Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate is Found in Faeryland

What do two dwarves (one going through sexual maturation and the other seemingly without a personality), a liberated human dairymaid, and an orc with a talking sword have in common? They've all, more or less, been Cursed by the monarchs of Faeryland. Can they break their Curses and retrieve what was lost? Are they in for valuable lessons about friendship and magic? Will they all get married in the end? Find out in this totally serious epic fantasy adventure!

Unique to this story: faeries can change their physical sex at will, so there are references to canonically male-presenting characters being pregnant (though it's not mpreg as such) and canonically female-presenting characters impregnating others.

Unique to this story: cameos from various other fandoms and real life



This story was last updated on June 5, 2020.

1-9
Chapter 1 - Heero Gets Tickled
Chapter 2 - Kaoru Can't Kill Combative Creatures
Chapter 3 - Duo Buys A Sex Toy
Chapter 4 - Sano Argues With His Sword
Chapter 5 - Tomoe Already Can't Even With This
Chapter 6 - Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros
Chapter 7 - Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation
Chapter 8 - Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs
Chapter 9 - Sano Has No Sense
10-
Chapter 10 - Tomoe Laments
Chapter 11 - Heero Has No Sensibility
Chapter 12 - Trowa Proposes Marriage For The First Time In At Least Three Weeks


Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

With the continuance of his search, there came a certain sense of rightness. It did not equate to pleasure as it once might have, yet it remained a distinctly positive feeling. He did not search out of a need for this feeling, but it seemed an extra validation of a journey he would have pursued in any case. The list grew shorter and shorter, and with every item he recovered, the correctness increased.

As he moved along his way, his peg foot crunching decisively into the fallen leaves that had dried to a fragile red at their edges and a sickly pinkish-grey at their centers, he believed an impression was at last forming in his head. He paused, steadying himself against the dark pink bole of an oak-like tree, and closed his eye.

Immediately he felt the flutter of Trowa’s wings against his face, and guessed the faery had flown from his shoulder to watch him concentrate at a better angle. Finally his Guide wondered, “Anything?”

“Yes,” Heero replied. “It’s dry and cool. There’s a… tickling sensation. Irritating.” He looked again, and found Trowa hovering in front of him, as he’d suspected. He’d only ever seen Trowa present as sexless, without clothing except for jewelry; and the faery’s pure purple skin and darker hair of the same hue contrasted brightly with the pink forest surrounding them — though whether the combination would normally please the dwarven eye, Heero could not say. They had already traveled some distance together across Faeryland, but had not visited the purple realm, so Heero had become accustomed to Trowa appearing out of place. He added, thinking of distances, “It’s faint. It’s probably far away.”

“It sounds like sand,” remarked Trowa with a nod. “It could be anywhere under the right circumstances, but I think all the sandiest places in Faeryland are along the east side of the mountains, which are far away. Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Dorothy first? There may be an easier way.”

“I’m sure.”

With a slightly huffing sigh, Trowa said, “If we continue traveling west, and cross the river and the plains, we’ll reach the Eintopf hills. By then you should have a clearer sense.”

Heero returned the nod, considering this course of action a logical one. “You continue to be a satisfactory Guide,” he said — the closest he could come to expressing what he thought were feelings of obligation and gratitude but could only catch a distant, fleeting awareness of. Trowa had counseled him to talk to Dorothy more than once, but always did him the courtesy of not pressing the issue. Heero appreciated receiving advice the giver believed to be logical, but also appreciated having his decisions respected.

Trowa gave a monosyllabic laugh, with what emotion Heero could not guess and did not try to. “Thank you,” le said. “You should rest.”

Heero said simply, “Travel will be less tiring when we strike the road.”

Though Trowa at first raised a minute eyebrow, eventually le just settled back onto Heero’s shoulder as the dwarf continued to stump through the forest in a southwesterly direction. After not too long, Heero could hear lir shifting, and then the sound of lir flute like birdsong close to his ear.

It made no real impression on him one way or another. In fact he only recognized it as music in that, unlike so many of the other noises heard on a journey through Faeryland, it indicated nothing he needed to take into consideration or even pay any attention at all.

Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

Unable to catch herself as she stumbled, Kaoru actually fell on her butt in the questionable dirt of the inn-yard. Moments later, her walking stick shot out the door like a javelin straight toward her, and she barely deflected it in time to avoid a lump on her head; and not long after that, an upstairs window screeched open and, before she’d even finished directing her eyes toward it, her backpack came thudding down into the dirt nearby, followed more slowly and gracefully by her cloak fluttering through the evening air.

“I was just trying to stop them harassing that poor man!” she protested as the innkeeper began to retreat into his establishment. “I don’t see you kicking them out!”

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

She shouted at the closed door he left behind, “That’s because I’m human!” Then she climbed to her feet, brushed off her sore buttocks, and bent to retrieve her pack. Having cleared the dirt (or whatever it was) from that too, she slung it across her back and grabbed her cloak to throw over the top. Last she took up her staff and, after shaking a huffy fist at the inn, turned away.

Her plan had been to get a good night’s rest and some food in her belly, then cover the last few miles to Faeryland in the light of day; now she determined to finish the journey immediately and look for accommodations on the inside. Perhaps not the best idea, but she was frustrated.

Past the last straggling town buildings, over a little bridge and onto the straight road toward Faeryland, she thought she could see it — either that or the failing light playing tricks on her: a level darkness ahead like a great wall, stretching off in both directions as far as she could make out. She’d heard that a line of enormous trees formed the border of Faeryland on all sides, and it appeared now those rumors were true.

After a little rise, the road ran relatively flat for the remainder of the distance, and lights showed ahead. Kaoru peered and strained her eyes, but could at first distinguish little more than that they were lights; but after another half mile or so, she thought she could make out large lamps flickering on either side of a dark opening in the massive trees. Figures moved there, and Kaoru felt a shiver go all through her. She’d reached Faeryland at last; at last she could begin her search. But what kind of reception could she expect? And how much success?

Her attention was caught by something that seemed to stumble from a cluster of bushes at the side of the road and collapse on the cobbles. It appeared unusually pale in the growing darkness, and did not immediately rise from its fall. Kaoru, frowning in concern, hurried on toward it. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was nothing more than a bedsheet off someone’s washline that had blown here, but she had to know for sure.

Then the living creature contracted and got to its feet, and as the human approached she could definitely make out a human-like shape. It began to stagger forward at an odd lurch, as if in pain. Kaoru found herself shuddering at the movement, for it didn’t look natural. If someone had chosen it as an artistic statement, she would have said it represented a difficult repression of the self-loathing that would otherwise prevent someone from doing something necessary they deplored. It might work pretty well, actually, but it still seemed weird.

Reluctant though she’d become to get any closer, she began to jog.

Then the thing looked up and saw her. The lurching stopped abruptly, or, rather, transformed instantaneously into a forward sprint so unexpected that Kaoru halted in confusion and sudden fear. She barely had time to get her walking stick into a defensive position before the creature was on her.

She didn’t fight well, never having trained and knowing nothing of it, but she’d found on her journey so far that her strength exceeded her expectations. Evidently hauling heavy cans of milk, churning butter, and helping with calving did something for a woman’s fitness in any case. She’d even held her own in that bar fight earlier — or would have, if her opponents hadn’t been trolls. But all they’d possessed was overwhelming size and a genetic propensity for irrational unprovoked harassment; this creature differed from them entirely.

In the heat of the moment, she couldn’t take in many more details than she’d been able to see all along: human-sized, human-shaped, very pale. But she could feel its claws when they raked her, smell its putrid breath as it attempted to tear her throat out. Her flailings with the staff made little difference, and when her enemy let out a horrible, animalistic screech of aggression, she nearly dropped the makeshift weapon. Was this what her quest of recovery would come to? Dying in terror within sight of the entrance into Faeryland without ever having set foot past the trees?

Some other sound rushed toward and around the two combatants, and suddenly a blast of wind seemingly from directly above knocked Kaoru right off her feet. She scrambled backward, losing hold of her walking stick, getting caught on her cloak, and soiling the seat of her skirt for the second time that night. And she felt the expression of shock and fear on her face intensify as she saw what had happened: a dragon had swept down from the sky and scattered the fight, landing directly between the prostrate Kaoru and her similarly discomfited opponent.

Starlight glittered and gleamed off horn and scales and half-spread wings, and off an enormous eye that turned toward Kaoru as the dragon shouted, “Get on!”

With no time to think about this, to consider whether she trusted what must be a faery in the animal form to which they were limited outside the borders of Faeryland, or to decide whether she really believed, as briefly crossed her mind, that a dragon made for a nobler death than the smelly whatever-it-was, Kaoru struggled to her feet and ran to obey. At the same time, the pale creature had also risen, and was attempting to attack the dragon with the same reckless aggression it had shown toward Kaoru. A large wing kept it off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t find a way around eventually.

Though only slightly bigger than a farm-horse rather than building-sized as the human would have expected, the dragon at first presented no obvious place to sit, and certainly didn’t look comfortable. Kaoru made do, however, throwing a leg in a flutter of skirt over the spiny neck and leaning forward to cling with her arms as well. She only missed her walking stick once they’d taken off, but thought that not too great a price to pay for her life (if she was indeed saved).

How far they flew she had no idea; it was terrifying and uncomfortable no matter the distance. She hadn’t imagined her entry into Faeryland as quite so ignoble and awe-inspiring at the same time, and she just hoped she wasn’t screaming like a baby without realizing it. After a heart-stopping dive that stole the breath from her lungs even if she was, they thudded back to earth with a jolt so hard that Kaoru’s cheekbone bounced against the dragon’s spines and began bleeding. Eyes streaming with sudden tears and squinting against the stinging pain in her face, Kaoru could see basically nothing as she followed the dragon’s next instruction and dismounted, stumbling blindly forward. Tangled in skirt and cloak, she would have fallen for a third time if arms hadn’t caught and steadied her.

“Everyone!” called a voice very close by. “Please get out there and capture that Distorted!”

As the running steps and fluttering wings of what Kaoru believed must be ‘everyone’ passed them and abruptly changed to the sounds of animal paws and hooves and the more familiar flapping of bird wings, Kaoru caught a few comments and questions, the most common thought being, “How did it get past us?”

She straightened her clothing and adjusted her feet to wobble less, then brushed tears from her right eye so she could open it fully again, leaving the left closed. The cut on her cheek hurt almost more than the scratches the Distorted had given her (if she had that name right), but she could think about that after she’d figured out where she’d arrived and who had brought her.

The woman was the first faery Kaoru had ever seen in non-animal form, so she thought staring might not be as rude as usual. The abnormally steady flames of the lamps to either side of the entrance cast an orange glow over the area, but could not disguise the pinkness of the faery. From her dark pink pony-tail to her strawberry-colored eyes to her creamy pink skin to her translucently pink wings, she seemed to embody the very spirit of pinkness. Kaoru was reminded of her foster sister, who’d always dyed her hair that color and might be very happy to do her skin as well.

Even the amulet on its elaborate silver chain around the faery’s neck was pink, but, oddly enough, her clothing was purple. Kaoru wondered if that was really allowed. In any case, the woman looked ready for action in a close-fitting tunic cinched with black at the waist over tight black pants and tall boots, with a warmer purple cape to top it all off. The unfortunate effect of the garments conforming so well to her body was that her head appeared a trifle disproportionately large… though Kaoru wondered if that might not be simply a faery thing.

This had taken only a moment or three to observe, and before either she or her rescuer could say a word, Kaoru suddenly found herself swarmed by buzzing, darting shapes and demanding voices.

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

“What’s your destination, human? I’ll get you there quicker than anyone else!”

“Excellent Guide rates here, Visitor! Better than any of these others!”

“If you’re looking to join a Quest, I can find you one!”

“What brings you into Faeryland? You’ll need a Guide to get it done!”

Ducking her head back slightly and raising her arms, the disconcerted Kaoru began batting at the flying things, trying to clear the air around her. But the pink woman caught her wrists and stilled her before confusion could turn to panic, and advised her briefly, “These are people.” Then to the flitting nuisances she cried, “Please give this woman some space! You can talk to her once she’s feeling better!” She turned back to Kaoru with a thoughtful expression and added, “It is ‘woman,’ isn’t it? And ‘her’ and ‘she?'”

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

“Good,” the faery smiled. “I’d hate to get it wrong.”

The flock retreated to a safe distance. Some of them, Kaoru observed in surprise, grew to full-size in an instant, allowing her to see they were indeed all faeries of different colors. They waved and smiled at her as she looked at them.

A distant call of “Sofia!” grabbed the attention of the stranger, who turned her reddish-pink eyes back out toward where she’d sent her people on a dangerous errand. Then she looked the other direction, toward a building standing not far off on the other side of a low stone wall that seemed, at least at first, to mark the path farther into the forest. “Please take this human inside and let her rest and clean up!” she ordered. Then she dashed away, transforming effortlessly back into a pink dragon at the very moment she stepped from between the great border trees.

Perhaps Kaoru had been wrong to consider Sofia the embodiment of her color, for the guard that came over to escort her inside the building, waving the other importunate faeries away far less politely than Sofia had, was every bit as pink. Kaoru watched his pale pink hair in its multiple braids bounce slightly as he walked ahead of her, and reflected that her foster sister would definitely be jealous.

The apparent guardhouse, though constructed of bright pink stone and with an unusual number of ornate flourishes, looked enough like a non-faery building that Kaoru’s racing heart began to calm as they walked inside. There, the guard showed her to a room where she could sit in peace, and promised to send some water in.

Her first action, once alone, was to seat herself on one of the plain pink chairs, push out a bit from the plain pink table, and bend over to put her head between her knees. Soon she could feel the trickle of blood on her face reversing its course, which added a tickling sensation to the stinging pain of the injury, but she stayed in that position until it had traversed her left eye and started soaking her brow. Her throbbing pulse had calmed, and she breathed evenly, so she finally sat up just as a faery entered the room with a basin of steaming water and a couple of towels. The basin, Kaoru noticed as she thanked the faery, was glazed white, but she wondered what color the ceramic might be underneath. The towels were grey. She feared she might be specifically noting the colors of things for a while here.

Alone again, she tested her equilibrium before standing fully, then stepped over to the table. With a corner of the first towel dipped in the hot water, she began dabbing at the cut on her cheek. It probably wasn’t as worrisome a wound as the scratches on her arms and chest, but the blood all over her face bothered and agitated her.

“May I help you with that?” came a voice from behind. Kaoru gasped, dropped the towel, and spun, all her hard work at getting her heart rate down suddenly for naught.

This full-size faery embodied a different color: soft green like new leaves in her skin, green so dark it seemed almost black in her braided crown of hair, laughing green eyes that looked almost human, and wings that reminded Kaoru of a dragonfly’s. She wore ranger-like clothing in a brown leather Kaoru believed came from ordinary, extra-Faeryland cows, but somehow appeared too beautiful and gentle for the role these garments implied. She smiled as she reached out a hand to further her offer of assistance.

“Who are you?” Kaoru wondered breathlessly. “How long have you been in here?”

“My name is Imugeme, and I’m a healer,” the faery replied. “Please, let me help you with your wounds.”

“That doesn’t answer how long you’ve been in here.” Kaoru really had no problem letting someone else tend to painful injuries she couldn’t see very well, but she felt suspicious of everyone in this new place, and a green faery most of all. She seated herself once again and looked up at the woman with one defiant eye.

Imugeme took the towel Kaoru had dropped and resumed the cleaning of blood off her face with small, purposeful movements. She chuckled as she did so — a rich, self-satisfied little laugh — and then spoke again. “You’ll have to forgive me for disobeying the guards and not keeping back with the other Guides. I thought I could help you better than any of them.” She laughed again; it was an almost musical sound. “And if that gives me a better chance of making a pact with you, so much the better.”

Kaoru noticed Imugeme still hadn’t truly answered the question, but decided to let it slide since at least her intentions had been clarified. “What is a Guide?” she asked, trying to give the term the audible capital she’d heard these faeries using.

“It’s very difficult and dangerous for Visitors to try to find their way around Faeryland alone. A Guide will lead you right and keep you out of trouble.”

“I have a map.”

“Maps of Faeryland,” the green faery said with another chuckle, “are notoriously unreliable. And there are always dangers of various kinds that don’t show on a map anyway.” She’d apparently finished with the blood, for she set the towel aside. Kaoru’s face felt cleaner, but the pain had only heightened, and she winced as the first of Imugeme’s fingers touched her cheek near the cut. The faery’s hand slid into full contact with her face, and Kaoru stilled, holding her breath, at the sensation of warmth and gentleness in it. Imugeme smoothed a thumb out across the spot, and the pain faded. Another sliding movement of her green hand, fingers lingering and trailing, made it obvious that the cut had disappeared entirely.

The human let the air out of her lungs all at once and gaped slightly, slowly opening her left eye to see with more complete vision the woman smiling down at her in satisfaction. She’d been unsure whether to trust this faery at first, whether to take her at her word about the difficulties of travel through Faeryland and the necessity of a Guide, but her uncertainty had been eradicated along with her wound.

“Now for these others,” Imugeme said. “The Distorted cause nasty injuries, so these will be a little trickier.” She seemed to relish the challenge.

“What do you charge for being someone’s Guide?” Kaoru wondered as Imugeme helped her out of her vest and shirt. Where the cloth had torn and grown sticky with blood, the removal was particularly painful.

“Your firstborn child,” Imugeme replied. Then she laughed heartily at the expression on Kaoru’s face. “That’s a joke, my dear! You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries!”

Kaoru weakly returned the laugh. “Well, then, what do you actually want?”

“Candied fruit. And that’s not a joke. But if you have none, I’ll take a silver piece a week.”

“Silver?”

“You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries,” Imugeme repeated, and ran her hand over the scratches on Kaoru’s right arm.

“But a silver piece a week is…” The healing felt so nice, almost hypnotically so, that Kaoru ran out of words.

“That’s my price; take it or leave it. But I should add that having a pact with a Guide will translate the speech of everyone around you, so language won’t be a problem.”

Kaoru had planned to protest that a silver piece a week was a ridiculously low rate for what appeared to be a major service around here. Instead she protested, “I’ve understood everyone so far!” They had accents — even Imugeme — but these hadn’t obfuscated their words.

Imugeme moved on to the next injury, across Kaoru’s chest and right collarbone. The water had cooled a bit, but Kaoru didn’t mind. “Anyone stationed at the border tends to speak some outside language. But the further in you go, the less likely you are to encounter anyone you’ll understand.”

“You’re right, then; I would like a Guide. I’ll take your offer.”

Imugeme withdrew from her task and placed the towel back on the table. Reaching down, she drew one of Kaoru’s hands up to her lips and then her forehead, and Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her at the touch. “The pact is formed,” Imugeme stated. “I’m your Guide now.”

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

The faery gently pressed her warm, soothing palm onto Kaoru’s chest. As she smoothed away this set of scratches, she said, “I can also offer you the Protection of the green faery monarch, if you want. It will provide some physical protection, and help you avoid this kind of thing.” She lifted two fingers to tap the spot she was healing.

“Does that cost extra?” Kaoru wondered, thinking a little anxiously of her budget despite the inexpensive nature of Imugeme’s pact.

“Not at all. I just happen to be able to offer it, and I think it would do you good.”

“Then I’ll take it.”

Imugeme smiled, then bent again, this time to kiss the startled Kaoru on the forehead. The thrill that went through her in this instance felt almost like the healing, but somehow deeper, and she squirmed as the sensation settled in.

“And now,” the faery said in a businesslike tone, “while I finish with these, why don’t you tell me what’s brought you to Faeryland?”

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

Emerging from the pink trees into a more open space, Duo stopped just behind the low wall that bordered for some distance the road he’d come upon. Setting his hands on its pink bricks, he looked around with eyes that grew wider and wider as they took in the details he had expected but hardly dared to hope for. Then, his bubbling joy requiring some outlet, he began to caper in place, stamping the fallen leaves and singing snatches of a song in his own language that came immediately to mind.

His dance attracted the attention of the idle Guides that haunted every entrance into Faeryland, and ley flew immediately over to investigate. Since Duo did not intend to move a single step from this spot until he’d made a pact, he welcomed leir approach with waving arms. “Yes, I need a Guide!” he shouted. “I absolutely need a Guide!”

Ley fluttered around him making leir pitches, but he mostly ignored leir words in favor of studying leir faces and figures. When he saw one he thought he recognized, he pointed a big dwarven finger at lir and said, “Quatre, isn’t it? You were one of the Guides for that Quest worried about their Cursed crops, right?”

“How word gets around!” Quatre seated lirself on the wall and went full-size. Le crossed lir legs and placed lir warm gold chin in one similarly colored hand. “You don’t usually need a Guide — Duo, I believe? What can I do for you?” Le presented as female at the moment, or at least had breasts, probably the better to fill out the flattering sleeveless green dress le wore, and this relieved Duo mightily; if Quatre had appeared male, with lir handsome face and short pale gold hair, even Duo’s general attraction primarily to other dwarves might not have saved him from an embarrassing scene. Of course he wore a protective device inside his trousers, but he would still have known (and suffered all the uncomfortable consequences).

“A pact,” was his answer to the faery’s question. “I’ll explain everything, but just make a pact a fast as you can.”

The other Guides, seeing Duo had chosen, flew off with discontented mutters. He caught one of lem remarking that he wasn’t even a proper Visitor, which he supposed to be true, but he didn’t really care what ley thought of him at this point.

