintly. “Just giving up and not talking to her isn’t an option.”

“So we ambush her or something?” Sano wondered with a grimace.

“We’ll be walking a fine line. We have to talk to her, but we also have to be careful not to get ourselves indicted for harassment.”

Sano tried to think of any method of talking to an unwilling stranger that wouldn’t constitute harassment. It was an annoying train of thought, but probably more because of the anger he’d been absorbing than because the prospect was maddening in itself.

Right on cue Hajime said, “I guess I should have expected that the very idea of calling a woman would terrify someone like you.”

“‘Someone like me?’ I’m bisexual! I am not scared of women!”

At that moment there came the buzz of Hajime’s vibrating phone. When he’d glanced at it once it was out of his pocket, he informed Sano, “I have to take this.”

Sano grabbed the paper with Kaoru’s information, which Hajime had eventually set down on the dashboard, and stepped out of the car. They hadn’t circled back to the argument about his being the one to make the call, but he knew it would only have been a matter of time and what the outcome would have been.

At least with Hajime simultaneously on the phone, Sano wouldn’t have to put up with an agitating audience. It would already be difficult enough not letting on how angry he was or how much of a jerk he felt or how stupid he knew it was going to sound. But he couldn’t stand around worrying about those points, or he would lose his chance at making the call in solitude. Before he could change his mind, he forced himself to dial the number.

With each subsequent ring, Sano became more nervous, but the tension eased out of him somewhat when a click preceded a recorded message. It was the default computerized greeting rather than a personal recording; he wondered if Kaoru had been harassed over the phone a lot since her husband’s death, by the media or the police or whatever. That certainly didn’t make Sano feel any better about what he had to say.

Eventually he did have to say it, though. “Hey,” he began. “This is… well, you don’t know me, but my name’s Sano Sagara, and I was at your door just a little while ago with a… friend… and… OK.” He took a deep breath. He really should have planned out his wording before he started. “This is probably going to sound completely crazy to you, and it may hit a nerve or two also, and I’m really, really sorry about that. I swear to god I’m not making this up, so just please hear me out.”

Again he took a deep breath, and began talking quickly. “I have this ghost that’s been haunting me for a while, and I think it may be your husband. We’re pretty sure it’s you that’s keeping him here, so he’s going to have to contact you sooner or later if he’s going to pass on, but we’re having problems actually talking to him, so we need to talk to you and get some information about him and how he died. Obviously if he really is your husband, you’ll want to help for his sake, but you’ll be helping me too, since I can’t get on with my own life when this guy’s hanging around all the time. And I really am so sorry if this hurts you; I promise I would never bug someone about something like this, especially so soon after what happened, if it wasn’t really–”

A beep similar to the one that had signaled him to start now cut him off. Evidently he’d run out of time. He found his breathing a little unsteady as he listened to the options regarding the message he’d just recorded; he’d gotten worked up at the end, there, trying to convince her he honestly regretted any pain he might be causing her, when he should have been trying to convince of the truth of his words. But what more could he say than he already had on that score?

Apparently he had the option to re-record his message if he wanted to try again. Half on impulse, however, he hit the button to send it instead. It was candid, at the very least; if she valued frankness, that might do more to win her over than a smoother and more measured explanation. After a few moments’ thought, though, and a glance through the window of Hajime’s car that confirmed the older man was still on the phone, he did call a second time.

“Hey, it’s Sano again. Sorry if I sounded a little crazy before. This is really important, and I’m not lying or schizophrenic or whatever. Please call me back and at least we can talk things out a little on the phone.”

Hopefully that didn’t seem too… well, OK, it wasn’t likely, in this scenario, he would ever sound not totally weird, unless by some remote chance she happened to be a magician and knew ghosts existed — but in that case, would her dead husband really have been forced to a total stranger? Anyway, Sano left his number and hung up, and couldn’t feel terribly impressed at his own general performance. His one consolation was that at least Hajime hadn’t been there to overhear… though the exorcist would undoubtedly get at the crucial details in any event.

He stood watching the ghost whenever it passed, much as Hajime had a few minutes before, in brooding silence for a while, pondering the wisdom of making another call. Would three be overkill? Two had probably been overkill. Poor woman must already think he was imbalanced and heartless. But he could reiterate the urgency of the matter… maybe mention a little more definitively how difficult this was making his life…

He hadn’t come to any real conclusion when Hajime suddenly stood out his door and asked across the roof of the vehicle, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled, allowing this to make the decision for him, and got back in the car even as Hajime did. Settling into his seat and glowering out at Kenshin as the latter adjusted his trajectory, he gave an angry sigh and asked, for the second time, “Well, what the hell do we do now?”

Part 14

“I promise you don’t need to.”

They’d relocated to a Denny’s, on Hajime’s dime, when it became obvious that, once again, they were in for a wait on a phone call (which in this case might never come) — and that Sano was extremely hungry but not about to suggest anything more expensive than going back to his apartment and making some ramen noodles. Hajime, trying to pick Sano’s brain on the details of the message or messages he’d left, had only been able to confirm Sano’s embarrassment and more determined blocking than usual. So conversational tactics were in order.

“I don’t know if I trust your promise any more than I trust your ability to leave rational messages about ghosts.”

“You’re the one who said I should do it because I have a connection with him or whatever. Plus I’m the one who’s gotta be haunted by him for god-knows-how-long if we can’t find some way to get rid of him!”

“Did you tell her that?”

A little awkwardly Sano replied, “I told her everything I needed to.”

“I still think I should leave her a follow-up message.”

Unexpectedly Sano went on the offensive. “And what would you say? ‘Hello, Mrs. Himura, this is Hajime…’ what’s your last name, again?”

Amused, Hajime supplied it.

“‘This is Hajime Saitou, and I’m attempting to exorcise your husband’s ghost. I’ve tried a variety of techniques rooted in various cultures, including traditional Shinto rituals, but since nothing seems to be working I thought I’d look you up and ask what his favorite band was so I could play the proper music during my next attempt. And did he like beer? How did he feel about cats?'”

Sano’s voice, for the first few syllables a decent attempt at imitating Hajime’s, had become more and more stilted as this absurdity went on, until finally Hajime actually laughed aloud. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, but he also stopped trying to get Sano to tell him what he’d said on the phone.

When their slow and somewhat clumsy waitress, her blaring thoughts on stressful home responsibilities barely even partaking of the here and now, finally brought them their order, Sano started in on the strawberry-decked blueberry pancakes on his plate with an immediacy and gusto that would have made up for their price even if Hajime had begrudged it in the first place. He’d seen Sano eat pizza in much the same manner the other day, and at the time had speculated Sano didn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, after longer exposure, he rather thought Sano just loved food that much. The young man certainly didn’t have anything to say for several minutes while he made massive inroads on his breakfast-themed early dinner.

Finally, though, Sano did manage to slow down, and to tear his eyes from the plate long enough to remember that someone sat across from him. His anger was, for the present, at the level Hajime had come to consider standard for his current haunted state, and the food had otherwise put him in a good mood. So his easy tone came as no surprise as he remarked, “So, ‘Hajime Saitou,’ huh? Doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Saitou Hajime’ sounds better, though. Got a nice ring to it.”

He paused, frowning slightly, and Hajime, though without any skill whatsoever in divination, could very clearly see what was coming. “Actually, now I think about it,” Sano said slowly, just as expected, a piece of sausage pausing halfway to his mouth as he pondered aloud, “it sounds… familiar. Saitou Hajime… where have I heard that name before..?”

Hajime sighed slightly, but then grinned as the best possible response occurred to him: “Let me know if you remember.”

Sano flared. It was like having a mobile campfire Hajime could toss fuel onto at any time. “What, you’re not going to tell me? So you admit you might be famous or something, but you won’t remind me where I might have heard your name?”

“That’s right. It’s that old saying, ‘If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know.'”

I’ve never heard that saying,” Sano protested.

“Then it’s even more applicable.”

