I Like Your Face

I Like Your Face

Sano’s strange behavior started on Monday, though (that day at least) its strangeness stemmed merely from the fact that he’d never done it before, not that it was in any way out of character. He hung around the station for hours, continually making believe he was leaving but never really doing so, and kept jumping out at Saitou from around corners and through half-open doors, presumably in an attempt at taking him by surprise that was consistently foiled by Saitou being hyper-attuned to Sano’s ki.

He crashed into him three times, and once into another officer he wasn’t aware was also walking that hallway, until finally Saitou told him irritably to properly go away. Sano did, but tried the same trick twice during Saitou’s walk home, prompting an eventual growl that finally sent the idiot, disappointed, scurrying off for good for that evening. It hadn’t ever been startling, but it had been annoying… and the fact that Saitou then spent the night alone was even more so.

On Tuesday, though he’d evidently abandoned the jumping-out tactic, the one visit he made to Saitou’s office during the day was just as silly: he came bursting in red-faced as if he’d been running quite some distance, rushed up to Saitou’s desk, and informed him breathlessly, “Your house is on fire!”

Saitou sat back, studying him, noting he’d gone to some trouble for this. However… “You’ve been over at the smokehouse, I see. If it were my house burning, you wouldn’t smell nearly so much like salmon.”

Looking even more disappointed than yesterday as he stared Saitou right back in the face, Sano replied, “Aww, man! I was sure the smoke smell would get you.”

“Apart from that, you should have chosen a building closer to the station. If I really thought you’d run all the way here instead of getting the fire brigade when my house was burning, you’d have bigger problems than what kind of smoke you smelled like.” Observing Sano’s mutinous expression at this, Saitou added quickly, “But you have given me an idea for dinner, so don’t be late tonight.” He didn’t want another lonely evening like yesterday’s had been.

He might have believed Wednesday morning’s gross aberration of Sano getting up before he did and clumsily cooking breakfast for them both was the young man’s way of demonstrating gratitude for the numerous meals Saitou had made him over the past three months, except that Sano seemed to be so pointedly expecting some specific reaction from Saitou when he walked into the kitchen and found his lover, like the room, splattered with ingredients that might or might not require the application of a chisel in various places to remove. Sano’s cooking, though explosive, wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to spend some time with him before work for a change, so Saitou enjoyed the unusual morning… but he did wonder what the roosterhead was up to.

Scant light was shed on this question on Thursday, even when Sano made his appearance in the afternoon fully decked out in a woman’s kimono and with his usually spiky locks combed into sleek near-unrecognizability. Again Saitou sat back and studied him, examining the pattern of autumn leaves across the garment, the brown obi, the gold leaf-shaped hair ornament, and most of all the expression on Sano’s face that already conveyed disappointment with the wolf’s response. And Saitou said, “Those colors suit you very well — much better than they would Kamatari, which is where I assume you got all those things.”

“Yeah, they’re just a loan.” Sano sounded almost surly. “And thanks, I guess.”

Noticing Chou in similar getup just inside the doorway — his hair really was quite long when not perpendicular to sanity — Saitou’s next comment was, “If you two are going undercover like that, let me hear you both talk like women.”

Now Sano’s surliness came to be mixed with amusement as Saitou forced him and the broomhead to practice various phrases in feminine tones over and over until they could deliver them relatively convincingly, so at least he didn’t leave the office entirely unhappy. Saitou still wondered what the ultimate goal of his recent behavior was.

On Thursday, when Sano showed up at the station as he so often did these days, it was with an unusual air of bashfulness and worry that, while fairly convincing, Saitou still believed to be falsified. Sano kicked around and cleared his throat and said nothing in a manner unusual and somewhat calculated to annoy, until Saitou, figuring they’d better get this over with, finally asked him what was wrong.

Sano came over and planted his hands on the desk, took a deep breath, and looked into Saitou’s face — there certainly did seem to be a strong element of studying Saitou’s expression to all of this — before answering with calculated hesitation, “Megumi just found out she’s pregnant with my baby.”

Saitou almost laughed aloud at this one, a reaction certainly not what Sano wanted. With only a faint smile, therefore, he shook his head and said, “Ahou. A woman might know she’s pregnant after five or six weeks, and a doctor is likely to be especially aware.”

“So?” There was some defiance in Sano’s tone, but also the letdown Saitou was growing accustomed to this week.

“So,” the officer explained patiently, “you and I have been exclusive for eighty-six days, and you’re not the unfaithful type.”

At this assessment Sano appeared to be grinning in spite of himself. “Yeah, you’re right; it was just a joke.” But the statement came out rather forced; evidently he was still disappointed. Besides, claiming to have cheated on his lover in such an egregious fashion would not normally be his idea of casual humor.

“Takani doesn’t strike me as the unfaithful type either,” Saitou mused. “Didn’t her relationship with the kenjutsu girl start even before ours did?”

Startled, “I didn’t know you knew about them,” said Sano.

“Oh, I follow the gossip in your little circle closer than you think.”

“Still spying on us all, are you?” Sano sounded pleased, though, and Saitou was glad to have mitigated his disappointment somewhat.

The pregnancy scare hadn’t exactly been subtle, but Sano seemed to have pulled out all the stops for Friday’s attempt. Saitou was on his way home, wondering in the back of his head whether his rooster had given up on whatever it was he was trying to do, when the most dramatic and horrified of shrieks burst from an alley just in front of him. Though Sano had tried to disguise it, Saitou recognized his voice, and he rolled his eyes even as he glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. The area was empty — at least Sano had chosen his location well — so Saitou didn’t hesitate to step into the small side way and look around. And he wasn’t at all surprised to find the alley drenched in crimson, the bulk of it a puddle in the dirt but a significant amount yet spattered over the walls and contents of the little street. It reminded him of the breakfast kitchen the other day.

“Ahou,” he sighed, “even if it weren’t obvious this is just red paint — which has already started to dry, by the way — the amount is inconsistent with the scream.”

“What?!” came Sano’s indignant voice from behind a garbage barrel. “I set up this great murder scene, and you’re getting picky about the amount of blood?”

“A more pertinent question than why you believe someone could have spontaneously shed so much blood, still had the energy to scream so loudly, then disappeared without a trace along with their murderer before I could get here is the question of why you’ve apparently been trying to startle me all week.”

Sheepishly Sano emerged from where only half of his face had previously been visible behind the barrel — presumably in order to observe Saitou’s response — and stood straight looking down at the bright stain on the ground. “I guess you caught me.”

“Yes. So explain.”

Sano did not look up, and Saitou didn’t think the slight redness of his cheeks was a reflection off the paint. “Well, I was talking to Kenshin the other day, and we got to remembering the Rengoku, and he mentioned how at one point, while I was crossing over on the wreckage and couldn’t see you, you had this really surprised look on your face — like surprised enough to surprise him. Though now I come to think of it,” Sano added with a touch of newfound suspicion, “I dunno why he would’ve been looking at you right then when I was about to get my ass shot…”

“Himura is very observant about certain things,” Saitou replied dryly, recalling the moment in question with piercing clarity. “He was probably looking for my reaction. But go on.”

“Well, it occurred to me I don’t actually know what your surprised face looks like. I kinda wanted to see it,” Sano finished with a shrug.

“The amount of trouble you’ve gone to–” Saitou gestured around, one brow raised– “suggests more than ‘kinda.'”

“I just… like your facial expressions, all right?” Sano mumbled. Even more quietly he finished, “I like your face.”

Saitou couldn’t help chuckling as he moved to take the young man in his arms. Sano felt stiff, as if resentful at having his honest confession laughed at, so Saitou said, “In exchange for that compliment — if that’s what it was — I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t a surprised look, back then.”

Sano drew back and glanced up at him curiously. “But Kenshin said–”

“I was a little surprised to see the Gatling gun,” Saitou admitted, “but by then I was taking everything Shishio did in stride. After seeing the Rengoku itself, I could hardly be astonished at anything else… If you’d looked at me when the façade came off the ship, you might have been satisfied.”

“Huh. But then what was that look later, that Kenshin saw?”

Saitou pulled Sano close again, shaking his head. “That was a look of absolute horror, ahou.” He elaborated simply, “I’d just heard Shishio order you gunned down.”

Now Sano struggled against the embrace that had him pinned in order to pull away once more and stare Saitou in the face… and his expression might very well be exactly what he’d incorrectly imagined Saitou’s to have been on the deck of that warship. “Way back then? Already?”

Saitou nodded solemnly.

Sounding confused and perhaps even somewhat affronted, Sano wondered, “But then why did it take us so long to–”

“Because you’re an oblivious idiot,” Saitou interrupted with fond impatience. And when Sano scowled at him, he went on, “Though if it’s any consolation to you, you surprise me all the time.”

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

Saitou chuckled. “Maybe one of these days you’ll take me off guard with something if you keep trying. Just,” he added quickly, thinking of this past week, “stop being an idiot about it.”

“According to you,” Sano grumbled, “that’s not possible.”

“You’re a creative idiot, at least; I’m sure you’ll figure something out that will surprise me without making me want to kill you. In the meantime…” Saitou bent to kiss him, not caring how strange it would look to anyone that happened to walk down this narrow, dirty alley and find a police officer and former kenkaya making out in the midst of a copious amount of red paint. Just before their lips met he finished his statement: “I like your face too.”

This story, which I’ve rated , was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “How about a Saisa where Sano keeps trying to surprise Saitou?” I liked the idea and had fun with this piece, but this the first RK writing I’d done since the big bad news felt… just a little different than usual. Perhaps the new normal.

For a few more notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

Stumped

Stumped

“Prop that there log up under here, would you, Spike?”

Proof of the little dragon’s trust in Applejack was the readiness with which he seized the piece of firewood in question and hopped down into the awkward hole beside her in order to squeeze it under part of the enormous tree stump she was holding partially up with her forehooves. If she were to lose her grip, the thing would swivel down on top of them, retaking its place in the gap in which they stood and crushing them without a trace.

As it was, once Spike had wedged the log in place and vacated the hole, Applejack eased the stump down to test it; and when it held, standing perpendicular to its usual position propped on the other piece of wood, she made a satisfied sound and also jumped out.

“Hey, Applejack!” was Spike’s belated greeting.

“Hiya, Spike,” replied the amused pony as she positioned herself just at the edge of the hole.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure thing, if you don’t mind me workin’ on this gol-durned stump at the same time.” She turned her back to the object in question, looking over her shoulder to adjust her angle.

“OK,” said Spike, then took a deep breath. His next phase came out all in a rush: “I need some advice about Hearts and Hooves Day.”

With great precision and all the force she could muster, Applejack bucked at the stump, hoping with the motion to disengage the two stubborn and inconveniently deep roots that yet held it in place. Unfortunately, all it actually did was dislodge the log from the stump’s jagged underside and bring the latter creaking inevitably back down into its former home. “Darn it,” Applejack muttered. Then she turned to Spike, who had watched with interest. “You need advice on how to ask Rarity to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with you?”

“Well…” Spike traced a pattern in the dirt with one clawed foot. “Not exactly. See, I like Rarity… I really, really, really like Rarity… but…” He gave a hopeless sigh. “She still thinks of me as a kid.”

“Rarity is real sophisticated,” Applejack admitted. “I think she’d prefer somepony older.” She didn’t mention, as unhelpful, how little it improved matters that Twilight always referred to Spike, however affectionately, as a ‘baby dragon’ — which, though it might technically be true in terms of years, proportionally speaking, gave an inaccurate impression of Spike’s level of development and maturity.

“Yeah,” said Spike, wistful and admiring. “So sophisticated.”

“Won’t do any good to dwell on it,” Applejack said with matter-of-fact sympathy. “Who’re you gonna ask instead?” She was studying the stump from all sides again, trying to determine, since bucking hadn’t worked, what would be the most efficient method of getting it out of there.

“That’s…” She could hear him pawing the ground again, but presently this was overridden by a brief belching sound and the rustle of paper. “…actually what I want your advice about.”

She glanced over to find him holding a scroll that, as it unrolled, proved longer than he was tall. Stifling a laugh she commented, “You’ve been workin’ for Twilight for too long.”

“Do you think so?” Spike asked somewhat anxiously. “Just, she’s the first pony on my list…”

Applejack had gone back to examining the troublesome roots. “Just a joke, Spike,” she assured him with a grin. “Twilight’s a genius when it comes to organization, and that’s been useful to everypony in this town.” Moving to the wagon in whose bed her tools waited (not to mention a huge heap of firewood from the tree she’d felled), she hopped up. As she tossed her shovel shoes down over the side, their brief presence in her mouth muffled her subsequent words somewhat: “But for Hearts and Hooves Day, dontcha think you might like somepony a little more spontaneous? She’d probably put you on a tighter schedule than you’d really enjoy.”

Spike made a note on his list (she had no idea where he’d been keeping the quill) as Applejack jumped back down from the wagon. “Well, there’s Rainbow Dash,” he suggested, hovering the tip of his pen over another spot on the paper.

Applejack chuckled. “Can’t get better than Rainbow Dash for spontaneity!” Adjusting her shovel shoes and slipping her forehooves into them, she added, “Rainbow’s a lot of fun, too. You’d have an excitin’ Hearts and Hooves Day with her! She might wear you out, though; she doesn’t always notice when ponies around her don’t have as much energy as she does.”

“True,” Spike agreed with a nod, and jotted something down. “But I bet I wouldn’t have to worry about that with Fluttershy!”

Applejack had begun driving the blades now attached to her feet into the earth beside one of the problem roots. She would never be able to get at the stupid thing with a saw, but if she cleared the dirt down to a point where the root wasn’t so stubbornly thick, she could try an axe. And as she dug she replied to Spike’s latest proposal. “No, you’re right about that: Fluttershy’s always sensitive to ponies around her. You might have a sweet old time with her.” She paused in her vigorous attack on the ground and looked over at him with a rueful expression. “She really is shy, though, obvious as that sounds to say. She might be too bashful to enjoy anythin’ y’all decided to do together that day, if she even agreed in the first place.”

Spike nodded decisively, evidently accepting this assessment, and made another mark on his list. “You know who’s not shy, though?”

“Pinkie Pie?” Applejack speculated as she returned to her digging.

Spike sounded startled. “Yeah; how’d you know?”

“Lucky guess?” Digging down the sides of the root was proving somewhat tricky, and she was coming at it in bits and pieces from various angles.

“Well, yeah, then, what about Pinkie Pie?”

“She knows how to have fun if anypony does!” Applejack replied, the thought of the broadness of Pinkie’s definition of ‘fun’ making her grin. “And she can always come up with things to do, so y’all’d never be bored…”

As Applejack trailed off in the relative silence of the shovel shoes’ continued scraping thunks into the ground, Spike wondered, “But…?”

Somewhat reluctantly Applejack answered, “But dontcha think an entire day with just Pinkie might get a little… crazy? I’d never want to insinuate an earth pony wasn’t down-to-earth enough, but sometimes Pinkie Pie…”

“‘Possible sensory overload,'” Spike muttered as he scribbled.

Applejack gave a laugh of agreement, but found her smile turning to a faint frown as she looked at the dragon and his lengthy paper. “Now, just how many more names do you have on that there list?” she wondered warily.

“Oh, tons,” Spike replied. “There’s Cheerilee, and Rainbow’s friend Gilda, and Time Turner, and Vinyl Scratch, and Lyra, and Big McIntosh–”

Applejack was afraid she would have some disqualifying news about more than a few of the ponies Spike was considering, but on this topic as well as the conspicuous lack of one particular name she had no comment as yet. What she wanted to know next, gently interrupting the recital, was, “And why’d you come to me about this, Spike?”

“Because,” the dragon replied earnestly, lowering his paper and looking at her with big green eyes, “you’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything, I guess.”

“Well, you keep right on feelin’ that way,” Applejack told him with a smile that probably concealed very well the bittersweetness of this turn in the conversation. “But why this in particular?”

“You can tell me exactly what would be great about every one of our friends… and what wouldn’t be so great… as a special somepony for Hearts and Hooves day.” His looks and tone became despondent as he added, “And it seems like everypony has something about them that wouldn’t be so great…”

“Aw, Spike, you can’t think about it that way,” she chided kindly. “If I made it sound like any of our friends wouldn’t be a great choice for you to ask, I didn’t mean it. Nopony’s perfect; you’ll never find somepony who won’t have some problem. That’s the thing about havin’ a special somepony, even if it’s just for one day: you gotta work together to have fun in spite of everythin’ that ‘wouldn’t be so great.’ It takes a lot of hard work sometimes, but that just makes it better.”

“I guess,” he said a little doubtfully, looking down at his list again.

Applejack too returned her eyes downward. She’d made good progress on the root, but it was going to take as long again to render it accessible to an axe, and even once it was severed she would probably need to dig further along its length to free it from the constricting earth in order to lift the stump out. And then there was the other root.

“I think we could both use a break,” she said at length. “Wanna ride to the house for some cider before we tackle this again?”

“Sure!” With an air of some relief, Spike rerolled his paper and fire-breathed it back to whatever hiding place, hopefully safe from Twilight’s sharp eyes, it had originally come from (and perhaps his pen with it?).

Applejack, meanwhile, shed her shovel shoes and stretched out her forelegs. When she found the little dragon standing next to her, she reached out to grip between her teeth the spines just south of his neck and toss him up over her head and onto her back. His innocent laughter at the stunt energized her, and she crouched slightly, tensed to run. “Time me!” she commanded.

“All right!” His little clawed hands gripped her mane just beneath her hat. “Ready? Set? Go!”

There was a certain type of withholding of information that was not a lie by omission, but rather a recognition that the truth had not yet matured into an appreciable form. Though he might not be a kid, precisely, Spike was still young, and had a lot to learn, both of universal constants and specific possibilities, not to mention of himself. It would never do to try to rush him. And Applejack, for all Spike might value her honest advice, probably had a thing or two to pick up as well. They could figure it out together, given time.

For now, they just galloped off through the trees.

This story, which I’ve rated ,was for MangoFox’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “MLP fic where Spike has multiple romantic interests. So he goes to Applejack to get advice on whom to choose. But it turns out that Applejack is actually the best choice for him.” I did not watch a single episode to prepare myself for writing this, none of Spike’s sarcasm ever happened, much to my sorrow, and the implied Applejack & Spike ended up kinda vague. Ah, well.

For some further thoughts on this fic, see this Productivity Log.

Youma

Youma

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

Two professional women prepare for their very first night together.

Youma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–had apparently just arrived on the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One that’s open this late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

Sano was barely through the apartment door when he found himself practically knocked backward by the advent of a phone right in his face.

“What. Is this.” Katsu held his arm out at its full length and very straight, as if at its end lay something disgusting he wanted to keep as far from himself as possible… or a deadly weapon that required great steadiness and stiffness to aim.

It took Sano a moment to regain his balance, then another to focus on the small screen so immediately in front of him, but finally he managed to un-blur and properly parse the text. Then he said, “Oh.”

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

“‘Sano Sagara is… In a relationship with Hajime Saitou???'” Somehow his roommate managed to enunciate multiple question marks at the end of this statement quoted from his Facebook app.

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

“And you were planning on telling your best friend about this when?” Katsu finally withdrew the long arm and allowed Sano far enough into the apartment to close the door, bringing his phone back around toward his own face that now bore an expression both angry and forsaken.

In all honesty, Sano had counted on Katsu’s inconsistent Facebook usage to keep him from seeing the announcement for a while — possibly forever — so he could work him up gradually to hearing about this development. He didn’t plan on all honesty in this conversation, however (unless Katsu got him really worked up, which was always a possibility).

Thankfully, he had a little more time to decide how to break the news, for Katsu was now busy scrolling with a growing scowl on his face. “Who even is this guy. He looks familiar, but I don’t remember where I’ve seen him before. And you’ve never mentioned him–” Katsu looked back up at Sano with accusatory eyes– “but now you’re ‘in a relationship.’ A formal ‘relationship.'”

Sano cleared his throat. “I guess it did happen kinda fast…” he said evasively.

How fast.” Katsu seemed to have used up all his question marks on that earlier demand.

“I met him, like… less than two months ago?” Sano couldn’t recall the exact date. “At that fight outside the courthouse.”

“Don’t call it a ‘fight,’ Sano.” With disconcerting abruptness Katsu spoke with the wearily patient tone of remonstrance he used whenever Sano wasn’t demonstrating enough dedication to The Cause. “It was a riot, and with the amount of media coverage we got, I’d say it was– wait.” His expression, previously reminiscently calculating, suddenly snapped back into very present focus. “You knew everyone there already. Who could you possibly have… The only new people we ‘met’ were…” His eyes had widened just slightly with every word, and now they were very round indeed. “Sano…” he choked as light seemed to dawn. “Sano, please…”

“Please what?” Sano wondered uncomfortably, just as evasive as before.

Please tell me you’re not dating a cop.”

Sano’s gaze dropped to the floor. He really hadn’t been ready for this conversation.

“OH MY GOD SANO.” Katsu fell back a step, tugging at his hair with both hands. “Why– how– what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s none of your business.” He’d known Katsu’s reaction would annoy him, but wasn’t able to stave off the surliness even having seen it coming.