Quatre, smiling, hopped down from the wall and reached for Duo’s hand. “All right,” le said equably. “As fast as I can it is.” And after making the usual gestures and sending the usual little tingle of magic through the dwarf, le added, “What’s going on?”

Duo sighed loudly in relief, and sat down unceremoniously in the greyish-pink scatter of leaves. “I’ve been lost in this forest for a month, and that’s after wandering the plains for even longer. If you can keep me from getting lost, I’ll really owe you one.”

“I was under the impression you knew Faeryland better than any non-faery there is.” Quatre joined him on the ground, seating lirself gracefully with crossed legs under lir long skirts and leaning against the wall.

“I do! But Relena Cursed me so I can’t find my way any-damn-where! I’m half starved and haven’t slept in a bed in weeks, and…” But he stopped short of enumerating all his current problems just yet.

“So le literally told you to ‘get lost,'” Quatre mused. “What did you do?”

Duo grumbled, “Killed too many Distorted for lir to ignore. You know how le is.”

“Well, I can get you to the pink enclave — for two silver pieces a week, of course — but I can’t enter. Won’t you get lost inside and wander out again without being able to find lir?”

“I’ll deal with that when I get there,” said Duo. “Up ’til now I haven’t even been able to get there. Or anywhere! You have to help me.”

“Or we could dissolve this pact and you could find a pink faery to be your Guide,” Quatre suggested.

“But I know you. You’re reliable. You did great work with that Quest, which was why word got around, and I trust you.”

Quatre bowed from lir seated position. “I hope you know I don’t take praise as payment,” le said with a smile, “but I do appreciate it. Where would you like to go first?”

Duo gave a grunt of frustration and broke into a rant. “I’ve been working in Faeryland for fifty years without ever having a problem like this! Fifty years! And I don’t think I’ve ever needed a Guide more than twice before!”

“Every Visitor gets Cursed eventually,” said Quatre consolingly.

“I’m not even a proper Visitor. I live here!” Duo sighed, dropped his head back to look up into the trees, and tugged at his braided beard. “Well, first, you can take me to a pleasure-house somewhere.”

Quatre blinked. “If you’ve been lost for months, can you even afford that right now?”

“No,” Duo admitted dejectedly. “I haven’t been able to visit a bank in all this time, because I couldn’t find one! And faeries aren’t really my thing anyway. But I haven’t had sex in longer than I can remember, and I’m getting pretty desperate!”

“You must be going through kil’ak’brük.” Quatre somewhat astonished Duo by pronouncing the name for dwarven sexual maturation correctly and in so sympathetic a tone. “I imagine that’s hard on a dwarf in Faeryland.”

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

Quatre laughed. “Postre is much closer than the pink enclave — I’d say about three days’ travel, for a dwarf. You can visit a bank and sleep in a bed… and, though I don’t know that there’s a pleasure-house in town, I do know ley have some specialty shops that might help you.”

“Yes.” Duo leaped to his feet. “Yes, that’s perfect. Let’s go!”

Turning small-size, Quatre echoed facetiously, “Let’s go!” and took up a position on Duo’s shoulder.

The prospect of solutions to some of his issues invigorated Duo, but so also did the new convenience of traveling rationally with a Guide. Quatre tugged on his ear or his hair whenever he attempted to walk the wrong direction, keeping him on the correct path for leir destination. Instead of going by at random, and sometimes again and again as he moved in zig-zags and spirals, the landscape passed with a reasonable progression, and whenever the road dipped, Duo could gleefully count on it coming up again to the same rise he’d seen before it began to descend. So greatly did this improve matters that he felt he’d never enjoyed a walk through any part of Faeryland this much.

He still had to request, during the few hours of rest he took each night, that Quatre give him some privacy so he could try to find sexual release as best he could on his own… but what he really needed was a dick up his ass, or his own in someone else’s, so he rather wondered why he bothered. Happy he was to see the large town of Postre before him at the end of a long, downward-sloping stretch of road on the evening of the third day.

He’d been here before, of course, but had never considered its amenities along current lines. He knew it boasted a spacious inn with plenty of full-size rooms, and before he could allow his enthusiasm (with Quatre’s help) to lead him into the market, he secured a place there for the next few days. Then he stood solidly where he was, not daring to take a step, so as not to get lost while Quatre went out to inquire after the type of shop he wanted. Finally, looking forward most heartily to a bed and some hot meals, if not something even better tonight, he ventured forth with his Guide in search of what he so desperately needed.

If faeries were anything as an aggregate, it was very open and accepting on sexual matters. The shop, called, curiously enough, ‘Have Some of Dis Pie,’ occupied a place of prominence between a full-size milliner’s and a stack of domestic goods stores for small-size homes. And while plenty of colors decorated many of the other buildings in the area (though the wood and stone was usually local), Have Some of Dis Pie had embraced the pink pinkness of the pink faery realm. From the fluffy pink curtains to the pink silk on which certain pink items showed to advantage in the widows to the pink confetti periodically exploding over them and falling in pink swirls, what to expect inside was immediately clear.

Duo attempted to make a sharp left turn at the door and walk laterally down the line of shops, but Quatre set him right, and he managed to enter. A pink bell rang as he stepped inside, but the proprietor happened to be in the main room at the time and didn’t need its pink-sounding tinkle to alert lir of his presence. Le came bouncing up to him, full-size.

“Welcome to Have Some of Dis Pie! What can I help you find today? Actually I can help you find anything we have here, because I own the shop! Are you looking for some coochie-coochie-coo? A cherrychanga with whipped cream? A charming cha-cha? It’s almost winter — do you need a muff? A purse for your treasure? A hot box for your meat? Do you want to go beaver-hunting? You’re hairy enough to be a bear; would you enjoy a honey pot? Or if you’re just the opposite, we’ve got some nice bear-traps here! Or–”

Duo, grinning in spite of himself and the arousal he already experienced just looking at some of the items for sale, raised his hands and attempted to break in. “I actually need–”

“A nice noodle? Some sexy sausage? A tra-la-la ding-ding-dong? Are you in the mood for a prize fight? Gathering firewood? Picking cucumber? Do you need a soldier who can stand at– wait!!”

The products le showed him in quick succession had done nothing convenient for his own example of all these terms, but now abruptly le stopped, eyes wide. “You’re a dwarf!!”

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

Every part of lir, from lir giant fluffy pink curls to lir ample breasts to lir chubby belly, bounced at differing speeds as le vibrated with excitement. “Wait here!” And, giggling, le ran off into the back room. Le didn’t seem to use lir wings much, just hopped and skipped and jumped. In lir absence, Duo looked around for Quatre and, finding lir, gave an incredulous look. Quatre only replied with a shrug.

The shopkeeper returned carrying a pink box. Essentially shoving it right into Duo’s face, le opened the lid. “I think this is perfectly perfect for you! I got it from a merchant who came through town a couple of weeks ago, and le was selling cheap because le knew there wouldn’t be a lot of interest, and I said, ‘I’ll take it! I think it’s perfectly perfect!’ So I gave it a nice bubble bath, because you never know where it’s been, or where the merchant’s been, and you always want…”

Lir chatter continued, but faded into obscurity in Duo’s ears as his eyes ran greedily over the velvet-cushioned dildo inside the box. The shape of a dwarf penis could not be mistaken for anything else, and this was as finely crafted as anything he’d ever seen: accurate in form and color and apparent texture, and with a sturdy handle of hard golden wood for ease of use. He longed to touch it, but figured that would be inappropriate until he actually owned the thing.

“…curves upward when it gets erect! Not too far, but a little — like a lithefruit! It doesn’t ejaculate anything, because it doesn’t come with testicles, but it does go soft after a while — I found that out while I was washing it!” Le giggled.

“There can’t be…” Duo had to pause to clear his throat. “There can’t be much demand for a replica dwarf penis in these parts.”

“It’s a niche item,” le admitted. “Get it? Niche item?”

“I’ll take it.” He still sounded a bit hoarse.

“Okie-dokie-lokie! Twelve silver pieces! Do you want to add some lubricant? I’ll throw it in for 25 copper!”

One gold piece, worth fifteen silver, was all the money Duo had left. But since he’d already paid for his room at the inn (for this very reason), he didn’t hesitate to pull it out. The combination of that very room, a dwarf in kil’ak’brük, and this marvelous magical toy promised bliss for the next few nights at the very least.

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

The novelty of everything’s being pink had not yet faded, and still particularly satisfied Sano whenever he found an especially large pile of fallen leaves to jump in. He loved the crunching sound and the cushioning feel to them; he loved their sharp, autumnal smell. Faeryland wasn’t really all that bad so far. He’d already had one fairly interesting fight, and the landscape, so different from that of home, entertained him.

That didn’t mean his mood was one of unalloyed pleasure. His reason for coming into Faeryland gave him continual regret, though he tried not to think about it and certainly never brought it up aloud; and he kept experiencing a sort of itching on the back of his head that he would have thought, by now, should have gone away.

“I still feel like someone’s following us,” he declared, spinning around, walking backwards for a moment, then bending for a rock he could throw into the forest the way he’d come.

“You made yourself enough of a nuisance in that last town,” said the sword at his side, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were coming after you for revenge.”

Sano turned his lanky form again to face southwest. “I’m serious! I really think someone’s following us! And you know I didn’t raise enough ruckus for it to be just some farmer or whatever.”

“‘Just some farmer’ wouldn’t follow us into Faeryland in any case. Do you really think anyone would? Nobody comes here except on business.”

Annoyed at the condescending tone, the orc deliberately knocked the sheathed weapon against the next tree. “Yeah, so maybe someone’s business is following us!”

“You really think you’re that important?”

“Just a second ago you said you wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted revenge for whatever you think I did in Deserville or whatever it was called.”

“Even a villager’s well merited annoyance at you wouldn’t be enough to bring them past the border of Faeryland. They’re probably just outside waiting for you to come out again, and then they’ll mob you.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “That sounds like fun. Brawling with humans is like…” He cast about for an appropriate simile, and was lucky enough to find one physically present. “Like jumping in leaves! Crunch, crunch, crunch!” He demonstrated, flailing into the pile and scattering it with wild kicks of his booted feet.

The sword began some comment Sano didn’t catch over the noise of his play, but when eventually the orc settled down and moved toward where his Guide hovered patiently not far ahead, the remark started again. “If you’re really worried about someone following us, you’re a fool to leave such an obvious trail for them to track.”

“I’m more worried about getting you to believe there’s someone following us!” Sano broke into an impatient jog.

“In that case, you’re definitely a fool. What good would that do you?”

“Um, getting you to admit you’re wrong?” Sano said this in a tone proclaiming it to be the most obvious thing in the world.

The sword made a scoffing sound. “Your ambitions are so lofty. And what exactly do you want me to admit?”

Sano grunted in frustration. “Haven’t we been talking about this for days or some shit? I want you to admit you’re wrong about someone following us!”

“But have I ever said specifically that I don’t believe there’s someone following us?”

Abruptly Sano drew the sword and held it before his face as if looking for some visual clue as to the exact meaning of that question. But of course all he saw, in the finely polished steel that accepted no stain, was his own scowling tusked face. “You’re trying to weasel out of this!” he accused. “When it turns out someone’s been following us all along and they attack and kick my ass and I’m laying there dying, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I never actually said I didn’t believe you, so I wasn’t wrong about anything’ just because you didn’t say the exact words even though you’ve been arguing against the idea this whole time!”

“You think you’ll die, do you?” the sword, voice louder out in the open like this, asked easily.

“Don’t change the subject! You’re doing that politician thing again — messing around with words so you can deny everything later!”

The sword gave a brief laugh. “I’m surprised you even recognized it.”

“You are such an asshole.” Sano thrust the sword back into its sheath and quickened his pace.

“If it’s any comfort to you, when you do get your ass kicked and are lying there dying, I’ll send you off by admitting I was wrong about something.”

Surprisingly, this did comfort Sano a little. “Really?”

“If you admit at the same time that you’re a fool.”

Sano grunted again. “I might be a fool, but there’s still someone following us.”

“Why would someone follow us all the way into Faeryland?”

“Well, maybe someone was following us outside Faeryland, and now someone different’s following us inside Faeryland.”

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

“My people have a connection with trees,” Sano insisted. “Why do you think we’re green? I know when someone’s following me through a forest!”

“More like a connection with hops. ‘Your people’ are the street urchins of Drury Crossing, who come from all different races and backgrounds, none of which is a forest. Besides, you’ve already mentioned multiple times that the trees here are pink.”

At being so successfully countered, Sano practically roared with irritation. “Tomoe will back me up!” he cried. “Tomoe! Aren’t we being followed?!” And he sprinted forward to catch up with his Guide and settle the matter.

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

Tomoe resisted the urge to massage lir temples, sigh loudly, break the pact and fly away, or any of the other relieving things le was tempted to do. Le only said, in response to Sano’s question, “There are certainly other Visitors in the area. Whether any of lem — them — are following you, I can’t say.”

“See?” said Sano.

“You see?” said his sword at the same moment. Evidently each had taken the unhelpful statement as confirmation of his point of view.

“No, you see!” the orc insisted. “There are other Visitors in the area! Even she–” (echoing Tomoe’s error) “–le can’t be sure if someone’s following us!”

“Exactly. Le can’t be sure.” The sword never had a problem with the local pronouns. “You’d think a faery would be more certain, wouldn’t you?” This was not really true, but Tomoe didn’t bother to set him right.

“The point is, it’s absolutely possible.”

“I never said it wasn’t possible, just that it’s unlikely.”

“So? Unlikely shit happens all the time! You just don’t want to admit it because it’s my idea.”

“Do you think you’ve given me much reason to have faith in your ideas?”

“Well, can you prove there’s nobody following us?”

“That’s a remarkably foolish question, even for you.”

Even from a position far enough ahead to keep them on track and stay beyond the fast-moving orc, Tomoe could still hear them clearly. They’d done this every waking moment le’d known them, and showed no signs of stopping any time soon; but le hadn’t learned to tune them out yet.

Relatively new to Guidework, Tomoe couldn’t be quite sure how the rules applied in this situation. That they weren’t magically binding, for the most part, left lir to lir own devices how to interpret them, and le felt consistently anxious about it. The sword gave every sign of being a person, and Sano conversed with it as if it were; but he’d been remarkably unforthcoming about his reason for entering Faeryland, so Tomoe could only assume. Lir assumption was, of course, that some friend of his (for a flexible definition of the term ‘friend’) had been Cursed, and Sano had for some reason taken it upon himself to rectify the situation.

That seemed perfectly normal, and why Sano didn’t just admit to it, Tomoe had no idea. More pertinently, a Guide was supposed to refrain from talking to lir Visitor in the presence of others, and Tomoe had made a pact with Sano, not with the sword. Did a person that was technically an object count as someone le shouldn’t be talking in front of? Should le have made a dual pact? A sword had no hands, so le didn’t know if le could have… but the verbal agreement could have been altered to include the sword if Sano had explained his circumstances better. And as things stood, was Tomoe breaking the rules every time le spoke to them both? Le hadn’t been able to decide.

Lir preoccupation didn’t help. Le’d been over this many times in lir head, but never conclusively. With 189 days remaining to lir other source of worry, le didn’t much anticipate a useful answer to lir musings on the subject of Guide rules.

“Hey, Tomoe!”

Drawing a deep breath, Tomoe returned to an easier speaking distance from the orc.

“Are we going the right direction for the black faery place?”

Before Tomoe could even decide how to word lir answer, the sword broke in. “You’ve asked lir that a hundred times already, fool. You’re like a child on a long trip wondering ‘Are we there yet?’ every half hour.”

“What do you know about kids on long trips?” Sano demanded, distracted from his question.

“Yes, we’re going the right direction,” said Tomoe, and flew back to lir previous spot as the bickering continued.

Le didn’t know how le was going to put up with this for as long as the journey must take. And who knew what Sano would need to do after talking to the black faery monarch? Le was in for months of this at the very least. Only the thought of lir triple pay — for the naive orc had accepted lir unusually high rate without shopping around at all — determined lir on proceeding.

After some thought, though reluctant to do so, le allowed Sano to catch lir up. The orc had started running, as he sometimes did in his evident impatience to get where they were going, and his long legs covered the ground strikingly quickly; he ran nearly as fast as le could fly. Now le kept pace with him, waiting for a chance to break into the conversation with lir latest suggestion.

Finally one appeared, and le said quickly, “I believe a Quest might help you, since there are other Visitors in the area.”

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

“Le explained this at the entrance,” said the sword with a sigh.

Le explained again. “A Quest is a group of Visitors who travel together and help each other with their goals.”

Sano pondered this for half a second. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound too bad. It’d be nice to have some allies in here, especially since somebody’s obviously following us.”

More importantly, it would prevent Sano — assuming he remembered the rules — from harassing Tomoe every few minutes with stupid questions. Given his reticence on the topic of his own goals, it might even cut down on his endless fruitless debates with the sword. “We’re going the right direction for that too,” le informed him. “Keep moving.” And le resumed lir place some yards ahead, looking very much forward to the moment they could unite with other Visitors and shut lirs up a bit.

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

Duo’s new acquisition was nothing short of a miracle of specialized magic design. Since starting kil’ak’brük three years before, he’d never had a lasting relationship, only random encounters and short-term dalliances; so it was entirely possible that these had been the best three nights he’d ever spent at an inn.

His lack of funds, however, had cut the party short. The bank in town had turned out not to be the one he used, and the process of a transfer from a branch of his own elsewhere had already outlasted the number of days he’d prepaid for. So now he sat on a barrel in the inn yard thinking longingly of his toy, with nothing much else to do since he’d already checked the status of his transfer today and been disappointed.

Pink faery after pink faery after pink faery walked or flew past him, full-size and small-size, in all variations of sexual presentation and an even greater variety of attire. As people-watching went, it could have been worse, but even so it grew monotonous after a while. So when a green orc, appearing elongated in his tall, lanky muscularity, passed by apparently talking to himself, Duo sat up and took notice.

Even this far into Postre, the orc had not ceased to look around in wonder, and the expression on his pleasant tusked face was one of gormless interest. He wore leathers rather than proper armor, and a sword that might have been a child’s plaything on his big frame. Apart from ragged brown hair sticking out in every direction (which might have been a fashion statement rather than negligence), he appeared competent enough.

He was ranting with no evident audience, however. Talking so openly to his Guide wasn’t manners, but what had Duo been doing the last fifty years if not helping people fit into Faeryland better? Yes, this fellow might be a useful asset to a Quest.

So busy gawking he either didn’t note or didn’t recognize the potential of the dwarf’s presence, the orc walked right past Duo and disappeared around a corner of the inn. Duo immediately jumped up and looked around for Quatre. This could be a problem; his Guide was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t go far in the right direction without lir. He soon found he had no need to worry, though.

“Did you just see a dwarf back there?” came what must be the stranger’s voice from where he’d apparently halted just beyond the corner.

“I have no eyes,” was the rather odd reply. Surely that was never a faery’s voice!

“Yeah, you’ve got no mouth either, but you don’t have a hard time talking shit about–”

Don’t pull out a weapon on a public street again, you fool! You remember what happened last time?”

“No, he’s gonna love this! I know the exact right dwarf thing.” And the sound of his suddenly pounding feet was the last warning Duo had. As he rounded the corner with his sword raised, he let out a roaring approximation, not half bad, of a Mur’kaltulk warlord’s vik’talzis or semi-formal battle greeting. Granted, Duo had only heard a vik’talzis two or three times in his life, but he thought the orc did a pretty good imitation. And it was quite decent of him, really, to take the trouble of approaching a stranger like this.

Duo met the attack with a ready axe, glad to have something to do and an opportunity to meet a fellow non-faery and potential Quest-sharer. Beyond that, the orc’s skill showed from the very beginning, and Duo enjoyed the feeling of steel against steel. He thought the crowd that grew around them was drawn not so much by the talents of the combatants, though, as by amusement at a couple of Visitors having it out next to the inn like the savages they were.

“I’m pleased to meet you!” Duo cried through the ringing and screeching of metal that filled the air. It proved tricky to block the thrusts of a small straight blade with the big rounded edges of a battle-axe, so that was fun.

“Yeah, you too!” replied the orc with a grin. Then, addressing nobody Duo could see, he added, “See, I told you he’d love it!”

Duo did rather love it. He’d been so bored. And presently, when another of his sweeps had been twisted aside by his opponent, he wondered affably, “Isn’t that a human-sized sword you’re using? And some kind of human style?”

To his surprise, it seemed to be the sword itself, rather than its wielder, that answered him with, “Good eye.”

Prodding the situation further, Duo went on, “I hope your dick isn’t as small as your sword!”

A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd, but the orc appeared annoyed. “Why do other warriors always gotta talk about penises all the time!”

Startled, since he’d never met a warrior physically equipped as he was that didn’t enjoy a good dick joke, Duo explained, “Just trying to bond with you, man.”

“All right,” replied the orc, looking wary around the blade of his sword currently locked against the dwarf’s axe. After they’d managed to repel each other without injury, he added, “Well, I hope I can say you’ve got a damn cool axe without you thinking it’s some kind of gross comparison.”

What a strange man! Just to tease him Duo said, “It is a long shaft with two roundish bits at the end.” More laughter from the faeries around them.

The orc gave a growl of frustration and charged again. The sword remarked, “This is a stupid fight. You’re both likely to get arrested or something.”

Duo commented, “Your sword’s not much fun, is he?” And he spun into a centrifugal attack he hoped would knock the weapon from the other’s green hands.