Sano fell to speculating. “You must be named after some actor your mom thought was hot. Probably from one of those horrible Japanese dramas I never… oh, but if your parents named you after… it would have been in…” He gave Hajime an assessing look. “The seventies or something. What was on in Japan back then…”

With a dry chuckle, Hajime shook his head. “I doubt my parents have ever watched any of those horrible Japanese dramas.”

“Oh, yeah, they sent you here for college, didn’t they? So maybe they were watching horrible American shows. In the seventies — and I’m just guessing, here,” he added proddingly, “since I’m not that old — wouldn’t it have been… Saved By the Bell? But they wouldn’t have gotten a name like ‘Hajime’ out of that…”

“Wrong decade. And sitcoms wouldn’t really have appealed to my parents either.”

Sano caught at the sardonic tone of Hajime’s statement and, completely abandoning the name issue, wondered, “Oh, really? What do they watch instead?”

“If they watch anything, it’s not for entertainment. Stock market analysis is more their speed.”

“Oh, you’ve got one of those stereotypical Japanese business families.”

“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”

“Only my mom’s an immigrant,” Sano protested angrily, “and only my dad’s a miser.” Based on what Sano had told him yesterday, Hajime didn’t think the second point entirely true, but it didn’t matter; he’d wanted to bait Sano more than compare stereotypes.

As Sano calmed a little after his flare-up, Hajime admitted, “But you’re right. My parents are both top executives in the company my paternal grandfather owns, and we were all expected to join in as soon as we were old enough.”

“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”

Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”

“And did they both go into the family business like good little offsprings?”

Again Hajime nodded. And again he felt just a little nonplussed. Glad though he was to have avoided the ‘Saitou Hajime — where have I heard that before?’ conversation, which he’d had enough of by the time he’d turned twelve, he still considered Sano more than justifiably interested in his past and his family.

“So if they were already doing the thing,” Sano mused, “there probably wasn’t as much pressure on you to do it too?”

“You might think so…” At the memories, Hajime smiled distantly and wryly. “But two out of three wasn’t enough for my parents.”

“Well, yeah, that’d be a failing grade on an assignment…”

“And my parents are ruthless; it comes from the type of work they do: petty hostile takeovers and driving rivals out of business… I wasn’t the only one in the family who didn’t like it.”

“Funny…” Sano set down his glass after a sip of soda, and looked at Hajime with a thoughtful grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the type to not like ruthlessness.”

“Oh, no.” The smile Hajime returned Sano, he’d been informed in the past, made him appear rather evil. “I have no personal objections to ruthless tactics in a good cause.” He rolled his eyes slightly and tried not to sigh. “But this is telecommunications. Whatever my parents may think, this is not a beleaguered band of heroes fighting oppression and tyranny. They make cell phones. There are appropriate times and places for ruthlessness, and this isn’t one of them.”

And there he’d gone and impressed Sano again. It was almost embarrassing.

“So what’d they do, send the yakuza after you or something?” Sano was only half joking, his eyes wide with interest and admiration.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Hajime too was only half joking. “Though that’s more my brother’s style than my parents’. But, as I’ve mentioned, it was my mother’s father who helped me out. He never approved of the way my parents did business, and he could see I was on his side… the money he left me could almost be considered a bribe; he was paying me to get away.”

“This is why your parents didn’t watch horrible Japanese dramas: your whole family was a horrible Japanese drama.” Sano’s attempt at scraping the last of the syrup and grease off his plate wasn’t working very well, mostly because he was using a fork, and this in addition to his conjuration of the ghost out of the path of staff and patrons in the increasingly busy restaurant was evidently building his anger up again.

Once more Hajime chuckled wryly, and they fell silent as Sano finished his Dr. Pepper and Hajime bent his attention to the remainder of his own dinner.

Finally, “Do you really think she’s going to call back at all?” Sano asked, and the quietness of his tone did little to hide his shifting mood.

“That depends on what you said to her.” Calculatedly Hajime added, “If it was as stupid as I’m inclined to believe, probably not.”

They threw that topic back and forth for a while to work off some of Sano’s anger. He sometimes had surprisingly clever retorts, which combined with the constant and almost measurably predictable ire to make him an unexpectedly enjoyable conversational companion (when he wasn’t gaping over some perceived trait or accomplishment of Hajime’s as if he’d never met another human being before). But eventually, unfortunately, they had to talk business again: they’d both finished eating, and it would be best to let Sano take the ghost somewhere less full of innocent bystanders.

“Whatever nonsense you left Mrs. Himura on her voicemail, it will probably take her a while to decide to call you back, if she doesn’t just decide you’re insane and try to ignore you. We need to give her some time, so I suggest we both go home for now.”

Of course Sano had to argue this too, as they left their table and moved to pay for the meal and exit the restaurant; and since he didn’t bother to lower his voice, his frank mention of the ghost haunting him won them some looks on the way out both skeptical and interested.

Despite the United States government taking a dim view of the idea of widespread knowledge on the topic, talking about magic in public generally wasn’t considered dangerous or inappropriate, since anyone unaware that magic actually existed simply didn’t believe the discussion serious… but such conversations did sometimes have interesting, even entertaining results. Once, after the conclusion of some business arrangements on the phone, Hajime had been approached by an unfortunate homeless gentleman that had overheard him discussing exorcisms and wanted to tell about all the dead celebrities that wouldn’t leave him alone. Hajime’s diagnosis had been ‘crazy and malnourished’ rather than ‘haunted.’

Sano, who was the opposite, continued to grumble as they headed back to Hajime’s house, and rather on a whim Hajime decided to relate the aforementioned experience. It proved a good thought, since the ensuing conversation distracted Sano all the way to their destination; he didn’t even have time to complain again about the condition of his car. He did recover some of his annoyance when instructed to contact Hajime the moment Kaoru Himura called him (if she, in fact, did so), but still the two men parted in relative peace. And Hajime went inside thinking the day not entirely wasted.

Part 15

Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for anyone on the clock. But aside from the current manager’s love affair with her Blackberry that inclined her toward leniency, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And no way in hell would Sano be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.

She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then went on lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.

Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano believed dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but pretty clearly he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.

What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.

Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?

The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin kept acting like this… Sano might as well drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.

When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.

“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.

“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”

“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”

Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”

“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”

“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”

Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.

The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”

“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”

“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology he felt he probably should for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.

Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise worked to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”

“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

Sano thought he understood now: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”

“And that was a good thing?”

“Well, not for the people who died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”

“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.

“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”

“A 6.5, presumably.”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”

Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”

“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”

Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”

“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”

“Better not get into big business, then.”

With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.

He found his mood more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved to and fro so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.

Truth to tell, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head always figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.

Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, right? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so he couldn’t discover anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed off… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.

At the very least, as the man had said, this gave him something to think about.

Part 16

One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.

“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.

“What did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”

“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an intriguing sound.

“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”

“Four hours early?”

“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”

The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone, and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.

“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.

“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”

Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”

“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”

“Right. See you then.”

Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye not worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.

Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, excelled at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.

Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.

Well, nothing would keep him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And surprisingly little noise came from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.

As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

Part 17

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

Part 18

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

Part 19

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.

Part 20

The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.

Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:

“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”

Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”

“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”

“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”

Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.

“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”

“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”

Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”

Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”

“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”

Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.

When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”

Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”

“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”

Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”

Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.

Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”

Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”

The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.

Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.

So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.

As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.

Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.

Part 21

In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she studied them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist wanted to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she’d been withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime actually examined her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.

Kenshin, meanwhile, struggled to approach his wife, which meant all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger would be negated as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.

The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”

“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.

“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”

“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.

“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the acknowledgment of this possibility.

“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”

She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.

“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was beginning to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”

Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.

So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”

Sano nodded as she looked at him again.

“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”

“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign of the authenticity of her stated readiness to believe.

Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”

Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. A new interest showed in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded like someone making polite conversation. If she needed this as a strengthening routine in order to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.

Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”

Though she listened with ostensible attentiveness, Kaoru yet seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”

Sano rearranged his sore body in the chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but long stretch-marks indicated where he’d been tugging at it.