“It is my business! It’s bad enough my best friend has seen this guy I’ve never heard of enough lately to be ‘in a relationship’ with him… but on top of that, he’s a cop?!”

“Geez, Kats,” said Sano, stung, “does it really bug you more that he’s a cop than that I didn’t tell you?”

“Yes, because you only didn’t tell me because he is a cop.” Katsu could dismiss this concern, but not the other. “Because, seriously, Sano — the exact opposite of everything we are?”

“Most of ‘everything we are’ is unemployed, so, yeah, I guess he’s the opposite of that.” And there was some of that honesty in response to some of that getting worked up.

“I am not unemployed! I sell plenty of art! How do you think we pay rent?” Katsu’s righteous indignation shifted from defensive to betrayed in the middle of his retort. “Besides, I thought you wanted anarchy just as much as I do! How can you be dating the enemy like this?”

“Katsu, I don’t think anyone in the world wants anarchy as much as you do. And he’s not ‘the enemy;’ there is no ‘the enemy;’ he’s just a guy doing his job.”

“You’ve become one of them,” Katsu whispered.

“I was only really ever in it for the fighting and the cool t-shirts anyway,” Sano admitted.

“Like your shirt that says, ‘Fuck the police!?'” Katsu burst out.

“Well, maybe I just decided to take that literally.” Sano couldn’t help grinning as he said this, even if he was annoyed.

Katsu made a frustrated sound and, tugging at this hair again, spun away from Sano. The latter watched with some interest — still colored by irritation — as his roommate started making a peculiar sort of rounds about the room. He picked through the magazines on the coffee table, stacking most in the crook of his elbow; tucked all the coasters — most of them falling apart, since they were just the cheap cardboard kind, but all still visibly bearing the anarchy symbol — into his pocket; gathered up the three or four table-bound CD cases from local independent artists that still released to plastic in their attempts at bucking the system; and moved next to the shelves that held books and, farther down, DVD’s.

He’d been mumbling to himself the entire time, and now his words became slightly louder and more comprehensible. “This… and this… and everything by this guy… and this entire series… Most of this is going to have to go…”

“Katsu…” Sano watched in a mixture of amusement and frustration as Katsu piled more and more junk into his already overburdened arms. “What are you doing?”

“If we’re going to have a pig in here on a regular basis,” his friend replied haughtily, “some of this stuff is going to have to move into my bedroom.”

“You don’t have to do that, man.” Though he still found Katsu’s bustle somewhat entertaining, Sano was increasingly annoyed. “You really think I’d bring someone here who’d get you in trouble just for being an anarchist? That’s not a crime by itself, you know.”

Katsu only snorted.

“Besides, who says he’s going to be here in a regular basis?”

In exasperation Katsu pointed out, “You’re probably the most sexual person I know.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a bed.” Sano slept on an old mattress on the floor, and had no clue when he was likely to upgrade.

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

“And if you happen to be in our neighborhood instead of his?”

Sano cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I really want him to see my bedroom.”

Katsu turned to face him, his stack even bigger than previously and his jaw low. “You… finally found someone… whose opinion of your bedroom you care about that much…” His voice rose into an unhappy, incredulous shout. “…and he’s a cop?!

“Yeah, but my point is he’s not going to be around here all that much — and even if he was, he won’t care what your politics are like as long as you’re not actually breaking the law!”

Katsu snorted again and went back to collecting supposedly incriminating items. Sano sighed, having no idea what else to say.

The cumbersome load had risen above the level of Katsu’s mouth when he turned to face the south wall of the living room and gave a (consequently rather muffled) groan of despair. For against that wall, stacked several layers deep, stood his unsold paintings propped up and staring out over the room in all their bloody, symbolic, explosive, revolutionary glory. There really was nowhere else to store them — they took up half the space in here, and, besides, there were already more in both bedrooms and some of the kitchen cupboards — and there was no hiding the anti-government sentiment that had driven their creation. It was an immovable and undeniable monument to Katsu’s anarchism, and he groaned again as he stared at them.

“Katsu… It’s fine.” But for all Katsu seemed to hear him, Sano might as well not have spoken.

“I could throw a sheet over them…” This tone sounded more hopeful than either of Katsu’s groans, though the proposed solution wouldn’t help with the art on the walls (the pieces Katsu, for whatever reason, hadn’t wanted to sell).

In any case he didn’t get the chance to throw a sheet over anything, for at that moment there came a knock at the door. They both jumped, undoubtedly for different reasons, and then Katsu backed away suspiciously while Sano moved sheepishly forward.

“I thought you were just stepping in to grab your cell phone charger.” And there, badge and gun visible and everything, was Saitou, raising his eyebrows at Sano once the latter had admitted him and then looking around the room.

“Yeah, I, uh…” This was not how he had planned to introduce his boyfriend to his roommate, this was not how he had planned Saitou’s first impression of his home life, and this was not how he had planned this afternoon to go.

Katsu, at whom Sano had glanced involuntarily as if in silent explanation of what was taking him so long in here, gave him a scathing I told you so look before transferring the force of his glare over the top of his armful to the newly arrived police officer. Saitou barely looked at him, however; instead his attention seemed to be caught immediately by one of the hanging paintings, and he moved toward it unblinking.

Despite everything he’d said, Sano couldn’t help some nervousness as he watched his boyfriend approach this canvas his best friend had slaved over and liked so much he couldn’t bear to part with. Saitou could be very, not to say excessively harsh at times, and, though Sano truly believed he wouldn’t try to get Katsu into trouble over this, he might make some criticism that would be, in Katsu’s mind, just as bad.

But what he said, astonishing even Sano, was “I remember this one. The military force that has that family cornered looks even more oppressive in person.” He nodded sharply in clear approval. “But my favorite is still…” And he swung around abruptly, quickly scanning the other hanging artwork and then the front row of those stacked against the wall. “…this one, with the dark angel about to exact vengeance on the abusive cop.”

“I’da thought that one would be your least favorite,” Sano chuckled. This wasn’t going as he’d expected, but it was an unexpected he could deal with.

Saitou’s return smile was very grim, and he said in that intense tone that always sent shivers up and down Sano’s spine, “I won’t tolerate abuse of power. If we had an avenging angel on the force, my job would be easier.”

A set of thuds, variegated in sound (as it were), came from behind them, and they turned to find Katsu had completely unburdened himself with arms that seemed to have gone limp in their sockets. Books and magazines and CD’s and DVD’s slid haphazardly off the coffee table where he’d dropped them, but, eyes locked on Saitou and mouth slightly agape, Katsu didn’t seem to notice. “Are you… DireGold…?”

Saitou seemed to really look at Katsu for the first time. “I am. Are you Four Brushstrokes?”

Sano was, of course, still somewhat flabbergasted at finding his boyfriend familiar with the fruits of his roommate’s profession, but his shock couldn’t come anywhere close to Katsu’s. His jaw quivered, and the lips of his open mouth trembled, but no sound emerged, until finally Sano provided the affirmative Katsu was obviously incapable of giving.

Saitou nodded. “Interesting that you’d turn out to be Sano’s roommate. Your art is a much better use of your energy than the political movement it embodies, but at least in either case–” glancing at Sano with a quirk of lips– “you use your energy for something.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, almost drowning out the whisper Katsu managed at last:

“But… you’re a cop… and you’ve commented on so much of my stuff…”

If Saitou’s smirk was any indication, he hadn’t missed how wild a loop Katsu had been thrown for or just how upside-down he’d landed. But all he did was shrug and say, with almost pointed casualness, “I like what I like.” Then, as if to demonstrate, turning toward Sano with the same exaggerated unconcern (which was only making this worse for Katsu, which Saitou obviously recognized), he added, “Do you have your charger? Shall we go?”

Not sure what to think, or whether to laugh or tremble at this new development, or what to expect from the future, Sano hastened into his mattressroom to get what he’d come for. From the adjacent chamber he heard the ridiculously bland comment from his boyfriend, “I might even be interested in buying this one, if it’s for sale,” but all that came from his friend was a sort of choking gurgle. By the time he got back in there, Saitou had stepped to the door and was conspicuously not looking at Katsu again. When he saw Sano returning he said, “Nice to meet you,” in a deceptively polite tone, and stepped out.

As the door swung mostly shut, Sano demanded of his friend, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” said Katsu hoarsely. “Yes. Don’t let me keep you from your date or whatever.” And, though the look on his face was still entirely poleaxed and the sound of his voice temporarily soulless, the words at least were calm and rational. Sano still hesitated a bit before walking away, but did eventually move to go. And before he made it entirely out of the apartment, he heard his roommate say to himself in a harsh mutter, “I’ve got to think about this…”

This was for leb’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “modern au. extremem anarchist punk sano n katsu. katsu finds out his friend is dating acop n is disappointed. hilarity ensues?????” I don’t know that all that much hilarity actually found its way into this piece, but I still think it’s kinda cute.

I’ve rated this fic . For some further thoughts on it, see this Productivity Log.

Unboxing Party

Unboxing Party

Though Saitou generally walked home from work, using the negligible distance between the station and his house as a cooldown period after the business of the day and to orient himself toward what waited at home, today he hired a carriage. The parcels that had been delivered earlier were too numerous and too unwieldy — individually and in combination — to carry conveniently on foot. He could have had them delivered to the house instead, but hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise.

Of course, the more leisure he had to stare at the things undistracted by his usual evening walk, the more opportunity there was for doubts to return. He’d never really been sure of this plan; it had taken him months to concoct it, almost as long to decide he wasn’t crazy just for considering it, and another small eternity to act upon it, and he still couldn’t be sure he — its source of inception, initiation, funding, and presumably follow-through — believed it a good idea.

At this point there really did seem little to be done, however; the decision had been made along with the order. There were a few possibilities for backing out, but no pleasant ones, so Saitou might as well just proceed as he’d intended.

The cab driver would have helped him inside with his burdens — out of, Saitou believed, actual courtesy more than the desire for a bigger tip — but the officer, preferring to maintain the privacy of his home as much as possible, declined the offer. It was a bit of a hassle getting all the boxes inside, and Sano was footworking around him like an anticipatory monkey and making almost comparable noises of wild curiosity by the time they were all situated in the bedroom, but eventually Saitou did get the driver paid and dismissed and turned his attention to the evening’s real business.

Sano was crouched next to the largest of the boxes in a position that reminded Saitou of that assumed by children playing chicken-scratch games in the dirt, examining its neat cardboard edges and the foreign logo stamped on its top with great interest. As Saitou reentered the room he commented, “This is some fancy shit! What are these?”

“They’re for you,” Saitou replied. “Are your hands clean?”

Sano’s brows rose as he glanced again at all of the parcels, then down at his hands. These didn’t look too bad, but Saitou wasn’t taking any chances. “Go wash up,” he commanded. “This was all too expensive for you to ruin immediately with your lack of hygiene.”

“Hey, I had a bath just yesterday!” This protest was made only as Sano scrambled to his feet, however; it seemed he was too curious about the contents of the boxes to argue much. He went in haste to the basin and, after staring somewhat suspiciously into it — whether assessing the state of the water or silently resenting the need to wash his hands at all Saitou couldn’t be sure — plunged in halfway up his forearms and splashed around for a few moments. How effective this actually was for purposes of cleanliness Saitou also couldn’t be sure, but since Sano’s hands hadn’t been terrible in the first place, he accepted the young man’s presence next to the parcels again after not too long without complaint.

“All right!” Sano bounced up and down on his knees a little in excitement; he wasn’t used to receiving presents.

“Go ahead.” Saitou pushed the biggest of the boxes, the one Sano had been examining closest before, toward him.

Unnecessarily thoughtless and energetic though he sometimes was, Sano did have the capacity to act like a normal, rational person at times. If Saitou had feared he would damage the packages or their contents in the process of unboxing, his worries were allayed now as Sano undid the fastening strings and lifted the lid with unusual care. A layer of thin, crinkly paper protected the contents, and this too he folded aside with responsible fingers. Then he sat back for a long moment and simply stared.

Since entering the house, nothing had occurred to ease Saitou’s doubts. This had probably been a bad idea from the beginning, and, though he was fully committed to it now, it hadn’t really gotten any better. Except that then, as the full implications of the gift seemed to hit Sano all at once, he looked up at Saitou with a sudden smile and enthusiastic energy as bright and hot as a Tokyo summer, and all the officer’s issues with this decision were abruptly blown away.

On occasion — far oftener than he liked, in fact — Saitou was required to attend gatherings such as private music recitals, European wine-tastings, lectures with drinks and discussion afterward, dances (for god’s sake), and just general-purpose parties held by the rich and influential of Tokyo’s upper crust.

It had started with him grudgingly volunteering to represent the police force at certain official occasions to which they’d been invited to send a delegate — a task he only undertook because such get-togethers had the potential to provide him with useful information about the precise type of people it was his real job to investigate, and a chore he was fairly sure Uramura silently thanked him on a regular basis for accepting as that meant he didn’t have to do it — but eventually, usefully but to his chagrin, Lieutenant Investigator Fujita Gorou had begun to develop a certain reputation as a man that enjoyed a life somewhat above his own and would snap up any classy invitation that happened to come his way.

Loathing the entire business — this impression of himself, the condescending amusement with which many of these nouveau riche treated him as a result, and the necessity of attending these phenomenally dull and overly westernized events in the first place — Saitou accepted the invitations with squint-eyed gratitude and continued to gather incriminating or suggestive evidence from circumstances observable and gossip overhearable.

The first time Sano had appealed to Saitou to take him along to one of these parties, Saitou had dismissed it as a joke and thought no more of it. The second time, however, given how vehemently (for him) he’d just been complaining about the musical revue he’d been forced to attend and the offensive insipidity of the group that had gathered for drinks thereafter, he was shocked Sano would repeat such an entreaty, and in such a straightforward tone; so he was forced to take the request more seriously and wonder aloud why on earth his lover should think he wanted to join him in such a dreadful activity.

Sano had appeared a little embarrassed at the question, but answered readily enough. “Well, you know, I was born dirt-poor… My family lived pretty hand-to-mouth while I was growing up, and I never actually made all that much money in the fighting business… And now I live with you, and you make decent money, and I’m really comfortable here…”

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

“Yeah,” Sano allowed. “Yeah. The point is, I’ll never be that person — that guy who gets all dressed up in fancy clothes and goes to a party full of rich people and drinks expensive wine or whatever. I’ll never live that life.”

“And you’d like to see what it would be like to freeload at a higher level,” Saitou finished for him.

Sano’s grin was sheepish, but also perhaps a little wistful. “I just think it’d be cool to see what that’s like.”

“But you don’t need to be that person.” It was as close as Saitou could come to telling him, “I love you exactly as you are.”

Sano had seemed to understand, though; it was remarkable how often he understood the things Saitou couldn’t say. His smile had softened, and as he sat up and shifted over to press himself against the older man, he said, “And the life I do live is pretty damn satisfying anyway.” After which they were too distracted to discuss anything as boring as the previous topic any more that night.

The third time Sano had asked, it had been in a more belligerent tone than previously — “So when are you gonna take me to one of these parties already?” — and Saitou might well have dismissed it once again, as he had in the first instance, if he hadn’t heard Sano’s reasoning the last time this had come up and reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request. Odd as it seemed, especially when Saitou had made no secret of how much he hated the things, Sano legitimately wanted to attend one. One was probably all it would take to show him just what he wasn’t missing, but that one seemed to be important to him. And what was important to Sano was, sometimes very grudgingly, important to Saitou.

So now Sano opened box after box containing the various pieces of a fine (and expensive) suit of clothing provided by a French designer currently based in Yokohama: shirt and pants, tailcoat, waistcoat, white tie, gloves, a set of silk handkerchiefs with an embroidered ‘S’ in one corner for versatility, shoes, and an utterly ridiculous piece of headwear called a ‘top hat,’ all of which would fit in impeccably at one of these hyper-European gatherings he was so interested in suffering through.

“I don’t believe this,” he was commenting in supreme glee as he smoothed out the dark grey vest with a huge grin on his face. “Is all this gonna fit me?”

“It fits me,” Saitou replied with half a shrug. They’d long since determined their bodies to be similar enough in shape and size that they could easily wear each other’s clothing — though how this would apply to European garb remained to be seen.

Sano looked up at him with an enchanted smile. “You went and got fitted for all this?”

“I thought it might be useful to have a western evening suit around.” Saitou didn’t bother getting into details of just how uncomfortable it had been dealing with the French couturier. “You can wear it to the party tonight, and then I’ll have it if I need it in the future.” And he also didn’t mention that, although this was perfectly true, he would never even have begun to consider purchasing such a thing if he hadn’t wanted it specifically for Sano.

“Oh, so it’s not really ‘for me.'” Sano didn’t seem at all put off by this information, and continued to grin over their object of discussion with great delight. “It’s really just a loan.”

“That’s right. Now let’s get you into it.”

Sano jumped up with alacrity and began shedding his clothing almost as quickly as he was wont to do under much different circumstances in this room. As he did so he asked, “What are you wearing?”

“My police uniform, as always.” Fujita-kun’s reputation, after all, involved a touch of stuffed-shirtedness.

“All right.” Sano held up the trousers he’d pulled fully from their box. “But I wanna see you in this sometime too.”

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

At the shop in Yokohama, one aspect of the fitting had been a careful training session on how to wear all these articles. Saitou had wanted to be absolutely certain he could get the things onto Sano and start his festive evening out properly, and just looking at some of them there had been some initial confusion. After that there had been some… well, not embarrassment, exactly, but certainly an enhancement of his discomfort as the French designer and his assistant had obviously discerned without needing to be told that Saitou was ordering these clothes for someone else… and what his relationship with that someone must be. Since the aforementioned two gentlemen seemed to have the same relationship, this had evidently raised him in their opinion… but it had also raised the familiarity with which they treated him, and, given he was half naked much of that time, that had only made things all the more awkward for Saitou.

Sano would never know what his wolf had gone through for his sake, however, since Saitou didn’t plan to mention it. And Sano was certainly in nothing but a good mood now as, with a fair amount of assistance, he donned the pieces in the correct order and manner and made himself into an imitation of a French gentleman of the latest mode. Once his hair was combed out of its chaos and into smoothed-back, shining locks, he was ready for the top hat and a thorough examination from all angles.

“Well?” he wondered when Saitou had prowled all around him twice, eyeing him from head to toe.

Saitou did not immediately reply. Sano looked… well, he looked absurdly handsome and desirable… but also… alien. This ensemble that not only partook of a completely different culture but represented, to Saitou, much of what he disliked about modern times… it suited Sano on one level, the most superficial, but not in any more profound way. Saitou would like nothing better, for more than one reason, than to strip it all off of him again.

At the same time, though, Sano’s delight at his finery and the prospect of attending a party in it was almost luminous. Saitou still didn’t quite understand this desire, but his own confusion, the awkwardness and discomfort he’d gone through, the amount of money he’d laid out to get to this point — even the sight of the person he cared about most wearing, essentially, the uniform of many of his enemies — seemed entirely worthwhile to witness such purity of joy and anticipation in his lover’s face and bearing.

“Very French,” he said at last.

Even Sano’s snort in response sounded happy. “Well, when does the party start?”

“We need to get going. We’re going to be fashionably late as it is.”

Sano’s eyes widened. “‘Fashionably late?’ Is that a thing??”

“Damn,” Saitou muttered, and led the way out of the room.

The rest of the night was certainly going to be interesting. Saitou would introduce Sano to his host simply by name without appending further information, and leave him to his own devices. Then Sano would wander around the place with his thug’s saunter intruding on private conversations; demonstrate that he spoke neither French, English, nor German — nor even particularly good Japanese — in his loud, uncultured accent; eat all the food, possibly commenting uninformedly on its origin and composition, and drink far too much; start arguments and maybe even pick fights; and thoroughly and unabashedly enjoy every last brutish, ignorant second of it. He was going to ruin this party, and Saitou looked forward to it almost as much as he did.

This story, which I’ve rated , was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” For some author’s notes from not long after I wrote it, see this Productivity Log.

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

Prison of Their Own Making

Prison of Their Own Making

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered.

Tom Felton organizes a silly little reunion, and it gets sillier.

Prison of Their Own Making

When Tom stepped from his car into the parking lot to meet his friends, he was a little dismayed if not particularly surprised to find a grand total of two people waiting for him — only Daniel and Emma, the ones he saw most routinely anyway — at the specified time.

After hugs and handclasps of greeting, Emma looked around curiously and commented, “I thought you invited everyone.”

Tom shrugged. “I guess everyone’s busy.”

I’m very busy,” Emma replied in a mock huffy tone, “and I’m here.”

With a laugh Tom put a comradely arm around her shoulders and hugged her again. “It’s really good to see you guys.”

Daniel too was scanning the area. “It is,” he agreed, shrugging slightly as he turned back without having found a trace of any of their other friends. “So what are we doing, exactly?”