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

The quickening of blood, the wind of swift movement, the clash and screech of steel, the wonderful sharing of skill and technique, the dwarf’s grin, the feeling of having found a friend in this alien place — it seemed as if a bucket of freezing water had been dashed over all these things when all of a sudden there was just this frail little human woman throwing herself between the combatants with arms outspread and shouting for them to stop.

The sword’s descent halted awkwardly half an inch from driving through her shoulder. If Sano had been berserk, he couldn’t have done it in time. Maybe there was something to be said for all that restraint bullshit after all. If so, this woman could use some!

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Sano demanded. At the very same moment, the dwarf, thrown off-balance in his attempt not to chop her in half horizontally, wondered, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”

“What do you two think you’re doing?” she said in return, looking back and forth defiantly between them. “As if it isn’t hard enough to travel through Faeryland! Visitors should be allies, not enemies!”

“Calm down, ma’am,” the dwarf advised, raising burly arms to replace his axe in its straps. When the human shot him a look from which sparks seemed to fly, he took a step back with a half-sheepish grin.

“Yeah, take it easy,” Sano said. “We were just having a traditional dwarven greeting!”

“Wellll, technically,” said the dwarf somewhat regretfully, “it’s only Mur’kaltulk dwarves who use the vik’talzis. I’m Ghabak’nik myself.”

Chagrined, Sano made a great business of sheathing the sword, unsure what to say.

Appearing to take notice of this, the dwarf hastened to assure him, “Not that it wasn’t shaping up into one hell of a fight! We’ll have to try again sometime! Maybe with less of an audience.” For, though the faeries that had gathered around them were beginning to disperse, some evidently believed the show hadn’t yet ended and still stood at leir ease, listening and laughing.

And the human was giving the dwarf that look again — not merely reproving, but almost condemnatory. The dwarf hurried on. “But I agree with the lady! We might make excellent companions! What do you say we all head inside–” he gestured toward the inn– “and talk about it?”

The woman seemed to relent. “That’s a good idea.”

“You gonna buy me a drink?” Sano grinned. “Because you were about to lose?”

“My good man, I think you would have found you were about to lose,” the dwarf replied, moving forward and clapping Sano on the (lower) back. “Besides, I have no money.”

Sano snorted.

The dwarf, presumably by right of earlier residence, moved to lead the way; but as he rounded the corner and approached the front entrance, having pushed past a faery or two to do so, he suddenly veered off to the right away from the door.

Sano ran after him and clapped a green hand on a mail-clad shoulder. “Where you going, dwarf?”

The latter glanced around, and puffed out his lips in irritation, making his brown mustache ripple and a sound like a horse. “Nowhere,” he said. “Just… keep your hand right there until we get inside, will you?”

Sano complied with this unusual request, and it won them an odd look from the human woman where she waited beside the door, but they all made it into the common room and sat down without further incident.

Like much of what he’d seen in Faeryland so far, the furniture had a lot of unnecessary scrolls and flourishes and leaf-shaped little extra bits and shit. But the room itself interested him. The ceiling was low — or maybe average, for faeries — and made of a sort of latticework that in places revealed the second, smaller dining and drinking area above for when ley went all small the way ley did. Servers from time to time left the bar or the kitchen, shrank down as they flew upward, and darted out of sight. He wondered if Tomoe had settled at a table up there.

“Geez, you two, you don’t have to pop your eyes out,” the dwarf grumbled, and Sano lowered his gaze to find the human woman doing the same. She must never have been inside a faery inn either.

“Well, Duo–” the voice from the center of their table made them both jump– “got some more money at last?”

“Not a single piece!” the dwarf replied cheerfully to the small-size faery that had landed before him. “But my new friends here are going to buy me a drink!”

The faery turned lir entire sexless pink body, naked but for an apron, toward Sano and the human. “And what will you be treating our good dwarf to, my Visitors?”

“Uh, what do you have?”

Duo grinned wryly and broke in before the bartender or innkeeper or whatever le was could answer. “I’ll have the same as before. And just beer for these two, for now. They’ll have plenty of time to get to know your better stuff later!”

Sano’s heart warmed at the word ‘beer’ as well as at the prospect of ‘better stuff,’ and he didn’t even mind pulling out his money pouch and paying the tab for all three of them.

When the faery had left them, the dwarf sat back comfortably in his chair. “So I’m Duo, you probably noticed. Duo Axewielder, at your service.”

“Axewielder?” the human wondered. “Isn’t that a little…”

“On the nose? Yeah, it’s about the most common dwarf family name there is. You humans have your Smiths, and we dwarves have our Axewielders.”

Sano raised a hand. “I’ve got one of those too! Sano Sabertusk here. You ever visit Drury Crossing, you’ll think I’m related to half the orcs there.”

“Well, mine is Kamiya,” said the woman with some satisfaction. “Kaoru Kamiya.”

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

Kaoru made a huffing sound. “If people are going to fight, it should be for a good reason!”

Sano thought he heard agreement from somewhere around his hip, but it was mostly drowned out by his own and Duo’s laughter.

“And what’s your sword’s name, Sano?” the dwarf wondered next.

“He’ll speak up if he decides he wants to talk to you,” Sano grumbled.

There was a moment of expectant silence. Kaoru looked curious.

When no introduction was forthcoming, Duo went on. “And what are your goals in Faeryland?”

Sano’s mumble, in which only the word ‘Curse’ might have been heard, was overridden by Kaoru’s more forthright explanation. “A green faery stole something from me, and I need to get it back.”

Duo looked impressed. “So you’re not Cursed? If you came into Faeryland just to get some stolen item back, you really must have a death wish! Or was it valuable?”

Appearing somewhat embarrassed, Kaoru said, “It was valuable to me.”

Poking his lips out thoughtfully and tugging on his beard, Duo mused, “Sentimental value…” He looked Kaoru up and down assessingly, and Sano believed he was sizing her, and the situation, up in a professional sense. But then his expression changed, and he made a frustrated sound. “I’m still thinking about all this like a bodyguard.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard!” Sano protested, feeling a little betrayed.

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

Kaoru definitely heard this statement. Observing that neither of her companions were startled as she was, she bent down with a suspicious expression to peek under the table. Her mouth had opened to inquire before she’d sat up entirely, but just then the faery from before returned, full-size, with their drinks on a tray.

Sano poked at the foam on his and licked it off his finger. It smelled like beer, and the preliminary taste seemed fine, but something about it… A long gulp satisfied him that, though there was an unexpected spiciness and kick to it, the qualities he looked for on the inside of a tumbler were all present. He shook his head with a pleased grunt.

“See,” Duo was saying as Sano went through this process and Kaoru eyed hers uncertainly, “I’ve made my living for the last fifty years as a bodyguard to Quests, helping them with their Curses. Fifty years! And I never got Cursed once. But now all of a sudden here I am the one who’s Cursed and needs help with it. You wouldn’t believe how frustrating that is!” And he took a swig of whatever was in his cup — something frothy and pink — and frowned as only a dwarf could. He brightened the next moment, however, in asking Sano, “So what’s your Curse?”

Sano felt a slight blush on his face, lifted his tumbler again in an attempt at covering it, and mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it,” his eyes flicking away from his companions.

“We’re talking about forming a Quest, aren’t we?” Kaoru wondered. “To help each other out? I don’t think we can help each other if we don’t know what we’re helping with.”

“Or do you need someone to dig it out of your green hide with an axe?”

“Don’t people get Cursed all the time?” Kaoru tentatively lifted her tumbler. “I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about.”

“That’s right,” said Duo encouragingly. “You’re no stupider than the rest of us!”

“That’s debatable. Sano, I’ll tell them. Put me on the table.” At this command, which had startled Kaoru again, Sano looked down. Reluctantly, he mended his posture a bit — these carved-up pink chairs weren’t designed for long orc bodies — drew the sword, and laid it in front of him. He thought it might be best to concentrate entirely on his beer for a little while.

“My name is Saitou,” said Saitou. Sano noticed he didn’t give his family name, which happened to be Smith. “I was human until this fool got me Cursed by harassing the black griffon who lives just outside Drury Crossing.”

Sano swallowed his latest gulp and, still staring into his tumbler, muttered, “You were yelling just as loud as I was.” He knew Saitou would be expecting this protest, so he made it; it seemed more natural than falling apart in a mess of guilt, anyway.

“At least I didn’t try to pluck lir feathers,” Saitou said dryly.

“I was drunk.” Sano sank back down in his chair, trying to find a convenient place beneath the table for his outstretched legs.

“That’s your excuse for everything, and it’ll be your excuse for dying when that day comes.”

Duo was guffawing, and when Sano glanced up he found even Kaoru smiling, seemingly against her will. Once he’d calmed down, though, the dwarf remarked, “So you two need to talk to the black faery monarch to find out how to break this Curse.”

“Yeah,” said Sano grumpily. At the same moment Saitou said, “So it would seem.”

“And are you hoping–” turning to Kaoru– “to go to the green enclave and talk to the monarch there?”

Kaoru had been sipping at her beer. “This is good,” she remarked. It cheered Sano a bit to hear her say so; he’d rather believed, just looking at her and knowing her distaste for pointless fighting (one of his other favorite activities), that she might be the type to turn her little tan nose up at the idea of drinking. But then she shook her head. “I heard the green monarch is away, and nobody knows when she’ll be back. I thought I’d just describe the thief to people and see if anyone knows who he is or where he might have gone.”

Duo nodded. “Makes sense. And I could use an un-Cursed Visitor like you. Relena, the pink monarch, Cursed me so I get lost all the time, so I can’t find my way into the pink enclave to talk to her.”

“That’s why you tried to wander off when we were just coming in here!” Sano realized.

“I wondered about that,” commented Saitou, who could only judge by what he heard.

“That’s right,” Duo confirmed glumly. “Sometimes it only takes a couple of steps, and, boom! I’m at the north pole.”

Sano paid him back for laughing at him a minute before.

Kaoru shot the orc a reproving look. “I’ll be happy to help you, Duo.”

“Is the pink place on the way to the black place, though?”

“They’re practically in opposite directions,” Duo informed him. “The pink enclave is a little closer.”

“But–” Sano lifted his eyes again, this time from the depressingly bare bottom of his cup.

“Don’t make snap decisions,” Saitou reminded him.

Duo sighed. “I’m stuck here in town for at least another day anyway, until my money transfer comes in from my regular bank. So you’ve both got some time to decide whether you want to make a Quest out of this, and where we should go first if you do.”

Sano wouldn’t say so, but Saitou was right: giving this some thought seemed better than just turning Duo down offhand and rushing off alone again. He already liked this little guy, and didn’t think he’d mind traveling with him… as long as it didn’t delay his business. “All right, so obviously right now there’s only one thing to do,” he declared. And when the others looked at him expectantly he finished, “Order another round!”

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

It interested and amused Quatre to observe that, though the orc and the human were taking in every possible detail their greedy eyes could gather of the unfamiliar faery inn, they seemed not to notice its dirtiness and disrepair. Granted, the young man might not have observed a far greater level of neglect; but the young woman, le would have thought, should have seen it.

As for Quatre lirself, le had grown perfectly accustomed to staying in second- and third-rate inns during the course of Guidework. Some of the fare here wasn’t too bad, despite the dubious condition of the dishes; and the lumpy bed in lir room, though it smelled faintly of sweat, did technically provide a slightly better night’s rest than a tree branch or the cold earth.

Another thing Quatre had grown accustomed to was picking out fellows even in a crowded room. Le’d seen this one around and knew lir for a Guide; and based on lir solitary state beside the opening through which, if Quatre judged the angle correctly, Duo’s table below could most easily be seen and heard, le might soon become Quatre’s companion in more than just profession.

“May I join you?” the gold faery asked the pink, casting a pointed look downward at the Visitor party.

The other, wearing a female presentation, blouse, and trousers, appeared distracted for a moment, then startled. Lir somber face, framed by dark fuchsia hair, swiveled first in the direction Quatre had glanced, then at the table before lir, and finally at Quatre lirself. It seemed to take lir rather longer than it had Quatre to recognize another Guide — and no wonder; Quatre knew lir to be fairly new at this.

But finally the pink faery shook lirself and said, “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Before pulling out a chair, Quatre set down the drink le’d brought over, gave lir name and origin, and offered a golden hand — something le couldn’t publicly have done under other circumstances. The taboo relating to cross-color interaction deeply bothered lir, and the treatment le received in an establishment like this — pink faeries providing lir with whatever le paid for but simultaneously doing leir best to pretend le didn’t exist — only drove home how needlessly segregated faery societies had become. But Guide traditions were sacrosanct; even feuding monarchs couldn’t keep Guides from interacting as openly and amicably as ever.

“Tomoe of Frollino,” replied the other, standing to grip Quatre’s hand.

The introduction complete, both faeries settled at the table and looked down once more into the full-size room. The Visitors had placed drink orders and were talking animatedly about their names, which Quatre filed away as they came up. Then, briefly, le glanced around the small-size terrace again. “There should be one more of us, but nobody else here seems like a Guide.”

Tomoe made a noise of agreement, mimicked Quatre’s scan of the room, and shook lir head.

“It must be a green faery,” Quatre went on, “since that woman is under a green Protection, but I don’t see any green faeries in here at all.”

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

Quatre shrugged and returned lir attention to the party below. Le didn’t see much benefit to these three forming a Quest, except the greater safety of numbers, and perhaps the greater amusement they would provide as a group to their Guides. The latter seemed a not inconsiderable benefit, though; le laughed aloud at something one of them had just said, drained lir drink, and glanced at Tomoe to see if le found this as entertaining as Quatre did. But the focus of Tomoe’s eyes appeared to fade long before it settled on the scraggly head of lir orc Visitor.

“This will be a fun Quest,” Quatre said proddingly. And when Tomoe only made a faint sound of acquiescence, Quatre stared at lir more interestedly. Le seemed completely preoccupied, presumably with something engrossing enough to distract lir entirely from the display below.

Evidently feeling Quatre’s eyes, Tomoe looked suddenly over at lir with a start. As if shaking lirself out of a reverie, le sat up straight, glanced downward, peered into lir cup (apparently still partially full), and offered, “I’m sorry; what did you say?”

Quatre altered the statement, speculating kindly, “You have something on your mind other than this Quest.”

Tomoe gave a wan smile and said briefly, “My spouse is pregnant again.”

Filled with understanding and the beginnings of pity, Quatre inquired, “What attempt is this?”

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

And the way le said it made Quatre guess, “No success?”

“None.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope your Visitor’s goals will be accomplished quickly so you can get back to lir.”

“Thank you,” said Tomoe with a slightly warmer smile, and pretty clearly returned to lir reverie.

Quatre looked on with distinct sympathy now, but couldn’t help thinking, at the same time, that Tomoe might have done better not to take on a Visitor le wouldn’t be able to pay proper attention. But perhaps le and lir spouse needed the money; if ley were trying one of those expensive new pregnancy assistance courses, this Guidework might be essential to lem. Quatre wouldn’t judge. Le did wonder whether Tomoe was a devotee of Relena’s policies on the Distorted, though.

It took some time, and quite a few drinks, for the Visitors to separate. The orc Sano appeared fairly inebriated, and, berated by the sword Saitou for wasting money and brain cells on becoming so, wandered off to find a privy. Tomoe, sighing with a different emotion from when le’d mentioned lir pregnant spouse, bade Quatre goodbye for now and followed. Quatre took from this that there was more to Tomoe’s disinclination to pay lir Visitors much attention than merely being distracted by the situation at home. Le had to admit, they might prove a handful for even a more experienced Guide.

The human Kaoru, seeming much of Saitou’s mind about Sano’s behavior but leaving all the remonstrance to him, went to arrange for a room. She’d agreed to pay for Duo’s as well while they waited for his money to come in, which Quatre knew Duo must appreciate more than the human could possibly guess (or, probably, want to know). Most likely thereafter she would head out into the town to ask about her green faery thief.

Duo himself remained at the table, glancing up and around the moment his new acquaintances had gone. Quatre flew to him just as immediately and sat down with lir back to the dwarf’s latest tankard. “Well, you’ve found yourself the least helpful quest you possibly could have!”

“You think so?” asked Duo in surprise. “I know Sano seems kinda… thoughtless… but I like him already, and Kaoru–”

“‘Thoughtless?'” Quatre laughed. “Who’s the one under a pink Curse who wouldn’t go back for a pink Guide?”

“That’s totally different; you know that! You know I wanted someone I could trust!”

“I’d be flattered if I weren’t pretty sure that’s stubbornness talking instead of any real attachment to me.”

Duo dodged the point and went back to the previous. “But I like Kaoru too, even if she’s likely to be a little uptight about things. Why do you think they won’t be helpful?”

Quatre shook lir head with a smile. Le supposed the pink Guide business wasn’t really worth emphasizing any further. “Kaoru is under a green Protection.”

“Dammit!” said Duo. “Why didn’t she tell us?”

“She doesn’t seem to understand how things work around here,” Quatre speculated. “I think you could help her much more than the other way around.”

“Sano should still be able to help me, though. He’s not actually Cursed himself.”

“I didn’t get the feeling he’s likely to put that sword down any time soon; did you?”

Without answering the question, Duo tugged at his chestnut-colored beard. Quatre thought he did this not so much out of pensiveness as because he really liked his beard. At least he spent enough time brushing it out and braiding it every day. But presently he leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Well, at least that solves the problem of where to go first. The black enclave it is!”

“So you’re still going to join this Quest?” Quatre wasn’t as surprised as le might have been.

The dwarf shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do, do I? And before you suggest going back to the border and finding a pink Guide, just… don’t… suggest that.” He didn’t seem to mind this weak finish, but signaled for service.

Quatre chuckled as le flew back to the upper terrace and sat at the edge of an opening, dangling lir feet and looking down. Duo, it seemed, felt more at home in a Quest than out of one, and would probably cling to that with every bit of dwarven stubbornness he possessed, just as he did to the idea of not going back for a pink Guide. Quatre didn’t mind. It would only make the journey more entertaining. And after all, le’d become a Guide in the first place to be able to interact with more than merely lir own people, the faeries subject to the monarch least interested in cooperation and acceptance.

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

Postre had not yet ceased to fascinate Kaoru. Its mixture of full-size and small-size buildings allowed for a much bigger population than she’d expected when she’d first arrived, and its elaborately decorated pink shops and market stalls seemed fancy enough for a capital city. She wondered what actual faery capitals looked like, if a small town like this was so casually embellished.

She’d had no luck so far in picking up the trail of the thief she was after. Most of the faeries she asked responded politely, and some were even friendly — especially those that had either seen or heard about her throwing herself into the middle of a fight between an orc and a dwarf yesterday — but none of them recognized the description she gave or had any idea (beyond recommending she head into green territory) where to find what she sought. And her inquiries were often met with some bemusement or even confusion that she didn’t understand.

Imugeme seemed shy of being seen by other faeries. She’d explained, that first day, about the privacy Guides traditionally kept to, and Kaoru supposed that was the reason, but it made her difficult to talk to sometimes; the human would look around for her with some comment on the tip of her tongue, only to find her nowhere in sight.

At the moment, though, as Kaoru made her way around the northwest side of town closest to the river, in which at some distance she could see an unexpectedly great number of pink faeries splashing, Imugeme sat on her shoulder. The road was largely unpeopled, but every time a faery passed by, the green Guide would dart away somewhere.

“In all the towns outside, I always saw some foreigners,” Kaoru remarked. “In the human towns, there would be other races and other species… and I went through a dwarf town where I wasn’t the only human. Even in my little dairy hometown, we had a troll family. But here I’ve seen almost nothing but pink faeries. Why is that?”

“Faeries of different colors don’t mix much,” Imugeme replied. “It’s different with Guides, of course, but in everyday life this is what you should expect.”

“That seems like a shame.”

A little sadly, Imugeme agreed. “There’s nothing to be done about it around here, though.”

“How far off is the green realm?”

“At least two weeks’ travel northwest to the border, and almost as long again to the green enclave. It will be winter before we can possibly get there.”

“I wonder if the queen will be back in that amount of time…”

“Monarch,” Imugeme corrected. “And I suppose it’s possible. Are you thinking of going there by yourself?”

“Probably not. Until we actually know the green monarch is at home, it seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it? And Sano and Duo need help.”

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

“I’m just trying to be sensible! Sano seems like he needs that. And poor Duo, getting lost everywhere… I really think non-faeries need to stick together in here.”

“I still admire your kindness.”

Kaoru blushed and glanced around. “Look, this is a home neighborhood; I don’t want to bother people here. Can you help me find shops and things again?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Postre had a second inn, cleaner and more comfortable than the one Kaoru and her new friends were staying in, and at first she’d considered raising the idea of moving there for the rest of their time in town. But having gone inside and inquired into prices, she’d realized why Duo had chosen the third-rate establishment over this one. She was nearly out of money, and must reserve what remained to pay Imugeme and feed herself. The reflection embarrassed her, but this made for another good reason to join a Quest: she needed better-off companions if she hoped to get anywhere.

And the next day, Duo’s money really did arrive. Kaoru had wondered whether it would, or whether Duo hadn’t been deceiving them in the hopes that the others (or at least Sano) would get impatient to leave and declare their intentions of funding the trip themselves. Granted, Duo seemed perfectly honest, but Kaoru still didn’t trust plenty of what she encountered in Faeryland.

The dwarf spent a lot of time in his bedroom at the inn, doing what Kaoru had no idea, but he’d emerged this morning, as yesterday, to visit the bank and check on his transfer; and now he’d found both of his new companions and brought them back to the common room for further discussion.