“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”

She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she didn’t mean Sano, though she continued looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”

Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she was not the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously believed doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.

“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.

Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”

Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.

Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at her white knuckles as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”

She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime, not so sure he was joking this time.

Hajime nodded slowly in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”

She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”

Sano forced himself to answer, though none too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”

The woman seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Part 22

With the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible, Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”

Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private places she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.

Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. Nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he already planned to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.

Finished with that, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them glanced around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned her father would see them and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.

Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if craving something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.

“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”

She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she awaited their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime merely nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.

“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”

She’d begun rambling again, apparently. Hajime thought a point was being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell. He shifted uncomfortably even more than before in the back seat, which he’d occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.

“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”

Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news came as an unexpected shock, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.

“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a practical joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life — at least not to you or anyone you know. So I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up, I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.

“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of joke he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. Like, printed notes. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.

“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”

Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it otherwise. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she detailed must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and this last sounded most prominently in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”

Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.

More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but what I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.

“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.

“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to an almost contemplative murmur; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.

“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.

“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.

“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?

“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.

Assuming the tale was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, he perfectly understood this behavior — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous she could talk about this at all, or function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.

He had no time to ponder this, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.

Part 23

Sano didn’t recognize the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, barely even registered the parking lot around him. He knew only the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of what the end of Kaoru’s story must be. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite call it worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, because all that would come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected as the cause a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to log coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he still raged at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair, even now he knew) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the molten rock of his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime wanted to help him, that Hajime was willing to do anything necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It went as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely classified it, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano had reached a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano believed he intended as a sympathetic tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Exhausted and aching all over, he doubted he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger grew even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could make out the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime entertained much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he did. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

A long period of brooding wordlessness followed, during which Sano tried to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she’d started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you can see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

Part 24

Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but by now she must understand his situation.

She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”

“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath remained distant and unfocused, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”

Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it seemed she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.

Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.

Having been coerced, the woman was innocent, or at worst guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she’d believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he could not condemn the decision she’d made.

She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as his personality stood, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.

That her mental walls remained as impenetrable as ever made a point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she’d probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of discovery, which would endanger the life of her son, that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.

Sano, on the other hand, flashed like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions almost colored the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.

Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”

“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”

Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.

“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”

Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.

Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.

“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”

Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”

She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.

“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”

As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and in her eyes he made out the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, shied from returning to the latter yet or even doubted she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.

Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”

The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual showed in the movement of her body, and sounded in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”

Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.

“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”

“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”

Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he still scowled. Hajime believed his level could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which relieved him since they were both by now a little ragged.

But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”

Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, yet his spirit distinctly lifted. Therefore it was ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano understood he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.

It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime took his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. He’d mostly expected this: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.

Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided Sano had probably resumed or at least neared his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.

Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.

To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”

Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” he responded calmly. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”

Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”

“Thank you,” Hajime replied.

With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.

Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.

“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.

“Good.” Sano stood from the car and winced as he slung his backpack from the floorboards onto his sore body, then caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind boiled so furiously that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.

And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s consciousness that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…

But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.

Just as if Sano had been reading his mind, he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.

Part 25

Very rarely did Sano wake before his alarm went off, or refrain from grumblingly curling into a tight blanket ball and going determinedly back to sleep if he did, but, as Kaoru had suggested yesterday, an unusual situation could lead to rare happenings. Today he lay in bed observing the slow growth of faint light in the room, noting the stiff soreness of his entire body, watching Kenshin circling with a placidity that belied the fury surrounding him that could so easily be transferred to Sano.

Not that Sano required superfluous external anger to madden him. The mere fact that he had a stranger so close, so undismissable, twenty-four hours a day was enough to keep him just as consistently annoyed even before the supernatural influence. He felt like he’d become the star of a reality show against his will; he felt like he had a chaperone, a jailer, in this unknown man over a decade his senior whose eyes were, perhaps, on him non-stop.

Waking up from angry dreams to find himself trying to tear his pillowcase apart felt especially stupid and frustrating when he knew he had an audience. Doing anything in the bathroom embarrassed him hugely. The state of his apartment from one moment to the next was almost enough to raise a blush, but the idea of straightening up in Kenshin’s presence smacked of catering — caving! — to the presumed tastes and desires of someone he didn’t want around in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily appropriate to be thinking about the sex life of a brand new and as yet not-terribly-close acquaintance, but Sano couldn’t help making comparisons between Kaoru’s stated reluctance to sleep with her husband when she’d known she was being monitored and his own change in intimate personal habits when he’d realized he was being haunted by more than just a shade.

Not that the inconvenience of his situation, great as it was, could even begin to compare with the misery of hers. Of course he needed to be free of Kenshin in order to get on with his life, and no consciousness of disparity between his predicament and someone else’s could change that, but, even haunted, that life could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if he kept that thought in mind and stopped concentrating so much on his own difficulties, things would go more smoothly.

So what if he was irrationally, sometimes destructively angry all the time? So what if some guy he didn’t know was watching him every time he took a piss? So what if he’d developed a crush on someone whose sexual orientation he couldn’t parse? At least he’d never been coerced into killing his husband.

He sat up and looked at Kenshin, turning his head to follow the ghost’s progress around him. He really had been thinking a lot about himself, hadn’t he? Kenshin, central to this affair, had barely registered as more than a problem to be solved, a nuisance to be gotten rid of by whatever means — certainly never fully as an individual with driving needs and memories and (as Sano should have good reason to know) human emotions.

What thoughts and feelings might Kenshin be entertaining now? How had that intense meeting with his wife affected him? What did he really want accomplished? Was he eager to move on, or would he prefer to remain a ghost?

Angrily, Sano sighed. How unfortunately easy it had proven to ignore the humanity of someone so unreachable in every way! There’d been no picture of Kenshin in the email report; Sano didn’t even know what he looked like, beyond that apparently ‘good in women’s clothing’ was part of it. He definitely knew nothing about Kenshin’s personality, except that Kaoru thought him pretty much the nicest guy in the world — which, even ignoring the probable bias, didn’t mean a lot. And though he could guess the dead man wanted to tell Kaoru he didn’t blame her for what she’d been forced to do, he couldn’t be sure.

None of these reflections helped or pleased him: overall, an annoying way to start the day. He wondered when he could expect Hajime to call. How early did that bullshit cop go into work? Sano lay back down and closed his eyes, but after a moment rolled onto his stomach and reached over the side of the bed. Not wanting to repeat the experience of a few days ago when he’d been too disoriented coming out of sleep to answer a call in time, he’d left his phone on its charger on the floor within arm’s length. Now he unplugged it and dragged it into a teddy bear position as he curled up on his side and rearranged the blanket he’d completely disarrayed.

He didn’t sleep, but neither did he think profoundly; he just lay there, nonspecifically angry, conscious of every bruise Hajime had given him yesterday, listening hard for any noise from the phone cradled against his chest. Eventually, though, as the morning became more visible, he did call in sick to work again. That he endangered his state of employment thus was an unavoidable fact, which made him feel sorry for anyone that legitimately got sick for two days in a row, but he had a feeling he would need the free time today. And he was satisfied with his effort at not sounding too irate talking to the opening manager.

Next, giving up on doing nothing any longer, he tried to choose an appropriate ringtone for Hajime’s number, but this frustrated him because all he had to work with was the pre-loaded lineup of generic jingles, and none of them seemed to fit. A few songs came to mind that would be very appropriate — a couple angry, one plaintive — but to buy them as ringtones cost something like two dollars each. He was pondering the issue, considering whether or not he should authorize the expenditure, and on the verge of giving in, when Hajime actually called and spared him the decision (for now).

“Kaoru was Kenshin’s second wife.”

So busy trying to decide whether it augured promise or disappointment that he now apparently rated a complete absence of greeting just like that dumbass policeman, Sano barely took in the meaning of this initial statement, and responded only with an inarticulate sound.