Tom frowned across the lot at their destination, then threw one last, futile glance at the empty parking spaces nearby. “Well, I’d like to wait and see if anyone else shows up, but we’re scheduled for 4:00, so we’d better go inside.”

“That doesn’t actually answer the question, though,” Emma pointed out as they crossed toward the tinted glass doors awaiting them.

Tom grinned. “You’ll see inside.” The others rolled their eyes at this pointed but pointless mystery, but didn’t hesitate to accompany him.

They did see inside, and the continued rolling of eyes and a certain amount of gaping once they were there prevented any further comments from Daniel or Emma as Tom got them checked in. “Felton?” the attendant was saying, flipping through pages on a clipboard. “Yeah, we’ve got you down for four, but I thought you were going to have a lot more people with you?”

“Seems like all our other friends are gits who can’t show up on time to a reunion get-together,” Tom explained. “I thought we’d get started, and if anyone else arrives you can let them in, all right?”

Although this arrangement didn’t entirely seem to suit the attendant, he nevertheless agreed; Tom had paid him a decent amount of money. After some picky business with waivers the man didn’t even look at once they were all filled out, he ushered them down a narrow hallway to where a set of lockers stood across from a dark door. Once he’d allowed Emma to stow her purse in the former, he drew their attention to the latter and began giving instructions. These dragged on for what seemed an unnecessary length of time, perhaps because the only one of the three to respond and confirm he was actually paying attention was Tom; the others maintained a dubious silence. But finally the man finished his dissertation, handed each of them a large round button with a pin on the back for attaching to one’s clothing, and stepped past them to open the door and allow them to enter.

Inside what proved to be a cramped but high-ceiling’d entry or antechamber, the moment the way behind them was closed, Daniel and Emma rounded immediately on Tom with expressions of skeptical amusement and demanded almost in unison, “A Harry-Potter-themed escape room?”

Tom’s grin was part sheepishness and part cheek. “When I saw they had one, I couldn’t resist.”

“Of all the silly things to drag me away from everything I was busy with…” Emma was rolling her eyes again, but she laughed as she said it.

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered at about the same moment.

Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. You’d think he would, but it’s been so long…”

“Well…” Emma turned away from them to examine the tiny room. “We only have an hour, right? Since we’re here, we might as well get going on it.”

The nature of the first puzzle was immediately apparent. A big wooden door with an old-fashioned wrought-iron handle and lock blocked their path, the keyhole gaping at them like a taunting mouth. And above them, too far up to be reached even with a skillful vertical spring, myriad winged keys dangled on strings from the distant ceiling. A fan seemed to be running up there, for the keys spun and jostled and clinked together in not too bad an imitation of the scene from the film.

Finished peering into the jingling dimness, Daniel dropped his eyes to the more accessible parts of the room again. “There’s no broom…”

And this is reality,” Emma reminded him. “How were you expecting to fly up there?”

Now it was Daniel’s turn to look a little sheepish. “I thought if I could find a broom and sit on it, the right key might fall down.”

“It’s sure to fall down if we do something,” Tom mused.

At that moment the door behind them opened once again, and they were joined by Rupert, who came bounding into the small space and immediately clapped Tom on the back. “All right, guys? Tom, you’re a genius! I would have never guessed this was your idea! How did you find this place?”

“Online, of course,” Tom told him, returning the slap on the back.

Daniel winced even as he moved to take his turn greeting Rupert. “You look at Harry Potter stuff online?”

“So what are we doing here?” Rupert wondered before Tom could answer the somewhat loaded question.

“Trying to get the right key to come down to open this door,” Emma explained as she hugged him in her turn. “And before you ask, there’s no broom.”

“Well, and this is reality anyway,” Rupert allowed.

“It was the natural first thing to look for!” protested Daniel.

“But there is a wand over there.” Everyone followed Rupert’s pointing finger, wondering how he’d noticed when he’d been in the room a fraction of the time they had.

Emma moved to snatch the prop from the little wall-mounted shelf where it lay beside a vase of fake flowers. Examining it, she said, “This is one of those official replicas. I think it’s Draco’s.”

“Let me see,” said the admitted Draco expert. And when he too had studied it for a moment he confirmed, “Yeah, this one’s mine. But I don’t remember the fetching-things spell.”

“Accio,” Daniel supplied with a grin. “I should really know.”

Tom thanked him and pointed the wand upward. “Accio key!”

Emma’s amused reminiscent murmur of “Swish and flick!” was drowned out by the sound of the shelf from which they’d retrieved the wand crashing from its supports down against the wall and the vase that had previously rested upon it — apparently made of nothing more delicate than plastic — falling to the floor.

“Oh, crap, we broke the escape room,” Tom muttered as he lowered his wand. He looked guiltily toward the door, expecting the attendant to enter at any moment and demand what they were playing at not five minutes into this challenge.

“No, I think that was supposed to happen.” Daniel bent thoughtfully to pick up the fallen vase and gather its silk flowers. “That was sort of like what happened when I — when Harry tried to use a wand that wasn’t right for him. Remember?”

“That’s right!” Rupert pointed at Daniel enthusiastically as he agreed with the theory. “We have to find a different wand!” And he began poking into the room’s darker corners.

As they all searched, the main door opened again and admitted Evanna into what was by now a very crowded space indeed. Hugs were getting difficult, but they managed them, and then the newcomer wondered what they were all looking for. Once Tom explained, she shook her head with a smile.

“But it won’t be a different wand. It’ll be the same wand, only somebody else has to use it.”

Their foolish looks at each other indicated their concurrence with this idea they wished they’d thought of sooner.

“We could all try it,” Daniel suggested reluctantly, glancing around. “There’s not much else to destroy in here if we get it wrong.”

But Emma said suddenly, “No, I get it! It’s Draco’s wand, so it can only be used by whichever of us got assigned Slytherin — that’s you, Dan.”

They all looked down at the buttons they wore. Tom had fastened his on without really paying attention — the attendant had still been talking at that point, and all he’d said about these accoutrements was that they would provide valuable clues — but now as he handed the wand over to Daniel he remarked, “I always did rather fancy Hufflepuff.”

This time when Daniel pointed the wand upward and confidently said, “Accio key!” nothing in the room around them fell apart… but if there was a more positive effect, they all missed it, for just as he spoke, the entrance opened again and Bonnie came in.

There was now barely room to move in here, and as everyone shuffled awkwardly around trying to greet their friend, it wasn’t even clear who muttered, “We really need to get this door open.”

“And what are we doing to get the door open?” Bonnie asked. With a glance at the dangling keys that evidently apprised her of the situation, she added, “I guess we can’t fly up there with a broom in real life.”

It was clear who snorted at this.

“We were trying to summon it,” Rupert explained.

“That… usually doesn’t work in real life either,” Bonnie pointed out with laughter in her tone.

Daniel just raised the wand again, nearly taking Evanna’s eye out as he did so. “Accio key!”

Nothing happened.

“Try pronouncing it ‘ax-ee-oh,'” Tom suggested. It was getting pretty hot in here, and he hoped uneasily that everyone was wearing antiperspirant.

And when the altered pronunciation too produced no results, Emma wondered, “Are we sure this is right?”

Evanna said, “I think you need to be more specific with the spell.”

Bonnie agreed. “Yeah, you have to say which key you want.”

“I can’t see any of them clearly, though,” Daniel complained, gently head-bashing Rupert as he craned his neck to look upward. “What should I say?”

“Which key was it in the film?” someone asked.

“I wasn’t even in the studio when you guys filmed that scene.” Tom started to shrug, then, finding his two arms pressed up against Emma’s back and Rupert’s side, respectively, thought better of it.

“I wasn’t even in the franchise when you guys filmed that scene,” Evanna put in.

“But there was a line about it,” Emma insisted. She added at a mutter, trying to remember, “What was it?”

“I’ve done a lot of other films since then,” Daniel said helplessly.

I’ve been driving an ice cream truck.” This was apparently all Rupert had to offer.

Tom advised, “Just try everything you can think of.”

“Accio correct key!” Daniel jabbed the wand toward the ceiling again. “Accio the key we need!”

“Try colors,” someone suggested.

“Accio black key! Accio brown key! Accio silver key! Accio rainbow key!”

“That’s a lot of keys!” came another voice from the newly opened door — the statement and a slight, very refreshing breeze from the orifice were the first indications of James’s presence.

“Yeah, do we really need all of those keys?” Oliver wedged himself in beside his brother, cheerfully eliminating the very last of the available space. “Or would just the rainbow one do?” And as the entry closed behind the twins, verbal pandemonium broke out.

Far above the reunited group now packed like sardines into the little escape room antechamber, unseen but not unseeing, seated on the fluffiest of clouds overlooking the bustling Earth, two winged men shared a bowl of celestial peanuts. These came up honey-roasted for one, lightly salted for the other, as each preferred, and now the elder of the two — though it was difficult to distinguish ages in this context — plucked one nut from the container and flicked it down toward the subject of their entertainment. It faded away into nothingness as it fell, unlike his chuckling lament, “They’ve wasted twenty minutes on just the first puzzle!”

“‘We’re looking for a big old-fashioned one,'” the younger man quoted. “‘Probably rusty like the handle.’ ‘The one with the broken wing.'” And he shook his head with a wry smile.

“Now, Alan, you have to remember that they don’t have nearly as much freedom as we do to marathon all eight films whenever they please.”

“You still think they can make it?”

“They always worked together well in the studio.”

“I think you’re going to end up owing me twenty wingfeathers, Richard.” Alan rattled his own angelic appendages in satisfaction.

“Bets aren’t binding in Heaven,” Richard replied piously.

“Which is why we came down here to watch,” said Alan with a grin. “Look, he’s trying the spell again.”

And with another handful of peanuts apiece, the two divine messengers returned their attention to the scene below and their friends’ sporting attempt at finding a way out of a dark, crowded, sweaty, and ridiculously appropriate prison of their own making.

This was for my very own mother’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “The child actors that play the HPworld characters do a HP escape room. Although maybe as adults.” I was not expecting any RPF prompts for this, least of all from my mom XD Hopefully nobody that reads this piece knows how any of these people actually act or talk, since I purely made it all up. Also, at the time it may have been Too Soon re: Alan Rickman, but there it is.

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

It’s Curtains For You

It’s Curtains For You

Indifferent as he was to most westernization, Saitou had a distinct opinion on the new curtains. They were part of a continual project intended to ‘increase the comfort and convenience and augment the dignity of the much-respected Tokyo police force,’ a project that had strangers in and out of his office on a regular basis taking measurements and assessing colors. The result was gaudy and provokingly red, didn’t necessarily match the fresh wallpaper as well as they believed it did, not to mention something that would require dusting or laundering or airing or whatever you did with long curtains — which meant further invasion of his privacy on a regular basis with no foreseeable end.

And it wasn’t as if the window needed any covering… This second-floor chamber wasn’t susceptible to invasion through that route — not that the curtains would do much good if it were — and even an assassin with a powerful weapon would never have the office’s occupant in his line of sight since Saitou’s desk was a good six feet forward. Still, he would probably get used to the stupid things eventually.

It was ironic, when he’d just been grouching about the advent of intruders unrelated to police business in his space, how his heart leapt at the sight of Sano’s head poking through the door. And there was something like the exact opposite of irony — a feeling of interest, of piquancy, based not on contradiction but on precise similarity — about the way Sano’s face lit up when he saw Saitou.

“Here you are!” the rooster said cheerfully as he opened the way more fully and stepped inside, closing it firmly behind him. He studied the office with a quick and seemingly fairly negligent eye before returning his happy gaze to Saitou and sauntering toward him. “This is nice! I’ve never seen this part of the station before, only the shitty downstairs.” As something seemed to occur to him, he frowned slightly and added, “Funny how it gets less Japanese as it gets nicer up here.”

A recent conflation of ‘refurbish’ or ‘improve’ with ‘westernize’ was one aspect of the movement Saitou did actively disapprove of, but, though he admired Sano for making the point, he was too impatient to know something else to pursue that topic right now. “How did you find my office? Have you been invading every room on the second floor looking for me?”

“Well, only the unlocked ones,” Sano replied without compunction, placing both hands on Saitou’s desk and bending to give him a cheeky grin. “And I only just peeked in to see if I had the right room; I didn’t interrupt anything.”

Saitou leaned back in his chair and, after a long drag, blew cigarette smoke up into the young man’s face. The harshest expression he could command, however, was a wry smile at the thought of Sano startling every single officer and secretary all along the hallway in his quest to visit his relatively new lover at work for the very first time. He tried to concoct a reprimand, but his brain kept stumbling over that idea — Sano was visiting him at work — and suggesting statements and actions completely different both from what needed to be said and done and even what was feasible to say and do in this context. Finally all he managed was, “Well, now that you know where my office is, you can avoid harassing my co-workers going forward.”

“That sounds like an invitation to come back in here whenever I feel like it.” Sano’s grin had intensified, and now he knelt upward onto the desk, drawing his second leg after so he straddled the paperwork Saitou had been busy with and the wolf would be forced to reach right between his wide-angled thighs should he wish to rescue it.

“You have a gift for selective interpretation.” Not favoring how inaccessibly far above him Sano’s face now hovered, Saitou stood, reaching past the young man on the desk to stub out his cigarette in the ash tray as he did so. This was going to fully confirm the presumed invitation for Sano to return routinely, but to be honest Saitou hadn’t really planned on contradicting it. Instead he put one hand on each of Sano’s knees to protect the stack of sheets in between, and moved in close.

Sano’s arms wrapped eagerly around Saitou’s neck, crossing at the wrists as he tilted forward to bring his face nearer the other man’s. “What time do you get off?” he asked in a tone that was half faux-casual flirtation and half ridiculous husky seduction.

“Not until I get you into bed,” Saitou replied with a smirk, sliding his hands off Sano’s knees and halfway up his thighs on the inside curve, ruffling the overshadowed and largely forgotten papers.

Sano chuckled appreciatively and bent to close the distance between them. His breath tasted like sake and something slightly spicy and the even spicier anticipation of the promised nighttime activity.

Just then, noisy booted footsteps came pounding up the hallway outside so quickly and loudly that both men looked toward the door. “Chou,” Saitou muttered in some irritation, withdrawing his hands disappointingly from their sneaky upward progress.

Sano grunted in similar annoyance and, bracing himself abruptly on Saitou’s shoulders, gave a little spring off the desk, barely missing sending the entire stack of paperwork flying. He’d no sooner hit the floor on the far side from the room’s entrance than he’d ducked behind one of the unnecessarily elaborate curtains beside the window and concealed himself completely.

Saitou wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Yes, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and, yes, they’d been in a pretty compromising position just now, but if Sano planned on making these visits a regular thing, trying to keep them a secret from Saitou’s assistant seemed futile and not worth the effort. Still, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and Saitou did take a certain amount of delight in the delicious novel privacy of Sano’s presence.

He didn’t really have time to decide one way or another, since the aforementioned assistant came bursting in without knocking — they might need to have a conversation about knocking — and breathlessly right up to his desk without a pause. He slammed his hands down in a louder version of Sano’s earlier gesture and gasped out, “Commissioner’s on his way!”

“Thank you, Chou.” Both Saitou’s statement and the nod that accompanied it were slightly exaggerated in response to the over-the-top delivery of this mundane news. And when Chou continued to lean on the desk and catch his breath Saitou was forced to add, “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Grudgingly Chou acknowledged this dismissal by standing straight and backing away a step. “You sure you don’t want me to–“

Saitou cut him off before he could complete whatever spurious offer he was about to make as an excuse to stick around and eavesdrop like the gossip he was. “I’m sure.”

“All right, fine.” And the broomhead made an exit as exaggerated as his entrance had been.

The latch had barely clicked when Sano’s warm hands were on Saitou’s neck, moving up and down in a stroking, almost massaging motion he liked very much. But the comment Sano had to make was, “Nice of him to warn you like that.”

“He does think he’s being nice,” Saitou admitted, giving Chou credit he rarely afforded him in person. “He’s the type of person who never wants his boss to drop by unexpectedly, and he assumes I feel the same.”

“And you think I’m like that too,” Sano concluded from Saitou’s tone, indignant but simultaneously laughing a little.

“You did approve his choice to come in here and ‘warn’ me.”

Taking hold of Saitou’s earlobes and using them as handles to tilt the officer’s entire head back, Sano looked down into his face with a stern expression. “I approved,” he said, “his choice to try to make your day easier.”

“You might make the same choice now and then,” Saitou smirked as Sano’s lips descended.

Before they could come to rest, however, there was a proper knock at the door. Saitou found he’d been balancing his seat on its two rear legs as he leaned back to look at Sano upside-down, for as his lover released him and darted behind the curtain once more, the chair thumped onto the rug below with surprising heaviness. It made Saitou’s “Come in” come out with more vehemence than he’d intended.

Here was, as Chou had indicated, Kawaji, accompanied for the moment by Uramura, though Saitou knew full well the police chief would be dismissed presently without much reason given. He always went with good grace, knowing ‘Fujita-kun’ to be more than what he’d ever been let in on, but while he remained in the room there was a sort of wistful curiosity about his every word and gesture that amused Saitou faintly — though perhaps not as much as, uncharitably, did his awareness that, at this private meeting between commissioner and agent, a former kenkaya and present layabout with no connection to the force except that he was fucking one of its members would be hearing all the interesting details the loyal and discreet Uramura was barred from (and probably wouldn’t even find them all that interesting).

And they weren’t all that interesting. It was a pretty standard meeting with Kawaji: important, engrossing, but nothing to get fired up about. Saitou paid no less attention and responded with no less engagement than usual, and Kawaji certainly didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary… and yet there was a distinct difference to the proceedings in Saitou’s mind that unquestionably sprang from the awareness of what waited for him behind that luxurious curtain. He had a hidden muse, a beautiful secret that made no real difference to the scene except to add an undercurrent of irrelevant entertainment as long as the conference lasted and a crackling anticipation for the moment it ended.

Eventually it did end, no sooner or later than they ever did, and, though Saitou hadn’t been impatient, precisely, he did feel something like relief — and definitely something like excitement! — as he watched Kawaji’s diminutive form disappear out the door. And once again, before the latter was even completely closed, Sano was upon him.

Whatever interest or amusement mirroring Saitou’s Sano had or hadn’t felt back there, he was evidently tired of running out of time and getting interrupted, for in this instance he wasted no words: he stepped immediately around into the narrow space between the seated Saitou and the desk, leaned down, and, braced firmly on the armrests, kissed him thoroughly. Saitou did not protest that he should really get back to work, glorying as he was in the taste and smell and nearness of Sano, the feel of his tongue in his mouth, and wishing this chair were big enough for Sano to fulfill the movement toward which he was obviously inclined and crawl into Saitou’s lap somehow. In fact gloved hands were making ineffectual tugging gestures at Sano’s flanks beneath the open, dangling sides of his gi.

And then they heard Chou’s boots in the hall again.

The sound Sano made as he broke free of the kiss and slipped away was almost more a laugh than a frustrated sigh, and Saitou rolled his eyes. It was annoying, but not as if they wouldn’t have plenty of opportunity for this kind of thing in days to come, or kiss many times over and much more intimately tonight after work. The newness of the relationship and the situation rendered the separation more aggravating than it really was.

The broomhead entered and reached Saitou’s desk in another whirlwind of gaudy garb and hair, but now seemed less panicked and more eager to hear all the juicy news. “So what’d he want?” he demanded.

“None of your business,” replied Saitou in as cool a tone as he could manage given the lingering heat of his mouth. “Get out; I have work to do.”

The dramatic Chou looked so utterly crestfallen, staggering backward this time as if he’d been struck, that Saitou was forced to relent and promise, “I’ll tell you about it later, when I have a chance.” After all, much of it hadn’t actually been strictly confidential, as least as far as Saitou’s assistant was concerned.

This seemed to be all Chou needed to cheer him, for he grinned and continued backing toward the door. “You better!” he said.

“Oh, and, Chou…” Saitou raised a hand, then continued when the broomhead paused. “I’m going to need you to start knocking before you enter.”

Appearing a little surprised at this new development, Chou tilted his head slightly and said, “Got it,” in an almost questioning tone — as if the edict to knock on a superior’s door instead of just bursting impetuously into the room was a peculiar one requiring explanation. But then his eyes strayed past Saitou’s lifted arm in a direction the officer realized might be somewhat dangerous, and a thoughtful expression took his face.

Cautiously, not daring to look behind him just yet, Saitou asked, “What is it?”

“You know…” Chou put one of his own gloved hands to his face, rubbing his chin with a finger. “I kinda like the new curtains.”

Now Saitou did turn and give the curtains — or at least one of them — a long, searching glance, and was able to assure himself that, with the opulent amount of cloth the things were made of, there was no hint of where Sano was hidden even to someone that knew he was there. Which meant Chou wasn’t making a snide comment but voicing an actual opinion.

With a faint smile as part of a thoughtful expression of his own, Saitou turned back to his subordinate and admitted at a deadpan, “They’re growing on me.”