“I’ve been saving for years,” he said somewhat glumly once they’d placed their orders for breakfast and drinks with the innkeeper. “I’m what you might call filthy rich. Probably a good thing, too, but I wasn’t looking forward to blowing it all on a long journey. How are you guys’ finances?”

“Uh… not great?” Sano replied, appearing embarrassed. “I gotta keep paying my Guide, and I’ve never seen any of the flowers le wants, so it’s gotta be money. I can’t afford much else except food and shit.”

“You’ve never been good at handling money,” Saitou remarked. Kaoru still wasn’t entirely used to that disembodied voice from somewhere around Sano’s thighs.

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

“I’m about the same.” She felt less embarrassed admitting it than she would have if Sano’s emotion hadn’t seemed enough for the both of them.

Duo repeated his nod, even more glum. “Then I guess I’m the financial backer of this expedition. Well, it’ll help me in the end! I’ll just have to start saving again. I’ll give you two some money, and we’ll all go out into town and stock up for the trip.”

“And then we can leave for the black place?” Sano wondered, brightening. “I can’t wait to see a bunch of black trees and rocks and shit!”

“You’ve never been a good team player,” said Saitou.

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

Somewhat to Kaoru’s surprise, Duo agreed with the orc. “Yeah, let’s head west. You won’t see a bunch of black trees, though; the black realm is completely underground. The entrance is in a town in the Eintopf hills at the border of the pink realm, so that’s where we’ll make for. It’s been a long time since I was there! That won’t be so bad.”

Kaoru wondered why Duo had decided on this course of action rather than visiting the closer pink enclave first. Perhaps it was because she might eventually want to continue on into the green realm, and that too lay far to the west. Perhaps it was just to placate Sano and keep him from breaking the Quest up before it had even truly formed. They needed to do something with Sano’s energy; she thought he and Duo had already been fighting behind the inn when she wasn’t around (and when the dwarf wasn’t busy in his bedroom). So she asked, “What’s the land like between here and there?”

“Plains,” he replied. “Farmland, grazing land, and some wild meadowlands. There’s a road all the way. Should be pretty easy travel.”

She nodded. “Should we plan to leave in the morning, or do you think we’ll do all right leaving a little later today, after we’ve shopped?”

Duo considered this for a moment, and his eyes roved around the common room briefly before he decided. “Tomorrow. Best to get one last good sleep in a bed before it’s back to sleeping on the ground, eh?”

Kaoru completely agreed, but Sano seemed impatient. “Let’s go shopping, then!” he declared.

“Finish your breakfast,” the human commanded, pointing to the pink salad she wouldn’t have expected someone of his species to favor for that meal.

“Yes, mom,” he said with a roll of eyes, and started shoving leaves into his mouth.

Probably because of Saitou’s comment on Sano’s ability to handle money, Duo seemed to give him less than he did Kaoru. He instructed the two of them to buy whatever they needed — with an emphasis on that last word — except food, which he would take care of. Then they dispersed to the market streets and shops of Postre, an area with which Kaoru was becoming increasingly familiar.

She’d brought multiple changes of clothing with her — all she owned, in fact, that was suited to an adventure like this; so the only garment she purchased was a vest of pinkish-brown leather for some added protection. She traded her backpack and paid the difference for a bigger, sturdier one of that same material, and she obtained a new walking staff.

At Imugeme’s suggestion, she bought some bandages and salves, since, though she could count on her Protection to keep her out of most harm’s way, and on her green Guide to heal her if she did suffer some injury, her companions seemed the sort to get wounded and require more mundane attention. She also increased her sewing supplies for mending purposes, including a large, strong needle and thick thread for use on leather. And, reminded by Duo’s reference to sleeping on the ground, she improved her bedroll. All in all, it was a satisfying few hours in the market that she never could have afforded a quarter of on her own.

While at this, she asked around again about the green thief, but met with no more success than before. Then, since she had nothing better to do and no desire to watch Duo and Sano sparring like idiots or whatever they called it, she spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bridge that led out of town to the west — the one they would cross in the morning — talking to Imugeme. The latter had many funny and touching stories to tell of her childhood in the green realm, for which Kaoru paid her in kind with tales of growing up with sometimes-ridiculous foster-parents and -sister on a dairy farm.

As usual, Duo retired early to his room that evening, leaving Sano and Kaoru to finish their dinner and drinks in the common room without him. The orc soon became too intoxicated for the human to get any enjoyment out of his company, and too loud for her to converse with Saitou conveniently, so eventually she left instructions with the innkeeper as to what should be done with Sano if he grew as disruptive and belligerent as she feared he must, and also went early to bed.

The next morning, rather to her surprise, she and even the hungover Sano were awake, breakfasted, and ready to leave before Duo emerged from his room. The dwarf didn’t hold them up much longer, though; he bought some meat buns for eating on his feet, settled the final account with the innkeeper, and, with a wistful look back toward the bedrooms, proclaimed himself at their disposal. Kaoru wondered whether he just loved sleep that much.

Across the bridge, the road sloped upward for about half a mile through brush and lingering trees she’d gotten a good look at yesterday, then leveled out, and Kaoru had her first sight of faery farmland. At first she couldn’t help goggling, for it appeared so different from any such land she’d ever seen. All the plants’ being pink came as no surprise, but they were so unusual in themselves, and had been harvested in a manner so foreign to her, she simply didn’t know what to make of it.

Then, there were so few full-size buildings! As far as the eye could see, no habitations presented themselves — not one single farmhouse met her searching gaze. Barns, yes, stables (for what animal she couldn’t quite tell), and livestock pens, but no homes. Duo had to inform her a few hours into their walk that faeries found it safer and more convenient to live small-size out in the open like this, though most of their work must be carried out full-size.

They came upon fields full of cows in a variety of pink-like colors — mostly smaller and less solidly built than those on the dairy back home, and with thicker creamy pink horns — and even some horses in the same hues that otherwise looked more or less like the horses she might have seen anywhere. They passed a small lake where waterfowl such as she’d never encountered called and splashed, but more often they saw V’s of unfamiliar birds heading out on some mysterious migratory pattern that took them she knew not where.

So fascinating did their surroundings prove that Kaoru paid little attention to her companions or even the passing hours, but somewhere in her subconscious lay the awareness that Sano was equal parts interested and bored, and that Duo kept attempting to wander off in the wrong direction but was consistently tugged back on course by some little gold flash pulling on one of his braids.

He informed them at lunchtime, as they sat in the imperfect shade and the fallen leaves of some pink tree resembling a maple, that the road swung farther north than their direct westward path in order to hit the town of Yabloko, but that he advised sticking to it for a few reasons: first, that by the time they could, they would certainly want to spend a night or two in a civilized settlement; second, that leaving the road meant making their way across various people’s lands, for which they might get in trouble; and third, that they should take advantage of a paved path while they had it, as they would miss it later. Kaoru, who admired his knowledge of Faeryland geography and had no problem with staying on the road, believed he laid out these reasons so carefully in order to head off Sano’s potential complaints, in which endeavor he succeeded.

Evening and even full night under constellations that, for a change, were not pink came much sooner than Kaoru had expected; but when she could no longer make out details in the pale starlight, and eventually began to stumble and yawn, her attention returned firmly to the mechanics of the journey. She’d been so engrossed in looking around her, the time had flown. She doubted she could count on any subsequent day’s going by so rapidly, but she appreciated it as a good start.

At a particularly egregious near-fall, “Humans,” Duo remarked with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how you guys ever get anywhere.” And indeed, he’d shown no signs of flagging, and still maintained the same pace he’d set out at this morning.

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

“Oh, I could walk another eight hours without needing to sleep,” Duo replied with a barely-visible smug smile. And if that was true, Kaoru thought, maybe he’d been saving up on sleep at the inn in Postre.

“Well, I could cover way more ground in the time we’ve been going,” was Sano’s defiance in return. “Orcs are damn fast runners, you know.”

“They’re at least good at running their mouths,” said Saitou.

Kaoru giggled. “I can’t run fast or travel for a long time without sleep. I guess I’ll always be the bottleneck.”

“We’ll look for a good place to stop,” Duo assured her.

After not too much longer, the shadow of a full-size building began to loom up on their left, appearing a short distance off the road past the stout pink fence that had been flanking them for the last several miles. They hadn’t paid any heed to such places all day, except for Kaoru to study them with interest, but now it seemed they approached a potential shelter for the night. This land had obviously been set aside for the growing of some type of grain or grass, which had been harvested in the usual incomprehensible spiral pattern, so the building was probably stuffed full; but there should be room for three travelers, Kaoru thought.

However, as they drew nearer, she suddenly felt a sharp tugging at first her pony tail and then the hood of her cloak — a stronger pull than she would have expected from Imugeme (for she it must be) apparently intent on dragging her to the right side of the road away from the barn. If the little yelp Sano gave was any indication, he’d had the same experience with his own Guide. With one accord, they all stopped moving.

“Looks like that won’t do,” said Duo, his tone as dark as the night around them and his braided hair swinging.

“Why?” Sano wondered, and his voice, on the contrary, was filled with curiosity. “What’s over there?”

The dwarf answered briefly, “Something our Guides don’t like,” and resumed his walk at a sharp angle to the right.

“Now I really wanna know, though!” Sano took off down the road toward the unidentified building. Difficult as it was to make out in the shadows, Kaoru thought he really did run very fast.

“Sano, stop!” Duo shouted after him. “Come back, damn you! It’s probably demon-infested!” But only Sano’s laughter came floating back to them. “What’s the point of having Guides if you don’t let them guide you??” He let out a frustrated grunt, turned his back on the direction in which Sano had disappeared, and drummed his thick dwarven fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Come on,” Kaoru said. “We’ve got to go after him.”

“Look, I’m just as fond as the next guy of rushing into danger, but in Faeryland, doing that can get you worse than dead.”

“We’re a Quest now,” said the human reprovingly. “We need to look out for each other.”

Duo stared at her for a moment, then grinned, his teeth bright in the darkness. “You’re right!” he admitted. And they started after the miscreant orc.

Just as they’d clambered over the fence and properly approached the barn, watching the stars ahead of them blotted out by its rising blackness, a hideous screech arose from around it on their left where the entrance probably stood. Kaoru stumbled, caught herself on her staff, and wavered for a moment in fear, for she knew that sound; Duo only ran on. Next a roar undoubtedly from the throat of a combative orc split the night, another screech, and a horrible squelching, crunching noise. By the time Kaoru and Duo had picked their way over a wrecked wagon hiding in tall weeds and around to the front of the building, it was all over.

“You bloodthirsty fool,” the sword in Sano’s hand was saying harshly as the starlight gleamed off the liquid that covered his blade. “You complete idiot. Are you deaf? Just once in your life, could you think about what you’re planning before you do it?”

Panting, Kaoru halted a few steps away from Sano at the sight of the pale, twisted figure oozing at his feet. “Sano, what did you do?” she demanded breathlessly.

“This one was way easier to kill than that one we met the first day,” Sano said in a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment. “Barely scratched me! Looks like it was half starved.”

“Sano! Didn’t they explain this to you at the entrance? Didn’t your Guide explain? It’s illegal to kill these things in the pink realm!” She slammed her staff angrily into the ground. “If you’re going to get us in trouble like this, you can damn well go to the black enclave on your own!”

Duo spread his hands and said, more or less jovially, “They’re right; you’re a fucking idiot.”

Scowling, Sano replied, “Oh, go impale yourself.” The verb carried the very specific connotation of being run through on a sharpened stake of wood driven at an angle into the ground for the defense of an orc war camp. He did have the grace to look somewhat sheepish at the same time, though. “But on the bright side, we can definitely sleep in this barn now!”

“I am not sleeping anywhere near that dead body,” Kaoru declared. “Besides, there might be more inside.”

“Nah, I think this guy–” kicking the fallen Distorted with a booted foot– “was trying to get in looking for food. See, the lock’s still on the doors.”

“If someone comes along and finds us with that body, we’ll be arrested.”

“Yeah,” said Duo, and, turning, gestured. “Let’s get going. We’ll cover a few more miles and then make camp.”

With a snort, Sano began cleaning off the sword on the edge of his tunic, and followed. They climbed the fence again and continued down the road in a fairly awkward silence. Sano eventually sheathed the weapon and stuffed his big hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders over in what Kaoru believed to be a state of surly guilt.

She took a deep breath. “They’re called the Distorted,” she began quietly, struggling to strip all accusation from her tone. “Or some people call them demons. They’re children of faeries who come out all wrong — crazy and aggressive. The monarch around here is trying to figure out how to save them, which is why it’s illegal to kill them in this area. You’re supposed to alert her or something, and she sends people out after it.”

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

“Because our Guide told us all about it when you made the pact,” Saitou snapped. “But you’ve always made a habit of conveniently forgetting laws.”

“Hey, cheer up!” Duo said. Sano’s chastised-puppy air seemed to have done the job for him very well. “Live and learn, right? As long as you actually live. Nobody’s likely to find that one until at least tomorrow morning, and we’ll be long gone. Just, you know, don’t do it again.”

As a new silence fell, Kaoru could see Sano observing her dragging steps and reliance on her walking staff. Finally, penitently, he said, “Want me to carry you?”

Before Kaoru could do more than smile at the idea, Duo broke in. “I don’t hear you offering to carry me.”

“Oh, go impale yourself,” Sano repeated. But now there was a grin in the words.

During this pandemic (as at other times XD), the only thing I have to offer is art. So I’m starting to write and post this story far earlier than I originally planned. In order to give bored, depressed people in isolation something to read on a regular basis, I hope to update it frequently, and as such will be using a quicker writing and editing process than usual; so it’ll be a little rough.

There are no sex scenes planned for this story. I’ve given it a rating of 4 because some of the sexual references will be pretty explicit. I hate writing sex scenes and don’t do it if I can possibly avoid it… but I’ve been known to forget that policy any time someone buys me $15 worth of ko-fi.


His Own Humanity: After-Dinner Brandy

“The rest of this is 70 years long, give or take, so I’ll try to abridge it.”

Trowa promised Bernard and Catharine he would tell them the whole truth about himself one of these days. How will his long, tragic story change their feelings about him, and about him dating their son?

“I was born on August 22, 1898.” Trowa sat straight in his seat on the sofa, appearing neither relaxed nor excessively stiff. There was often, Bernard had noticed, a formality to Trowa’s speech and bearing that he had to admit he liked in spite of everything he feared he disliked about this young man.

Well, ‘young man’ wasn’t exactly the right term, was it? “1898?” he echoed in surprise, brows raised, setting down his glass and staring. Yet another entry in the catalog of claims he wasn’t sure he believed.

Trowa nodded. “I was born in Greilicks, Michigan in 1898, but we moved almost immediately to Traverse City, so I don’t remember anything about where I was born.”

Quatre, seated next to Trowa on the sofa opposite his parents in their armchairs, looked up from his own brandy — he took it with soda, the way his mother did — and over at his boyfriend. He seemed to find something significant about that statement, but said nothing.

“My mother’s name was Sinead Barton,” Trowa went on. He smiled as he reminisced — a very distant smile that almost made him seem as old as he claimed to be. “She had curly red hair, and freckles just like these.” He gestured at his own face. “People looked at her and heard her name and automatically considered her Irish, which made her the subject of discrimination everywhere she went. She was third-generation Irish-American, and had a thick Detroit accent, but that never helped her find work. She found it very frustrating.”

“I can imagine!” Catharine agreed. Clearly she believed all of this far more than Bernard did, and now felt active sympathy for the unfortunate predicament in which the woman described had supposedly found herself at the turn of the century.

“I didn’t understand at the time, and as an adult I was never a victim of racism myself, but years later I remembered the complaints I overheard as a child, and realized how things must have been for her. I thought a lot about my mother later in life — more than I ever did when I was with her, sadly.”

Quatre, sipping his drink, still said nothing, but he looked very interested and perhaps a bit concerned. Bernard wondered if Trowa had been as reticent and dishonest with his boyfriend as he had been with his boyfriend’s parents. Was this all news to Quatre as well?

“My father’s name was Walter Young. Ironically, though he was an actual immigrant — from Germany, where his name was Jung — he had things a lot easier than my mother did. Even more ironic to think that my mother was refused work because people labeled her a lazy drunkard, when that was exactly what my father truly was. He could find work easily, but he rarely ever did.

“He was often in debt. I think that’s why we moved so soon after I was born: he knew he could never pay the doctor’s bills. I also think he must have been a charming man when he wanted to, or else he could never have convinced people to give him credit in the first place. He could never have convinced my mother to live with him, or stay with him for so long. He was certainly never charming to me, though.”

Again Trowa’s expression went distant, this time with no smile. Whatever Bernard did or did not believe, he recognized the genuine memory of old woes, the revelation of wounds long since scarred over but never forgotten.

And Quatre seemed distressed. He set down his glass on the end table and reached for Trowa’s free hand with both of his. “You don’t have to tell us about him.” His tone was earnest, quiet, and concerned.

“It’s part of the story,” Trowa replied, just as quietly.

“But you started the story a lot earlier than you really had to. You don’t have to force yourself to talk about things like that.”

“But I know you’ve wanted to know.”

“Yes, but…” Quatre sounded reluctant. Clearly he did want to know — and this seemed to indicate Trowa had only withheld, not lied about this information — but worried this might not be the right time to find out. “I don’t want you to think you have to tell me until you’re ready.”

Gently, ruefully, Trowa smiled. “It’s been over a century, and I’m aging again. I’m not sure how much longer I can take.”

Quatre stared with lowered brows for a long moment, and nobody in the room said a word; his parents awaited the outcome of this little interlude. Finally he returned Trowa’s smile, and his was startlingly identical in its softness and regret. “If you’re sure…”

“Quatre.” Both Trowa’s tone and expression suddenly held an edge of reproof.

In response, Quatre laughed sheepishly as he said, “Sorry.” This must be some kind of running issue between them; Bernard found it a little odd, but didn’t inquire.

“It’s all right.” Trowa lifted the hand of Quatre’s that still held his, and evidently applied some pressure. Then he looked away from his boyfriend and back at his boyfriend’s parents. “Please excuse the interruption. Quatre is concerned because I haven’t told many people about this.”

“So we see,” Bernard allowed, not unkindly — though his sympathy had been drawn out more by his son’s admirable sense of charity and consideration than by anything on Trowa’s part. “Go on.”

Trowa did so, bluntly. “My father was abusive. He would often come home drunk, shout at my mother and me, throw things, break things, hit us if we were careless enough to get close to him… From as early as I can remember, I feared and hated him.”

“I’m so sorry,” Catharine said.

Trowa shook his head, sipped his brandy, and remarked abstractedly, “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He never bothered trying to make himself pleasant to me, so I had no mixed feelings about him; I was never conflicted in how I saw him; it was a very straightforward situation. Many abused children are in much worse circumstances.”

Bernard didn’t know how to react to this. He had very little experience with abuse or its aftermath, and Trowa’s calm, distant statements made it even harder to know how to feel about what he described. Bernard did recognize, however, his own creep toward belief again, exactly like that evening at Trowa’s house. The delivery brought it on, really: despite how incredible much of this was, Trowa’s solemn demeanor and the perfectly authentic-seeming emotion behind his words — exactly what you might expect from someone assessing the behavior of his abusive father over a hundred years prior — was subtly, perhaps insidiously convincing.

“I mentioned he didn’t work much,” Trowa went on at last. “Usually he sent us out — a stigmatized woman and a very young child doing whatever we could to scrape up a little money — and we all lived hand-to-mouth, very poor and uncertain, most of the time. Occasionally he would get up and do some real work, but he would spend most of what he made on drink.” He lifted his glass and stared contemplatively at what liquid remained in it. “Because of that, though I like the taste, I’ve never drunk much in my life, and only been drunk once or twice in all these years.”

Quatre had drawn in a surprised, unhappy breath as Trowa said this, and now remarked, “I’m sorry… I didn’t know…”

“It’s all right.” Again Trowa squeezed Quatre’s hand, which he’d yet to let go. “I was more overwhelmed and emotional that time than really drunk anyway.”

Quatre said nothing, only nodded with a slight frown. Bernard wondered what this referred to, and whether it would come up during the course of what seemed destined to be a very long story.

“My mother,” Trowa continued, “always seemed happy to get away from my father, even knowing what kind of treatment she was likely to find out in the city. And I…” He sighed. “This is the part I’m truly ashamed to admit. I hated her too. Not as much as I hated my father, but I couldn’t forgive her for always going back to him at the end of the day. I couldn’t understand why she did it, and I thought it meant she was weak and stupid. What’s more, because I suffered whenever I was at home, I thought it meant she was cruel.

“Much of my childhood is a blur; I don’t remember at all how I felt about many things, and I have only general impressions about others. But this I remember clearly — how I felt about my mother — maybe because, unlike the rest of it, I gave it a lot of thought in later years. Eventually I realized she probably stayed with my father because she felt she would have even less chance of supporting herself and me if she left. The world had taught her she couldn’t make it on her own, and even if he didn’t do much to support her, I’m sure she felt more secure with him than without him.”

“And it’s never easy,” Catharine put in sadly, “for an abused woman to leave her abuser. Men like that make sure the women they abuse think they can’t make it on their own. And if he could be charming, as you guessed, he undoubtedly had other ways to make her stay as well.”

“I realized that too.” Trowa gave a pained nod. “It took many years, but eventually I was able to look back on my mother with a more accurate… well, I’ll never know how accurate my hindsight is.”

“You must have lost her,” Catharine speculated, “if you were never able to find out for certain.”