“His first wife, Tomoe,” Hajime went on, “died in a car accident in Fresno back in ’99 after he was married to her for less than a year. Kenshin was driving that car, and speeding at the time, which made the accident worse — she might have survived if he hadn’t been going thirty over the speed limit.”

“OK,” said Sano slowly. “That sucks…”

“Her maiden name was Yukishiro. Sound familiar?”

It did, actually, but Sano couldn’t place it. Something he’d heard in the news at some point not too long ago…

“Enishi Yukishiro,” Hajime filled in the silence, “was her younger brother.”

That name was even more familiar, but Sano still didn’t quite have it. “OK, I give up,” he admitted at last.

Hajime helped him out with, “CEO of U.S.Seido?”

“Yes!” said Sano as he remembered, but then sobered as he finally recalled the news reports he’d been trying to dredge up. “But didn’t he die, like, last year?”

“Just at the end of last year,” Hajime confirmed, “near the beginning of January.” And he paused to let this sink in.

“Right when… right when Kaoru started having red shade problems?” Sano had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t sound like a coincidence.

“What would you say to the theory that the anger we’re dealing with isn’t Kenshin’s at all?”

Sano had been in the act of shoving his blanket aside in order to rise, probably to start pacing in some agitation, but as Hajime’s suggestion hit him he stilled, and gradually sank back to rest against the wall. “Shit,” he murmured. “That would…” So simple an idea, yet not even a hint of it had ever crossed his mind. “Yeah…” He’d never heard of a ghost being affected by someone else’s shade, but, honestly, how much did he know about ghosts in the first place? “That’s a…” If this Enishi guy had still somehow been angry enough a decade after his sister’s death to plan the kind of bullshit that had gone on last year, his anger must be both prolific and tenacious… and wasn’t that exactly what they’d been noticing about this shade all along?

Sano’s trailing remark finally finished with, “…really good… theory…” Despite the inconclusiveness implied by this last word, a certainty was growing in his mind as if being built up by an outside source, and that source an authority. He believed this idea. Soon, he felt, he would be past the point where he could entertain any other.

Hajime apparently awaited an end to the contemplative, almost shocked silence, and it came as no less of a shock to Sano to realize the exorcist also awaited a more definitive response from him… that Hajime had proposed this as if Sano were the authority here. In a way, being the one haunted by Kenshin and most closely connected with the shade in question, he was the authority… but he wouldn’t have expected Hajime ever overtly to recognize that. So it was with a sudden and unexpected warmth in his gut, and as a result none of the cautious restraint he might otherwise have used, that he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on. When that guy died, he left some kind of huge shade behind, and it’s been wrapping around Kenshin ever since and keeping us from talking to him.”

“I always thought there was a little insanity in that shade.” Hajime sounded incongruously pleased, and Sano had to grin a bit at this further evidence that the exorcist reveled in being right about things. “To get revenge ten years later…”

“Yeah, seriously.”

In a more businesslike tone suggesting they would definitely want to retouch that branch of the conversation later, Hajime went on, “But that’s not all the information Chou had for me. The rumors that Seido is practically a stateside yakuza are true, apparently — in addition to their legitimate business, they’re more than suspected of money laundering, smuggling, and other, less pleasant things. Chou wasn’t happy to find out they might be involved in this. According to him, the police don’t touch Seido unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll come out on top of the transaction.”

“I don’t think I’m happy finding out about this,” said Sano, now a little uneasy. “I don’t really want to get involved with any yakuza either.”

“I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself,” Hajime admitted. “But this is significant progress. Seido sometimes makes use of one of those gangs that provided the cover fire when Kenshin died, and you may have heard about that Seido secretary who was a person of interest in the investigation of Enishi’s death because of unusually aggressive behavior that started the same day Enishi died.”

Nothing of this latter story had reached Sano, and he admitted as much in some surprise.

“I’m sure you did hear that Enishi’s death was eventually ruled suicide, so this secretary wasn’t charged with anything. But apparently he’s been on a leave of absence ever since because he’s too angry to get any work done.”

“I’m an asshole for saying it–” and in fact Sano had a hard time stifling a grin as he did so– “but it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one whose life’s been fucked up by this.” Then, quickly repenting his choice of words, he added, “I mean, obviously Kaoru and Kenshin in the first place, but still…” He cleared his throat. “So you think the next step is to find this secretary guy and get the shade out of him?”

“And see what he can tell us about Enishi and his grudge against Kenshin,” Hajime confirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer at least some questions; when I talked to him just now, he seemed desperate to find any solution to his current problem and very ready to believe he was being haunted by his late boss’s anger.”

“You talked to him just now?” Sano had eventually followed his original plan of rising to pace his apartment, and at this point he stopped on the kitchen linoleum and threw up his free hand. “God, you are so disturbingly efficient!”

Hajime sounded smug as he replied, “Well, unlike you, I like to actually do my job.”

Although he hoped that in general he wasn’t becoming immune to the very useful power of insult from Hajime, Sano gloried in the feeling of camaraderie between them.

“Don’t think it was extremely easy, though,” Hajime went on somewhat regretfully. “It took every corporate connection I have and all my personal charm to get someone at Seido to put me through to this man Gains, and he was so angry it was hard to get anything rational out of him.”

“‘Personal charm,'” Sano echoed, and whether his accompanying snort sounded more amused or derisive he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure Hajime had set that one up deliberately, though.

“Anyway, if you want to come with me to meet him, which I assume you do, be ready for me to pick you up in half an hour.”

“Oh! Yeah! OK.” Sano could only be glad at Hajime’s efficiency — and also that he himself had been awake enough fully to appreciate this whole conversation. Some unusual happenings were better than others.

“See you then,” was Hajime’s goodbye.

As Sano’s hand holding the phone fell to his side, he stared at the ghost drifting through both hallway walls in its pattern around him. He still struggled to think of Kenshin as an individual and not an inconvenience, but this next step might help. Sano shook his head as he returned the phone to its charger, and headed toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Having done so yesterday, he hadn’t planned on showering today merely for the sake of a work shift, but for the sake of sitting in Hajime’s passenger seat he suddenly felt the need. Ghost or no ghost.

Part 26


“You look like one of those metal brain teaser puzzles,” Hajime announced as Sano slid into his passenger seat.

Sano glanced down at his weird pants with a frown, but the expression gradually turned from angry to thoughtful. “You mean the kind where you have to figure out how to get the rings apart from the other part or whatever? Yeah, I can see that.”

“I don’t know what kind of security measures they’re going to put us through at this place, but if there’s a metal detector we may have a problem.”

“Where exactly are we going?” the startled Sano asked.

“Seido headquarters.” And at his companion’s blankness, Hajime mentioned the part of town where this was located.

“Did you bring your sword?” Now there was suspicion and defiance in Sano’s tone.

“Yes, but an exorcist’s sword is relevant to an exorcism. Those pants are not. Neither are all those earrings, to be perfectly honest.”

“Yeah, like it’s such a huge pain in the ass for you to be perfectly honest about anything that–” Breaking off abruptly, Sano sat back with folded arms and a twist to his mouth that was turning it gradually into an angry-looking grin. “So you want me to take off my pants, huh?” he growled with deliberate suggestive slowness.

Though not particularly practiced at dodging flirtation, Hajime didn’t see this instance as terribly difficult to get around. “And the boots,” he said sternly. “And all the metal jewelry. Don’t you own any sane clothing?”

Sano looked even more irritated than before. Instead of answering the question, he made an angry noise, got out of the car, and walked back across the parking lot and into the apartment building. Hajime watched in the rear-view mirror, wondering if he should perhaps have worded that differently. The possibility of Sano’s clothing combining unpleasantly with the postulated metal detector did exist, but any opinion about said clothing on Hajime’s side (apart from the one he’d already expressed, that Sano’s choices in dress made him look as if he was trying to relive his teenage years) did not. But it was too late now; any pleasant atmosphere that had arisen during their phone call earlier was lost, probably beyond recall.