This was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Established Saisa where Sano visits Saito when he’s working and kisses him in his office.” It was only a barely established relationship, though XD

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

Time For This


Sano kept stretching out his arms and examining his cuffs and looking pleased. He’d needed the use of links demonstrated, having barely been accustomed to standard button-up shirts, let alone these fancier things, but he seemed to relish the effect.

Saitou tried not to watch him, because it burned like acid on his heart how good Sano looked in the suit. He also didn’t like to see Sano repeatedly checking his gun because he wasn’t used to a shoulder holster either; he didn’t like to be reminded how much distress he felt at Sano’s recent minor promotion.

As they continued along the highway, however, Sano’s grin at his own finery turned gradually downward until eventually he wore a pensive frown instead of a smile. Finally he remarked somewhat darkly, “You can stop looking at me like that. I know you think I shouldn’t be at this thing.”

Concentrating on the road ahead and refraining from glancing at the passenger seat again, Saitou answered, “I’m surprised you noticed.”

“Oh, fuck you,” relied Sano without venom. “I’ve known for a long time. You don’t think I’m cut out for diplomatic work.”

“You’re not.”

“And fuck you again. You think I can’t keep quiet, but what do you even know about it?”

Saitou just snorted faintly and said nothing, knowing Sano would, as the saying went, open his mouth and prove it.

“I’m just going to be basically Sadojima-san’s bodyguard anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be part of the talking.”

Saitou did not reply.

“And you know that, since it’s pretty much what you’ll be doing too.”

Still Saitou remained silent, though now he did wonder if Sano had some other point he hadn’t anticipated.

“So what I’m wondering is: is the real reason you don’t want me here just ‘dumbass Sano can’t talk fancy and is likely to fuck this up?'”

Uncomfortable all of a sudden for what reason he couldn’t guess, Saitou nevertheless replied drily. “That, and you’re likely to misinterpret everything anyone says to Sadojima-san and start fights over nothing. And a concealed weapon isn’t right for you. And your hair is a disgrace.”

“Pff.” Sano failed at not sounding annoyed, but succeeded at not being distracted. “Same old insulting bullshit as always, huh?” He shook his head, and the movement looked almost wry. “Are you sure that’s why you don’t want me there?”

“Did you have some other reason in mind?” Saitou’s tone was cool, but he was beginning to feel distinctly hot under the collar. Was it possible Sano — childish, inattentive Sano — had noticed? Had recognized how Saitou felt? But why would he bring it up now, of all times? Because Saitou was driving and essentially couldn’t escape the conversation?

“I thought maybe you didn’t want me along because…” Sano tried to hide his deep breath, his nervousness about making this statement, and couldn’t. Would he feel any better if he knew how correspondingly nervous Saitou was about hearing it?

“…because Hanazuki and Shirojima aren’t the only groups that’ll be there tonight, are they?”

It came like a blunt strike when he’d been expecting a sharp, and it took a moment for him to shift gears to deal with it. And then, as the implications of that declaration veiled in inquiry hit him, he literally shifted gears, pulled abruptly to the shoulder, and stopped the car.

“How do you know that,” he wondered in a low tone with just the barest hint of threat to it, “and what else do you know?”

“I know you’re undercover.” Sano’s voice was just as quiet, and also surprisingly even considering he’d obviously had to work himself up to this. “But I only know ’cause I’ve been watching you. Really closely. I don’t think anyone else has you figured out… but I do.”

Saitou stared at him, wondering, first, just how far Sano did have him figured out — whether his original suspicion still held true even in the light of this new information — and, second, whether or not Sano, over there in the dark passenger seat on this dim evening highway, was blushing. Why had he been watching Saitou ‘really closely?’ Was it possible…

It was a further burn on Saitou’s heart that they didn’t have time for this right now.

“You must realize,” he said, steeling himself, “that I can’t take you to the meeting now that I know you know.”

“Yeah, you can,” Sano defied him. “You can take me as your partner.”

Did he know? Could he possibly not be punning? Or was he indeed completely oblivious to how very much Saitou would like to ‘take him as his partner?’

But they still didn’t have time for this.

“You want to abandon Hanazuki and join me?” he asked, blunt and a little skeptical, refraining from specifying the organization he worked for even to this person he longed to trust.

“You want to stop us making an arrangement with Shirojima,” Sano said. This sounded like a reasoned hypothesis rather than a guess — a more logically certain tone than Saitou was accustomed to hearing from Sano. It scared him how much he liked it.

“If Hanazuki and Shirojima start sharing turf and working together,” he answered, “they may both be given boryokudan status.”

“Shit.” All fleeting hints of relationship talk drained from the discussion as Sano vehemently shook his head. “That’s gonna suck for everyone.”

Saitou nodded. “You might want to get out while you can.”

“I’ve been thinking about it…” Sano spoke slowly and not with perfect surety. Undoubtedly this was the first time he’d voiced this sentiment aloud. “And I dunno that ‘getting out’ is enough anymore.”

“What more do you want?”

“I never realized how fucked-up this life is until I talked to you. Not like you ever said it, but you made me think…” At a mumble he added in some apparent chagrin, “Nobody ever really made me think before. Supposedly this is all about family and looking out for each other and shit… but nobody cares much if you’re a terrible person doing terrible things as long as those things are for the family.”

Saitou was moved in a way he hadn’t been in many years, and impressed beyond words that this young man had somehow, in an atmosphere completely antithetical to the concept, developed a sense of individual morality. He wanted to tell him how much more attractive this made him, wanted to express his sense of flattery that Sano had somehow been inspired to this by him, even while he’d been undercover… but they still didn’t have time for this.

“So what is it you want?” he asked again.

“I want to help,” said Sano immediately. “I don’t want a bunch of people getting arrested or killed because the group gets promoted to ‘most dangerous to society.’ We’ve gotta stop them from making that deal.”

“‘We…'” Saitou was surprised how bitter his imitation sounded. He should have known Sano would manage to get himself into a situation even more dangerous than his little yakuza promotion had already lined him up for.

“This meeting’s gonna get raided, right?” This was clearly a guess, but it was a shrewd one. “Then you’ll find excuses to deal with everyone there in one way or another…” Sano sounded a little anxious as he avoided defining how he expected Saitou and his allies to ‘deal with’ the gathered yakuza bosses, but evidently even the worst he could imagine wasn’t a deterrent, for he went on almost defiantly. “It’ll be real useful to have someone else on your side with the Hanazuki people. It might make things a lot easier.”

Saitou continued to stare at him as Sano fell into a demanding silence, wishing he could see more details of that attractive face in the darkness without doing something that would immediately give him away like turning on the cabin light.

It would be useful to have someone else on his side among the Hanazuki people. It might give him an invaluable edge in what was likely to be an unpleasant and difficult situation. And afterward… Sano wouldn’t be able to go back. He would have to seek out other work, other sanctuary. Where and with whom was a matter of question… but certain possibilities came immediately to mind…

But could he trust Sano? Did he really believe Sano had come to recognize the inherent wrongness of yakuza life and wanted a change? Did such things happen — could all of this be true — or did he only want to believe it? Were his heart and his vanity and some misguided sense of optimism out of nowhere overriding his logic, and likely to betray him just as Sano was?

But Saitou had always been one to follow his instincts. They didn’t really have time for anything else. And nowhere was safe for a yakuza thug, especially a passionate and foolhardy one… so they might as well go into danger together.

“All right,” he said, taking the car out of park. “Your briefing starts now.” And he could hear the excited catch of breath — childish as usual! — at the world of meaning inherent in his words. He had to smile a little as he added, “Stop checking that gun, though; I don’t want you killing anyone tonight if you can help it.” He glanced briefly over to where Sano’s teeth showed in the darkness in an eager grin. “It doesn’t suit you anyway.”


This was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Saitou/Sano Modern AU Yakuza,” and it just goes to show that when I think of things in haste, the result is often a lot of idea-recycling XD Also there wasn’t actually any yakuza action, but ‘primarily conversation’ has always been so much my specialty that I even have a content tag for it XD

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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


Salt

Salt

The thing about salting Hyottoko’s cooking was that you had to do it when he wouldn’t see, because he insisted everything he concocted was perfect without any additional seasoning, even if it was just leftover potato soup from three nights ago. Hannya had made it to the kitchen first as on most mornings — not solely so he could doctor his soup, but because he ate slowest of all of them; people didn’t realize what an advantage lips gave them in so many areas — but, though he’d added the desired amount of salt and replaced the shaker at a safe and unsuspicious distance in the middle of the table, he hadn’t started eating his breakfast yet; he’d miscalculated the amount of time the stuff needed to stay in the microwave, and was now waiting for the pool of magma in front of him to subside somewhat while the others got settled in gradually around him. This didn’t bother him, since Watching Aoshi Eat Breakfast currently ranked #14 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do.

Aoshi was moving slowly this morning after a night of insomnia, and if he’d been more alert he might have remembered the soup needed salt and given some effort to beating Hyottoko to the kitchen. As it was, he left his sitting in the microwave long after the beep had sounded while he hovered zombie-like over an enormous mug of coffee. Fortunately, Hyottoko didn’t fuss about what they put in their coffee, so Aoshi was allowed to turn his into an abomination of off-white milkiness and Splenda to his heart’s content. He brought it to the table, looked around somewhat blankly, remembered where he’d left his actual breakfast, returned to the microwave, stared at nothing for a long moment, eventually seemed to recollect what he was doing, extracted the bowl and held it cupped in his hands as if to warm them for another long moment, then finally noticed Beshimi waiting with a nervously tapping foot for his turn to use the microwave. He returned to the table at last to take his place beside Hannya, set down his bowl, looked into it, and now at the end of all things seemed to remember the issue of salt.

Aoshi didn’t have facial expressions so much as he had a facial aura you had to take a two-semester course even to begin to interpret; but Hannya had been with him far longer than that, and now was easily able to detect Aoshi’s clandestine worry directed toward Hyottoko across the table. The salt stood prominently between them, and, quickly and dexterously though Aoshi was capable of moving, chances seemed remote that he could grab the stuff and apply it to his soup rapidly enough not to catch the attention of — and offend — the chef. His lips tightened infinitesimally in concentration before he took a deep drink of his coffee and continued to stare with what Hannya recognized as longing at the salt shaker.

“Besh, how much soup is left?” Hannya asked.

Beshimi, leaning against the counter beside the humming microwave, reached over and tilted toward him the tall pot that had been taking up the entire bottom half of the refrigerator for the last three days. “I dunno… some?”

The ruse worked; Hyottoko turned to look over there in some concern. “Should be more than ‘some.’ I made enough to last the week. How much have you guys been eating?”

“How much have you been eating?” Beshimi shot back. “You’re the one always getting high off his own supply.”

Hyottoko rolled his eyes and returned to his breakfast. At any other time of day this would have become a snipe-fest, but there was too much of a mismatch between morning-person Beshimi and decidedly-not-morning-person Hyottoko for him to consider it now.

And during this distraction, as intended, Aoshi had seized the opportunity to freely salt his soup.

Unfortunately, the salt shaker, like, frankly, many things in this house, had come from a thrift store and didn’t work very well. Or, rather, it worked a little too well if you weren’t careful. The requisite quickness of movement while Hyottoko’s back was turned, the enthusiastically open pores of the dented old tin lid, and the minuscule amount of soup in the bottom of the bowl had conspired to provide a salt-to-soup ratio you wouldn’t have to be a slug to find alarming. Aoshi was certainly alarmed as he gazed down at the ominous whiteness already beginning to dissolve into the liquid around the large chunk of potato on which it primarily rested like snow on a mountaintop. Hastily he inserted his spoon and lifted the potato out of the broth to prevent further dissemination of the enormous pile of salt, but his aura turned to one of despair as he surreptitiously took a frantic look around and realized there was nowhere to put the thing except into his mouth or back into the soup — neither of which was likely to solve his problem.

“I ask,” Hannya said, glad he’d started the conversation even if he hadn’t anticipated being able to make further use of it — it was good to be a social engineer — “because I thought Aoshi might’ve taken the last of it, which would explain why he has approximately two mouthfuls in his bowl.”

Protest came from all quarters: Beshimi ranted that no one could survive just on coffee and it was a good thing Shikijou was at the gym because if he heard Aoshi was starving himself again he would start stuffing the fridge with unmanageable chunks of raw meat and they’d been down that road before; Hyottoko remarked in surprised dismay that he’d been under the impression Aoshi had enjoyed the recipe, and wondered if he should change it for next time — more bacon, maybe? And Aoshi himself shot Hannya a quick gleam of aura indicating indecision whether he was more annoyed at his boyfriend for having brought down all this criticism on his head or appreciative of being provided a convenient excuse to obtain more soup and thereby dilute the excessive salt somewhat. In any case he rose with great dignity and returned to the soup tureen, passing a still-grumbling Beshimi on the way.

Though he hadn’t touched his own breakfast yet, Hannya put it off a little longer in order first to reassure Hyottoko that this wasn’t about the quality of his cooking, but rather merely the usual Aoshi-eats-like-a-bird-on-a-crash-diet thing, and the second to keep a careful eye on said Aoshi just in case he decided, piqued, to tip the entire contents of his bowl down the garbage disposal and go to work without any sustenance besides what was essentially four cups of half-and-half with a tablespoon of coffee thrown in. And under Hannya’s baleful eye, Aoshi had no choice but to load up with a decent amount of potato soup this time and put it back into the microwave. Still, fearing treachery (and also maybe a little because Staring At Aoshi ranked #6 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do), Hannya did not remove his gaze from his boyfriend’s blank but dour-aura’d face throughout the entire three minutes the soup spent heating.

Three minutes? Oh, that was way too long.

Aoshi’s demeanor, already a trifle surly at being forced to the unthinkable extreme of eating a rational amount of food, became even more so as, having returned to the table, he stared down at the now significantly larger and untouchably boiling aggregate of soup he was expected to consume. In a mixture of continued weariness and defiance, he took another long drink of his coffee, entirely burying his face in the oversized mug as he tilted it upward. Hannya took advantage of this momentary blindness to replace Aoshi’s soup bowl with his own. As the sinking cup widened Aoshi’s field of vision, his aura became suspicious, and Hannya pretended he’d only been reaching over to stir Aoshi’s breakfast. “It cools faster this way,” he explained, then withdrew his hand and turned his attention to the fresh pool of magma that had belonged to his boyfriend but was now his.

Still appearing extremely dubious, Aoshi nevertheless took up his spoon — originally Hannya’s spoon, and bearing a completely different pattern (they’d bought all their silverware one piece at a time), though in his discontentment about how this morning was going he didn’t seem to notice — and lifted a scoop containing cheesy broth, bacon bits, and potatoes. He stared hard at it, as if screwing himself up to eat it at all after everything he’d suffered to get to this point, then after approximately forever shoveled it into his mouth. And the change to his demeanor as he chewed and swallowed — the contentment that seemed to wash over him, the relief that something had gone right, the sense of reassurance that maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all — made everything worth it to Hannya.

Scenes like this only served to reinforce how much of Real Life Aoshi wasn’t very good at. Sleep, timeliness, the proper amount of coffee creamer, salt shakers, basic nutrition, microwaves… It was all somewhat beyond him. And perhaps Hannya, in manipulating situations so they went more smoothly for his occasionally clueless boyfriend, was an enabler, but besides the fact that Helping Aoshi Live ranked #3 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do, honestly it wasn’t as if Hannya had it together much better than Aoshi did. He was a step or two farther down the path toward adult competency, maybe, just far enough ahead to clear the way a bit for anyone behind him. Which was, he felt, the least he could do in exchange for Aoshi forcing himself to go out there day after day and deal with the Real World so Hannya didn’t have to. It was the least he could do for someone he loved so much.

Eventually everyone who didn’t hesitate to leave the house without a mask on prepared to do just that, and there was a bustle of clearing the table (Hannya noticed with some satisfaction that Aoshi had eaten most of his soup), stowing the remaining leftovers (Hannya was going to transfer them to a smaller container as soon as Hyottoko was no longer around to protest that they tasted better out of metal than plastic), and searching for shoes (Hyottoko preferred to go barefoot every moment he was inside the house), jackets (Aoshi had to be reminded he needed one), and today a battered leather case in which Beshimi kept a variety of obscure chemicals (Hannya didn’t ask) before anyone could embark, only running a little late, upon their various tasks.

Before he let Aoshi out the door, Hannya pulled him close to receive his usual goodbye kiss to the incisors or what would have been a labial commissure, and found it, to his satisfaction, delivered with a decent amount of optimism. He thought he’d managed things pretty well this morning. He could never convince Aoshi to pack a lunch for whatever break, if any, he managed to take in the middle of his work day, nor was there any guarantee he would be able to get a healthy amount of dinner into his boyfriend once he got home in the evening… but at least he had breakfast figured out.

This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Crying leb because of the tumblr conversations we’ve been having that inspired it. For some author’s notes written not long after the story, see this Productivity Log.

The Solution

The Solution

The funny monotonous humming, alternately amusing and irritating, that Chou used to pass the time while he worked broke off suddenly, and Saitou glanced from where he sat in his own office to the tank-like outer area housing Chou’s desk. Based on the new ki discernible there, Sano had arrived on the scene. Now they would distract each other and get zero work done for an incalculable period of time; they always did.

After the rude greetings in jovial tones that could have misled anyone about the relationship between these two, Sano asked, “Saitou around?”

And Chou immediately replied, “Nah, he’s not here yet.” And though this might have been a deliberate lie — especially in light of the further conversation — Saitou thought it not unlikely the broomhead really was unaware of his presence; he’d entered his office at a moment when Chou had stepped away, and he wasn’t making a lot of noise in here.

“Damn,” was Sano’s response to the news

Saitou could hear the lazy grin in Chou’s tone as he said, “Well, no wonder he wouldn’t come in when you’re gonna be here.”

And the identical expression must have been on Sano’s face as he replied, “He’s probably just trying to spend as little time with you as he possibly can.” Though if Saitou had really been forced to decide which of them annoyed him more, he would probably have had to flip a coin. He wouldn’t truly have bothered trying to avoid either of them, though; the occasional annoyance was just part of the deal.

Chou replied, “Hey, he’s glad to have me. He was doing all this shit alone before; he’s never had an assistant he could trust.” And the listening Saitou had to admit this was true; he’d never told Chou it was the case, but evidently the broomhead had figured it out on his own.

“I do good work for him too!” was Sano’s defiant response. “I’ve turned up loads of important information for him.” Which was also true — Sano had a gift for reading a crowd, a room, or a witness that spoke to a highly developed, if largely subconscious, analytical ability Saitou greatly valued. He was far more intelligent than many would have guessed. And where Chou was conspicuous both visually and in a sense of showmanship he simply couldn’t abandon, the roosterhead, despite his almost equally ridiculous clothing and hair, could fit into many an unexpected group and winnow out of it whatever Saitou needed to know.

“Yeah, too bad you have to leave writing it up to me, since you’re so damn hopeless at that.” There was that grinning tone again: a surprisingly un-biting tease that was also perfectly accurate — Chou, far more meticulous and systematic than many would have guessed him, had a talent for police paperwork that Saitou also greatly valued. Where Sano was semi-literate, sometimes completely inarticulate, and certainly disorganized, Chou had raised the efficiency of Saitou’s operation to a degree the wolf had never anticipated when he’d begun working with him.

Sano pointed out, “But at least I’m behind him with all his goals. I even totally forgive him for stabbing me when we first met, ’cause it was all for justice and shit.”

“I’m totally behind him too,” Chou protested, though his tone turned to more of a grumble as he went on. “I actually follow laws now, and I never kill anyone except when I need to for work.”

Though unsure whether he was more exasperated at the description of his personal policies as ‘for justice and shit’ or Chou’s long-suffering air of martyrdom, Saitou had to admit (to himself; he never would have said it to them) that he appreciated the sacrifice and change in lifestyle enacted by each for his sake. Sano could still be cluelessly trailing Battousai around and getting nothing done, and Chou could have run off long ago to murder people and steal their swords, yet they were both here dedicating at least some of their not inconsiderable energy to helping him make a difference in the government and the country.

“Way to be totally morbid about it!” If Sano’s laughter was any indication, however, he had no real objection to Chou’s references to his homicidal past. “See, I’m happy all the time–” Saitou didn’t really think this was true, though he did find Sano’s intense and often rapidly shifting emotional state compelling– “and he needs that. He isn’t happy nearly as much as he should be; he needs someone cheerful around.”

“He sure as hell need a distraction sometimes,” Chou agreed. “It’s just this endless grind for him, and he’ll never be able to deal with all the corruption. But that’s where I come in! He likes hearing about my swords, and that helps him think about something else for a while.”

The idea as stated was not entirely correct; it wasn’t so much that Saitou specifically enjoyed hearing Chou talk about his ever-expanding collection as that he was amused and grudgingly impressed by Chou’s unfailing interest and extensive knowledge. And it wasn’t impossible that he did need cheering and distracting more — and more frequently — than he would be willing to admit. It displayed a greater degree of thoughtfulness than anyone could have expected of these two — and certainly more than Saitou was accustomed to having in his life — that Sano and Chou recognized this.