“I could have found out for certain. As an adult, I could have looked for her, especially when I started to practice magic. And eventually, when I knew she must be dead, I could have found a medium to contact her spirit for me… but I chose not to. I think part of me didn’t want to know the truth, because what if I discovered she’d stayed with my father indefinitely? What if she’d eventually been killed by him?

“It’s one of… many things I regret in my life. And I believe, if my more forgiving and understanding thoughts about her had developed all at once, I would have tried to find her again. But my mental transition was a gradual process, over the course of many years, and by the time I was solid in my awareness of what a victim she was and how she had probably tried to protect me, I was caught up in… other concerns.” He sighed, and Bernard could easily see how much he regretted the choice of omission he’d made supposedly so many decades ago.

“Could you maybe find a medium now?” Quatre wondered.

“I… probably could.” Trowa’s lips curled down in a pensive expression, as if this idea had never occurred to him and he was therefore only just contemplating its implications. “Those other concerns, of course, are all wrapped up now…” He seemed to ponder for several moments, and finally shook his head. “I’ll have to think about that. Anyway…” He took a deep breath, readying himself for further narration. “In the summer of 1906, I ran away from my parents.”

“You would have been seven years old!” Catharine exclaimed in an almost protesting tone.

With a faint smile, Trowa nodded his agreement. “It’s a miracle I’m alive today, for more than one reason. More than once I came close to starving, or freezing to death in a Michigan winter. But at first it wasn’t too difficult. I hitched a ride out of Traverse on a train; we used to do that a lot back then. I didn’t know where I was going, and didn’t even learn the name of the next city for weeks after I arrived; I just wanted to get away. As a seven-year-old, I assumed my parents would be coming after me, without considering how difficult it would be to determine which direction I’d gone and then to find me on the streets of another large town… or how disinterested one of them must be about what had happened to me. For months I believed they must be just around the corner looking for me, and I think that paranoia may have carried somewhat into my adulthood.”

Now Quatre smiled faintly too, apparently in agreement.

“As a defense mechanism against their finding me, I abandoned my name. It didn’t make much of a difference in my life, since I was such a vagabond anyway, but I thought it was a clever trick to keep my parents off my trail. I lived as a homeless, nameless kid eating a lot of stolen meals for a few months — I don’t remember exactly how long — before I met Duo.”

“Duo?” echoed Bernard. “Heero’s boyfriend?” Surely Trowa wouldn’t claim Duo too was over a hundred years old? And yet how many people could there be, even within the entire last century, with that unusual name?

“The same,” replied Trowa with a nod. “He’s about six months younger than I am. At the time he was living in an overcrowded orphanage.”

With a sly smile Catharine put in, “To clarify, this is the same Duo who told Bernard off at your house?”

“Did he?” Quatre sounded both amused and chagrined.

“Duo is very loyal,” Trowa said somewhat apologetically.

Bernard tried not to stiffen up, or give any sign of disapproval, at his wife’s playful remark. The conversation in Trowa’s house had not been pleasant, but he wouldn’t necessarily call Duo’s words ‘telling him off.’ He did wonder, though, with some bitterness that still lingered, why, if Trowa and Duo were contemporaries, they couldn’t date each other and leave Heero to Quatre.

Trowa went on with his story. “Duo and I became friends, and he invited me to come live at the orphanage.” Fondly he added, “I don’t think he actually had the authority to do that, though if I had joined him, I don’t know that the overworked employees would even have noticed one additional child. I had no interest in living wall-to-wall with other children who didn’t get as much to eat as I did by my own wits, and instead I convinced Duo to leave the orphanage and join me on the streets.”

“You’re a bad influence,” said Quatre with a grin. Bernard worried about the extent to which this might be true, and believed his wife felt the same.

“We were better off together,” Trowa protested, “and it was one less mouth for the orphanage to feed.” He smiled as he seemed belatedly to realize Quatre had been teasing him, and added, “As we got older, we were able to do more real work, and steal less, and even eventually rent a room.”

“I remember hearing Duo talk about some of this.”

“Duo convinced me it was safe to start using a name again. Originally mine was based on the old word ‘trow,’ from the German ‘trauen’ — and now you’ve heard all the German I speak — but Duo suggested I change the pronunciation to what it is now so I could keep the name I was used to without worrying about my parents finding me by it.”

“That’s so interesting,” said Quatre.

“Of course I needed a last name too,” Trowa went on with an acknowledging nod, “and I’ve never been quite sure why I chose to retain my mother’s last name; I was, after all, still bitter toward her at the time. I suppose it was more a sign of rejection of my father than acceptance of my mother. But I kept it, and became Trowa Barton, which I never changed.”

Quatre chuckled. “The Trowa Barton.”

“Yes,” Trowa agreed with a roll of eyes.

“What does that mean?” asked Catharine.

“That comes later,” Quatre informed his mother knowingly.

Bernard stood. “More brandy for anyone?” Uncertain how he felt about what had been disclosed so far, or about Trowa in general, he thought further drinks were required to get through the rest of this. His wife and son both accepted the offer, but Trowa, unsurprisingly given what he’d said earlier, declined. Bernard moved to the sideboard to mix two drinks and pour himself a neat third.

Courteous as usual, whatever else he might be, Trowa waited for Bernard’s return to his chair before continuing the story. In the interim, Quatre asked, “Have you seen the invitations Duo sent out for the party?”

“No,” Trowa replied resignedly, “but since Heero asked me the same question, I assume there’s something in them I wouldn’t approve of.”

“I don’t think I was supposed to see them either,” Quatre admitted, “but he sent them to everyone at work, so it was inevitable somebody would show me at some point.”

“Do I even want to ask?”

“Probably not,” Quatre laughed. “I just wondered whether the way he uses commas was something you both picked up as kids on the streets.”

Trowa sounded somewhat startled as he asked, “How does he use commas?”

Seeing his father returning with their drinks, Quatre said, “After the party, we’ll have to track down one of those invitations.”

Once Bernard had distributed the brandies and resumed his seat in the armchair facing his son and Trowa, the latter picked up where he’d left off. “We weren’t interested in fighting in World War I — ‘the war to end all wars,’ they called it, but to those of us trying to live our lives in peace it was mostly a bother — and the draft only applied to our age group just before the war ended… it’s also possible we neglected to register… so we avoided that. We lived a fairly peaceful life in a poor part of town, content with what we had, at least for a while. We were especially happy in our personal lives because we had discovered magic.

“For a person’s magical talent to awaken, they must be exposed to magic. Magical scholars have done a lot of speculating about what percentage of the supposedly mundane population is actually magically gifted but has never been exposed to enough magic to experience an awakening. The amount of magical exposure required, how it varies from one person to another, and whether the branch of magic to which a person is exposed makes any kind of difference, is also a matter of debate.” Interestingly, Trowa’s tone grew more firm, more assertive, as he began to speak of something more scholarly about which he was, presumably, an expert. Of course he must be considered an expert on his own personal history as well, but this topic seemed easier for him to discuss. In fact, as he went on, it seemed like more of a lecture than the story his words had previously been.

“There are four branches of magical talent, at least as magic is practiced in most of North America: command, communion — which they call communication these days — divination, and necrovisua. Command magic, which is my primary area of skill — and Duo’s only area of skill — involves manipulating the physical world around you. The demonstration I gave you at my house–” he nodded briefly to each of the Winner parents– “was an example of command magic.

“Communication magic, which is Heero’s primary area of skill, is the magic of the mind: telepathy, influencing the minds of others, and so on. Divination magic, the branch in which I’m least skilled of those I can access, is, self-evidently, the magic of truth: learning what has happened, what is happening, and occasionally what will happen.

“Necrovisual magic, which nobody among my friends has, has to do with the dead: speaking to spirits who have passed on, and dealing with certain energies left behind when living things die.”

Trowa paused for a moment, as if giving all this information a chance to sink in with his listeners. Bernard thought it made sense, as far as it went, and was sardonically glad to be confirmed in his guess that mind-reading was Heero’s specific magical ability.

“Hajime and Sano are necrovisual, though, aren’t they?” Quatre asked.

“Hajime’s primary skill is communication, according to what he told me,” Trowa replied. He paused thoughtfully before continuing, “Sano is an interesting case, though. There is a skillset some people consider a fifth branch of magic, though I’ve never liked to describe it that way. It’s extremely rare, but some people are able to use all four branches of magic, where most magicians have access to three at most. This ability often comes without much training or practice, or even active awareness. We call that type of person a natural. And that’s what Sano seems to be.”

Quatre looked very interested at this information, but Bernard, who had no idea who this Sano person was, wished Trowa would move on. And presently Trowa did.

“Duo and I, as children, were acquainted with an old diviner woman who lived in our area of town and was undoubtedly the reason our magical abilities woke up. At first, of course, magic was very little more than a source of entertainment for us. There were certain spells that made our lives easier, but in those days we had no idea of magic’s true potential.” These last words were spoken darkly, and it seemed clear that, whatever ‘magic’s true potential’ might be, Trowa knew it all too well by now. “We entertained friends with what they considered tricks, and gradually made other friends who knew the truth, but it was all very casual and unimportant to us at the time.

“And then, in 1922, I started work at a plastics factory. You may be interested to hear, sir–” nodding at Bernard again– “that the company I worked for in those days was Raberba Manufacturing.”

Bernard was interested. What’s more, he couldn’t even try to deny his growing belief. That didn’t necessarily mean he approved of Trowa, or Trowa dating Quatre, but he was becoming increasingly engaged in this unusual story. “The company did get its start in Michigan,” he recalled.

Trowa nodded. “Plastics manufacture was a new industry at the time, so there was a learning curve for everyone, and they were always looking for new blood. My blood seemed to be the right kind, and it wasn’t long before I was given a supervisory role with a significantly bigger paycheck than I’d ever had before. That was the beginning of our problems.

“At first Duo was as happy as I was at the amount of money I was suddenly making. He even liked some of my new, richer friends for a while. But when I was promoted to General Overseer at the end of that year, and started making even more money, and rose another level in society, Duo started to get sick of it. I was… fascinated by the new life I had access to with all my new money… and I’m afraid I may have lost track of who I was in the process. I bought a car Duo refused to ride in, rented an apartment Duo refused to live in, and moved in circles Duo was no longer willing to put up with.”

Trowa sighed. “Of course I had no idea what this might lead to — no one could have predicted that — but just as a man, I should have done better. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ It wasn’t the money so much as the esteem, but the saying still applies.”

Quatre’s face had gone dark again, his father noticed. Because Trowa was being so hard on himself? His lament sounded perfectly rational to Bernard.

“In the spring of 1923, an acquaintance of mine — one of my old magical friends, not one of the new, rich ones — made me a present of a certain artifact. Magical artifacts are objects that have absorbed power by being in the vicinity of magical activity. They affect any magic being practiced nearby, and can be used to boost the effectiveness of a spell if you use them correctly — or if you don’t, they can interfere very badly. I believe Albert, my acquaintance, was more concerned with getting rid of this particular artifact than giving me a gift, since it was an especially powerful one and very difficult to master. He didn’t say so, but it had probably been ruining all his spellwork for however long he’d owned it.”

“What was it, exactly?” Catharine wondered, sounding intrigued.

“A silver candlestick,” answered Trowa. “It was old even at the time, and I thought it was very handsome. Eventually I changed my mind about that.”

“So it was Trowa in the lounge with the candlestick,” Catharine murmured, smile-lines wrinkling beside her eyes.

“Excuse me,” Trowa said, and Bernard was surprised to hear some irritation in his tone, “what is that?”

Quatre chuckled, and took Trowa’s hand again. “I’ll tell you another time. We’ll even watch the movie.”

Trowa frowned slightly, but merely continued his story. “Eventually Duo confronted me about my new lifestyle. He didn’t like what I had become, and he didn’t like what I’d become in relation to him. He was right, of course: I was becoming something unpleasant, and our friendship was falling apart. He accused me of no longer caring about him, and he had every reason to believe that was the case.”

At the pain in Trowa’s voice and face during this last phrase, Catharine leaned forward in pity, setting her glass down on the table between herself and Bernard. She said nothing, however, undoubtedly both unsure what she could say and eager to hear more.

Trowa took a deep breath. “This is only the fourth time I’ve ever described what happened that day. Please forgive me if it’s a little difficult to talk about.”

“Of course,” said Catharine gently. Even Bernard nodded. He was beginning to understand his son’s earlier concern about Trowa discussing things he perhaps wasn’t ready to, and he didn’t even know what had happened yet.

After another deep breath, Trowa told him. “I was so upset by the accusation that I didn’t care about my best friend, and stung at the same time by the truth of what he had to say about my lifestyle, I didn’t think through what I did next. On the spur of that very bad moment, I came up with a spell that I thought would force him to feel what I felt, to share my emotions, so he would know exactly how much I did care about him still.”

“That sounds very much like assault,” said Catharine reluctantly.

Eyes closed, Trowa nodded. “It was a terrible thing to do, but what I intended was nothing compared to what actually happened.”

“You mentioned the candlestick thing would affect any magic performed around it…” Bernard said this in fascinated horror, surprised at his own emotional engagement and waiting almost breathlessly for what would come next.

“That’s right.” Now Trowa spoke very softly, as if too horrified to put any proper volume into his words. “I hadn’t mastered the artifact yet. No one could have in as short a time as I’d had with it. And it took my spell and warped it, turning it into a curse with a much different effect than the one I had in mind.”

There was a long moment of silence as the Winner parents digested the revelation that Trowa had cursed his best friend. Duo had seemed hale and whole every time Bernard and Catharine had seen him, but between their first meeting with Heero’s boyfriend back in June or so and the moment Trowa had reached in his story, quite a bit of time had passed. 87 years, in fact. A lot of curse-related suffering could easily have taken place over such a long span.

“During the course of our argument, I pretended to misunderstand him, and that I believed he was being petty and fake with me out of jealousy over money and a woman we both knew, rather than unhappy and concerned about me and my relationship with him. I made the comment, ‘It’s as if you were made of plastic.’ The curse took that idea as if it were something I had specifically asked for: it turned him into plastic.”

Though it sounded dreadful, this statement was also not easily minutely understood, and Bernard believed, as both he and his wife stared somewhat blankly at Trowa, that they were both sorting through a number of possibilities for interpretation in a rapid and somewhat futile attempt to keep up. Quatre looked coldly grim, and held one of Trowa’s hands tightly in both of his.

“With this combination of circumstances, part of him might have turned to plastic — limbs or bones, skin or hair — or he might have become a life-sized statue made of plastic. Any of that would have made sense. But in fact he became a doll.” Only because he sounded suddenly more distant did Trowa seem suddenly less deeply miserable, and the distance, Bernard believed, hailed from an attempt at looking at this scientifically (as it were) rather than emotionally. By attempting to discuss the physicalities and magical workings of the situation, and give them priority over its other aspects, Trowa might be able to get through this retelling more easily. It reminded Bernard of focusing on the mundanities of planning a funeral rather than the crushing, life-altering loss that led to the need for it — a technique he had used himself in the past, and once again something that strengthened his growing belief in this entire story.

“Plastic was just beginning to be used to make all sorts of non-industrial or -military products, including toys, and its uses for domestic items were what led to the plastics boom and the fortune of men like me. So it really does make the most sense that the idea of a ‘plastic man’ would immediately be associated, at least subconsciously, with the concept of a doll. So I turned Duo into a doll.”

He paused once more, either to let these newest details take their places with his listeners or to yet again regather his emotional fortitude for continuing. And Bernard didn’t know what to think. This was more bizarre and troubling even than the story that Quatre had been infected by some kind of angry magical energy, and, though he would no longer claim not to believe it, he would be no more than a little surprised if Trowa finished by asking for money again. In the neighboring armchair, Catharine looked nothing but horrified and sympathetic.

“As a doll, Duo had a limited ability to move, and the ability to speak, but nothing more. I believe because of my own frustration at his inability to feel what I felt, the curse robbed him of all ability to feel. He could see and hear, but taste, touch, smell… it was all lost to him. I took that all away from him.”

Feeling a chill, Bernard wondered how all of this might possibly apply to a current relationship of Trowa’s. For if this strange man had once accidentally transformed his best friend into a doll without feeling, what would keep him from doing it again to someone close?

“Couldn’t you immediately change him back?” Catharine wondered. “You’re talking as if– surely he didn’t remain a doll, after that, for all this time?”

Trowa took a long, deep breath, then let it out again. “He did.” So short and simple a statement to encompass 87 years! “And that was because I… lost track of him. I might not have been able to change him back on my own in any case, but when I didn’t even have him with me…”

“You ‘lost track of him?’ You misplaced Duo?” The seriousness of the discussion hadn’t diminished, but despite this and Bernard’s increased worry about how this might apply in modern times, he couldn’t help finding this idea somewhat entertaining. And evidently it sounded in his voice, for both members of the family that were present shot him a reproving look.

Trowa took no offense. In fact he sounded so guilty as he explained that Bernard almost regretted the slight amusement that had colored his tone. “He fell out a window and got picked up off the sidewalk by a child who was passing by before I could get out and down to him. I didn’t know where he had gone. I’d barely gotten a look at him, saw him moving and heard his tiny doll voice, so searching for him was extremely difficult. Often when I asked people if they knew of a talking doll, they laughed at me. It was hard to get even the question taken seriously.”

“That’s so strange to think about.” Quatre grinned at Trowa as he said this. “I’ve never known you when people wouldn’t be tripping over themselves to answer your questions.”

Trowa smiled wryly back at him, and at the same moment Catharine asked in some interest, “Do people do that?”

Quatre gestured Trowa should go on, which he did. “I scoured the city from end to end. I devoted so much time and energy and attention to the search that eventually I lost my job at the factory, but at the time I almost didn’t notice. I had some money saved, and sold some of the extravagant purchases I’d made in recent days. Eventually I stored the rest at a warehouse, gave up my apartment, and left town, still looking for Duo. I took the candlestick with me, because I knew it was connected to the curse, but I didn’t know where to go or even how to search. I just wandered aimlessly for several years, living like a tramp, feeling less and less confident that I would ever see Duo again. I’ve had some very dark times in my life, but that was probably the worst.”

None of them spoke for a moment. Bernard had no new thoughts, despite Trowa’s solemn pronouncement; he just wanted to hear the rest.

“It didn’t take long to realize that asking the non-magical if they had seen a doll that could talk and move got me nothing but polite skepticism at best, but the magical community was readier to help, if they didn’t know any more than the rest of the population. So I asked magicians. Seeking out the local magicians everywhere I went was difficult at first, but eventually I developed a system. I would offer to do tasks in exchange for room and board while I was in the area. Someone would take me up on the offer, even if it wasn’t the first or the second or the tenth person I talked to, and I would quietly and magically do their chores or mend their fence or paint their store. Then word would get around about what a hard worker I was and how miraculously quickly I got things done. Then the local magicians would seek me out.”

“This is surreal,” Quatre murmured.

“The present is surreal,” Trowa replied. “The 20’s were nothing.” He let out a sigh that might have had fragments of dark humor in it, and continued. “It was all command magic at first. A lot of manual labor can be performed very simply with command magic. But as I learned to work with the candlestick, my command magic grew stronger, and I found I could accomplish more with my other branches as well. The candlestick was very powerful, and tricky to use, and I was blundering along in the dark without ever making that my top priority, but still, as I became more attuned to it, I was starting to use magic in ways I didn’t previously think were possible.

“After several years of traveling the way I was, my reputation started to precede me. The magicians would meet me on the road into town instead of making me search for them, and they would request magical favors that became more complicated as time passed. I learned to use different branches of magic in combination, and set up new spells to solve old problems more easily. If I had it to do over again…” He paused with an expression of distaste, as if the idea of doing it over struck him as unfaceably bleak. “I would use an alias. If I’d ever truly believed the curse would be broken, I would have realized some of the ways my life would change when it did, and that I might not want to be ‘The Trowa Barton’ anymore. But at the time…” He shrugged.

“After maybe fifteen years, I decided I was done wandering aimlessly. It hadn’t accomplished anything, and I didn’t think it was going to. I started making planned trips to cities where I could easily get in touch with magicians and perform magic that was beyond them in exchange for their help looking for Duo. Still nothing. And I didn’t realize at first that doing this spread my fame further, faster. But it wasn’t ‘what Trowa Barton is looking for’ that spread; it was ‘what Trowa Barton did for me,’ and any number of strange rumors.” He sighed again, this time in remembered frustration. With a slight shake of the head, he went on.

“The rest of this is 70 years long, give or take, so I’ll try to abridge it. Eventually I was corresponding more with magicians than I was interacting with them in person, so I decided to settle into a home with a permanent address. I retrieved my stored items — by then I had to pretend to be my own son–”

“I don’t think,” Quatre broke in, “you ever actually mentioned you stopped aging.”

“I think we realized it about fifteen years ago, though,” Catharine said with an eye-crinkling smile. “Go on, Trowa.” She’d obviously forgotten completely about the drink at her side, and was hanging on Trowa’s every word. Bernard realized as he assessed her demeanor that his was much the same.

Trowa nodded to Catharine and obeyed. “The non-magical community around me was a problem from the beginning. Someone who looked the way I did — you two saw what I looked like before the curse broke, but you never saw my cursed eyes without contact lenses in, which didn’t exist in those days. Someone looking like that, living alone but often receiving mysterious visitors who were mostly strangers in the area… writing plenty of letters but never socializing with his neighbors… acting like an old hermit but apparently in his early 20’s…”

“It sounds as if you’ve brought the story up to about the time Catharine and I were born,” Bernard remarked. “If society then was anything like what I remember from my childhood, I’m not surprised your neighbors were suspicious.”