The Sano that returned was a bit of a shock, and Hajime found that maybe he did have an opinion after all. Stripped of jewelry, in a plain t-shirt, dark jeans, and tennis shoes, Sano looked a lot less like he was parading a past he couldn’t let go of, and a lot more… respectable. More real, perhaps. Even the spiky hair, considering that whatever gel he’d used today didn’t add any unnatural color, was acceptable; even the bruises, in this context, could more easily be presumed the results of some unfortunate accident instead of signs of a reckless and wasteful life. Sano was striking, suddenly, in a way he’d never been before, which was ironic when his usual attire seemed to scream for attention.

He was also still clearly annoyed with Hajime. He didn’t respond to the older man’s placid, “Better,” only donned his seat belt in brief motions and looked out the window as they started off. And this annoyance seemed a little different from the usual low-level anger that was the result of normal time at home with Kenshin. Was it because Hajime had refused to flirt with him? Well, he was just going to have to get over that; Hajime simply didn’t flirt.

Nevertheless, the exorcist thought they had a lot to talk about, given all the information they now possessed. There were, he believed, several connections to be made and theories to be turned over, some of them before they reached the Seido building. So when their drive had proceeded in perfect silence for three or four minutes, he asked directly, “What are you thinking about?”

Whatever it was, Sano seemed to pull himself from it with some difficulty and then face some uncertainty as to what to say. He was shielding, but not quite to the point where, when he replied, “Whether or not we’re getting in way over our heads,” Hajime wasn’t conscious that the statement wasn’t quite an accurate answer to his question. It probably hadn’t been far behind Sano’s actual thoughts, but it had definitely been no more prominent than secondary.

Only a brief glance in Sano’s direction could Hajime spare at the moment, and this told him nothing. In the interest of a legitimate discussion that was not about Sano’s emotions (whatever they might be), he decided to let the matter of concealed thoughts go. “You didn’t hesitate to come, though.”

“No.” Sano’s tone was dark. “But I’m a little pissed that it looks like the guy behind all that shit Kaoru went through’s already dead. I was kinda hoping to kill him myself.”

Aware that this was hyperbole (barely), Hajime replied only, “You’re ‘a little pissed?'”

Sano gave a bitter laugh and fell silent again.

“You’re probably less pissed than Enishi was, anyway,” Hajime admitted by way of transition.

“Seriously,” Sano agreed in a tone half marveling and half irate. “If he’s really our guy, why the hell did he wait ten years to get revenge? And how was he even still that mad after so long?”

“His secretary may be able to answer that.”

“Or he may not,” said Sano darkly. “At least I hope the whole stupid group wasn’t in on torturing some poor woman.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Hajime mused, “that the wife has probably suffered more from this than the husband who actually killed Enishi’s sister.”

“The wife who replaced Enishi’s sister?” Sano interjected doubtfully.

Hajime acknowledged this decent point with a slow nod even as he went on with his own train of thought. “Though that might only have been the case because Kenshin actually died. They — he, if it was Enishi — may not actually have expected Kaoru to succeed in killing her husband. Kenshin might have suffered more if Kaoru had just appeared to be upset with him, eventually threatened him with a gun, and refused the entire time to tell him why. Or, if she had decided to try to get out of that somehow, Enishi always had the option of murdering the son. No matter how it ended, the situation was likely to result in the destruction of Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship, possibly legal trouble, possibly the death of their son, and probably psychological trauma for whoever survived. It was a win-win situation for whoever set it up, since there didn’t seem to be any way for Kenshin and Kaoru to get out of it together without suffering in one way or another.”

“It still seems like there might have been a better way to make sure Kenshin was the one who really suffered, though, and leave Kaoru and the kid out of it.”

“Well, as you just pointed out, Enishi may have had some kind of grudge against Kaoru and the kid too.”

“If Enishi really did all this.”

“It seems like a logical assumption at this point, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the anger Gains is dealing with is the same that’s surrounding Kenshin — assuming Gains is actually haunted. That should tell us fairly conclusively whether Enishi is our culprit.”

“What is this Gains guy’s actual job in this fake-company-yakuza-thing?”

“Bridgestone Gains,” Hajime replied, giving the name the very precise enunciation he felt it deserved, “was Enishi’s administrative assistant, and I get the feeling he’s on an influential level with the–”

Here Sano interrupted with, “Bridgestone Gains?” in a voice completely altered by skepticism and amusement from his previous surly growl. “You sure he’s not the executive officer of the yakuza’s designer men’s clothing line or something?”

Hajime actually laughed out loud, glad to find that Sano agreed with him on this point.

The good humor of that moment was unfortunately short-lived, as their conversation returned soon after to the topic of Enishi’s presumed revenge and long-lasting vindictiveness, as well as the haunted secretary (regardless of his name) and the possibilities of the day. They didn’t have time for a thorough canvass of all the information and all the inferences that were now available, but they managed to discuss enough to satisfy Hajime before they reached the Seido building.

The wrathful Gains, on the phone, had not been entirely coherent, but had at least struggled commendably to arrange things to Hajime’s convenience in visiting; he’d offered a place in the headquarter’s gated multi-level parking complex for the duration, but Hajime had declined as politely as possible. There was something distasteful to him about having his car swallowed up in the darkness of a yakuza garage, so he opted for meter parking on the street and the building’s main entrance. On being acquainted with this plan and the reason for it, Sano commented on the irony of Hajime refusing to leave his ‘mafia-looking car’ in the care of yakuza; Hajime, who’d never considered his car particularly mafia-looking, just rolled his eyes.

“Not that I don’t feel you.” If this choice of idiom on Sano’s part was another attempt at flirtation, it was certainly delivered in as unflirtatious a tone as he could possibly have used: his voice was heavy with uneasiness as the two of them left the vehicle and set off to cross the street toward the looming Seido building. “Of all the ways I never thought I’d finish up my Spring Break…”

Hajime nodded grimly. “The alternative is to give up.”

Sano threw him a sidelong look. “You know, you don’t have to be here at all. I’m not paying you… Kaoru’s not paying you… Kenshin sure as hell isn’t paying you to be here…”

Just as grimly, Hajime smiled. “Giving up isn’t actually an alternative for me.” By now it wasn’t merely the prospect of talking to a ghost; after hearing Kaoru’s story, even after seeing how Kenshin’s presence was affecting Sano’s life, Hajime could not back out of this. Solving this type of problem was what he’d become an exorcist for.

Mimicking the smile, though his was a bit more contemplative, Sano murmured, “No, I guess not.” And it was as clear as if it had been stated aloud that he appreciated both Hajime’s determination and the support it led to.

Inside the main entrance, the appearance of the Seido building was nothing too unusual. The mirror-like marble floor, the lofty ceiling, and the man-sized urns overflowing with greenery (which probably required a discrete employee’s entire day to care for) seemed a tad excessive for the entry to the main office of a business purportedly — and, according to Chou, at least 40% in reality — devoted to data analytics, but the décor, if a trifle overwhelming, was at least tastefully put together. But the feeling of the place had Hajime instantly more on his guard even than he’d already been.

The hushed awkwardness of everyday activities being conducted in the presence of death, the wariness of an already uncertain situation steeped in the possibility of betrayal, the awareness that less than half of what went on here was in any way aboveboard and that it would be hugely inconvenient both to the collective and to the individual at fault should the wrong desk be crossed, the tension of change and unusual circumstances and the accompanying strain of not quite knowing how to deal with them — all of this and more Hajime picked up immediately upon entry, and at first he could only see a single person.

Sano too had stiffened and begun to scowl as he’d taken his first step across the shiny, veined marble. But there was no time for further discussion of how little they liked being here, for the receptionist at the semi-circular marble-topped desk had fixed them with a polite but very studious look. “Good morning,” she greeted. “Are you here to see Mr. Gains?”