But he couldn’t be entirely pleased at the thought, nor at what he was overhearing. They were confirming, out there, what he’d long quietly and somewhat worriedly believed: that their desire to impress him went beyond the professional. That they weren’t merely ‘behind him with all his goals.’

“I’m distracting too, you know!” And was that ever right! Sano had such a vibrant, entertaining personality that Saitou had never been satisfied — had never been able to stop dwelling on him — until he’d secured him to his employ. The same thing could be said of Chou, however — there was a reason he’d snapped him up the moment he learned about the broomhead’s amnesty deal, after all — so if he’d had to choose which of the two was more distracting, he would have to bring out that coin again.

“I’m never scared to say exactly what I think about him right to his face,” Sano went on proudly, as if this was a mighty accomplishment rather than a childish and somewhat annoying behavior prone to getting in the way of business.

Sardonically Chou replied, “Yeah, too bad ‘what you think’ and ‘how you feel’ are two different things.” And they both sighed. After a long, pensive silence during which Saitou didn’t even pretend to be working rather than following the drama going on just outside his office with an avidity he wouldn’t have wanted to admit to anyone, Chou spoke again. “And I think he likes me being kinda roundabout. Makes conversation interesting, you know?”

It fascinated Saitou that they neither ever denied the other’s claim — that by neglecting to argue Chou had tacitly admitted Sano’s presence was cheering, and Sano that Chou’s conversation was interesting. The two were a volatile, possibly explosive combination, but for all that not, Saitou believed, incompatible. The issue was that they hadn’t realized their chemical compatibility; each had another mixture in mind. And he didn’t necessarily object to that idea, except for one glaring problem.

“You don’t need to do anything to make conversation with Saitou interesting,” Sano said. “It already kinda… crackles… if you know what I mean.”

Chou sounded as if he did know what Sano meant as he replied regretfully, “Yeah… He’s sexy as shit.”

And there was the glaring problem.

I can barely look at him without getting into an argument,” Sano mused, “and he treats you like the worst kind of peon… I wonder which is better.”

“Or… Juppongatana or Sekihoutai — which is worse?”

Sano gave a surprisingly mirthless laugh, and another silence followed.

Presently Chou said, “You know he’s got files on both of us, right?”

“Does he?” Sano wondered in surprise. “I mean, of course he would, but I never really thought about it…” And temptation already sounded strong in his voice even just with this beginning of an idea.

“Not like they’d tell us which of us he’d rather get horizontal with, but it might be interesting to see what he does have to say about us.”

Saitou barely had time to reflect that he’d rather not ‘get horizontal with’ either of them — or anyone, which was precisely his dilemma in this situation — when the sound of Chou’s chair scraping across the floor indicated he had more important things to think about. Not that he was likely to be the one flustered by the revelation that he’d overheard their entire conversation, just that things would probably come to a confrontation now and he needed to be prepared for his part.

The door burst open with the impetuosity of movement exhibited by both of his assistants, so it was impossible to say which of them had done it, and they piled into the room.

“Discuss me in my absence all you want,” Saitou said from where he sat at his desk, “but prying into my files is going too far.”

Though his words had been cool, they seemed to have just the opposite effect on the faces of his subordinates. He found it was a fairly attractive shade of red on both of them.

“What the serious fuck?” Sano demanded. As was often the case with him, the emotions of the situation (regardless of what they specifically were) caused his hands to ball into fists as he took an angry step forward. “How long have you been here?”

“Really, ahou, what kind of question is that? I know it was an engrossing conversation, but do you really think I could have sneaked past you at any point?”

“You’re a damn sneaky bastard,” the roosterhead shot back, “so maybe!” His face had gone even redder. Chou, more circumspect (just as he’d said a minute before), stayed silent, but Saitou thought he too was blushing a little harder at this clear indication that the wolf had been there all along.

“It is my office,” Saitou pointed out.

“So then you probably heard all that shit we were saying out there.” The nonchalance Sano attempted at this juncture was far too little too late, but it was funny he was trying.

“You were talking rather loudly. It’s been difficult to get any work done in here.” Which was true, but not for the blandly insulting reason Saitou implied.

“So there’s no point pretending!” After a deep breath and never breaking eye contact with Saitou, Sano demanded, “Which one of us do you like better?”

“You hired me way earlier,” Chou hastened to remind his boss, speaking for the first time since entering the room. “You musta liked what you saw in that jail cell.”

“Yeah, but he met me earlier than that.” Sano addressed Chou rather than Saitou in order to argue the point more directly. “He liked what he saw on the dojo steps!” And Saitou almost couldn’t believe this was devolving into, ‘Well, I saw him first.’

“Yeah, but then he stabbed you.”

“He left you in the jail cell.”

Saitou didn’t even bother trying to keep the amusement from his tone as he asked, “Can’t you idiots think of a better way to solve this than trying to determine which of you I’ve abused less?”

“Yeah!” Sano took another vigorous step forward, raising his fist as if for a fight rather than what he was about to suggest. “Yeah, I can! All we gotta do is each of us kiss you, and that’ll clear everything up!”

“You think so?” Now Saitou was on the verge of laughter, though he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the idea. Kissing he didn’t mind so much — he was lucky Sano hadn’t demanded, in that straightforward way of his, something far more inappropriately intimate to prove this point — but he couldn’t be confident the demonstration would have the desired effect.

But Chou was grinning, the expression devious and anticipatory. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Good idea, tori.” And Saitou thought he could read the true thoughts behind the approving words: Chou too doubted the efficacy of this plan for actually determining which of them Saitou liked better, but was totally onboard with any course of action that would win him a kiss he hadn’t otherwise expected to receive.

Saitou looked back and forth between their agitated but eager faces, and found a smirk growing slowly on his own as he thought he began to see the formula laid out before his mind’s eye. It was still a volatile situation, but he believed he knew now how to work his way through it. Finally he said, “All right.” Then he raised a gloved hand to stop Sano’s immediate impetuous advance. “On one condition.”

Sano and Chou shot each other an almost conspiratorially nervous look, then turned their eyes back toward Saitou in mute curiosity.

“For every kiss I give either of you,” Saitou told them calmly, “you to have to kiss each other first.”

Chou’s left eye popped open in astonishment, while Sano’s response was a hoarse, “…the fuck?”

Saitou’s smirk widened. “You heard me. Get to it.”

The immediacy and lack of complaint or question with which they obeyed was not only flattering — they wanted to get at him quicker — but also promising — they truly didn’t mind this. And he had to admit, it was even nicer than he’d expected to see them together like that. They seemed to fit remarkably well, and know instinctively what motions of lips and tongue — because, oh, yes, there was tongue involved — would be most enjoyable. It lasted a lot longer than even Saitou had anticipated, and certainly, based on their expressions when they broke apart, longer than its two participants had guessed it might. They stared at each other — Chou’s left eye, Saitou noted, still wide open — in bafflement and perhaps a growing mutual awareness for several long seconds after the kiss ended.

Saitou was more than satisfied. If they could get some of what they needed from each other and the rest of what they wanted from him, perhaps there was a solution to this problem after all. And perhaps they too were beginning to recognize that.

But they were also still desperate for the answer to the original question. In entertainingly similar movements, they shook themselves as if discarding, at least for the moment, the revelation that had just began to dawn, and turned toward Saitou almost in synchronization. “Well?” Sano demanded, and Saitou thought the redness of his face arose now from more circumstances than before. “That’s one! So who’s first?”

“Who, indeed?” Still smirking, Saitou reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10 sen piece. Without bothering to declare which of them he’d assigned to which side of the coin, he sent it spiraling into the air with a flick of his thumb. Three pairs of eyes watched it rise, flashing, and then begin to descend.

This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk because it was directly inspired by their ficlet Tough Love. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

After work, Saitou found Sano had taught himself how to leap up and perch on the top of the tallest vertical slat of the bridge near home, standing still high up like a long-leggèd crane or posturing ninja. He looked absurd, his gi and bandanna flapping in the evening breeze. But he jumped down, as Saitou began to cross, with a satisfied grin.

Of course Saitou must mock him for devoting so much time and effort to so silly and pointlessly difficult an undertaking, but even as he did, he realized the exercise was not only one of balance, which could benefit future combat, but it let Sano catch sight sooner, from that elevated situ, of Saitou’s figure coming t’ward him and the house they shared as of late through the growing dusk. It seemed meaningless, but the superficial hid unexpected depth.

Such too was Sano: an exterior often foolish and aimless screening intentions and a depth of character admirable and even delightful. This unexpected treasure in mind, somewhat to the bemusement of that same young man so complex and yet so simple, Saitou took his hand as they walked along, and said, “I love you, ahou.”

For author’s notes, check out this Productivity Log. I’ve rated this fic .

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

Naked Rooftops

Naked Rooftops

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

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

Naked Rooftops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanza probably deserved the truth.

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

*

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

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

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

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

Not that Tokio counted as a ‘friend.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Test



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

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

The Test

Section 1

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

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

Is art stereotypically gay?”

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

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

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

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

Did you ever go out with him?”

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

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

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

“And you were both out of the closet?”

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

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

“So you were cheating on him.”

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

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

“Oh, yeah?”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“And hot?”

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

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

“You must have had it bad.”

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

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

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

“Um, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Good for him!”

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

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

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

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

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

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

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

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

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

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you model for her classes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Not really.”

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

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

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

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

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

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

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

“Love at first sight?”

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

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

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

“You did not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“To a jerk, sure.”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds… creepy.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”

“When you put it that way…”

Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”

“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.

Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”

Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”

Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”

“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.

When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”

Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.

“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.

Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”

Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”

As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”

At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.

Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.

Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.

Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.

“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.

“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.

Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.

Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”

“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.

Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”

Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.

Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.

Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.

Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.

“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”

Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.

“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”

In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.

Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.

Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”

Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”

“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”

Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”

“How long were you with him?”

“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.

“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”

“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”

“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”

“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”

“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”

Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”

Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”

“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”

“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”

“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”

Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”

The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.

***

“At least Quatre and Trowa saw my next boyfriend as a problem.”

“And you probably didn’t until afterwards.”

“I can see you’re getting how this went. Yeah, Paul was… well, he wasn’t exactly the same as Evan, except for a dazzling smile and a sort of presence I was drawn to again. It was that whole moth-to-the-flame thing. But he was another one who wanted a trophy boyfriend. And sex.”

“Oh, Heero, you didn’t. Hey, don’t go all eyebrows at me! You were obviously a lot more pure and innocent than me in high school, and I don’t want to hear about you giving it up to some jerk like that!”

“It was high school. I don’t blame myself.”

“You sound like you regret it, though.”

“Honestly, I don’t have a single ex I don’t regret.”

“Yeah, I’m definitely starting to get how this went.”

“Paul did at least seem to like to spend time with me. So at the time I thought he was better than Evan. Looking back, it’s obvious he mostly… just wanted sex. Though there was some arm-candy duty too, like I said. He was on the student council, and I’m pretty sure after high school he went into actual politics. He knew the benefit of having a nice-looking significant other.”

“Asshole.”

“The worst of it, though — and the part that really drove Trowa and Quatre crazy — was that he couldn’t take me seriously. Especially my art. He wouldn’t look at things I was working on. He had no patience for time I wanted to spend on art. He actually made fun of art in general, and the idea of anything being artistic. He couldn’t even pretend to be the tiniest bit interested in anything I was doing or anything I was into. I think I put up with it at the time because he had a clever way of saying things that would make me laugh. Even if they kinda hurt at the same time. Except that he used the word ‘gay’ for things he didn’t like. Claimed that since he was gay, he was allowed. He didn’t care that it still bothered me.”

“Super asshole!”

“I’m still convinced Quatre had something to do with the new job Paul’s dad got. He had to move away suddenly in the middle of our last semester. Quatre won’t admit it, to this day, but… let’s just say circumstances were suspicious. I offered to do the long-distance thing, but Paul said he thought it would be better if we just broke up.”

“Because all he wanted from you was a warm body, for one reason or another.”

“Obvious in hindsight.”

“Well, I’m liking the sound of mob boss Quatre Winner, anyway.”

***

Heero wasn’t surprised to find himself ridiculously impatient for his meeting with Duo on Thursday, and his American Art History class, usually one of his favorites, rather difficult to get through. He even looked forward to the cafeteria food, since it tended to improve with good company. In such an optimistic mood, it should have been impossible to worry about how the encounter would go, but precedent was a strong indicator. So it was with caution that he looked around the big, bustling room at the appointed time, mostly seeking Duo but certainly keeping his eyes open as well for anyone else he knew.

How such an attractive person as Duo with such unusual hair and such a compelling aura of energy and interest about him could walk into a room this full of people without drawing every eye to him, Heero had no idea. His eyes were certainly drawn as Duo entered, and, despite the planned meeting being nothing more than conversation over lunch, he felt his excitement about today growing.

“They don’t make you wear one of those guest badges?” he wondered as Duo approached him.

“Oh…” Duo glanced down at his shirt — another paint-spattered tee, this one advertising some gallery event in much-worn and hardly legible lettering. “I’ve got one somewhere…” He looked deeply pensive. “I’m trying to remember the last time I actually wore it.”

Heero chuckled faintly. “If you’re around here a lot for Ms. Hilde’s classes…”

With a shrug Duo replied, “Eh, I wouldn’t say ‘a lot,’ but I guess it’s enough for nobody to care whether I wear a guest badge.” He threw a calculating eye across the various lunch options available here. “Come on; I’m starving.”

“Me too. I barely had any breakfast.”

“Oh, are you one of those people who can’t eat in the mornings?” Duo threw Heero a grin that suggested he might think this every bit as cute as Heero had found his hypothesis about Duo’s metabolism the other day.

Forcing a calm tone despite his blush, Heero replied, “No. I’m one of those people who can’t think straight in the mornings. At least not until after coffee. Which I usually drink on the way to class, or not until I get here.”

Duo laughed, but if he had any intention of reciprocating with information about his own morning habits, it would have to wait until after they had ordered their present meals. The lines typically weren’t too long at the times of day Heero was in here, including now, so the only remaining problem was whether Duo wanted tacos or pizza. And by the time they took their selections to one of the smaller tables and got everything set up to their dining satisfaction, coffee had fled both their minds.

“So what’s your major?” Duo wondered as he surveyed the tacos and pizza on his tray with a deep and enchanting satisfaction.

“Art History and Criticism,” Heero replied. “Unless I switch to Drawing and Painting.”

Duo nodded, causing the taco he was lifting to his mouth to bob up and down for a moment along with the rest of his head, at which Heero couldn’t help laughing aloud. When Duo had managed his mouthful enough to talk through it without spraying bits of beef and lettuce across the table, he remarked, “I always thought European Art would be an awesome major, but, yeah, a more general art criticism program might be even better. But something more applicable like Drawing and Painting — I mean, painting is what I love best! — so that could be really useful too.”

Heero grinned. “I can tell you’re really decisive about this sort of thing.”

Duo swallowed his bite of taco and said with friendly defensiveness, “Just, there are so many fantastic options!”

“There are,” Heero agreed, digging a fork into his lasagna. Before he took a bite of his own he asked, “So are you going to school somewhere too?”

“I should be,” Duo admitted, “but I get so caught up in doing art all day, I keep not signing up. Hilde keeps bugging me to come here, but… Well, sometime I will…”

As he finished with his mouthful, Heero began to remark that whenever Duo did start attending, he would be forced — eventually, at least — to choose a major. His words became confused and then trailed off, however, when a figure whose approach he had not noticed appeared beside them: despite the polite, waiting silence of the newcomer, the instant Heero saw and recognized him he completely lost his train of thought.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Quatre greeted when he could obviously see that Heero wasn’t going to finish the statement he’d started. By way of apology or explanation (or merely acting his part), he held up the sketchbook he’d brought.

“You’re earlier than I expected,” said Heero defeatedly. And he meant it, though of course it would come across slightly differently to the other person at the table.

“I have some errands to run,” Quatre replied with a smile, and held out the sketchbook, “so I thought I’d stop here first.”

Heero accepted the delivery he’d purportedly requested, and set it down nearer the far end of the table where it was less likely to have anything spilled on it. “Duo,” he said, gesturing, “Quatre.”

Turning his eyes upon Duo for the first time, “Oh, you’re cute,” Quatre said, and his immediate blush at this allegedly inadvertent comment left even Heero hard-pressed not to reply, Who’s cute?”

Duo, who didn’t know perfectly well either that nothing Quatre said was uncalculated or that he could conjure that lovely pink to his face at will, couldn’t seem to repress a smile at the supposedly ingenuous remark and reaction. “Thanks,” he said. “So’re you.” But he was also looking Quatre surreptitiously up and down with some suspicion (justified, Heero thought, after the meeting with Wufei) buried beneath his smile. Evidently, however, in the honest, open face, the slacks and dress shirt (but no tie; Quatre was dressed for his ‘errands’ about as far down as he got), or the guest badge the rule-abiding Quatre was wearing, nothing worried Duo just yet. Heero had not expected it to.

“Oh! Thanks!” Quatre’s blush deepened, and this time Heero was hard-pressed not to roll his eyes as his friend and roommate turned back to him as if flustered and eager to look away from the professedly cute guy that had just complimented him. “Um, so, yeah, Heero, there’s your sketchbook. I’ll get out of your way…” He took a step back, then frowned. “As soon as I figure out what’s wrong with my shoe.”

Quatre had graduated from Brunomaglis along with high school, but when running errands he still sometimes slummed it in shoes costing no more than $400 or so — and he had one particular old pair he saved for this specific occasion because the lace had broken through one of the eyes during some escapade with Trowa a few years back. And this damage was what he ostensibly sought to examine when he sat down in one of the free chairs at the table, next to Heero, and bent over. The movement was always fairly convenient for the placement of a small transmitter in some crevice out of sight; Heero didn’t even watch him to catch it anymore.

At this second instance of a date being interrupted by one of Heero’s friends seating himself uninvited at their table, Duo looked more suspicious than previously. However, when Quatre swiftly ‘discovered’ the break in his shoe and declared it unfixable at the moment, rising again from the commandeered seat, Duo relaxed a trifle. And when Quatre, after bidding Heero a cheerful goodbye and declaring that he’d see him later, added with another slight blush, “It was nice meeting you, Duo!” and started to walk away, Duo relaxed completely.

Heero didn’t feel like volunteering any information about Quatre — in part because, had Quatre truly been dropping by to deliver some forgotten item from home, Heero wouldn’t have felt the need to talk about him in his absence unless specifically asked — and Duo didn’t ask. He just started an elaborate process of napkinning his fingers off one at a time, very thoroughly, despite the fact that he was only halfway through his eclectic lunch. Heero watched with growing curiosity until Duo, satisfied he was as clean as possible without the application of actual water and soap, pushed his tray aside and reached for the sketchbook to Heero’s right. At the last moment, however, his hands stopped just short of the cover. “I suppose I should ask first,” he said, meeting Heero’s eye with a smile half sheepish and half impish.

“Go ahead,” Heero replied, returning the smile and glad Duo had accepted the delivery of the item at face value. “It’s mostly doodles anyway.” Quatre always brought the same sketchbook, no matter how carefully Heero hid it afterwards. Apparently he thought it worked particularly well for the purpose.

“I love doodles,” Duo declared. “Ooh, and I love…” He brought the first page closer to his face. “…super detailed…” He rotated it and squinted. “…suuuper detailed…”

Heero chuckled faintly. He’d been through this process enough times that, even though the sketchbook was an older one and the pieces on the first few pages of it especially ancient, he didn’t have to struggle to remember exactly what they were.

“You know what this reminds me of?” Duo was taking in the whole again, the paper not quite so close to his nose. “When you see, like, a whole underpass that’s entirely covered in graffiti? And there’s no blank spots anywhere?”

Genuinely pleased despite the age of the picture, Heero smiled. “That’s actually exactly what I was inspired by.”

“The city should pay you to design murals for spots like that.” Duo nodded several times down at the drawing before turning the page.

“I’ll design them if you do the painting,” Heero offered.

“I’ve never tried airbrushing,” mused Duo, “which is what I think it’d take, but–” here he raised his eyes to Heero with a thoughtful and momentarily distant expression– “it might not be a bad idea for a serious project. Big painting, help the community, maybe make some money? Oh, yep, here’s some doodles.” And he buried his face in the sketchbook again.

Duo’s comments were not usually particularly profound — few of these pages merited it — but clearly he was genuinely interested and engaged, which pleased Heero and undoubtedly pleased whoever else might be listening as well. And it was as much for the benefit of these latter as for Duo’s sake that Heero eventually felt the need to comment, “Your food has to be getting cold.”

“Oh… yeah…” Duo glanced over at his tray with eyes clearly unattuned to anything not graphite at the moment, then said a little absently, “I don’t want to get stuff on my hands right now.” And he’d barely returned his gaze to the page in front of him before he was smiling in admiration and remarking, “This contrast is awesome.”

“Thanks.”