Quatre wondered, “But were they suspicious? Or was this just you being paranoid?”

“I don’t know.” Trowa answered so readily, he’d clearly been expecting the question. “But over the following couple of decades, I lived in six or seven different homes.”

Quatre and his mother both made sympathetic sounds.

“Finally I forced myself to really settle down. I was so adept at jumping — traveling by magic — that I traveled that way to any appointments, and never showed my face in my actual neighborhood. I was in touch with many of the major names in magic throughout North America, and I’d become very powerful and experienced. I escaped the demanding people who’d followed me from one home to another over the years — though they found me again eventually — by making my first dark jump to a town on the east coast I’d never visited before and buying a house there.”

Forestalling the question, he explained in a tone of aside, “A dark jump is magical travel to a place you’ve never been and don’t have someone else’s mental picture of. It’s very difficult, and requires a lot of research into the place so you can understand it well enough to get there. Even I have only done a few dark jumps in my lifetime. There’s always the risk that the impression of a place you’ve gotten from reading someone’s journal or a book set there isn’t accurate enough, or the place has changed too much since the pictures you’re looking at were taken. Usually a jump simply won’t work in that case, but there are some rare bad consequences to dark jumping.”

Again the lecturing tone sounded stronger, more certain, and, if possible, less self-accusatory than everything else Trowa said. Bernard was beginning to fathom why his son gazed so raptly at this man when he spoke of magic; Trowa seemed, if not an entirely different person, at least the better part of the person he was at those moments.

“That was when my celebrity really exploded. I was doing bigger magical favors more selectively by then. I stabilized a mine. I reworked a railroad town’s entire infrastructure. I rescued a kidnapped child. I became a household name in magical circles.”

“Were there no other powerful and experienced magicians?” asked Bernard. Intending no insult, he added, “Why were you so famous?”

“There were other powerful and experienced magicians,” Trowa said with a pained look, “and they were famous too. But they lived their lives and died, or went in and out of fashion, or lost strength over the years, or made mistakes that lost them their popularity. But I didn’t change. I was startling to look at, I didn’t age, and the services I provided only got bigger and more amazing over time. Magicians told their children about me, and then those children grew up to hear about me diverting a tornado between two towns.

“It’s customary in the magical community for a service provider to work with another person. The word that’s usually used is ‘partner,’ and the person is sometimes a partner in terms of assisting with actual work, but most of the time the position has more to do with security. They’re a bodyguard, or a witness to the proceedings, or just a second person to act as a deterrent against attack or fraud. It’s a practical and useful arrangement for a lot of magicians, but it’s more traditional than anything. Some magicians can get away with it — especially if they work with non-magical clients — but in the magical community, it’s usually considered odd and inappropriate for a magician to make house calls without a partner.

“And I never had a partner. The only thing anyone knew about my past was wild rumor; it was as if I’d always been there and always would be, doing amazing things apparently easily. I was an unusual type of celebrity.”

“You saved towns from a tornado?” Trowa’s boyfriend demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

Apparently in response to the expression of almost disbelieving admiration and affection on Quatre’s face, Trowa replied in some surprise and pleasure, “I would have if I’d thought…”

“You are too modest.” Quatre shook his head with a grin that still held those previous emotions. “And I think what you’re trying to say about how magicians felt about you is that you were the first rock star of the magical community.”

Slowly Trowa nodded. “I think that’s an accurate comparison. While Elvis Presley took non-magical America by storm, I did the same in the magical community. I doubt Abner Herzberg–” evidently plucking a famous magical name out of his past– “ever had people’s daughters thrown at him.”

Bernard couldn’t help laughing. “Daughters, or panties?”

With a fierce blush Trowa protested, “‘Rock star’ is a comparison. No one has ever thrown their underwear at me.” And the thoughtful look Quatre’s face now took on seemed to indicate that might be changing any day.

Catharine laughed too, but with a touch of sorrow from that soft heart of hers. “But you did make a mistake. Didn’t that affect anyone’s opinion of you?”

“It didn’t, because nobody knew about it.” Trowa might not have grasped at this point so tenaciously if it hadn’t been helping him away from Bernard’s joke at his expense and Quatre having embarrassing ideas. “At first I thought it would make magicians less willing to help me if they knew what I’d done, and later I… I just didn’t have the courage to talk about it. I confessed to almost no one, during all those 87 years, what I’d done. There were times I even feared someone would find out somehow, and I would lose what little I had.”

“Paranoid,” Quatre murmured.

“I didn’t realize how good it would feel to tell someone at last.” Trowa squeezed Quatre’s hand again. “If I had known, I might have told the story more often back then. I might have told everyone back then, and to hell with the consequences. But instead I held onto it and let it eat away at me, and…” He raised helpless hands, one of them still in Quatre’s. “People loved me, and I hated myself. I could do anything for them, and nothing for Duo. They would try to set me up with their unmarried relatives, but I had cursed the only person I ever loved.” Hearing Trowa admit he’d once loved Duo in a way that could be set opposite the matchmaking intentions of his fans did not bother Bernard nearly so much now as it would have at the beginning of this conversation. “The celebrity made the contrast almost more than I could bear. I started to lose faith.”

Catharine’s brows went up. “Only then?”

“I don’t think I ever truly believed I would find Duo and be able to break the curse, except maybe right at the beginning, right after I lost him. But for about 35 years, I worked at it as if I did believe in it. After that, what I was doing from day to day gradually changed. I didn’t send out as many letters, or tell as many people in them what I was looking for. I still followed every possible lead, but I never had any hope they would get me anywhere — and they never did. I studied magic intensively, and worked on improving my connection with the candlestick, so I would be prepared when I found him… but I was doing that instead of actively looking for him. I studied curses and accidental magic, and I researched the organization that had originally made an artifact out of the candlestick. And none of it helped.

“I knew he must still be out there somewhere, because I never started aging again. But I think what I truly believed was that it would just go on forever — that I would keep living, searching and researching and practicing and becoming more pointlessly skilled at magic forever as a punishment for what I did to him.” The anguish in these words, so real, so present, made it obvious that, though the time referred to had passed, the pain of that long-occupied frame of mind remained.

“Anyone would,” Catharine advised him gently. “It’s a miracle you got through so many years without doing much worse.”

“Exactly,” said Quatre. He laid his head on Trowa’s shoulder and rubbed a little, insistent, as if to punctuate his agreement. Trowa put an arm around him, and Quatre nuzzled in closer.

“Thank you,” Trowa said. “I kept going, but I wasn’t much of a person anymore. Time dragged on, and I never found any sign of Duo. You would think a magical talking, moving doll that thought for itself would be easy to find, especially over such a long time, but I found out later that Duo was careful. Revealing he could talk lost him his home more than once, so he would wait until the child he belonged to seemed ready to accept him as a friend instead of just a toy. And even then, it would often be only the child who would know, so word never spread about the magical doll. He couldn’t have hidden from me better if he’d been doing it deliberately.”

“He talked to me and Heero right away,” said Quatre musingly.

“He told me he was getting tired of being careful. He’d been taken to Goodwill so often in response to him talking; he decided that time to risk it right away and get it over with before he became attached. I wonder sometimes, though, if he didn’t subconsciously sense something about Heero…”

“That early?” Quatre looked pensive. “And could he even sense things like that as a doll?”

“Aren’t you getting ahead of the story again?” Bernard broke in before Trowa could answer. “I thought we were still losing faith in the 50’s.”

“Losing faith was a process that crossed the next 40 years. And then…” Trowa smiled. “Do you know it was the internet that started to wake me up again?”

“Cat videos will restore anyone’s faith,” Catharine remarked with her eye-crinkles again. Bernard was so fond of her eye-crinkles.

Trowa cleared his throat. “I’m sure you remember what the internet was like starting out. Cat videos weren’t around for… a while.”

Quatre had slumped somewhat in his lean against Trowa, but now he sat up straight and fixed his boyfriend with a delighted look of false accusation. “But you did watch them! When they came around!”

“It’s… difficult to be on the internet and not watch cat videos,” Trowa admitted.

“Do you like cats? Do you want cats? It would be extremely easy to get you some kittens for the house.”

“Familiarization makes that… complicated. We’ll have to talk about it later.”

Quatre gave a phony pout. “Duo would have said, ‘You’re the only Quat I want.'”

“I know.” Trowa was blushing again; it seemed to set his freckles on fire. “I thought about saying it, but I couldn’t.”

Complacently Quatre leaned forward and kissed him on the chin, then nestled down against him again.

“The internet…?” Bernard prompted, restraining a laugh.

“The internet provided new avenues. At first it did nothing to help, but it was promising, and I regained some of my old resolve. I gradually changed my correspondence to email, and I joined any number of mailing lists about supernatural occurrences — forums, later, as the internet evolved. And search engines were so… Every day I would dial up and type a whole list of phrases one by one into AOL’s directory, which wasn’t even a proper search engine yet. Every day I had that faint little hope that something might have changed, that someone somewhere might have put up a website about the talking doll they’d had as a child. I never found anything at all with ‘Duo Maxwell cursed doll,’ but if someone would just document some experience with Duo, it would give me a starting point, and I could trace him from there.”

“I take it this disappointed you eventually as well.” Bernard too had witnessed the evolution of the internet, and had always appreciated it in a business sense. What it must have meant to Trowa he could only dimly imagine.

“Actually,” said Trowa with the air of telling the night’s first good news, “it did eventually lead me to Duo.”

Despite knowing Duo had been restored to his humanity, that Trowa’s coloration had returned to normal, and that therefore the curse must have been broken; despite having done the math and known the magician must be approaching the part of his story where that event had taken place, Bernard felt a little jump of heart at these words. It was like the excitement he felt while watching a good movie with a well constructed plot when something he’d known to be inevitable occurred yet still managed to stir him up. Observing his wife leaning a little farther forward, he knew he wasn’t alone.

“But I won’t say,” Trowa went on, “I wasn’t back in a pretty bad place by the time it did. It wasn’t as bad as those 40 years, but it was bad. If I’d met anyone other than Quatre, I never would have pulled out of it.”

“Yes, you would,” Quatre said firmly. “You’re stronger than you think you are.”

“I’m grateful I never have to find out what would have happened.” Trowa pressed his face to the top of Quatre’s head and paused there a moment. Then he continued in a tone as solemn as such long-delayed news deserved. “On March 20th of this year, a post appeared on one of the forums about magic I tracked. It said, A friend and I found a doll (looks like a Barbie “Ken” but with real human hair) who talks and moves on his own. Claims to be a human placed under a curse by a friend, probably by accident, in 1923. Says his friend was never powerful enough to cast a spell that could last that long. My friend and I know nothing about magic. Is a spell like this even possible? Have checked doll for wires and found nothing, but still think it’s probably a prank. Has anyone else encountered anything like this?” He recited the post as if he would never forget a single word, and Quatre looked impressed.

Then they all sat silent for a few moments, the three non-magicians probably imagining how Trowa must have felt seeing something like that, and the two more empathetic of them probably doing a better job of it. What kind of beautiful stab to the heart must that have been? Had the entire 87-year search come to rest with all its weight and misery on top of those words that promised its end? After so long and such continual failure, he must have had at least an instant of pure disbelief… but placed under a curse by a friend, probably by accident, in 1923 could not be a coincidence.

Once more Trowa had a distant smile on his lips, and eyes focused not entirely on the present. “It’s generally agreed that, in every magician’s life, at some very emotional time, they produce magic more effective and powerful than any other time in their life — something they can only do once, and never again, and they wonder for the rest of their life whether they truly did it at all.”

“Like adrenaline letting people lift cars off their loved ones,” Catharine put in.

Trowa nodded. “In 48 hours…” He let the length of time linger in the air for a moment, though Bernard suspected Trowa himself would be the only one to appreciate its significance. “In two days’ time, I put together an impossible spell. A spell no one has ever cast before or even thought of, and something I still, seven months later, can’t decide whether or not I actually managed.”

Now he shook his head in disbelief. “To divine something, you have to have some information already. And even with the candlestick’s power, I’ve always been an indifferent diviner. And divining the future is uncertain at best in the first place. But somehow, I cast a spell that allowed me to dark jump to the place where the completely unknown author of the forum post would be on the evening of March 22nd. It’s… it was… impossible. But somehow I did it.”

Bernard chuckled. “So instead of just replying to the post as a normal person would, you used impossible magic to blindly jump through space and probability.”

Surprisingly, Trowa weakly returned the chuckle. “I did. I couldn’t wait. I knew it had to be Duo they were talking about. What if they didn’t check the forum again? What if they were reluctant to give me their address? And when I was so close, I couldn’t stand to put off finding him any longer. So I jumped to where the post author would be, and I familiarized myself with the area, and at the time when I knew they would come, they came.”

“And then he weirded us out,” Quatre declared, sitting up straight again. “You have no idea how strange it was for this sexy colorless guy in coattails to meet us outside this restaurant and ask out of the blue whether we were ‘the ones with the talking doll.'” And if he’d considered Trowa sexy from the very first moment, Bernard supposed this whole thing had been inevitable.

“I’ve got it from here,” Quatre said next, kissing Trowa’s nose this time. “Let me know if I get anything wrong.” And when Trowa nodded assent, Quatre took up the story. “Watching Trowa and Duo meet each other again after all that time… it was mind-blowing, and Heero and I didn’t even know what they’d been through at that point. Trowa told us, but we didn’t understand the way we do now. I can’t even describe it, so I won’t try.

“Trowa told me later that curses — even when they’re accidental, apparently — have a kind of… appropriateness about them, and about the process of breaking them. Trowa accused Duo of being fake, as if he were made of plastic, and the curse turned him into plastic. He wanted to make Duo feel what he felt, and the curse took away Duo’s ability to feel anything. He accused Duo of pursuing a woman he didn’t love, so to break the curse Duo had to truly love someone.”

“Wait…” Bernard began.

“True love conquers all?” Even Catharine sounded skeptical.

“Well, yes,” Quatre grinned, “but there was more to it than that. The candlestick had carvings on it of cycles of the moon, and the group that turned it into an artifact was a moon-worshiping magical cult.”

“The ones who– Wait, was this the artifact that–”

Quatre did not allow his father to finish. “That’s right. And it had a connection with the moon because it spent so long with the moon-worshipers. So the curse, and breaking the curse, had to do with the moon as well.”

“Trowa’s skin!”

“I never believed anemia could make you that pale and leave you still standing.”

“Yes, so Trowa became a beautiful lunar child with moons for eyes. And he did a brilliant set of divinations to find out that, to break the curse–” here Quatre began ticking off points on his fingers– “Duo needed to stay within the magical influence of someone with magical abilities, who he was developing a true emotional bond with, for a complete lunar cycle.”

“You got it all right,” Trowa murmured.

At the same time Catharine said in much the same tone, “Hmm. True love really does conquer all.”

“I have other points of analysis,” Quatre told his boyfriend quietly, “but they’ll embarrass you.”

At his wife’s words, Bernard felt the fading of the last of his long-held bitterness that Quatre and Heero weren’t together. The ‘true emotional bond’ between Heero and Duo had been confirmed by magic, and had ended an age of suffering. He couldn’t wish that broken up, even for the sake of what he’d long considered a near-perfect pairing. Heero would be relieved the next time he read Bernard’s mind. And Duo wouldn’t have to try to defend their relationship any farther. Immediate approval of Trowa as Quatre’s boyfriend did not necessarily follow, but Bernard was much readier now to entertain the notion.

“Wait,” he said again, belatedly, once these thoughts had run their course, “what does that mean, ‘stay within their magical influence for a full lunar cycle?’ This is Heero’s magical influence, and Duo still a doll?”

And when he’d heard that part of the story, and what Heero had been willing to go through for Duo’s sake — a retelling that prompted real, hearty laughter from him and his wife, in the which Quatre joined them — he no longer needed any convincing that Heero and Duo together was the only right outcome of this strange scenario.

The chapter that followed pleased him less. The destruction of the artifact had been a necessary step, he agreed, but that Trowa had lacked the courage to take it upon himself seemed to indicate another serious character flaw. To Trowa’s credit, though, he did appear to recognize this defect in himself, along with others manifest during his story. Everyone had personal issues, of course, and that Trowa admitted to his and seemed willing to work to improve himself spoke rather better than otherwise. Still, the true scope of recent magical disasters startled and worried Bernard.

The end of the narrative came as a vague surprise, and felt anticlimactic. To wrap up with the forlorn admission on Quatre’s part, “And I still don’t feel like I’ve done everything I need to,” seemed a very inconclusive sort of conclusion. Of course the end of every story was the beginning of the next, but Bernard felt emotionally dissatisfied on hearing this one. Beyond that, he had a sort of decision to make, and hadn’t realized how pleased he’d been all along to be putting it off.

“Well,” he said slowly, “that’s a lot of information.”

“It is,” Catharine agreed. “I don’t think I’ve been so taken up with a story in a very long time, not even Downton Abbey.”

Bernard nodded pensively. Then, somewhat grudgingly, he admitted, “And I even believe it all.”

“It would be impossible not to!” Catharine raised a hand in a gesture of mock warning. “You’d better not have cast a spell on us to make us believe it.”

Trowa gave her a slight smile. He and Quatre looked tense all of a sudden, doubtless because they could feel judgment descending. That was what this had all been about, after all: revealing the whole truth to Bernard and Catharine so they could make a more educated decision on their feelings regarding the relationship before them.

Bernard went on, still slowly. “I believe in magic. I believe what you’ve told me about your history, Trowa. I even think I understand why you’ve made some of your mistakes. In some ways, magician or not, and no matter how old you are, you seem just as human as the rest of us. And since it seems you’re doing what you can to correct the flaws of character that led to those mistakes, I can even respect you.

“And I understand, now, why you weren’t open with us from the start. This is a lot to take in. I’m not sure how I would act in the same situation, but it might be similar to how you did. And I don’t know whether you were planning to tell us all of this sooner or later, but you have to understand that, from our point of view, it seems like you withheld important information and made up lies to cover it until you were forced to tell the truth because you needed something. Even knowing the details now, that makes it difficult to trust you. What I’m saying is, I’m still not sure about how I feel about you dating my son, after the lies you told us before and the… complications of your life.”

The two young men seated on the couch shifted nervously. Trowa’s face, if only in a restrained manner, held a mixture of emotions — hurt among them — and Quatre’s had gone a bit pink.

Here Catharine took up the ongoing statement, but steered it toward the emotional. “Quatre has a lot to give. I’m trying not to embarrass him,” she added, “but I have to describe him as I know him. He’s a devoted, generous, persistent young man. And he’s dated a lot of people who took advantage of his generosity without giving anything in return. I have all the sympathy in the world for you, Trowa, but it seems you may be that same type of person all over again. You obviously need so much from him, and I worry that may blind you to what he needs from you.”

Now Quatre was forced to speak up. His cheekbones had become very rosy indeed. “If it weren’t for Trowa’s support, I wouldn’t be here. He has been exactly what I’ve needed since I was cured. He’s been so forgiving and supportive… I would never be recovering from being possessed the way I am if it weren’t for him.” Bernard noticed he had nothing to offer on the subject of Trowa’s previous reticence.

“You’re forgetting Heero’s contribution,” the blushing Trowa murmured.

“No, I’m not,” Quatre replied a little impatiently. “I’m just talking about your contribution right now. You’ve treated me much better than I deserve.”

Blush deepening, Trowa said even more quietly, “That’s how you always treat me.”

“Stop that,” Quatre whispered.

“You first,” Trowa whispered back.

Catharine watched this exchange carefully, and gave a little nod. Evidently she, at least, was cautiously hopeful.

“Now listen, Trowa.” Bernard leaned forward as his wife had done several times already. “I can’t threaten you realistically, I can’t reprimand you, and I can’t make demands. All I can do is request. And I ask that you don’t make my son unhappy. No one he’s dated has ever made him happy, but I’ll settle at first for you simply not making him miserable. The two of you don’t actually need my approval, but you should know that I believe you may earn it eventually if you work hard and are honest with us from now on.”

Trowa nodded gravely. “I deeply appreciate your willingness to bear with me, and I’m sorry for the difficulties I’ve caused. Thank you.” Then expectantly he looked to Catharine.

With her sweetest expression, she said, “I can threaten you. And if you find it unrealistic, you don’t know how mothers work. So do right by my boy, or face the consequences.”

Trowa looked as if he didn’t know whether to smile, even laugh, or school his face into the deepest gravity. Probably bowing to his own natural inclination, he chose the latter. “Your warning is understood. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

A long silence followed, during which Bernard considered ordering Trowa not to turn his son into a doll, not to have him destroy any more powerful artifacts, and not, above all things, to break his heart; he decided eventually he’d said as much as he feasibly could for now, and therefore remained wordless. Eventually, though, he looked around at the room in which they sat, with its old-fashioned decorations that yet must seem young to Trowa, and remembered the mundane details of this after-dinner tradition. He couldn’t consider himself entirely satisfied with the proceedings and their outcome, but he believed they’d accomplished quite a bit this evening. So he rose and began collecting glasses.

He still needed to process what he’d heard tonight, and not only in relation to Quatre’s love life, but in relation to how he viewed the entire world. He had to admit that if the situation persisted, if Trowa joined the family in part or even literally, it would make for an interesting little Winner secret that they had among their ranks not only a real magician, but apparently one of the most powerful magicians in history.