Hajime nodded, stepping forward toward her. This woman had a mind as tightly guarded as any he’d expected to find in such a place, and he guessed more than sensed that she was well armed where he couldn’t see. Her eyes, however, never once moved toward the sheathed sword in his hand, or even the bruises on his face; instead she just gestured and said, as courteously as before, “Dae-hyun will take you up.” Her smile was convincingly warm.

The area to which she’d gestured was a large corner of the room that hadn’t been visible, behind a sort of wall of potted plants, until they were near the desk; and it was inhabited by a man whose presence had previously been impossible to observe, or else who had just entered by the door they could now see in the rear wall. This person held out his hand in a welcoming fashion and gave them a smile just as professional and almost as friendly as the receptionist’s.

“Good morning,” he said as Hajime and Sano moved toward him. “Mr. Gains let us know you were coming. I’ll carry your sword upstairs.”

This Dae-hyun, though short, was built very solidly beneath his tailored suit, and seemed extremely competent and unhesitating, in the manner of a bodyguard, beneath his veneer of politeness. Hajime handed over his nihontou without protest. If he and Sano were in any danger here, the temporary lack of that archaic weapon would not make much difference.

Smile unwavering, Dae-hyun gestured again, this time toward the door through which Hajime could see a deep-carpeted and oak-wainscoted corridor. “After you; please turn right.” Obediently, Hajime took the several strides down this hall necessary to reach an elevator whose doors were oak-fronted to match the walls around them, and stopped. A keycard, he noted when Dae-hyun joined them after having waited a couple of steps to follow, was required to access this conveyance, and after that had been accomplished they embarked, in a silence that was no less tense for being so polite, on an upward journey toward the fifteenth floor and Bridgestone Gains.

Part 27


The air here tasted angry. Sano doubted anyone not as precisely attuned to it as he was would have been able to sense it until they were much closer, but he was aware by the time the elevator had ascended only a few floors that they were in the right place. Somewhere in this building was shade energy — to which they were drawing closer and closer — that matched exactly the energy that had been plaguing Sano for the last month. Its influence strengthened with every moment, and he was bracing himself for what must come.

“We’re perfectly happy to assist Mr. Gains wherever it’s most convenient,” Hajime was remarking to Dae-hyun in that creepily polite tone Sano had heard from him once before, “but maybe you can tell me something I didn’t want to ask him on the phone: what is he doing at his office when he’s in such bad shape? I understood he was on a leave of absence.”

Dae-hyun, who resembled nothing so much as a smiling brick, nodded his understanding of the question and replied in a pleasant tone like something from a training video. “Besides being a very valuable and highly respected member of our organization, Mr. Gains is also an artist. He has a studio here in the building where he spends much of his free time.”

Yes, having this somewhat ambiguously ranked assistant to the CEO readily available must be very convenient to the organization, Sano reflected. As he couldn’t quite decide whether he would rather have come to this tense and unnecessarily posh-looking office than visit a possibly paranoid and definitely irate yakuza secretary at his own home, Sano couldn’t quite decide either how he felt about the existence of this so-called studio. It made no difference; he was already here.

But for a few more totally fake (but very well delivered) remarks between Hajime and Dae-hyun about the sparkling success of U.S.Seido, the elevator ride was conducted in silence. Sano didn’t have to watch the numbers to track their approach of the fifteenth floor; he could feel the angry shade more strongly with every passing moment. He couldn’t imagine how much was up there for him to be so aware of it at this distance, but he feared that stepping from the elevator at the top was going to be like entering a war zone.

At what point Hajime had noticed the shade and its effects on Sano, the latter couldn’t guess, but the exorcist had taken half a step, made just a slight shift in the way he was standing, that seemed to indicate solidarity, and for that Sano was grateful. Hajime really didn’t have to be here, but here he was, ready, as ever, to do what he must. Sano just wondered what that would end up being in this situation.

He also wondered if and how Kenshin would react to this volume of shade energy. The ghost hadn’t caught Sano up yet, which was more of a relief than anything, but if he followed his usual pattern he must eventually; what would happen then? Did Kenshin know whose anger it was? Did you find things out after death that you hadn’t known before? Or perhaps Kenshin had known before he died of the possibility of his brother-in-law’s seeking revenge, and was held in this world by the guilt he felt at never having warned his wife.

Such speculation was useless at the moment. Sano just tried to block himself off against absorbing any shade energy before it was absolutely necessary, took a deep breath, and watched the elevator doors slide open. This time their escort led the way instead of gesturing them to precede him, and, as the presence of the huge red shade more or less hit Sano in the face from in front of him to the left, it was a significant relief that Dae-hyun took them to the right. The awareness of the shade didn’t greatly diminish by the time they’d reached the door they were apparently to enter, but Sano was still glad not to have to confront the thing immediately.

In response to Dae-hyun’s knock, the heavy, paneled door was jerked open almost at once, and the visitors got their first look at Bridgestone Gains; the fact that the man in front of them was most definitely haunted by the same shade as was Sano verified his identity even before Dae-hyun’s polite greeting could do so. Other than the red energy rising from him, as his precipitous opening of the door expended some of it, there was nothing terribly remarkable about him except an apparent vigor and athleticism of movement perhaps a little unusual for a man evidently in his late sixties.

“Come in,” ordered Gains curtly, interrupting whatever was being said by Dae-hyun. The latter didn’t appear at all put out by this, just handed Hajime his sword and walked away with smile and imperturbability intact. Sano listened for the sound of the elevator as he followed Hajime through the door in front of him, but heard nothing. So this floor, at least, was being guarded as long as they were here, even if Dae-hyun wouldn’t actually be in the same room. He supposed it was no surprise.

What was a surprise was that same room. Sano hadn’t even begun to take the term ‘studio’ seriously, and if he had would have envisioned easels and canvasses and paints. This mixture of workshop and laboratory, fitted with sinks and gas jets in a couple of high tables, scattered with a number of somewhat disturbing-looking instruments such as might be used by a sculptor, and decorated by several much more disturbing-looking products of these tools, was nothing he would have expected even if he’d bought the description of ‘artist’ for the man they were here to see.

The figures — sculptures? — though they had indentations and curves reminiscent of certain more extreme contortions of the human body, were yet not exactly human in shape, and Sano would need a little more time than he had right now to decide what he thought they actually looked like. Just the glance he was allowed at the moment, though, before turning his attention toward Gains, told him that the most disturbing thing about them was not so much their shape as their composition; whatever they were made of didn’t seem to be stone or clay, but something a good deal more… fleshy. The light in the room definitely hit them the same way it did the skin of the three people present.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime was saying in his obsequious tone that, compared with the creepiness of this room, was positively reassuring at this point, “I can see just by looking at you that it’s a good thing we came, if you’ll excuse me saying so. I’m Hajime Saitou — we spoke on the phone — and this is my partner Sano Sagara.”

Hajime had a gift for making remarks that knocked Sano right out of whatever else he was thinking or feeling, if only for a moment. Partner?? It was staggering, and if Hajime hadn’t wanted Sano to react to it with the full-body jerk and whiplash glance in his direction he gave on hearing it, he should have warned him beforehand.

Examining them both briefly up and down with a scowl, and certainly not missing Sano’s start, “It looks like that’s as true as it is believable,” Gains replied in a sneering tone. Scorn, Sano had found, often arose from an impulse to hurt that was itself a product of anger… and this was a very familiar anger. Only imperfectly did he recognize it, however, so caught up was he yet in the unexpected effort of trying to quell the tingly feeling that had suffused him at the idea of being any kind of partner to Hajime.

“And this is a data analytics business,” the exorcist said dryly, “whose CEO committed suicide.”

It was well done, Sano thought. He’d already been trying to counter the aforementioned tingly feeling with the stern reminder that Hajime’s introduction of him as a partner would have been less complicated and perhaps more dignified than explaining who he actually was — but now, in implying something between the two of them he didn’t want to mention outright, Hajime had managed to create a sort of parallel of concealment that must help to raise fellow feeling. He’d essentially suggested to Gains, “Let’s work together on the understanding that we each know the other has a secret, and are both politely not prying.”