As Duo proceeded right through the sketchbook with no apparent intention of stopping any time before the very end, Heero experienced the same mixture of emotions he did every time this part went well. Duo’s artistic skill gave his opinion weight and value, and Heero was gratified and flattered by the attention he was paying these drawings — old as they were — and by the comments he had about them. Honest as Duo seemed on the subject, though, as much as it seemed he would have been making these same comments no matter the context in which he flipped through the book, there was no getting around the fact that he’d essentially been tricked into the perusal.

Heero knew what the point was, of course. If he’d felt like it, he could have glanced around to see if he could find Trowa — though, unlike when the scene took place outside and a glint of light off of glass or chrome could sometimes be caught in a bush not far away, here Trowa was likely to be outside the cafeteria, or possibly outside the building entirely (Heero wasn’t completely sure of the range of his equipment). But though he knew what this was about, he couldn’t help thinking there might be, in addition to that, some desire on his friends’ part to get poor Heero some praise of his artwork when they, none of them visual artists, could not provide it. And did Heero really come across as so insecure?

That had nothing to do with Duo, though.

What was more relevant to Duo and the opinions he now voiced was Heero’s faint sense of annoyance that his friends did always choose this sketchbook. It was so old it was becoming almost irrelevant in that it didn’t really give an observer a sense of Heero’s talents and preferences. He wanted Duo to have a better idea of his current artistic progress. That could, of course, happen another time — in fact, whether it should happen another time would supposedly be determined by the present exercise — but Heero was, perhaps, rendered just a little impatient by the adorable way Duo expressed himself, and the fact that his commentary, though not necessarily profound, was savvy and interesting.

Eventually, too soon but not nearly quickly enough for Heero’s conflicted sensibilities, Duo reached the end of the sketchbook. The last few blank pages, which always made the book seem actively in use rather than abandoned (in fact Heero typically abandoned his sketchbooks a few pages from the end), Duo looked over with evident disappointment before, with an air of regret, carefully closing the back cover and replacing it at the far end of the table. Then, his demeanor shifting to that of someone emerging from a trance or a highly engrossing daydream to face the real world again, he looked around.

“Sorry… what were we talking about before?” he wondered somewhat vaguely.

Heero smiled at Duo’s attitude, but had to struggle, for his own part, to remember. Finally, as he watched Duo slide his lunch tray back in front of him and begin to reacquaint himself with its contents, he ventured, “You going to school, I think?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Duo agreed, picking up his half eaten pizza slice and examining it from all angles. It hadn’t been very appetizing originally — whatever Heero had said about the cafeteria food not being bad, he wasn’t a fan of their pizza — and now it looked congealed and more or less disgusting. “I’ve been thinking,” Duo went on, and bit unconcernedly into the thing before continuing with a full mouth, “I’ll probably enroll once the place I’m working at goes out of business.”

That seemed like an odd sort of plan to Heero, who said so. Then, as Duo had taken another bite and stuffed his mouth even fuller than before — past the speech threshold, apparently — he added, “Where do you work?”

Eventually Duo managed to answer. “You probably never heard of it. It’s called Sunset Colors; it’s a place where kids — I mean, anyone who wants to, but it’s mostly kids who come — they can do art stuff. Mostly pottery, but we’ve got all sorts of materials. And some great aprons they get to choose from when they come in.”

“And it’s going out of business?”

Duo’s laugh sounded both sad and self-deprecating. “The lady that owns the place is great at watercolors and being a grandma to all the kids who come in, but she kinda sucks at the business end of things? And it’s not like I can help her when I don’t know anything about any of that stuff either.”

“So you’re just predicting.”

“I don’t know how much longer the place has.” Duo shrugged as he turned his attention and his newly emptied mouth to what remained of his taco. Heero, watching charmed and amused, wondered whether the two greasy foods were actually good in alternation like that.

“You like it, though?”

“Yeah, it’s fun!” Duo nodded vigorously before taking a crunching bite. “Kids are hilarious; I love helping them with art.”

“Is the owner usually there with you?” Heero was imagining the scene in his head with pleasure, picturing Duo and his enthusiasm and ready artistic critiques encouraging and inspiring a group of aproned children in their clumsy painting of pottery.

“Sometimes. She’s old.”

Heero laughed at this concise explanation. “Do parents ever get weirded out by a single young guy working with their kids with nobody else in the building?” He wondered if any of the kids ever developed crushes on the hot guy that helped them with art on weekends or whenever; he’d be willing to stake money that they did, but figured he wouldn’t ask that in so many words.

Now Duo’s taco manipulation was fronted by a pensive frown, and it was several masticating moments and an unhappy-looking swallow before he spoke again. “I… don’t know. Nobody’s ever said anything about it, but of course they probably wouldn’t to my face, would they? They just wouldn’t come in again, probably.”

“People do get weird about things like that,” Heero said in a tone of regret. “Sorry I mentioned it.”

“No, it’s a good thing.” Duo was thoughtful now. “That’s one of those logistical things I probably would never have thought of, and maybe it’s part of why I think we’re going under! I’ll have to talk to Geraldine about it.”

“Does she stay at home working? Could she do her watercolors at the place instead?”

“I think so… maybe… She’s going to flip out about it, though… I bet she’s never thought of that either; she’d never think people could have such nasty minds. But maybe we can figure something out, and save the place yet!”

Heero sat back and said honestly, “Now I’m torn. It sounds like it’ll be sad when she goes out of business. But if that’s what it will take for you to go to school…”

With a wincing grin Duo said, “Quick subject change! Where do you work?”

“That isn’t much of a change,” said Heero with a slightly raised eyebrow, but chose to accept it nonetheless on the understanding that the previous focus might be a little uncomfortable for Duo. “But I do tech support for Allery Media.”

“So like cable and internet and stuff?”

“Yeah. It’s mostly over chat on the company website, but I sometimes have to take phone calls. It lets me work from home, though.”

“That must be nice if you want to draw while you work!”

Heero grinned. “It is.”

Duo grinned back. “And do you ever have to tell people their CD tray isn’t a cup holder?”

The only possible reply to this was a longsuffering sigh.

“Hey, I always thought that was pretty funny,” Duo protested.

“In some ways it is. It does still represent pretty well how much people don’t know about how computers work. But I don’t think the actual joke has been surface-level funny for longer than we’ve been alive.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Oh, cool, me too. And I figure that joke first popped up about twenty years ago, so we would both have been born, even if we weren’t old enough to appreciate it.”

“That doesn’t make it not overused and outdated,” replied Heero firmly.

Duo laughed. “OK, fine, no more cupholders. Were you born here in town?”

This subject change, more complete and effective than the previous, led them onto a meandering topic of childhood homes and moves that lasted throughout the rest of the time Heero had to spend on lunch before needing to head off for his next class. And he did so with even greater optimism than had ended their first date. So far Duo had done nothing to indicate he was anything but the warm, very attractive, talented artist Heero had thought him at first, and hopefully had done some things to impress Heero’s friends. Not only that, his reciprocal interest seemed to have been developing at the same pace as Heero’s — well, perhaps not quite so quickly, as he’d never seen Heero naked — and they seemed to be clicking really well. And though that was how it always started, Heero also thought there had been numerous points in Duo’s favor, above and beyond the usual, scattered throughout his conversation.

Perhaps most promising of all — if not to the listeners-in, at least to Heero — they ended today’s encounter with the suggestion (from Duo again, not that Heero wouldn’t have gotten around to it himself) of another meeting. A time was chosen and arrangements were made, and, though Heero would rather not have parted at all, he found the parting just as hopeful as the rest of his reflections during the last several minutes of their lunch.

***

“Well, mob boss Quatre Winner’s parents gave him a house as a graduation present, and–”

“A house?!”

“Yeah. Not a small house, either. And Quatre, being Quatre, of course insisted that Trowa and I both come live with him.”

“Probably a good thing it’s not a small house, then.”

“Yes, they get plenty of privacy, and so do the rest of us.”

“Who else is there?”

“Technically just one other guy, at least right now. I’ll get to him. Right after high school, I didn’t think about college right away. I went a little art-crazy, actually. Quatre didn’t want any rent from me, so most of the money I made could go toward supplies. And since I had a really big bedroom with plenty of space to use as a studio…”

“I’d go crazy too! That’s awesome!”

“It was. It is. Trowa’s kinda been doing the same thing. He got some people together and got his band started. They have a practice room at the house. They’ve actually been doing pretty well, for a local group.”

“What are they called?”

“Dense Lead Stovepipe.”

“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. So, good for him.”

“But Quatre started college right away — at Traevis, of course, for business. And that’s where he met Wufei.”

“Wufei? That jerk-face loser goes to the same school as a Winner? Wait– wait– wait– that’s not the– that guy lives with you?

“Yes, but he’s not a jerk-face loser. I promise.”

“Uh-huh. You’d better give me a damn good reason you put up with that guy in your same house.”

“Quatre bullied him into moving in, actually. They made friends at school. Then when Quatre heard Wufei was struggling to pay rent and tuition…”

“And then?”

“Stop grinding your teeth like that. It’s not good for you. So Wufei moved in. When I first met him, I didn’t think he was going to get along well with either me or Trowa. Quatre wasn’t a problem, since Quatre can get along with anyone, and nobody can help getting along with Quatre. But I didn’t think the rest of us would be hanging out much.

“But it turns out Wufei is someone you can’t help respecting. He’s got this unshakable code of right and wrong, and he just doesn’t bend. I think that’s how he and Quatre bonded. They’re both such innately good people, even if they’re totally different in personality, they couldn’t help being drawn to each other.”

“This does not sound like the Wufei I met.”

“You didn’t meet the real thing. Wufei isn’t as much fun as some people I know, but he’s the kind of guy who’ll always stand up for what he believes in. And that’s… well, it’s nice to have that kind of person around. Trowa thinks he’s fun, though. Trowa gravitates to anything with zombies in it–”

“Really???”

“–and it turns out Wufei does too. They bonded over zombies, I think, the same day Wufei moved in. You should see them whenever a new video game comes out where you get to kill zombies. It’s uncanny.”

“Somehow I’m not aaalllll that surprised.”

“And Wufei’s girlfriend–”

“So he’s bi?”

“Actually he’s totally straight.”

“But I thought–”

“Just trust me.”

“It’s a good thing that’s so easy to do, because this is getting weird.”

“Weirder than it already was?”

“Well… OK… maybe not. Go on.”

“Wufei’s girlfriend Sylvia is a complete nerd. She’s always over making him do, um, nerd stuff. They do Dungeons and Dragons… thing… They have obscure series DVD marathons in the basement. They… I don’t even know what else. She’s very nice, though. She’s been a good friend to all of us.”

“All right, so you’ve got a gay couple, a straight couple, and a single guy all living in one house. All you need are some lesbians and aces to make a complete set.”

“We do know some, but I don’t think any of them need a house. Anyway, Sylvia doesn’t technically live with us. Even though she’s always around. And I haven’t been single all this time…”

“Hmm, OK, so we’re heading into another awful boyfriend of yours here. And, let me guess, you told me about Wufei and Sylvia because they joined the People Who Don’t Approve Of Heero’s Amazing Bad Taste Club.”

“Yes.”

“Even though Wufei–”

“Just forget that.”



2>>

Section 2

The house Duo shared with his mother, step-father, and step-sister was as old as the one Heero shared with his friends, but looked to have been better maintained over the years. There were two really old neighborhoods in the city — the oldest parts of two former towns, actually, that had eventually grown enough to merge — and the fact that Duo lived in the area opposite Heero explained why Heero had never observed his hotness on the way to and from bus stops in the past.

That the house was impeccably painted in an interesting and brazen set of oranges that were some of them almost yellow, Heero was not particularly surprised. In fact he grinned internally as he approached, informed of the probable identity of at least one of the house’s inhabitants by its bright colors almost as much as by the presence of Duo on its porch. He wondered how they’d gotten that past their HOA.

“Heero!” Duo’s enthusiasm in shouting his name (rather unnecessarily) and waving as soon as he caught sight of him made Heero smile externally. More particularly, the idea that Duo was so pleased to see him made Heero go all warm and fuzzy inside. He felt pretty good about this guy so far; they’d gotten to a third date, after all, without either of them being scared off. And Duo sure was cute.

“You made it!” was Duo’s cheerful greeting as Heero climbed the porch steps.

“Apparently,” Heero agreed.

“Well, come on in.” Duo stepped back and made an expansive gesture of welcome.

With a smile Heero obeyed.

The interior decor seemed thorough, experimental, and eclectic, with paint selections melting into each other from one room to the next and no two spaces floored the same. The art on display coordinated with the chosen colors so well Heero thought it must have been deliberately created for the specific spots it occupied. The furniture, on the other hand, was often cheekily just on the edge of not coordinating; every piece seemed to ask impudently, ‘Can I get away with this in this room?’ Heero had never in his life been amused by furniture, and credited to Duo his first instance of this bizarre but not unenjoyable experience.

“We rearrange sometimes,” Duo said with a grin when he heard Heero’s reaction to the decorating, “and then it gets even crazier.”

Besides the prospect of hanging out with Duo again, Heero had been looking forward to coming here so he could see more of Duo’s art. He’d said so, too, if perhaps a little shyly — especially since pointing out that it was only fair for him to get to see more of Duo’s work after Duo had seen so much of his seemed a trifle disingenuous when that had only happened because Heero’s friends had essentially insisted. But since that didn’t lessen his interest, he had mentioned it, and the pleasure the statement had been met with had rendered it entirely worth any embarrassment involved.

“People say you can’t judge how successful you are as an artist by how much money you make doing it,” Duo remarked, “and I’m not sure how much I think that’s true? but you definitely feel more successful when other good artists are all excited to see your stuff.” And not only was Heero very inclined to agree, he was also excessively flattered at being so offhandedly called a good artist by this good artist.

So now Duo gladly pointed out which of the pieces throughout the rooms they toured had been painted by his own hand. And while Heero was happy to see more of a style he was already coming to love, he enjoyed Duo’s commentary even more. Duo’s manner of discussing his own work was funny and fetching at once: a relatively pure realism of approach that lacked false modesty. He had no inhibitions stating his high opinion when he thought something merited it, and also no illusions about what aspects might need improvement. In the artistic world Heero knew, which was one of alternating obnoxious arrogance and depressing lack of self-confidence, such pragmatism was refreshing and engaging.

“This one would be totally badass if I’d been able to get this secondary light here to look right,” Duo said of one piece in the large and comfortable living room. “But at least the hands actually look like human hands.”

They lingered longest over a piece Duo had done for an upstairs bathroom, discussing in that very unromantic setting the techniques of non-objectivism (a style of which Duo didn’t often partake) and what type of message was sent, in a bathroom used primarily by guests, by the vaguely unsettling imagery and colors that had been selected here.

“I wanted it to make you think of sunset over the ocean without actually showing sunset over the ocean,” was Duo’s laughingly half rueful comment. “I didn’t mean for it to look like sick or blood or anything.”

Then they made their way downstairs, and it was there Heero came to understand why both adult children of this family hadn’t been able to bring themselves to move out of their parents’ house even in their late twenties. Heero himself might have been willing to put up with quite a lot of family annoyance (and embarrassment when people asked about his living arrangements) in order to have anytime access to so large and thoroughly stocked a studio so conveniently placed.

They’d either knocked out most of the walls or finished an unfinished basement to a totally open plan, creating a sprawling space they could easily fill with draft tables, easels, cabinets of materials, and sets of shelves of finished works. Lighting was prolific and adjustable, there were large working sinks for the rinsing of brushes (and probably the cleaning of paint-spattered hands and arms); and a comfortable bathroom decorated in more welcoming colors than the one in the hall upstairs, as well as a couple of conveniently placed small refrigerators full of snacks and sodas, rendered it feasible to spend hours and hours at a time working down here without ever needing to emerge.

Observing how close Heero was to drooling over the amenities as he showed them off, Duo grinned and sang, “We’ve been spending most our lives living in an artists’ paradise.” And when Heero winced and laughed simultaneously he added, “Seriously, though, let me show you this,” and gave him something else to drool over instead.

‘This’ was merely a nicely designed (and apparently home-designed by Duo’s mother) rack of sliding shelves that held a wide range of canvas sizes very neatly, but, though Heero liked the engineering and was quite pleased to see the finished artworks it currently held, Duo’s manner of presenting it only served to strengthen an impression that had been growing during their entire time in the house.

There had been a bit of walking when they’d initially met up on the street, but the majority of their first two dates had been conducted in seated positions. Duo was very attractive when seated; his face and interesting, messy hair — not to mention his engaging mannerisms and the brightness of his expression — constantly drew Heero’s eye and pleased him. But with Duo moving around, bending to lift canvases up and then gesture at them energetically, seeming to involve his entire body in every motion, it was a different story. A much more intense and distracting story that usually started with, Once upon a time, all of this was naked.

As he’d essentially told Duo at their first meeting, Heero wanted to pretend neither that he was unaffected by Duo’s sex appeal nor that it was the only thing that interested him — but finding a balance in his thoughts and behaviors was proving rather difficult. The good news was — well, the ambivalent news was that Duo wasn’t naked right now, so, regardless of how enticing he looked in those jeans and how enthralling was every motion of his body, only memory and imagination on Heero’s part painted them in flesh tones; so if he could restrain those two, he could stick to socially appropriate interaction and keep himself from panting over nothings like the manner in which Duo bent way, way over to reach out and point at some aspect of a portrait that was rather too large to be examined in a horizontal state but would have been extremely inconvenient to prop up just to look at for a few minutes and then replace on the sliding rack.

The struggle continued throughout the extended tour of the studio, and it was an extended tour. Even had Duo not been pleased to show off the place and all it contained, Heero would probably have kept them downstairs that long anyway marveling and admiring and lusting (in one way or another). And as when Duo had actually been naked in front of him, Heero did eventually come up with a way to work with feelings that definitely weren’t diminishing over time.

He had arrived at the house around eleven, and it was three in the afternoon so soon he could hardly credit it. And since he had a class this evening, he was forced to insist eventually, reluctantly, that they emerge, blinking and readjusting like travelers out of a cave full of the most remarkable formations, from the addictive studio. He didn’t have to leave the house cold turkey, however, since they’d planned from the beginning to scrounge up a late lunch in the kitchen.

“I’m pretty sure we have cold cuts and tuna and peanut butter and jelly,” Duo listed as they climbed the stairs, “if you want a sandwich. Or we could make some mac and cheese or something.”

“These are some gourmet options,” Heero murmured, smiling at the way Duo’s wording had seemed to imply a sandwich with cold cuts, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly on it.

“We’ve got plenty of real food too.” Duo’s return grin sabotaged his mock-defensive tone. “You just don’t have time for us to put together crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce. Neither do I, actually, since I have to work this evening.”

“Wow,” said Heero as he experienced an unexpected rumble in his stomach, “crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce sounds amazing. Do you have a recipe for that?”

“What?” For an instant Duo seemed somewhat panicked. “No! I can’t cook to save my life! I just made up something that sounded good!”

Heero chuckled, then admitted somewhat forlornly, “I’m not much good either. But you know…” Even during their third get-together, even feeling pretty easy around Duo, Heero still had to take a surreptitious deep breath here. “Giachetti’s is really good Italian food. I don’t know if they have crab manicotti, but I know they’re good…” Also not knowing exactly what might happen to disrupt a more formal date between himself and Duo, Heero hardly dared make the suggestion any more explicit than that. He had a pretty good idea what was coming next, but whether or not it would happen today he couldn’t be sure. He’d been longing for a more formal date with Duo, an upgrade of their interaction to the next level, but couldn’t help being hugely nervous about the idea at the same time.

If Duo recognized this nervousness, he most likely attributed it to shyness or uncertainty of the reception of the idea or something similar, for he gave Heero a reassuringly flirtatious smile as they entered the kitchen and said, “We’d probably better go there, then, since I got us both hooked on this manicotti idea.”

“And what if they really don’t have any?” Heero replied with a smile of his own, pleased and relieved.

“We’ll just have to find some place that does and go there next.”

And Heero felt all warm and fuzzy again.

They were inclined to dawdle over their peanut butter and jelly, joking about sandwich techniques and the proper alignment of the universe that was thrown off by Duo’s choice to put raisins in his, wasting plenty of time before they’d even sat down despite each of them having somewhere to be after not too long. Neither, it turned out, had been served many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a child, and therefore they felt a bit detached from the popular concept of the meal choice as a childish one — but they did have pretty firm ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate along those lines, and no qualms about debating them. Beyond that, it was interesting to talk about what they had eaten as children and did associate with their younger days.

Eventually, however, Heero really did have to get up and leave, lest he find himself unable to coordinate buses properly to get first home and then to school. To his very great satisfaction, though, Duo accompanied him to the bus stop down the street with such immediacy, and without so much as the briefest question whether Heero wanted him to, it was as if they’d prearranged this as well. Which meant their conversation about their preferred cartoons growing up continued almost uninterrupted.

In fact it continued almost uninterrupted far longer than it should have, and far longer than Heero realized at first. Right in the middle of recalling his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode that he could remember (the one about the cufflinks), the sight of a bus passing — passing, not turning — along the larger connecting street some distance down from them jarred him into sudden realization.

“What time is it?” he demanded, interrupting himself in his startlement.