Catharine had risen too when Bernard started bustling about, and now as she turned her generally pleasant expression on the two young men, they rose in their turn. “I’m so glad you could come tonight, Trowa,” she said. “It’s been intriguing and enlightening.”

Bernard, finished setting the gathered cups on the sideboard, also turned more fully toward his guest and his son. “That’s right. We appreciate you taking the time.” And he reached out toward Trowa.

“And I appreciate you taking the time to listen,” Trowa replied, shaking the offered hand. “Thank you for having me.” Then for a brief moment, his typically unfailing courtesy seemed to leave him stranded as he and Quatre threw each other a quick, uncertain look. Bernard had the impression that the two of them, as a couple, were on the verge of telling him something more, something significant, yet hesitated. At least in this case, it seemed to be something shared between them; and Bernard supposed Trowa had confessed a good deal more this evening than probably any of them had expected. It still raised his hackles, though, to consider further withheld information.

But they said their goodbyes in a polite and amicable enough manner. Bernard had an arm around his wife’s waist as they waved their guest out of the room. And as the two young men walked away, heads together, Bernard heard Trowa say, “I’m going home.”

“Take me with you,” Quatre requested.

“Of course.” And presently, after some unintelligible speech in that magical language of his, all aural signs of their presence in the house disappeared.

“Quatre’s moving in with him,” Catharine murmured.

“What?!” wondered Bernard in dismay. “How do you know that?”

“They almost just told us.” Catharine’s smile was forlorn and fond. “They probably decided we weren’t ready to hear it yet.” And her eye-crinkles, along with the expression on her lips, became just a touch more sad. She added in an even quieter murmur, “The last one to leave…”

“He may come back. Some of them have.” Even Bernard didn’t know whether he spoke hopefully or morosely.

“Don’t wish for it, my dear.”

Releasing his wife, Bernard turned back to the sideboard and started peering at the glasses, trying to determine which one had been his. He believed, under the circumstances, he needed just a little more brandy.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: Cockatiel and Armadillo

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei.

Ze likes fashion, football, and social justice. He likes Star Wars, friends, and tabletop roleplaying. Can this meeting between totally dissimilar strangers go anything but badly?

Kamatari was conscious of eyes on zir. Not that the entire café was staring or anything so dramatic, but ze was sitting by the door, and nearly everyone that came in or went out threw zir at least a glance. Zir hemline sat too high, perhaps, for a day of shopping — it might have been better suited for a night of drinking and dancing — but the lovely weather and zir lovely waxed legs had been too tempting a combination. Ze knew the entire outfit looked fantastic on zir, and if anyone in the café had a problem with it, they could just deal.

Some of the looks ze caught reflected in the window, however, indicated that most of them wouldn’t have used ‘problem’ to describe their reaction, so for now the situation remained tenable.

“Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker,” said Darth Vader from nearby.

Kamatari glanced at zir watch. Fifteen more minutes before zir bus would arrive, assuming ze remembered the schedule correctly. Fifteen minutes would be adequate time for a little more wandering, and, with a half-empty apartment in mind, the furniture store two doors down definitely appealed… but ze was tired. Ze might have overdone zir shopping exploration of zir new hometown.

“Obi-wan knew this to be true,” said Darth Vader.

Perhaps tomorrow ze would find zir way out again and have a look at some furnishing and decoration. Sundays offered nothing better to do in a place where ze had literally no friends. Even overtime wasn’t an option, since neither ze nor anyone else at zir company worked on the Sabbath. Or perhaps ze would sit around with a few beers signing petitions on the internet.

“All too easy,” said Darth Vader.

Kamatari glanced toward the source of the voice. Though the corner spot half ringed with booth seating and half with chairs was probably the biggest table in the café, only one person sat there now, and he didn’t look much like a Sith Lord. He did glance up from the phone he held, though, just after the latest quote played, so Kamatari quickly removed zir attention.

“Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought.”

James Earl Jones had a damn sexy voice, Kamatari had to admit. Why that voice should be speaking up to harass an absent Luke Skywalker in this relatively busy restaurant/coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon not, as far as Kamatari knew, a date of any particular significance to fans of the actor, the character, or the franchise? That was another story.

“Impressive.”

Ze couldn’t help looking over again at the man from whom this effusion of Star Wars came. Was it a game on his phone playing these quotes, or what? From his movements, he appeared to be texting, but that didn’t quite fit with the sounds. He also kept glancing up and around as if to check whether he’d attracted any attention. Again Kamatari looked quickly away.

“Most impressive.”

These lines, arranged (as far as Kamatari could remember) in their proper order of appearance, were simultaneously cool and obnoxious. If the guy knew he would be receiving a string of text messages or whatever, he should really turn the sound off; yet if the quotes were text-tones, it was interesting that they played in the order the lines had been spoken in the movie.

The next sound from the stranger’s phone was the first nine notes of the Imperial March, and this time the guy caught Kamatari peeking. Where many might have smiled, the stranger instead gave a nod of acknowledgment. He looked good — though he would have looked better without the huge glasses — and wore (to somewhat strange effect, Kamatari thought) a t-shirt tucked into belted dress slacks. Which Asian heritage, specifically, he came from, Kamatari couldn’t be quite sure.

“Please forgive me,” the man said, “if my text messaging is bothering you.” His demeanor seemed at odds with his words, however: he didn’t come across as at all penitent, or even as if he really comprehended how he could possibly have been bothering anyone.

Bemused by the overall presentation, Kamatari replied, “I was mostly wondering how you got the quotes to play all in a row like that.”

“Oh,” said the man, clearly pleased at being asked, “it’s an app a friend of mine developed. It allows you to establish a folder for your text-tones and arrange them in the order you’d prefer them to play when you receive several messages in a row, or to have them chosen at random.”

This was more information than Kamatari really needed, but not entirely uninteresting. Ze might have said so if the man hadn’t continued talking without pause: “It’s on its second version, so it’s very stable by now, but he’s always working on minor updates for it. At the moment I believe he’s attempting to make it possible to combine sequences with random selection in the same settings. The app is called ‘Text-Tone Sequencer,’ if you’re interested — if you have a phone with an Android operating system, that is.”

“Thank you,” was all Kamatari could think to say.

“My pleasure,” the stranger replied magnanimously.

Kamatari might have turned back to the window at this point, but the man had lowered his phone somewhat and begun examining zir more specifically. The glinting gaze lingered longest on Kamatari’s legs — not entirely surprising given both the attractiveness of said legs today and the stranger’s evident lack of subtlety. Or he could merely have been counting the bags clustered at Kamatari’s feet, for he remarked next, “I deduce that you’ve had a successful shopping trip today.”

Now Kamatari tried to repress a smile and to match the gravity — the solemnity, almost — of the other’s tone as ze replied, “Yes, I have. I found some good sales.”

“I have a tendency to do most of my shopping online, so I have a much greater range of locations to monitor for good sales. And these sites often hold flash sales that only last a certain number of hours, so catching them is sometimes extremely difficult.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Everyone in my group of friends is aware of what the others like to buy, however, so we’re able to keep watch on each other’s behalf for sales.”

“That must be nice.” Not really knowing what else to do, Kamatari nudged one of zir shopping bags with zir foot and added, “I love sales.”

“And now, I presume, you’re waiting on a ride. Either that or you’re recuperating between lengths of your walking journey.” The man’s eyes hadn’t risen from Kamatari’s shoes, which were a little high for all the walking ze’d known ze would be doing today (but matched the skirt so well ze hadn’t been able to bring zirself to wear anything else).

“My feet are a little tired,” ze admitted. Ze added with a laugh, “I definitely won’t be wearing these shoes to work and back.”

Ze’d been told, in the past, that ze had a sweet laugh, and ze’d already suspected this guy of trying, ineffectually, to flirt with zir. Now ze was further convinced of both circumstances. The man scooted toward the closer end of the booth seating he occupied, and leaned forward slightly as he replied, “No, if you’re regularly walking to work and back, I would recommend something more ergonomic. Do you lack a vehicle?”

Again Kamatari struggled to restrain a smile of amusement at the man’s expense. “By choice, yes. I sold my car before I moved here.” Ze figured it was zir turn to plunge on with unnecessary additional information. “There’s no reason to contribute to air pollution or waste non-renewable fuel sources on just myself in a city with such a thorough mass transit system.”

The man nodded agreement, but simultaneously seemed surprised. While Kamatari had never had anyone say it to zir outright, ze’d long believed ‘too pretty to be an activist’ was a common assumption about zir. But since that assessment contained ‘pretty,’ the reaction remained generally positive.

Surreptitiously the man cleared his throat. “My RP group meets here every Saturday evening, and this week it’s my duty to reserve the table until everyone arrives at seven… but you’re more than welcome to join me while you await your bus.”

It was barely past five. Did this guy really intend to sit here for two hours simply to make sure no other group usurped the large corner seat? Did this happen on a weekly basis? What did the café think of it?

For a moment Kamatari considered refusing the offer, but could produce no real reason not to sit with the guy for a few minutes. Saying no and continuing at the next table over would be more awkward than anything this weirdo could come up with. Probably.

Kamatari couldn’t quite tell what the stranger’s impression of zir gender was, and the man read as nothing but cis-het… but that could be because the sense of ‘geek’ about him overrode and obscured everything else. Something would have to be offered, though, to be sure everything was on the level. “Sure,” ze said, standing and reaching for zir bags. “If you don’t mind having an Action Transvestite on your team.” Ze knew standing abruptly would hit the stranger with the Full-Length Kamatari Effect, but at least in this case the Full-Length Kamatari had just been outed as a cross-dresser of sorts.

The man’s face lit up — and clearly not in response to the F.L.K.E., since he said, in a truly wretched attempt at some kind of British or perhaps Scottish accent, “You can never have too many Action Transvestites. Well, if you have eight hundred million, that’s too many, I suppose.”

Kamatari laughed, both at this very appropriate response to zir original reference and in pleasure at having successfully exchanged ideas in a language they both spoke.

The man held out a hand. “My name is Wufei Chang,” he said. The formality of his tone did not perfectly gel with his omitting to stand up and only reaching across the table as Kamatari set zir bags down.

Kamatari gave zir first name, shook the hand, then sat.

“I take it you are a sports fan,” was the first thing Wufei said when Kamatari had settled, “because you said ‘on your team’ rather than ‘in your party.'”

Kamatari blinked. As far as ze could imagine, in not a single circumstance would ze have used the phrase ‘in your party.’ Ze was only very vaguely familiar with what it meant. So perhaps ze sounded a little blank as ze responded, “Yes… yes, I am a sports fan.”

“I, sadly, am not, unless you count Eyeshield Nijuuichi and Kuroko no Basuke.”

Though Kamatari had heard of neither title, ze felt ze was at least on more familiar turf here. Not that the small amount of Japanese ze’d learned in high school made zir anything like an expert, but certain specific linguistic research ze’d done a few years back, as well as zir genetics, rendered zir slightly more confident discussing anime or whatever those things might be.

Before ze could make any response at all, however, Wufei’s phone went off again. They were back to, “Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker.” Kamatari raised a skeptical brow as the man turned his attention to it immediately without looking at or saying another word to his companion until he’d answered the message.

“Yes,” Wufei said at last, as if returning to a conversation that, as far as Kamatari knew, hadn’t actually started, “some of my friends and I put together an Eyeshield Nijuuichi group cosplay for FanimeCon a couple of months ago, and purely for reference purposes — all right, I admit that it was only mostly for reference purposes, as we also wanted to compare American football as portrayed in the manga to actual American football — we watched an entire NFL game rerun online.”

This statement didn’t make perfect sense to Kamatari, but ze feared if ze asked for clarification on Eyeshield Nijuuichi, cosplay, or FanimeCon, ze would be getting in over zir head. Ze was also amused at the way Wufei announced he’d watched an entire football game as if it were an accomplishment to be proud of. So ze asked, “What game was it?”

“Something from last year,” Wufei replied vaguely, “featuring, I believe, a team from Texas against somebody local.”

“Cowboys? Texans? Raiders? Niners?”

Wufei cleared his throat. “Excuse me; I don’t remember.” Then he looked down to answer another text message.

This time Kamatari didn’t bother trying to repress a complete skeptical facial expression. This had been rude enough when Wufei was alone harassing everyone with his Darth Vader quotes from a greater distance; in the middle of a conversation with someone at the same table, it showed seriously bad manners. But zir display of disapproval went for naught, since ze didn’t have the energy to keep the expression on zir face the whole time Wufei was busy, and Wufei might not have noticed or interpreted it correctly even if ze had. So Kamatari just picked up the conversation where it had been left:

“I haven’t missed many Sunday NFL games — at least featuring local teams — for the last couple of years, so whatever game you watched with your friends, I probably saw it too.”

“To me this indicates that you don’t work Sundays,” commented Wufei astutely.

After confirming this extremely dull speculation, Kamatari added by way of explanation, “I work for Life’s Covenant. Actually I just transferred here to manage stock at the LC warehouse. We’re the hub for all the stores in the area.”

“The Christian bookstore chain?” Wufei raised a surprised brow. ‘Too alternative to work at a Christian bookstore’ was another assessment nobody ever made aloud, but which was often implied. Or sometimes just ‘too deliberately sexy.’

“I don’t have much to do with Christianity,” Kamatari admitted, “but Elsie’s very accepting, and I’m guaranteed Sundays off. And it’s a low-profit organization with a lot of worthwhile charitable branches, so I don’t mind that the pay isn’t spectacular.”

“I make quite a decent salary,” Wufei said. Kamatari couldn’t decide whether he sought to lord this over his companion or just continue the conversation with a relevant fact despite the potential impropriety of mentioning it. “I doubt I could survive working for a non-profit organization — my hobbies are too expensive.” Whatever his intentions were, it was in a tone almost of competition that he continued, “When you’re interested in 200-episode TV series where $25 DVD’s contain four episodes each, a low salary isn’t an option.”

Maybe there really was a touch of disdain for Kamatari’s unspectacular pay in Wufei’s attitude; Kamatari still couldn’t tell. But that tone of near-competition had stirred zir own competitive blood, and ze found zirself engaging almost without thinking. “I donate to a number of charities and activist organizations, and there are a lot more of those that need a lot more money than anyone ever has on any kind of salary.”

This time a competitive edge unmistakably sounded in Wufei’s tone as he added onto what he’d already said: “I also import a lot of soundtracks from Asian countries, as well as high-quality merchandising.” Here he gestured at the shirt he wore, which bore the image of a frantic-looking blonde child in red riding on the shoulders of a robot.

“Cute clothes aren’t always cheap.” Half agreement and half defiance, this, and somewhere in the back of Kamatari’s head a little voice asked, Are we really trying to establish which one of us spends more money? “Especially if you’re at all interested in new fashions.”

“Or interesting ties. I always make a serious attempt to have interesting ties to wear to work.”

I just bet you do, Kamatari reflected. Ze might have said it aloud, but didn’t want to be forced to explain what a fashion faux pas novelty ties represented. Besides, Wufei’s phone went off again at that moment, and he had once again stepped out of the conversation.

At this third instance of Wufei suddenly ignoring zir in favor of answering a text message, Kamatari wished very much that ze would suddenly receive several messages in a row so as to set a good example by completely ignoring them. But zir text message reception rate had died right down since moving, as past messages had mostly been of the ‘are you coming to so-and-so’s party tonight?’ variety, and were no longer applicable. Now the only person that texted zir was zir step-brother, and he not frequently enough for Kamatari to hope for something right this moment.

Abruptly Wufei looked up and asked, “Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?”

In some surprise at both the suddenness of the new topic and the odd chance that allowed zir to answer in the affirmative, Kamatari replied, “I have. My step-brother wanted to see it, but nobody else was interested, so I took him just before I moved.”

“What was your opinion of Hiccup becoming handicapped at the end?”

“Oh, I…” Thinking back about the movie and shifting gears as best ze could, Kamatari was yet unable to come up with an answer before Wufei went on with a gesture at his phone and an explanation of this out-of-the-blue question:

“My friend feels it was a cheap gimmick meant to evoke needless sympathy from the viewer as a sort of sucker-punch secondary climax.” The disdain in Wufei’s voice as he echoed this opinion of his friend’s told clearly what he thought of it long before he added, “I disagree. I feel it provided a much-needed element of depth to Hiccup’s characterization, especially by giving him another instance of parallelism with Toothless.”

Kamatari, who, though ze’d recovered zir wits, did not remember the movie well enough to be discussing it on this level and was pretty sure ze had no strong opinions on it in any case, decided to bring up something ze’d seen mentioned on the internet in reference to this specific plot device: “It’s nice for the physically handicapped to get any representation in a movie that isn’t all about being physically handicapped.”

“Yes, of course!” Wufei sounded as if, though happy to agree with anything that might even obliquely support his own views, he hadn’t expected this.

“Is it a good representation of a physical handicap, though?” Kamatari mused, for once having a point to raise before being prompted by zir companion. “It happened right at the end, didn’t it? That’s only a couple of minutes of representation…”

“You know there will be a sequel,” Wufei assured zir. “It was a huge box office success, and it has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.”

Kamatari, who cared a lot more for Bitch Flicks’ opinion than Rotten Tomatoes’, said, “It certainly wasn’t a good representation of female characters.”

“Well, in the time period–” Wufei started to apologize.

“The time period when Vikings rode dragons?” Kamatari interrupted sharply.

“It was Hiccup’s story, not Astrid’s.”

“It could have been Astrid’s story. It would have been the same story.”

“It’s based on a book, you understand.”

“A book that’s also about a cis-het white male? Why does every story have to be about that same person? Can’t some of the rest of us have stories too?”

“There are plenty of stories about women!”

“There are some stories about women,” Kamatari corrected almost fiercely. “But they’re usually not riding dragons or fighting battles or even getting to stand in the spotlight all that much.”

“Don’t you watch football?” Wufei’s tone too was becoming somewhat heated. “That’s a field almost exclusively dominated by men!”

“There’s a difference between allowing for physical differences between men and women and continually pushing women’s stories aside, forcing women to be either completely invisible or just secondary characters over and over and over again.” Ze added quickly enough to forestall any comment of Wufei’s, though in a quieter tone, “Though at least there were some female characters in that one. People of color didn’t even get a token representation, if I remember right.”

“Well, in the setting–” Wufei began again.

Kamatari’s interruption was even harsher than before. “The setting that has dragons in it?”

“It makes sense,” said Wufei firmly, “for a story about Vikings to be a story about white people, whether or not dragons are involved.”

“But somebody decided what that story would be about, and, as usual, went with subject matter that would dictate all the characters be–” Kamatari forced zirself to stop. Ze hadn’t meant to start an argument about this with someone ze would probably never see again in zir life, though perhaps it had been inevitable with Wufei’s random introduction of this topic in the first place. In a less combative tone ze said, “I just would like to see more Asian heroes in movies — and other people of color, though of course I have a special interest in Japanese people, and would like to see them take center stage more often. Wouldn’t you?”

Wufei stared at zir pensively, and eventually said, “Yes. Of course I would. I’m of Chinese descent myself, however. And I don’t believe being all about white people makes How to Train Your Dragon a bad movie.”

If Kamatari had had a dollar for every time ze’d expressed this opinion… “Maybe not bad on its own, but definitely not trying very hard to correct any systemic problems.”

“Is it required to?”

“Well, somebody should be.” Wanting to dispel this tension, Kamatari added in non sequitur before Wufei could say anything else, “So you’re Chinese-American?”

Wufei seemed to hesitate a moment, as if less interested in dispelling the tension than Kamatari was, then seemed to give in at least for the moment, and replied, “Correct. It was my parents, however, who moved here from China, and I speak very little Mandarin myself. I found Japanese a much more convenient language to study. It is, after all, the language spoken in a lot of media I enjoy.”

Pleased to have segued to a topic ze could not only discuss fairly well but that was obviously less charged than the previous — and normally ze really didn’t mind charged debate, just not with this weird guy in a random café near the end of a tiring day — Kamatari responded, “I have heard Mandarin is a very difficult language for English-speakers to learn. I’m Japanese-American, and my family’s been in the country for a couple of generations, so I speak practically no Japanese. In fact my original name wasn’t even Japanese, but I legally changed it a couple years back, and did some research in the language then.”

“Oh?” Testament to how successful Kamatari’s tension-diffusing efforts had been was the fact that Wufei’s interested look turned up toward his companion away from his phone. “And what made you choose the name you did?”

“I went with Honjou Kamatari — or Kamatari Honjou, legally speaking — because to Americans, who won’t know what it specifically means, it sounds androgynous and Japanese at the same time. My birth name was Daniel Joshua Reed, and I kept Daniel as my legal middle name just as a sort of nod to my parents.”

Wufei blinked. His brows twitched slightly together and slightly downward in an expression of momentary confusion. He stiffened, and his face went blank. Kamatari had seen this reaction many times before, and knew exactly what it signified; what he didn’t know was why it had been so delayed in this instance.

“So I deduce,” Wufei said, “from that name,” clearing his throat, “that you are actually a transvestite.”

“I did say I was.” Kamatari’s puzzlement sounded in zir voice.

“Yes, you did,” was Wufei’s awkward concession. “But I thought you were just Quoting.” The way he said the word cleared the matter up; Kamatari didn’t even have to ask: Quoting, obviously, was an activity — an art — so worthy in and of itself that the actual purport of the quotation fell by the wayside. A world in which someone could declare zirself a transvestite without meaning it was a somewhat difficult concept to grasp, but Kamatari had certainly met people that seemed unable to speak at all without peppering their conversation with random bits of movie dialogue.