However angry he might be, Gains evidently understood, for he nodded sharply. “Well, and what can you two do for me?” he asked irritably, crossing wiry arms whose liver spots were bared by the rolled state of the sleeves of his black button-up. “It’s been almost three months since Enishi’s ‘suicide;’ if he’s haunting me, how do you get rid of him?”

As always, the uninitiated assumed ghosts when all that really plagued them was shades. Unless, Sano reflected with a slight shudder, Enishi’s ghost was hanging around just like Kenshin’s was. Maybe he was in the next room, hovering in the midst of his anger, waiting for Sano to bring Kenshin to him and stage a final, dramatic, undead confrontation or something.

But that couldn’t be. One ghost was rare enough; the statistical likelihood of encountering two at once must be practically nonexistent. Sano shook himself back into sense and shelved these thoughts alongside the daydreams he fully planned on entertaining later about being Hajime’s partner. Which left only the overwhelming urge to ignore the current conversation, and instead examine this crazy room, to try to repress.

Hajime was reassuring Gains with, “Sano can extract the angry energy from you, so you’ll be able to go back to your normal activities.” And he proved that he too was curious about the contents of the room in which they stood by throwing a quick glance around at it as he spoke the last words. Sano’s contribution was a nod; he doubted it would be any kind of problem to absorb all the shade that had Gains so tetchy — or at least it wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish… what might happen afterward, if there was enough of the stuff to give Sano another critical mass, he didn’t know.

“Do it, then!” Gains ordered, glaring at Sano. Actually he seemed far less angry, in general, than Sano had expected; he must have found a way to expend some of the shade before they’d arrived. The disarray of the equipment in here, as if someone had inflicted upon it a very bad mood and then only imperfectly straightened up, might explain that.

“First,” Hajime said smoothly, “tell me: what’s over there?” He gestured with the hilt of his sword off to their left, past a couple of painted folding screens that were distinctly out of place in here but that probably looked congruous enough from the other side; between them, Sano could see through to what appeared to be a sort of lounge done up in a mixture of oriental styles. It was beyond this space, probably past the far wall he could only get a limited glimpse of from this angle, that the feeling of red shade was emanating most strongly. Hajime wanted to head straight for the source of all this trouble, and, unpleasant as Sano feared it would be, he couldn’t but agree.

Gains jerked his gaze in the direction Hajime indicated, and scowled. “I assume you mean Enishi’s office, since you can see the kètīng perfectly well for yourself.”

“Enishi’s office,” Hajime repeated thoughtfully, ignoring Gains’s grouchy tone (and not bothering to ask what a kètīng was even if he, like Sano, wasn’t entirely sure). “We’ll need to take a look around in there.”

“Nobody but me goes in there,” Gains snapped. “Not until we have a new CEO.”

Hajime’s tone was as smooth and soothing as before as he answered, “And I’m afraid that’s the reason you’ve been so angry for so long. You’ve been picking up more angry energy every time you go in there, and probably just by spending so much time here in your studio next door.”

Again Sano nodded his concurrence. Somebody or other would have been affected eventually by the shade under any circumstances, but Gains had hastened and worsened the process by hanging out so close to it ever since Enishi’s death. And his leave of absence, rather than helping him recover, had probably actually exacerbated his condition by giving him so much more time to spend in his studio.

At Hajime’s words and Sano’s nod, Gains’s face twisted into an expression almost of rage, and Sano wondered whether this was because he didn’t like to be dictated to by strangers, or because the aforementioned appointment of a new CEO — something that had obviously already been a long time in the works — was a touchy business that caused him to get defensive about the old one’s office and effects, or because he’d been closer to his late boss than they’d had any idea. But he didn’t strike at either of them, as Sano had half expected, nor even lash out verbally. “All right,” he said instead, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly and moved toward the other half of the room and the room beyond, pulling a keycard from the pocket of his black slacks as he did so. “But you can’t touch a damn thing in there.”

Part 28


Everything Hajime had been thinking about — his curiosity regarding Gains’s exceptionally strange art, his residual amusement at having thrown Sano so completely off-balance with the ‘partner’ remark, even his ongoing underlying concern at being in a yakuza headquarters dealing with someone that could probably have them killed with a single word and seemed hateful enough to do it — all of it crowded right into the background of his mind and huddled there, subdued, as he took his first step into Enishi’s office.

Whether or not this room contained the matching antique furniture, expensive ornamentation, and relatively classy mixture of eastern and western decorating he’d expected, he had no idea. He couldn’t see a thing through the almost pulsing brightness of the wall-to-wall shade that filled his vision like a roiling acidic mist. It blinded him, pounded at his magical senses, battered his consciousness with anger and pain. He’d never encountered a shade anywhere near this large and powerful, and even having made what he thought were logical mental preparations based on what he’d known it must be like beforehand, he could never have been prepared for this.

Holy shit,” came a murmur, quiet but intense, from behind him.

“Sano, get back,” he ordered, taking two more slow steps onto what felt like firm carpet or perhaps a rug atop tile. “Stay outside the room. I’ll deal with this.”

“What, are you trying to be a hero all of a sudden?” Sano, still right behind him, growled. “This is way fucking more than–”

“You’re already absorbing it.” It was getting to Hajime too, if the angry tone in which he’d just said that was any indication, and he wasn’t even the one that was deliberately attuned to it. He attempted to speak rationally as he went on, “You’ll need to deal with Gains after all of this is gone, which you won’t be able to do if you stay in here much longer.”

“Ah, fuck,” Sano muttered, and retreated.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime said next, “it would be better if you waited outside the room as well.”

Gains sneered, “And leave you to poke around in here? I think not.”

“I’m not here to dig up secrets on your organization,” Hajime snapped. “But if you want to stay, get into a corner and be ready to move if I come near you.” Lifting his sword as an indication of the danger this situation posed, yet he didn’t wait to see if Gains followed his instructions — indeed, he couldn’t see anything of the sort — but unsheathed the weapon. The blade was an intense red, a bloody-looking contrast to the bright white that surrounded him, but he hadn’t needed that to tell him what he was up against.

Falling into the pattern of breathing he’d found worked best for the use of kendo as exorcism, Hajime closed his eyes to the whiteness and probed outward with his mind. If he’d had any doubt that this astonishing shade belonged to the former inhabitant of this office, he would have been convinced upon noting that the energy was mostly confined to the acknowledged limits of the room; shades, which were not technically inhibited by physical barriers like walls or windows, generally only adhered to them in reflection of a human’s awareness of a space — and the person most aware of a room’s boundaries was usually that room’s primary resident.

As strong as he’d anticipated, the shade was also even more insane. Though it wasn’t quite fair to maintain that, in order to keep up this level of anger for an entire decade, someone would have to be insane, and though Enishi must have functioned rationally in most areas in order to head up an organization like this, there had definitely been some madness there, which had accompanied the anger in becoming this shade. Hajime concentrated on the defeat of both.

Earlier Sano had remarked that he wished he could have killed Enishi, and Hajime rather had to agree. Perhaps this was a foolish way to feel about someone he’d never even heard of until the man’s death, but he thought the desire must help him in this situation. He didn’t know what number and variety of evils Enishi had perpetrated as the head of a criminal organization; all he was familiar with was Kaoru’s story — and the fact that Enishi had been her tormenter wasn’t 100% verified even yet… but he was certain that Enishi’s death had done little but good for the world.

And now the dissipation of his shade, at Hajime’s hands, would do a more specific good for a smaller subset of the world. For Sano, whose entire life was practically on hold. For Kaoru, who’d been forced to commit an act foreign to her nature. For Kenshin, about whom Hajime really knew nothing. Even for this strange Gains man about whom Hajime cared nothing.

With this knowledge and desire strengthening his intent, focusing all his will on breaking up and destroying the shade, he opened his eyes and thrust his sword into the nearest intense patch in the fluctuating mass of angry energy.