Duo too was startled, and jerked his head around searching for whatever had broken into Heero’s thoughts. By the time he looked back, Heero had answered his own question by lifting the watch he’d been wearing all along, and had assumed a grim expression. “What?” Duo asked. “What time is it?”

Heero gave a frustrated sigh. “4:35.”

“There should have been, like, three buses by now!” Duo yelped.

For a moment Heero remained silent. Was it worth explaining that he knew exactly why, and on whose dime, the buses weren’t coming down this street? Probably not. What would happen would happen, and trying to give details at this point would undoubtedly only be more awkward. So all he finally said was, “It would take too long to walk down to the next stop. It’s already so late. Can I use your phone?”

“Doesn’t Allery do cell phone service?” Duo wondered as he fished out his device.

“I think they’re thinking about it. But it’s all land lines at the moment.”

“So you’re holding out ’til you can get a good discount.”

“I’m holding out as long as I can. I’d rather not have to carry a phone at all.” Heero stared reluctantly down at the one he now held.

Duo laughed. “You’d rather be a hermit.”

“Yes,” Heero agreed bluntly, and dialed the number of someone much more inclined than he was to be constantly connected to the rest of the world. He would simply have asked Duo for a ride — embarrassing as that would have been — if he hadn’t been aware that Duo, like himself, had no car and only sometimes borrowed one belonging to people he lived with, none of whom were present.

“No wonder you liked our basement so much,” Duo grinned.

Quatre’s greeting was the friendly and professional tone he used for strangers, indicating that, whatever else he knew about Duo by now, he didn’t have him listed as a phone contact yet. But as soon as Heero identified himself, the sound of Quatre’s reply abruptly shifted to a disingenuous combination of concern and smugness. “Oh, hi, Heero. How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Heero tried not to sound too defeated. “Do you have time to give me a ride?”

“Oh, sure!” Quatre replied a little too readily. “Where are you?”

Heero might not have rattled off Duo’s address quite as quickly as he did if he’d believed Quatre was actually in need of it. The recitation won him a confirmation from Quatre even more glib than the address had been, as well as a surprised and pleased look from Duo perhaps in response to the revelation that Heero already had where he lived by heart.

“Actually I think I’m not far from there,” Quatre added.

“Hmm,” said Heero, in lieu of a sarcastic comment on that extraordinary coincidence.

“So I should be there pretty soon.”

“OK. Thanks.” Heero hung up, resisting the urge to shake his head, roll his eyes, or sigh, and handed the phone back to Duo. There was always some amusement to all of this too, and some grudging admiration at how well everything came together, but he tried not to show any of that either.

“So, back to the house?” The cute casual motion by which Duo replaced his phone in his pocket probably held Heero’s eye more than it should.

“Yeah.” Here it wasn’t too difficult not to sound defeated, since an excuse to spend more time with Duo wasn’t really anything he regretted. So they sat amicably on the porch making definitive arrangements for a date at Giachetti’s, and Heero couldn’t be even a little annoyed about being stuck here waiting for a ride.

With typical good acting — better than what he’d used on the phone where he could be relatively certain he was safe — Quatre didn’t show up any sooner than would make sense, and moved along the street slowly as if looking carefully at house numbers before catching sight of his roommate on the porch of the one he wanted.

“Nice car,” Duo muttered admiringly as Quatre came to a stop. Heero was watching the big, excited shape in the back seat with the continued urge to shake his head, all suspicions confirmed.

Technically it wasn’t necessary for Quatre to leave the vehicle when he was only here to collect a passenger, but not only did the plan require him to do so, it was also Quatre’s nature to be polite and sociable under any circumstances. So of course he’d turned off the car and was getting out to say hi to Duo just as if he didn’t know that the passenger he already had was going to burst forth like living chaos to join him in so doing.

As sixty-five pounds of ridiculously excited chabrador exploded toward him, Duo made a surprised noise, but that was all he had time for before the dog was on him. Quatre was shouting vainly and as if he hadn’t expected this, and Heero was braced for the outcome.

“He chewed through his leash!” Quatre called as he approached. And though this was true, strictly speaking, the despair and frustration in the tone were misleading — Truffle had chewed through this particular leash perhaps six months ago, at which point Heero, tired of replacing nylon leashes, had bought him one made of chain that he couldn’t so easily destroy. Like the sketchbook that wouldn’t stay hidden, however, the latest chewed-through leash continued to make appearances whenever it was convenient for it to do so.

And then Duo dropped to his knees, carelessly putting his face right in range of the big wet purple tongue, and said with an enthusiasm to match Truffle’s, “Did you chew through your leash?? That’s so naughty!!”

Heero had been looking back and forth between Duo and the car, watching alternately for what his handsome new acquaintance would do in response to the dog and signs of a stealthy exit from the back seat and the assumption of a position in hiding somewhere whence the entire scene could be captured on video; but Trowa’s powers of stealth were constantly improving, and Heero, even while specifically watching for him, got only slight hints at his presence. Besides, his full attention was diverted in the other direction when Duo, to cap his welcome of Truffle, produced seemingly out of nowhere a good-sized Milk Bone with which to tease and eventually gratify the good-sized dog. Seriously, where it had come from was an enormous mystery at this point. Even Heero had only been half expecting Truffle today; there was no way Duo could have known.

Duo’s initial reaction to unexpected shedding and slobber had been excellent, but his subsequent production of treats bordered on the incredible. As Heero’s wondering eyes rose from Duo to meet Quatre’s, he heard in his head the echo of an exchange from the other day when he’d first encountered Duo in Ms. Hilde’s car:

“That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow. I say go for it.”

And though Quatre’s face didn’t quite communicate ‘go for it,’ beyond a doubt he was impressed. But the interested calculation that settled onto his expression thereafter gave Heero a bit of a chill as he realized that… nobody had ever made it past the dog before, at least not this definitively. He had no idea what was supposed to happen next. And they’d already arranged a proper date for the coming weekend.

Normally he would have pulled Truffle off the victim by now, but he’d been so taken by surprise by Duo’s reaction that he’d just stood there for half a minute longer than usual. At least Duo seemed not to mind. In fact he almost sounded disappointed when Heero’s commands drew Truffle’s loving attentions away to his owner. And as Duo stood, wiping saliva from his face, he asked, “What kind of dog is he?”

“He’s chow/black lab.” Heero got a good grip on Truffle’s harness when he noticed that another Milk Bone from nowhere had appeared in the same hand Duo was using the back of to clear off his face. “Why do you have dog treats?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch of dogs between here and the bus stop, though you don’t always catch them outside. I keep some treats on me for them.” As he spoke, Duo approached where Truffle was straining at Heero’s grip on his harness, and held up the latest Milk Bone. “Does he do any tricks?”

So while Duo put Truffle through his paces, rewarding him with what was probably an unhealthy amount of treats for the few commands he’d learned well enough to perform while excessively excited, Heero watched him and admired the friendliness with which he interacted with the dog, glanced around somewhat pointlessly in search of Trowa (whom he never found), and worried about the artful gleam in Quatre’s eye. Perhaps he could keep the time and place of his next meeting with Duo a secret; perhaps he could stave them off. Though honestly he wasn’t sure, much of the time, how they even knew in the first place.

And it didn’t matter anyway, since when they finally got around to goodbying after a decent amount of further interaction with Truffle that was sure to make his little doggy day, Duo commented, “So I’ll see you on Friday. I think there’s a bus stop in that shopping center — right across from the mall, right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Heero forced himself to smile, to hide his minor dismay at having the time and place (more or less) announced like that in front of Quatre. “I’ll see you then.”

And after bundling Truffle, with some effort, back into the car, leaving Trowa (wherever he was) to his own devices in getting home, Heero took his place in the passenger seat wondering whether he was more eager to spend time with Duo or anxious — in the face of Quatre’s complacent but crafty visage — how that meeting could possibly go.

***

“Donovan went to Traevis too. He’s probably graduated by now. I haven’t talked to him for a while. But he was trying to get close to Quatre for networking purposes, so that’s how I met him.”

“Sounds like another trophy-hunter.”

“…yeah.”

“How’ve you managed to pick up so many of those?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have such a long list.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one with a shitty list.”

“So I guess yours only got more fun after high school too?”

“They got more drunk after high school. Drunk and freeloading and assuming I owed them sex and thinking it was manly to be pushy and rough — or, for the girls, that it was my job to buy them whatever they wanted.”

“What was the common denominator? Besides that, I mean. Since I assume you didn’t choose them for that stuff.”

“You know, I’ve thought about that, and… it sounds totally self-centered, but I think what drew me to all of them in the first place was their interest in me. There was always something about them — you know, some good or interesting personality trait, since none of them were all bad — something that kept me with them after that first attraction, but it was usually their interest that started it. I guess I’m just a total egotist, but don’t we all want to be adored? And maybe they were just interested in me because they thought they could get stuff from me, but I always loved the feeling of someone showing specific interest in me out of the blue. Does that make me an awful person?”

“No, I don’t think so. Or at least not more than it makes me an awful person to be drawn to people just because they’re good-looking and have a bright presence.”

“Hah! We’re both so superficial!”

“Well, we’re both artists… what can we do?”

“Hope to get lucky, I guess. Not like that. You know what I mean. No, seriously, that’s not what I meant! So, uh, how many more are on your list after Donald or whatever?”

“I don’t remember. Two or three a year. I haven’t really kept track, because after Donovan… things changed. But with Donovan, it was pretty much the same as the high school relationships were. Only now I had a whole house full of roommates that didn’t approve. We didn’t last very long because of that, actually… well, and because he kicked my dog.”

“He what?!”

“He thought it was good business to wear suits all the time, and he had… Wufei described it as ‘using dignity to cover up a lack of real ethics,’ or something. Sylvia just said he had a stick up his ass. But his dignity and his nice clothes couldn’t stand my hairy dog. He thought I didn’t know he was mistreating Truffle, but I did.”

“I hope you threw him out that same second.”

“Pretty much. And he won’t be networking with Quatre any time soon.”

“Good! Good. So then what changed after Donovan?”

***

Heero tried to fight off nervousness as he disembarked from the bus just opposite the mall and turned to make his way across the parking lot toward Giachetti’s. He’d considered asking his roommates directly what the plan was for tonight, but, knowing he would never get a straight answer, had eventually decided not to. There was even a certain relief to ignorance, since he would be able (if he was able) to eschew thinking about it and simply enjoy his date with Duo, and show genuine, uncontrived surprise in response to whatever did happen. Nevertheless the nervousness was still tugging at him as he walked.

Duo waited outside the restaurant, leaning against the wall beside the door giving a friendly smile to anyone that entered in front of him. And Heero simply couldn’t help gawping as he approached.

Observing the fixed gaze, Duo glanced down at the emerald tie and matching vest he wore over his milky white dress shirt and slacks. He’d obviously put his hair in a fresh braid too, and taken some care in so doing, since it was sleek and smooth, much neater than the last times Heero had seen him. Heero would never want to use a trite and possibly demeaning phrase like, ‘He cleans up well,’ but it was a pretty stunning improvement. Duo was easily as sexy and eye-catching now as when he’d been draped naked across an armless armchair.

“Too much?” Duo wondered, looking back up from his inspection of self.

“No!” Heero didn’t bother trying not to stare. “You look amazing.” In some chagrin he added, “I think I’m underdressed.” He too had opted for a button-up and slacks, but had foregone a tie — and certainly didn’t own anything as nicely coordinated as what Duo wore.

“It is your turn,” Duo replied with a flirtatious grin. When he saw how much the remark made Heero blush, the grin widened into a sort of ‘My bad!’ expression, and he hastened on with, “Let’s go inside.”

There, Heero looked around surreptitiously for anyone he knew. The problem was that pretty much everyone in here — at least all the customers seated at the various tables, if not necessarily the staff — appeared familiar, but he couldn’t precisely place any of them. Was he being paranoid? This city housed a big enough population that, though he might recognize a lot of faces, it seemed highly improbable that everyone in a restaurant would be familiar to him… and yet he couldn’t attach a name, or where he thought he’d seen the person before, to a single one of them. At the same time, with the way his life worked, he couldn’t write this off as mere paranoia.

Since he also couldn’t do anything about it, he made no specific request about where they would like to be seated.

As they began to peruse their menus, Duo remarked happily, “Oh, good, they’ve got Coke products here. Pasta’s always better with Coke.”

“Better than Pepsi?” Heero sought to clarify.

“Yeah, ’cause Coke’s a little bit more bitter?”

Heero shrugged and admitted, “They’ve always tasted the same to me.”

Duo gave him an exaggerated look of shock. “You’re not serious. Hah! You’re very serious. Next you’re going to tell me Sprite and Sierra Mist are the same thing.”

“I can’t say I like either one of them.”

“What is wrong with you?”

Heero smiled. “Who’s the drinks snob now?”

Duo grinned back, then gave his attention to the server that had appeared to take their order for sodas. When the woman had gone, Duo said, “No, but you know who really was snobby about Coke?”

“Who?”

“Well, kinda everyone. You know how Pepsi was originally the poor man’s Coke?”

“Not really, but I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah, well, apparently, when they first made Pepsi, it was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to Coke, and it was supposed to taste the same. My… great… grandma…” He articulated slowly, as if taking care to specify the relationship correctly. “Yeah, ’cause it was my grandma who told me, about her mom. My great-grandma used to keep a pack of Coke bottles that she would wash out between uses and fill with Pepsi when she had guests.”

“She really cared that much?”

“I guess! You want to save money, but you gotta look classy, right? Can’t let anyone know you buy the cheap-o Pepsi like a poor poory… poorerson… right?”

Heero laughed. “I can’t imagine caring about how much people thought I spent on something. I’d much rather get a good deal.”

“And they’d probably admire you more for finding it on sale anyway! I mean, in the art world, you totally get what you pay for, so it’s like, good stuff being expensive is just something we all deal with, not a way to prove how rich you are or something.” When Heero nodded his agreement, Duo added, “Some weirdos may think Pepsi tastes the same as Coke, but nobody thinks Grumbacher is the same as Sennelier.”

Heero, though he hadn’t done much oil painting, still had to agree again, on principle.

Their server walked by them just then, carrying drinks to another table, and Duo picked up his menu. “Guess I should figure out what I want…”

Yet again Heero nodded agreement, and did likewise. He thought they were both searching for crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce — and though, as he’d feared, they didn’t find that specific combination available, they’d both managed to settle on something they wanted by the time their drinks came out and the server asked if they were ready to order.

When she had gone again, Duo inquired, “So how’s Truffle? Not sick from all those treats I gave him, I hope?”

“No, he’s fine,” Heero smiled. “As unmanageable as ever.” Actually Truffle had gotten sick that day, but since Heero speculated Quatre had plied him with excessive treats just to get him into the car in the first place, he didn’t blame Duo for that.

“How long have you had him?”

“Four years or so. I always wanted a dog growing up. My parents would never let me.”

Duo made a gesture of understanding and concurrence. “I’d have loved to have one too, but the kind of house we always lived in… I mean, you saw it…”

“Yeah, a dog might be a disaster in there.”

“I want a place someday where I can have both! Where I can arrange it for lots of art and a dog! And maybe some cats! And, like, some gerbils and rats and snakes and stuff! I dunno — maybe some birds too?”

Heero chuckled at this optimistic plan. “It sounds nice. But I’ve heard rats can smell–” And he stopped.

He wasn’t sure whether his eye was caught by the sudden surreptitious but still unusually concerted movement throughout the room or whether it was pure coincidence that he happened to glance around just then. He actually might have missed it had he not lifted his eyes at that moment, because they were all that skilled at ‘casual’ and ‘natural,’ but by pure chance he did notice: every single person in the room was suddenly putting on makeup.

Typically he would have considered it very rude to look frantically from one fellow restaurant patron to the next, staring hard but briefly at each trying to figure out what the hell they were doing; and even in this situation where it clearly wasn’t inappropriate behavior, he found it embarrassing. But those colors were not natural, and not all of it was even, as far as he could tell, standard cosmetics. What these folks were up to he couldn’t guess. Or, rather, knowing Trowa all too well, he did have a guess growing in the darkness of his suddenly cold gut — a guess he could hardly allow for the possibility of, did not even want to consider, but that would not let go. Quickly he looked back at the table on which were resting hands that had clenched into nervous fists, staring down at the clean tablecloth as if he could ignore away the greyish whites, sickly greens, and bruise purples being applied in copious amounts at tables around the room.

To Duo the nonsense had gone, as yet, unnoticed, but he hadn’t failed to pick up on Heero’s sudden increased tension and concern. And his concentration on Heero’s face and uneasy fists was touching. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.

And that was when the first wet-sounding, guttural groan came floating in their direction.

And that was when Heero realized where he knew all these people from.

“What the…” Duo’s eyes had been drawn from Heero by the sound, and now he looked out across the room with an expression simultaneously skeptical and amused. Reluctantly, Heero followed the gaze.

The other ‘patrons,’ having finished their cosmetic endeavors — and some of them, apparently, having removed outer garments to reveal clothing far more ragged and bloody underneath — had all assumed limp slumps at their tables as if they’d been murdered over their ravioli and nobody had been left to clean up the mess… everyone, that is, except a couple of diners at the far end, almost invisible thanks to some potted plants in the way, who were now slowly, awkwardly hauling themselves to their feet. Once upright, their uncertain stances became imbalanced staggers as they set out just as slowly, still groaning, in a sluggish but deliberate line that seemed to point directly at Heero and Duo.

The latter turned his eyes, beneath high-raised brows, back toward Heero, and remarked in an almost questioning tone, “Everyone in this restaurant is suddenly a zombie.”

“Yeah,” said Heero faintly. “Yeah. Looks like it.”

The swinging door into the kitchens shuddered open as a member of the wait staff — in fact Heero thought it was their very own server — came shuffling out, now with a greenish-white face and oozing some kind of black substance from her mouth, indicating that more than only the space had been bought out for this occasion. He also noticed, since it was glowing red right above the door that had just caught his eye with its movement, a digital clock whose original function he wasn’t sure of but that seemed to have recently started a seven-minute countdown.

“Looks like we have six and a half minutes,” he murmured.

“Until what?” wondered Duo, glancing over. “And is she going to bring us our food?”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little. “Probably not.”

“Well.” Duo moved briskly, taking a long last pull on his Coke straw and then unexpectedly beginning to shift all the contents of the table onto the booth seating or the floor beside him. This consisted of their drinks (which went onto the carpet in the far back corners where they hopefully wouldn’t spill), a wooden container of sugar packets with salt shaker and pepper grinder on the other side, two sets of silverware they hadn’t unrolled from protective napkins yet, a bottle of oil for the bread appetizer they were supposed to have received next, and the tablecloth; Duo was careful with all of it, propping the oil especially delicately into the corner of the seat where, like the drinks, it shouldn’t fall over. The tablecloth he folded — unevenly, yes, but it was neater than crumpling it — and placed next to the rest with the silverware stacked on top.

Heero had watched this performance in such rapt bemusement that he hadn’t taken note of the first zombies’ positions for a while. Now a glance around showed him that the one from the kitchen was nearly upon them and had been followed by another in a bloody chef’s uniform, with the initial set of patrons and a newly risen second set not far behind. The third group of diners was stirring, climbing from their seats and joining the slow-moving throng in the direction of Heero and Duo, who was busy with the next step in what Heero realized now was an impromptu bunker: he’d stood from his seat and was carefully tipping their heavy table over onto its end.

“‘Scuze me,” he said as Heero was forced to move his legs to avoid the multi-footed one of the table swiveling up in his vicinity. He added conversationally, “We’re lucky it isn’t attached to the wall; I think they usually are in restaurants like this.” Then, painstakingly as it was heavy and he obviously didn’t want to damage it, he rolled it down onto its long side and slid it into place to create a sort of front gate for the enclosure formed by their booth seating.

Heero was now somewhat inclined to laugh, though it might have come out a little frantic-sounding. He had no idea what the zombies would do when they got over here, nor what Duo’s plan was for that eventuality — Heero figured his date was probably thinking along the same lines as his own vague notion of using the silverware against them — but it was stupid and hilarious that Duo was creating a hiding place for them with the restaurant’s furniture, his aplomb nothing less than adorable.

And then Duo, after navigating over the seat into the space behind the upturned table, bent down and pulled the right leg of his white slacks all the way up to his knee, revealing what appeared to be a machete strapped there with scrunchy pony-tail holders of three different colors that must have been either stretched beyond all usefulness or cutting off the circulation in his calf. Heero, gaping, watched as Duo somewhat clumsily extracted the weapon from the hair accessories holding it in place, and finally managed to ask, in an even weaker tone than he’d yet used, “Why do you have a machete under your pants?”

Duo examined the knife, which seemed to be made of rubber, from end to end as if he’d not yet had a good chance to do so, or perhaps as if he found it repeatedly fascinating. He slapped its tip experimentally into his other palm, watching it wobble slightly with an appraising expression. “Some guy gave it to me and said I’d better bring it tonight because I was going to need it.” He gestured to the first of the zombies, who were getting dangerously near the table. “I guess this is what he was talking about.”