It was a shock, stronger than when he’d last exorcised any of this shade by a much greater margin than he could have expected merely by reckoning proportions based on size at the source. It almost left him stunned, and only by holding onto the awareness and determination previously fixed upon did he keep it from completely overwhelming him. Had he been a disinterested party here to perform this professional service for a client, he might have been defeated in this first moment, so it was lucky for everyone concerned that he was not so disinterested. If it could be called luck.

When the patch on which he’d focused finally gave up its attempt to out-will him, wavered, and dissipated, he swept his sword out to the right after a second segment without pause. His movement toward a third was slower, but he thought the overall intensity of the shade throughout the room was fading.

The work was exhausting, and the clash of wills that comprised it was like nothing else he’d ever experienced. He thought perhaps it could be compared to the process of two people attempting to outmaneuver each other in an organization just such as this, using all their cunning to get the better of each other and staying on their toes every moment of every day in the fear of betrayal over the course of long months or even years — but all packed into the space of a few minutes. As he’d never done any such thing, however, he couldn’t be certain.

His head ached, and he felt ready for a long rest by the time the furniture around him was becoming visible. He’d already discovered the chairs facing the desk during his movements through the room, but now he began to be able to make out the carved patterns in their wooden backs.

Gains had shouted more than once, quite possibly about taking care not to damage things with what to him must have appeared a randomly and wildly swinging blade — Hajime had been concentrating too hard to note exactly what he had to say — but by the time it was all over he’d fallen silent, perhaps in recognition of the futility of his words. And Hajime sagged into that silence, looking slowly around for any further traces of shade he’d missed and breathing somewhat hard.

To locate the source of the last remaining shade he was sensing didn’t take long; it was small, but it glowed as brightly white in his vision as any part of the huge shape that had previously filled the room: an object that stood at the far end of the desk he could now properly make out. Trying to decide exactly what it was through the light of the energy that suffused and surrounded it, he peered at it as he circled the desk to the sound of Gains’s now much more irate reiteration that he touch nothing.

The general balance of the desk suggested a picture frame set up in symmetry with the one on the opposite corner. The latter held a photo of an elegant-looking Japanese woman that Hajime assumed to be the long-dead sister; who was likely to be the subject of another such frame he could not guess, unless it was a second instance of the same person. He knew so little of Enishi, however, that he might be wrong on all counts here. Whatever this item was, it had been suffused with shade energy to the point where he could almost call it an artifact — though he’d pity anyone trying to do magic with its assistance or even in its presence.

Gains must have realized what Hajime’s target was when he raised his sword one more time, for the secretary recommenced shouting. Clearly just the few minutes he’d spent in here, even with Hajime cleaning up the shade, had affected him, for his tone was extremely angry and his language abusive. Hajime ignored him. Invoking his full force of will and concentration once again, he brought the blade down on the glowing object on the desk, taking a grudging care not to allow the blow to continue any farther than was required precisely to destroy the thing so as not to damage the furniture.

Two halves of whatever it was clattered apart and fell to the floor where he couldn’t see them, and Hajime was by now so worn out that he didn’t feel like retrieving them immediately to confirm or disprove his guess. He just sheathed his sword and leaned on the desk, around which Gains, still yelling, was approaching. “That was one of Enishi’s prized possessions, you brainless fraud! What the hell are you thinking, when I told you not to touch anything in here, destroying things without even explaining what the hell you’re doing?”

“The goddamn thing was packed full of shade!” Sano, now attempting to shout Gains down from the doorway, had apparently followed Hajime’s order of retreat no farther than would yet allow him to watch. “It wouldn’t have done you any fucking good to have the room cleared if that thing was still left!”

Perhaps not having heard (and undoubtedly not having understood), Gains continued his tirade right into Hajime’s ear. The exorcist continued mostly ignoring him, but the loud tone wasn’t exactly diminishing his headache. He did stand straight, however, when Sano, having entered the room, bent to collect the broken pieces from the carpet and bring them around.

It was a picture frame, or had been. It had matched the other one; the expense of the set was one of Gains’s current points of protest. And the photo, now sliced diagonally down the middle into fairly neat, nearly triangular halves, showed a red-haired man with Japanese features marred by the type of meandering pink scar-lines one might obtain from a car accident.

“This is… Kenshin…” Sano muttered. “Isn’t it.” There wasn’t really any interrogative quality to the remark.

“How the hell do you know who he is?” demanded Gains, who must have been paying better attention than the others had believed.

Shaking his head, Hajime didn’t bother to answer the question; nor to comment that the picture, depicting Kenshin and being suffused with Enishi’s shade, had undoubtedly acted as a sort of focus or channel allowing that shade to transfer continually to Kenshin’s ghost; nor to wonder aloud at hatred so obsessive it led to the keeping of a photo of its object exactly parallel to one of somebody for whom the possessor, presumably, felt the opposite emotion.

Instead, he tore his eyes away from the severed image and fixed them on one of the men at his side. “I believe it’s your turn, Mr. Gains.”

Part 29


Whatever look Hajime had given Gains, along with the admittedly ambiguous declaration in an unexpectedly threatening tone that it was ‘his turn,’ must have been particularly scary, for even in the midst of his newly increased wrath the secretary took two steps back and raised his hands defensively. Sano didn’t wait for whatever bullshit Gains had to say at the moment, however; he broke in with, “No, it’s not; it’s your turn.”

A startled and even angry expression turned toward Sano as he set down the two halves of the ruined picture frame with greater care than he would have given them had they contained no broken glass. “What do you–” Hajime began, but evidently the amount of anger just in those three words was enough to prove to him that he needed some attention.

“Yeah,” said Sano, enjoying while he had the chance a Hajime angrier than he was. “I’m probably going to need some help from you after I’ve dealt with him. Can’t have you already half as pissed as I am. Come sit down and let me–” It flashed across his mind to say, ‘let me suck it out of you,’ but decided just in time that the situation and company called for different phrasing. “–absorb this shit,” was what he went with instead.

“I should have you two con artists shot.” As Sano led the surprisingly willing Hajime out of the office and toward one of the low sofas in the little lounge next door, Gains was trailing after them with clenched fists and red energy pulsing around him in waves. “I should just kill you both myself,” he seethed. “How dare you threaten me? Destroying things in the CEO’s office, you goddamn spies!”

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” It wasn’t that Sano didn’t think Gains could kill them or have them killed as easily as snapping his fingers; it wasn’t that he couldn’t sympathize about the type of anger Gains was trying to deal with right now; it was just that he had very little patience for anyone that could watch Hajime’s magnificently performed exorcism in the other room and then call him a brainless fraud.

“Sano,” said Hajime sharply. He’d taken a seat without protest, but didn’t appear to approve of Sano antagonizing the client. Or whatever Gains was. “If you’ll wait just a minute, Mr. Gains,” he went on in the most rigid, enforcedly polite tone Sano had ever heard, “Sano will help you.”

“Why the hell can’t you do it?” Apparently, despite the fact that Hajime had supposedly threatened him with a deadly weapon, Gains still trusted him over the younger man that had done nothing here so far except tell him to shut the fuck up.

Hajime’s politeness cracking, he replied, “I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.” It was the last of his unusual anger, though, for as this exchange had taken place Sano had seated himself beside the exorcist, put a hand on his suit-jacketed shoulder, and drawn the shade right out of him. It had come unexpectedly smoothly and easily, and the increase in Sano’s ire it caused might have been a good thing in that it kept him from dwelling on how well he’d become attuned not just to this particular shade, but to Hajime.

“Thank you.” The gold eyes turned in his direction were tired, but Sano thought it was a temporary weakness at worst.

So he replied with an angry grin and a murmured, “Just let me know when you think you can handle me.”

“I can handle you any time, idiot,” Hajime answered in the same tone. “But if you mean a fist fight, give me just a couple of minutes.”

Sano’s voice dropped even further as, situation and company notwithstanding, he simply couldn’t help remarking, “I think you just flirted with me.”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “And I think you really are an idiot.”