“‘Some guy?'”

“Yeah, he was all in that black and grey camo.” But before Duo could provide any further description — not that Heero really needed it — the first of the zombies was upon them.

The movement by which Duo swung his machete at the woman just as she reached their table was an experimental one, as he couldn’t be sure what degree of false violence — if any! — would be effective against these false zombies. It seemed to have done the trick, though: as soon as the rubber made contact with her neck, she let out another theatrical groan, staggered off to her right, and fell to the floor.

“Looks like this’ll work, then,” Duo said with a cheerful nod, again slapping the bendy blade against his free hand.

Heero mimicked the first gesture, but not the second.

The next zombie reached them after not too long, and Duo dealt with that one in the same way he had the first. Though Heero couldn’t see them around the booth’s edges once they’d fallen to the floor, he had an uneasy feeling they were crawling away along the room’s perimeter and might not really be finished. Meanwhile, seated zombies were slowly awakening in waves, each one closer to the defenders, and beginning to stagger their way over.

The clock above the kitchen door read 5:00.

“So did you know,” Duo wondered as he wielded his weapon in the face of the grimy onslaught, “that everyone in here was going to turn into a zombie tonight?”

“I did not,” replied Heero with complete honesty. He didn’t add that he was not surprised, however, and he was glad Duo hadn’t asked if he knew why this was happening.

Some of the makeup jobs here were distinctly gruesome — impressive for a last-minute application with only handheld mirrors! — and in the otherwise silent restaurant — the music that had previously been playing softly from overhead speakers having ceased, probably to accommodate the atmosphere — the groans and shuffling sounds were genuinely agitating. Heero’s heart now beat even faster than it had when he’d been in the dark as to this evening’s proceedings, something he would have considered impossible prior to this — surely, would have been his assumption, vague and unsettled anticipation of what would happen must be worse than whatever was actually going to happen! As usual, he should know better than to underestimate his friends.

Two moaning zombies came at them simultaneously, clawing arms outstretched to reach over the barricading table, and Duo dispatched them with a neat slice that crossed the throat of one diagonally down through the chest of the other. They separated, falling dramatically in different directions and crawling away out of sight across a carpet that Quatre might need to pay to have stage makeup stains professionally removed from after this.

“So obviously you do what you gotta do,” Duo remarked, “and I never mind a spot of zombie-killing of a Friday evening… but if someone had warned me ahead of time, I wouldn’t have worn white!” And into the chest of the next zombie he thrust his blade, which bent comically before the approaching monster staggered backward away from it and fell to the floor.

“The fact that you were going to need a machete might have been a warning,” Heero pointed out. “I didn’t even get that much.”

Duo allowed, “That’s true,” and sliced another zombie across the neck. “Besides, I look damn good in white.”

“Yes,” said Heero seriously, making Duo’s grin widen, “you do.”

The clock above the kitchen read 4:17.

The onslaught thickened as the entire population of the building joined in, including the wait and bus and kitchen staff and what Heero guessed to be the restaurant manager or owner in a bloodstained suit and tie, and all the former diners had risen from their seats. Duo was forced to deal out blows right and left with an arm that must be getting tired. The most difficult part seemed to be maintaining a gentleness of strike that would not damage the real living people beneath the makeup even with a rubber machete, and Heero admired his dedication to the rules of an unexpected game that might have annoyed a less patient person into a more hurtful demonstration of his dissatisfaction with this crazy postponement of his dinner.

The clock above the kitchen indicated they had just over three minutes left, and Heero felt a mixture of awkwardness, embarrassment, and amusement in addition to the aforementioned agitation and nervousness resultant upon the semi-realism of certain aspects of this scene. He should be doing something to help, but wasn’t sure what; he didn’t have a rubber machete strapped to his leg — inasmuch as giving him one would have constituted far more forewarning than his friends obviously believed he needed — and his silverware idea from earlier seemed, upon further reflection, unfeasible unless he wanted to add genuine blood to the fake stuff many of these people wore.

Well, it probably didn’t matter much. Duo was obviously enjoying himself, even if he did appear, as Heero had previously noted, to be tiring, and whatever the hell Heero’s friends thought to learn from this exercise — how well Duo could make use of his surroundings and available resources in the event of an unexpected undead apocalypse? — must be well in evidence in his enthusiastic one-man hold of the little bunker. And if Heero was correct and the clock over the kitchen doors was significant to their situation, Duo probably wouldn’t have to heft that fake machete for all that much longer in any case.

Just then, Heero started at a sound to his right, and half-whirled-half-jumped to see a lurching body clawing its way over the back of the booth seating in that direction and reaching for him with hideous purpose. This was a zombie Heero recognized, so he knew what that purpose was, and couldn’t be sure whether to roll his eyes or duck behind Duo in a very pointed ‘I’m here on a date with someone who is not you, Treize’ gesture.

Neither was required of him (though he might have done one of them anyway), for Duo, attention caught by Heero’s motion, wasted no time in bringing his machete down right onto Treize’s still-stylish-even-in-undeath head. Treize gave a groan that sounded more disappointed than anything, and slumped down behind the seat.

“Keep watch on both sides,” Duo instructed, “and let me know if anyone else gets that bright idea.”

“Oh, they will,” Heero replied darkly. Because where Treize went, never far behind was…

And, yes, just as expected, the next head to appear over the back of the seat was platinum blonde. Long, elegant hands in torn button-up sleeves reached for him, and this time the message Heero would have intended in jumping behind Duo was, ‘Still not interested in a threesome, Zechs.’ But instead he just said his companion’s name in a warning tone, and was rewarded with the very satisfying sight of Zechs being smacked in the ear with a rubber machete and toppling backward — perhaps not entirely theatrically — out of sight.

The clock read 1:38.

It was several zombies more before Heero became certain that the cycle had started over and they were seeing for a second time attackers Duo had already dealt with. A particular early-90’s denim jacket, artfully spattered in blood, Heero couldn’t possibly have missed after having taken specific note of it the first time, and the besuited manager/owner stood out as well. The zombies were, it seemed, doing what Heero had speculated since the beginning: circling around at a crawl to the back of the straggling line for a fluid, continuous attack.

This repetition evidently rendered it allowable for Treize and Zechs to make each another attempt at getting at Heero — though Heero puzzled, as not infrequently at their behavior even in more routine circumstances, over what they thought to gain by it, whether they really thought this would change his mind about them and what they wanted — and in fact Treize was coming over the seat-back to be met by Duo’s machete a third time when the clock above the kitchen door finally reached the end of its countdown and began repeatedly flashing 00:00.

It seemed a little silly, but Heero’s nervousness actually increased at this point. He wouldn’t be surprised if these folks somehow found a way to combine all the zombies into a giant undead horror so tall it would burst through the ceiling — which Quatre would then pay for — and challenge Duo and Duo’s little play weapon with flailing arms and stomping legs each comprised of two or three individuals. Or maybe the clock above the kitchen had been a ruse all along — designed, perhaps, to test Duo’s response to disappointment, though Heero would probably be the more disappointed of the two — and the assault would not stop at this juncture. How soon would Duo tire of the game and demand to be let out? Heero couldn’t guess.

But any hope that had arisen at the end of the countdown was justified after all. In a rush, accompanied by the resumption of music from the speakers above — now some heroic movie theme Heero did not immediately recognize — rescue burst upon the scene.

“Yep, that’s the guy.” Before dealing with the next zombie in the queue, Duo gestured with his machete at the figure at the head of the newcomers.

Heero had absolutely no need to ask which ‘guy’ he meant. “That’s Trowa,” he said in more of a ‘this is so typical of him’ tone than any of identification.

“And isn’t that your roommate?”

“That’s all of my roommates,” Heero confirmed. “Yes.”

At first Duo didn’t have much time, between zombies, for examining the rescue party, for admiring all their stylish urban camouflage or their various weapons — from Sylvia’s replicas of Legolas’ knives from the Lord of the Rings movies and Wufei’s runed broadsword with the dragon hilt that looked ridiculously out of place in this context to the machete in Quatre’s hand that seemed to have come in a set with Duo’s and the chainsaw Trowa hefted that Heero really, really hoped was fake — but after not too long, Duo was able to stand back, relax a bit, and examine the fresh heroes as they drew the zombies’ attention away from the previous targets.

“Quatre can’t keep a straight face,” he chuckled presently as they watched Quatre dive into battle with an expression that showed just how absurd he found this.

“Neither can you,” Heero pointed out. And he didn’t add that, to someone that knew Trowa (who could keep a straight face), it was obvious he too was overwhelmed with emotion — in his case, intense pleasure and excitement.

“Well, it’s not every day you get to fight an Italian restaurant full of zombies!”

Wufei and Sylvia had headed down the line and were further away with their backs turned this direction, undoubtedly because Duo had met Wufei once before in a situation, if not exactly worse than this, at least pretty bad, and might recognize him again now. This precaution was probably unnecessary, though, since the wide, enthusiastic sweeps of Trowa’s chainsaw — which made a very convincing sound effect now he’d turned it on — were difficult to look away from.

“That guy’s really into it,” Duo laughed.

“That’s Trowa,” Heero repeated.

For a little while they watched the action without being called upon to take any further part, until zombie Zechs started climbing over the seat again and Duo dispatched him with a thoughtful expression. He glanced back at where the carnage still proceeded without them, since it seemed the zombies were not staying down for the rescue party any more than they had for the beleaguered. And now, as casually as if motivated by mere unconcerned curiosity, he finally asked the question Heero had been dreading: “Why is this happening?”

“I… can… sorta… explain,” Heero replied haltingly. “But not…” He gestured around, having no words to express how impossible he found the idea of a rational conversation at any length in this setting.

“I think they’ve got things under control in here.” Duo still couldn’t keep a straight face as he glanced back at the enthusiastic Trowa and his chainsaw. “Why don’t we go outside and talk?”

Half reluctant and half relieved, Heero nodded again. Together they carefully climbed out of the makeshift barricade and headed quietly for the doorway that led toward the exit. No one followed, though Heero thought he could make out the disappointed figures of Treize and Zechs watching them go from the booth beside where they’d been seated. It seemed likely that the game plan had been to keep this drama inside the controlled environment of the restaurant, for the sake of everyone’s safety and privacy and the least amount of property damage, so Heero and Duo would probably, as speculated, be safe outside. In the doorway, with a quiet, uninhabited bar to their left and the entry just before them, they paused by mutual silent accord and looked back.

Despite the defenders numbering only four, the battle had spread out to fill every corner of the room. Closest to them was Quatre, whose laughing machete strikes made it hard for even the zombies around him to keep to their prescribed expressions of slack-jawed undeath. Several of them on the floor around him were visibly giggling, which seemed to be impeding their progress toward crawling away to get to their feet and rejoin the skirmish elsewhere. For a moment or two, this strategy — if it could be called that — left Quatre the only one standing in a ring of mirthful zombies scrambling ineffectually to retreat.

And in that moment, Trowa backed into the circle and briefly turned off the sound effect on his chainsaw in order to hear Quatre’s comment, “You’re right — this is fun.”

Trowa gave him a very serious look and replied quietly, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

“I’m glad!”

“It’s all thanks to you,” said Trowa earnestly, and leaned down to kiss Quatre firmly on the mouth. It made for quite the picture, what with the chainsaw pointed out one side and the machete out the other and the zombies at their feet — the very image of love surviving all odds even in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

“It’s not all me,” Quatre said breathlessly after the kiss had ended. “Thank Heero too; he’s the one who insists on dating jerks.”

“Marry me,” said Trowa.

“Oh!” Quatre’s face went pink as Trowa released him, and for once Heero thought it was both a genuine and spontaneous blush. “OK. Yes! Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”

The zombies on the floor — and, Heero thought, several that were upright and near enough to have heard the exchange — let out a concerted groan that was startling and very disturbing but probably the closest in-character thing they could manage to a cheer.

“Did that seriously just happen?” Duo chortled.

“I think it did,” replied Heero as he watched Trowa give Quatre one more quick kiss and then, restarting his chainsaw sound, plunge back into the fray. He couldn’t help grinning at having just witnessed the engagement of his two best friends, at the situation in which he’d witnessed it, and at the indication it gave that this dating thing really did work out from time to time. Actually he found it all rather heartening, and suddenly felt quite a bit better about the idea of spilling his guts — his somewhat bizarre guts, under the circumstances — to his companion.

“And do you insist on dating jerks?” Duo wondered next.

Heero laughed faintly. “That’s… part of the story.”

“All right, then, let’s really get out of here.” Duo tugged on Heero’s hand to urge him toward the exit. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

***

“After Donovan…”

Seated on a stone bench outside Giachetti’s in the shadows of both the building itself and the trees landscaped around it, with Duo beside him, Heero was finally getting to the end of what must be the longest and most rambling explanation for anything he’d ever given.

“After I broke up with Donovan, Quatre decided it was time to get seriously involved. I think he felt personally responsible — at least a little — since I met Donovan through him. He wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. So he came up with The Test. He coordinates and pays for everything, and Trowa does most of his legwork with a bunch of expensive spy equipment. There’s a troupe of theater students — that was most of the zombies in there — who do whatever parts they need. And the others kinda pitch in wherever.”

“You know I know about Tests,” Duo replied. “But what was the zombie thing supposed to prove?”

Heero shook his head. “The zombie thing was Phase 4. I knew there was a Phase 4, but I had no idea what it was. If it’s supposed to prove anything besides ‘Trowa loves zombies,’ I don’t know what it is.”

“‘Phase 4?'” Duo leaned back against the rock planter into which their bench was set and laughed out loud. “There are phases to this? Way to make Hilde look like a total amateur!”

“I had to appreciate the irony of running into someone else who does Tests, though.”

“So what were the other– wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” Duo raised a finger. “You said your first boyfriend had a tendency to flirt with other people and say all sorts of inappropriate stuff about you right in front of you, as if you wouldn’t notice or care. So that Wufei guy was pretending to do that bullshit to see how I’d react. That was Phase 1.”

“That’s right. If you’d flirted with him seriously or followed the topics he raised — or if you tried to fight him or something — you would have failed.”

“But you’ve never actually been out with him at all, since he’s totally straight and has a nerdfriend.”

“Yeah. Usually they send this one guy Zechs to handle that part — he was one of those two zombies coming after me over the seats just now. He’s interested in me himself, and he’s not very good at taking ‘no’ for an answer. Last time he got a little… carried away… and Wufei volunteered this time. Or Sylvia volunteered him. I’m not sure.”

“So Phase 2 was…” Duo thought about it, raising a second finger somewhat indecisively. “Phase 2 must have been Quatre bringing you that sketchbook right in front of me to see if I’d be interested in your art.”

Heero nodded. “I’m not sure why they didn’t change it this time, since you’re an artist too.”

“Well, it’d be even worse for a fellow artist not to be interested, wouldn’t it? Someone else might just not be interested in art, but from me it would be like saying, ‘This kind of thing is OK when I do it, but yours isn’t important.'”

“I guess that’s true,” Heero smiled.

“But the fact that I’m interested in your art still doesn’t prove anything. I could still be a serial killer or a playboy or something…”

“Those things being very much in the same league,” murmured Heero.

“Well, I know I really do sometimes… neglect things I should do, because I forget about them or get lazy, or just don’t take life seriously enough… which has annoyed people in the past.”

Helplessly Heero shrugged. “Tell it to my roommates.”

Despite what he’d just said, Duo’s gaze was very serious as it met Heero’s through the shadows. “Does it bother you that they do this?”

Heero felt a thrill at the question and its tone as he realized that Duo was essentially offering to try to do something about his eccentric friends. Not that Heero could think of a single thing that might be done — and Duo probably couldn’t either — but the fact that Duo was willing to offer at all gave Heero simultaneously another fuzzy warmth and a bit of a chill.

The latter because Duo’s impulse rather made him fit right in with Heero’s eccentric friends.

“It… doesn’t bother me… too much,” he said at last. “Sometimes they go a little overboard–”

Duo gave a snort of laughter. “A little?”

“The zombie thing is new,” Heero admitted, grinning in spite of himself. “Normally it ends after the dog thing, if the…” He winced as he was forced to use the melodramatic term Quatre and Trowa had for it. “…if the Subject makes it that far.”

“‘The Subject,'” Duo chortled. “They’re so hardcore about this!”

“What you’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Of their enthusiasm, I mean. I couldn’t stop them doing this even if I wanted to.”

“So you don’t want to! You secretly enjoy this as much as they do!”

“I don’t think I will ever enjoy anything as much as they enjoy this. But, no, I don’t want to stop them. Well, part of me doesn’t… some of the time. Because it works. At least it works as well as Ms. Hilde’s Test for you… it weeds out the worst of them.”

“But you said the Subject usually doesn’t get as far as the dog part! It sounds like you’ve had exactly three dates with everyone you’ve tried going out with for the last however many years!”

“It isn’t always as compact as it’s been for you. Sometimes there are as many as six dates.”

“So what was different this time?”

Heero’s face went hot. “I think… I think they could tell I’m really into you. So they sped things up.”

“That…” Duo’s chuckle had a slightly uneasy sound. “That’s not reassuring. I mean, I like that a lot, but at the same time, how do I know dating you won’t bring out previously unknown assholeish tendencies in me? Since you’re so good at picking awful guys?”

“Hey, you have frankly admitted that everyone you dated were jerks too,” Heero pointed out. “I could easily be just like them. Your Test for me wasn’t nearly as extensive as mine for you.”

“Well, I do know one thing: it says something that all your friends think you’re special enough to look out for like this. I was already figuring out about you being hot and smart and fun, but this… this says something pretty special about you even beyond that.”

Again Heero was forced to smile, blushing simultaneously. “I think it says Quatre’s a crazy mobster, Trowa likes to play with spy equipment, Wufei’s can’t say no to his girlfriend, and Zechs and Treize have an unhealthy interest in me.”

“OK, well, it says all that too,” Duo laughed. “But it’s still kinda sweet.”

“And I know about you that you’re OK with fighting zombies on the spur of the moment, you’re nice to dogs, and you have fairly decent social skills.”

“So so far we’re not jerks,” concluded Duo solemnly. “Further testing is probably a good idea, though. I mean, I’ve passed your friends’ Test, so it seems like they’re going to let me date you… though I don’t think I’ll be surprised if we get kidnapped by pirates or something next time… and Trowa’s probably still monitoring us right now…”

Heero reminded him, “He just had his marriage proposal accepted. We’re probably OK for tonight.”

“What I’m wondering is… I passed your friends’ Test, so now it should be your turn to test me. Seems a little unfair, them making the decision for you.”

“The only thing they get to decide,” said Heero firmly, “is whether they let me try dating you in peace or harass you mercilessly. And as far as I’m concerned, just the fact that you’re sitting here talking to me right now after all this insanity proves something pretty special about you.”

Duo persisted. “But that’s only a result of their Test. Isn’t there anything you want to test?”

Heero’s smile widened at this obvious fishing. “Fine,” he said. “Kiss me.”

Duo pushed off the stones he’d been leaning back on with an alacrity that suggested he’d been waiting (or perhaps just secretly hoping) for this, and scooted the foot or so of bench required to bring him right against Heero. As he leaned in, his hands slid up Heero’s arms to rest on his neck, and his breath was suddenly warm in Heero’s face. Their parted lips met, and Duo pressed forward to move against Heero with an insistence unanticipated but welcome. He smelled and tasted of Coca-Cola, and in this context Heero couldn’t possibly say he didn’t like it — though he might still have maintained that Pepsi was about the same. Then it was several very pleasant moments longer than he’d expected before they broke apart.

“You pass,” Heero murmured.

“Really?” Duo looked amused and triumphant. “It’s that easy?”

“If you call everything you had to go through to get to that point easy…” Heero gestured to the restaurant as an indication of at least part of what he meant.

“You’re right about that… I think someday I’m going to ask you to marry me just to see what your friends will do.”

At the very suggestion Heero felt himself reddening again, and wondered, half tentative and half calculating, “You think we’re going to get lucky?”

“I seriously was not talking about sex when I said that!” protested Duo.

“I know,” Heero assured him. “But it was so funny that your mind jumped right in that direction.”

“Well…” Duo’s tone was quieter now, more earnest. “I feel pretty lucky with you so far. And did you say we’re safe for the night? Want to escape and try our date again somewhere else? It may be the only chance we’ll have to find out whether we’re both jerks without your friends interfering.”

“Sounds good to me.” When Duo jumped to his feet and, reaching for Heero’s hands, pulled him up after, Heero did not resist. “What did you have in mind?”

“I never got my dinner, and I’m starving.” Duo slid an arm around Heero’s back, drawing him comfortably but not inconveniently close. “Why don’t we grab a pizza or something and maybe rent a movie?”

“Perfect.”

“Yeah, I hear Rotting Flesh is out on DVD now, and supposedly it’s pretty good.”

In the semi-darkness of the parking lot as they headed for the bus stop, Heero’s somewhat theatrical groan was not the first to grace that venue that night.



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For some author’s notes on this story, see this and this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it .

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