“Well,” ze said, and felt zir voice slipping toward that borderline-threatening sweetness that often emerged at such moments, “I was assigned male at birth, though I came out as agender four years ago, so it’s not stretching the term ‘transvestite’ much to say I am one.” Ze didn’t want to add aloud that, since it was still a bit of a stretch to the term, ze had actually been Quoting just a tad.

Wufei cleared his throat again, and Kamatari waited with patience long-honed by similar circumstances to hear what he would say next. In zir experience, there was a limited list of options — some of them comments, some of them questions, most of them obnoxious.

“You’re very convincing. You pass,” Wufei corrected himself as he suddenly remembered what he believed to be a more appropriate term, “very well.”

Kamatari tried to decide whether or not ze had the energy today to break this down for a complete stranger. The problem was that even a concise statement like, “‘Passing’ isn’t my goal; it just happens because I naturally look like a woman,” still usually managed to raise more questions than it answered. But if ze offered no clarification at all, people were left with incorrect impressions about zir, and possibly about the LGBTQIA world in general.

In this context, ze decided after some quick thought that, since ze would probably never encounter this guy again and therefore could probably afford to overlook any false impressions Wufei might get, ze might as well not bother explaining zirself. So ze merely said, with a slight nod, “Thank you.”

Kamatari had a little less faith in zir ability to overlook misconceptions the next moment when Wufei remarked, “One of my very best friends is gay.”

The problem was that it would take even more effort than the previous hypothetical answer to say, “Please don’t conflate gender identity with sexual orientation. I do happen to identify as queer, but that has nothing to do with my gender. Also? Having gay friends doesn’t mean a damn thing.” As with the debate on representation in the media, ze simply didn’t feel up to it on behalf on an acquaintance ze wasn’t at all invested in. Ze probably should have made the effort, but ze’d been walking all day in heels, and it was really too much to expect for zir to be ‘on’ all the time.

Besides, ze didn’t like to admit to being a little daunted by the phrase ‘one of my very best friends’ that ze couldn’t use with any accuracy.

This time when Wufei received a text message, it was almost more a relief than anything. Kamatari sat back and waited while the man composed his answer, then asked in a casual tone, “So you’re a Star Wars fan?” And refrained from adding, “Speaking of movies with little to no female or racial representation.”

“Naturally,” Wufei replied, raising his eyes from his phone at last. “But I only support the Jedi Order so long as they serve Justice. I won’t be at the beck and call of any Republic.”

“I see,” was all Kamatari could think to say, repressing another laugh.

“The Sith are also an interesting Order, with, I believe, a more rational outlook in many respects, but our group already has two Sith Lords — one a Lady, as a matter of fact — and there are never more than two.”

“So you all have Star Wars… identities… you and your friends?” Ze could just imagine Wufei and his group (all of whom, in Kamatari’s imagination, looked like Wufei with different hair and sometimes breasts) running around in robes with toy lightsabers talking portentously about the Force.

“That’s correct. I am Jedi Master Chang, a Kaleesh from Kalee. Lately I’ve been considering accepting a Padawan, though it’s difficult to decide how much of the Jedi Order’s restrictive precepts I want to pass on to a apprentice.”

“And what precepts are those?” Kamatari preferred to keep Wufei off the topic of queer issues, and Star Wars didn’t make for too bad a substitute.

“The Order is specifically opposed to passion of any kind. And while it’s no great effort to understand that fear, anger, and hatred lead to the Dark Side, they believe that other, more positive emotions do as well.” It sounded like a dissertation. “The Jedi Code expressly forbids attachment. And not merely love, as we observed in Attack of the Clonesall attachment: friendships, loyalties, family bonds… And how do they expect Jedi to value the people and places and institutions they’re supposed to protect if they aren’t permitted to become attached to any of them? The Jedi Code insists on Force-users becoming emotionless robots, and my friends and I–” he put a significant emphasis on the word– “believe we would be dishonoring our commitment to Justice, and each other, by downplaying the attachment between us.”

Kamatari wanted to remark that Wufei (and, evidently, his friends) took this all far too seriously. At the same time, though, ze found zirself responding to the attitude with reluctant approbation, even admiration… and perhaps some jealousy. So, with more difficulty than ze had expected, ze said instead, “I don’t remember any of this from the movies.” And ze did actually remember the movies fairly well. Ze’d even liked them — the first three better than the second, of course, or should that be the second three better than the first? Ze’d never considered applying the Jedi Code to zir own life, though.

“You have to understand,” Wufei replied pedantically, “the movies are only a tiny fraction of what exists in the Star Wars universe. Novels, comics, video games… every day we’re expanding our knowledge of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For example, in The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson…..”

Wufei was still lecturing an only idly listening Kamatari by the time ze needed to head out to the bus stop. In fact he kept talking, hastily trying to finish up his current point, while Kamatari stood and began gathering zir bags.

“Oh,” he interrupted himself at that juncture. “I was going to give you my email address. We’re always seeking extra players.”

Kamatari hesitated, then, in a moment of weakness, felt the inexorable power of loneliness forcing zir to give in. “Why don’t you text me?” And ze rattled off zir phone number.

“I’ll have to inquire into your area code another time,” Wufei remarked as he typed.

Wanting to shake zir head at the implication there might be any more explanation for zir area code than ‘I just moved’ — a fact ze believed had already been established — Kamatari rather nodded. Once zir phone had chimed (the notification sound was called ‘Rose Petals’ and had come preloaded), unsure exactly how to say goodbye in this situation, ze raised one hand with a touch of awkwardness and went with, “Have fun with your game.”

“Farewell, my young apprentice,” Wufei replied. As Kamatari had already turned away, ze didn’t bother to restrain zir smile.

Exiting the building, wending zir high-heeled way toward the bus stop in front of the next business over, ze couldn’t quite decide how ze felt about that entire encounter. It had been frustrating, even aggravating, and certainly ridiculous, but there’d also been about it an incomprehensible sort of pleasantry, almost as if Wufei had been speaking another language the entire time, but in a friendly tone. They’d been like aliens meeting and managing to convey peaceful intentions with very little common ground to stand on — a cockatiel and an armadillo somehow communicating amicably.

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei; it was foreign to zir in a manner almost completely unpalatable. And yet not only could ze not quite bring zirself to condemn it, one aspect of it also could not be dismissed as entirely undesirable.

Wufei clearly moved in a warm, happy, and extensive group of friends that shared his interests and probably thought much the same way he did. They looked out for online sales for each other, they spent every Saturday evening together, they understood each other’s Quotes, they considered denying attachment to each other dishonorable, they watched sports they were clearly uninterested in together ‘for research purposes,’ and their texts meant so much to each other as to overcome public phone etiquette. Wufei might be a hopeless nerd, but he obviously had personal characteristics pleasant enough to win him a place among such a devoted circle.

To someone alone in a new town, there was something enviable — maybe even commendable — about that. Kamatari didn’t want to partake in Wufei’s way of life and had no interest in spending any more time with him or his ilk than ze already had, but ze couldn’t help wondering how long it would take zir to gather even a few such meaningful friends. It made zir feel a little pathetic, really.

It wasn’t impossible that it worked both ways, though. Maybe Wufei, even while looking down on Kamatari’s interest in football and willingness to work for lower pay just as much as Kamatari had looked down on Wufei’s vestiary obliviousness and solemn interpretation of fictional Orders, had yet seen something via Kamatari’s conversation that he wished he could have. He might not be specifically interested in anything Kamatari had mentioned, but perhaps some aspect of the life hinted at during their discussion called to him the way that small part of Wufei’s life called to Kamatari.

Ze would probably never know. It probably didn’t matter. But it gave zir something to think about as the bus wended its rumbling way out of the shopping district where ze’d made this strange acquaintance and back toward zir neighborhood. And honestly, it didn’t seem entirely unlikely. Animals evolved wings or claws as needed on a regular basis, didn’t they?



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



Forgivably Wrong

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here?” the young man wondered.

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you describe them for me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

They’re not ogling me, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

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

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though was that idea really so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


This fic, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.



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.



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


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 Test

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.



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“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.


His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

The number of M&M’s in the bowl was nothing short of comic. It was Heero’s biggest mixing bowl, and barely fit anywhere in his kitchen cabinets to begin with, and here the M&M’s were heaped up above the top of the rim in a colorful mountain that occasionally suffered little clattering avalanches onto the counter or floor.

“How many packages is this?” he wondered in audible amusement.

“Is what?” replied Duo, then, turning, saw. “Oh,” he chuckled. “I dunno… like, eight?”

“How did I not notice you buying, like, eight packages of M&M’s?”

“You were too distracted by my butt.”

“That is probably true. But why did you think you needed that many M&M’s at once?”

“Why wouldn’t I need that many M&M’s all at once?”

Heero conceded the point by scooping up a large number (there was no need for moderation) and cramming them between his teeth. Some moderation might perhaps have been warranted after all, since he then found it rather difficult to chew the unwieldy mouthful, but after several moments of maneuvering he made a pleasant discovery. “Reefa awmun,” he said.

“Yeah, what did you think?”

Rather than attempt to speak again with a largely unusable tongue, Heero worked a bit, swallowed, and eventually said, “I thought they were peanut.”

Haughtily Duo drew himself up. “What kind of infidel do you think I am?”

Heero just took another handful of candy and, before leaving the living room, stepped close to Duo and pecked him on the cheek. “Well, don’t be surprised if I eat seven of your eight packages there.”

“You sure you’re not going to watch with us?” Duo wondered as Heero made his way around the couch. His unspoken thought on the matter was that he’d only asked out of politeness; of course he always wanted Heero with him, but, familiar with Heero’s disinterest in football, didn’t want to pressure him.

“I’m going to see what I can do about the computer.” This reply was somewhat grim, as it was far past time.

Duo laughed. “Good luck!” And even as he said this, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his guest.

Heero quickened his pace. It wasn’t that he had anything against Sano (or any of Duo’s new friends), but, since he wasn’t going to be actively hanging out with the guy, there was no reason to meet him at the door. He munched on his second handful of M&M’s a couple at a time as he took a seat at the desk, booted up the computer, and listened to the conversation in the living room.

“Hope you don’t mind expired Chinese food,” was Sano’s reply to Duo’s enthusiastic welcome.

“Expired like how?”

“Expired like we’re not allowed to sell it anymore, but it’s still just fine, so we all take it home for free even though we’re technically not supposed to.”

“I love that kind of Chinese food!”

“That is a lot of M&M’s there.”

“I know! I totally have dessert covered!”

“They’re so big, though… are they peanut?”

“Hah! Heero thought that too, but I am so much better than that. They’re almond.”

“Shit.”

The sudden sound of the TV drowned out whatever Duo said next, and the surface level of his head was mostly trying to remember what the channel number for Fox was, but Heero assumed he asked what had prompted Sano’s profanity. Next came a sense of disproportionate disconsolation when Sano apparently revealed that he was allergic to almonds.

Heero spent the following few minutes pondering whether he should head into the other room and grab some more M&M’s for himself. The discovery that Duo’s guest could not enjoy the snack he had so sanguinely provided had prompted such disappointment that Heero, in the hopes of cheering him, would love to prove the purchase of so many almond M&M’s not a waste… but to do so would also, quite possibly, indicate that Heero was aware of just how disappointed Duo was, which would, rather than lessening Duo’s disappointment, merely send it off in a different direction by reminding him that Heero could still, especially when they were at home, hear his surface-level thoughts.

This was excessively frustrating. He wanted to make a nice gesture for his boyfriend (in addition to his simple desire for more M&M’s), and it seemed unfair to have to waffle over it like this. He wasn’t even working on the computer as he’d planned, merely sitting idly debating the relative merits of fetching or not fetching another handful of candy from the next room.

Eventually kickoff provided what seemed a decent distraction. If Duo’s disappointment had faded a bit, he might not make the connection between Heero’s errand and the fact that Heero had just been reading his mind, and Heero might be able to send his boyfriend one message while avoiding another. It was worth a try. So from where he’d accomplished nothing so far Heero rose and went back in there.

Surrounded by the already-separated contents of a six-pack of Coke and Chinese takeout boxes whose multiform scents permeated the living room (though they had not yet crept down the hall), Duo and his young exorcist friend sat on the sofa engrossed in the first quarter of the Oakland Raiders vs. Heero was not quite sure whom. They both looked up as Heero rounded the TV.

“Hey, Heero,” Sano greeted. “Want some Chinese leftovers?”

“No, thanks.” Heero quickly scanned what was already more than a bit of a mess (and probably destined to expand as such), murmuring, “I really just wanted…” His eyes lighted on the colorful mixing bowl where it sat a complete arm’s length from Duo’s end of the sofa as if to keep it as far as possible from Sano, and he resisted the urge to laugh. He approached and bent to retrieve a very large handful of M&M’s this time, paying close attention to Duo’s thoughts as he did so. It seemed he’d succeeded in his purpose: all that crossed his boyfriend’s mind at this point was the somewhat mollified reflection, At least Heero likes them.

Returning to the computer room more or less satisfied, Heero sat down to work through his extensive collection of M&M’s and actually pay some attention to the computer.

One reason (among many Heero was trying to ignore) that Duo’s discomfort with Heero’s magical abilities seemed so unfair was that Heero was not and probably would never be able to control the aspect of it that bothered his boyfriend. He couldn’t stop hearing projected thoughts, especially of someone to whom he was so close, and everything he saw on the internet seemed to indicate this would always be the case. A communicator, it appeared, once his abilities had awakened, was always switched to receive, and the burden fell on others not to send. Heero definitely hadn’t asked for that, and it seemed unfair that Duo was so disturbed by something Heero couldn’t do anything about and had never sought. But Duo was probably just as unable to control his discomfort as Heero to control his communication powers, so there was no use dwelling on it.

At the moment, as he began a search about how he could improve the speed and performance of his computer without having to take too much trouble or spend too much (or preferably any) money, he was also, rather perforce, following the progress of a football game he wasn’t actually watching. The Raiders were up against the St. Louis Rams, who were playing a rookie quarterback that had already been sacked twice in a row.

As little interest as Heero had in football, he was yet familiar with the basics of the sport and had no active disliking of it; additionally, he found the sounds of a football game in progress within earshot cheerful background noise. Therefore, that the combination of announcers from the loud TV and reactions from Duo’s unguarded head were giving Heero a pretty good idea what went on in the game didn’t bother him much. It wasn’t as if the computer endeavor required undivided attention.

While he’d been a doll, Duo had only ever muted the television when trying to pay specific attention to some other aural stimulus, but as a human he had developed the habit of muting it during every commercial break. Heero thought this arose from Duo’s desire to exert his autonomy over as many aspects of life as possible: he wasn’t tied to the television for entertainment to stave off madness anymore, and therefore could be highly selective about what he paid attention to. Heero didn’t complain, as he found the advertising obnoxious in the first place — and in this specific instance, the muting allowed him to overhear more perfectly a conversation he couldn’t make much of while the noisy sounds of the game were mostly drowning it out.

Of course the first two or three commercial breaks were filled with football talk — how the Raiders were performing and which of their quarterbacks would end up the star of the season, the Rams’ status and whether or not their offensive line deserved excellent running back Steven Jackson, and other such relatively uninteresting topics — but eventually, when the TV went silent after Fox’s somewhat threatening-sounding commercial break music, Sano asked half idly, “So how’s your Quatre friend doing?”

“Oh, he’s getting better,” Duo replied. “He’s working hard on trying to make up for everything he thinks he did wrong. Too hard, if you ask me, but that’s what Quatre does.”

“Yeah, he offered to pay me and Hajime, like, double the usual price ’cause he felt so bad about it. Sounded good to me, but of course Hajime said no.” There was a wry grin in Sano’s tone as he added, “That’s what Hajime does.”

“What, turns down money?”

“Well, he’s a real professional, is all… he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a decent guy like that.”

Duo laughed. “So he’d take advantage of somebody who wasn’t decent?”

Sano joined him laughing. “He sure as hell doesn’t try very hard not to take extra money from assholes.”

“That actually sounds like pretty solid business to me.”

“Right?”

The conversation (at least that Heero could hear clearly) was suspended for a bit while the game recommenced, but it wasn’t long before a failed field goal attempt led to another commercial break and Sano resumed the same topic:

“So Quatre’s really OK, then? I know that kind of shit can really mess people up sometimes.”

“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in his head…” Contrarily, Heero could tell exactly what was going on in Duo’s head as he said this: he was thinking once more, as he had off and on ever since it had first been brought up so disastrously that one morning, about the possibility — the need, in fact — of therapy for more than one of his friends in addition to himself. The subject hadn’t re-arisen aloud, what with the Quatre business and its aftermath, but Heero thought he would have to prod Trowa about it again at some point.

“But I think,” Duo continued, “he really is getting better. He’ll probably be OK.” He clearly had no idea what he could possibly do if Quatre wasn’t OK, and was trying not to think about it.

“That’s good. Getting rid of the shade’s only half the job a lot of the time.” Interestingly, Sano’s tone sounded as if he felt much the same way Duo did — that, if the situation required more of him beyond the supernatural service already performed, he might be completely lost — and Heero had to appreciate his sympathetic interest.

“Trowa’s helping a lot, I think.” Duo said this not only because he believed it to be true, but because he was so amused at the effect the mention of Trowa had on other members of the magical community. “He knows about this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, I fucking bet!” Sano agreed heartily, after which it was time for more football. Soon, however, the end of the first quarter heralded a slightly longer break than the previous, and Sano proved that his attention to the as-yet-scoreless game had not driven the other interesting topic from his head: “How’d you get to be such good friends with Trowa Barton, anyway?”

Quickly Duo decided what to say. As far as he was aware — and it was something he could probably confirm through conversation this afternoon — Sano didn’t know his history, so he must be sure to break it to him in the most dramatic fashion possible. For the moment he went with simple truth. “We lived in the same city in Michigan for about fifteen years and kinda looked out for each other.”

“Shit, you must be pretty damn good if you were looking out for Trowa Barton! What are you, actually?”

From this Duo was almost certain Sano didn’t know about the curse, but he couldn’t be as intrigued by the fact as the listening Heero was. Because Heero knew that Hajime did know, and was fairly sure Hajime and Sano were dating and equally taken by the living legend that was Trowa Barton. How odd that Hajime hadn’t shared the interesting story with his boyfriend.

“I’m pure command,” Duo said. “Not too bad, but I’m just getting back into practice after a long time not doing magic.”

Heero wished, at least a little, that he could hear anything going through Sano’s head so he could determine how the exorcist had taken that statement, why he said nothing at the moment.

Duo went on, “But you’re a natural, aren’t you? That’s way way cooler than anything. I have literally never met a natural before.” Though Sano wouldn’t be able to appreciate appropriately that phrase with its term of emphasis.

“I don’t know.” Sano sounded annoyed. “Hajime thinks so, but I haven’t been able to get any specific reasons out of him. I thought I was just necrovisual, and then maybe a communicator since it turns out I can talk to familiar animals. I haven’t seen a damn thing to make me think I’ve got divination or command.”

“And command’s pretty hard to miss,” Duo mused. “Maybe there’s a test Trowa can do to find out for sure.”

“Ehh, I wouldn’t want to bug him about something like that.”

Duo jumped on this. “Why not? He helps people out with magic all the time.”

“Uh, I kinda already… think I kinda got on his bad side.”

With a loud laugh partaking of knowledge Sano lacked, Duo assured him, “Oh, believe me, if you were on Trowa’s bad side, you’d totally know it! You don’t even have any idea what that guy can do to you.”

Sano mumbled something to the effect of assuming Trowa Barton could do anything he damn well pleased to anyone he didn’t like, but his exact words were drowned out by the returning sound of the television.

Heero had found some recommendations online about various programs to clean up a hard drive, and was in the middle of reading about registries and what those affected, when he realized he was out of M&M’s. This time he didn’t even question the propriety of his actions, merely got up and headed into the other room. He was just in time to hear from the TV an update on a game in progress elsewhere, between the Broncos (who were winning) and the Seahawks, and Sano’s almost startlingly intense response, “Man, fuck Denver.”

Though Duo complained about the 49ers because they were so close, he’d evidently never bought in much to the real league rivalries, and thus protested now, “Hey, I lived in Denver for, like, three years!”

The look Sano threw him, which Heero caught because he was surreptitiously watching for it as he bent to retrieve his next supply of M&M’s, suggested he was adding up numbers. At the moment it amounted to about fifteen years skilled enough to be looking out for Trowa Barton in Michigan plus enough time to be out of practice in command magic thereafter plus, like, three years in Denver. But all Sano said at this point was, “Well, fuck the Broncos, anyway.”

Duo just laughed.

Heero returned to the computer and started downloading the first program he planned to try, listened to the disappointment in the next room when the Rams were the first to score, then cocked an ear with interest as two commercial breaks separated only by a brief punt provided plenty of time for conversation.

His boyfriend wasted no time jumping back onto the subject they’d left hanging before, since he wanted certain details and felt this was the best way to get them: “Seriously, there’s no way Trowa’s mad at you or anything. Like I said, you’d know.” Duo actually felt a little guilty painting this inaccurate picture, as he knew perfectly well that people Trowa found annoying tended to get avoided and ignored by him rather than made active targets of his malice; but he still wanted answers. “I mean, I know there was some kind of… incident? …at his house that one night…?”

“Heh… yeah… me and Hajime sorta… had sex…”

Duo choked loudly on whatever he was eating, and began to cough. Though Sano gave a sheepish laugh as if to express penitence for having caused this inconvenience, there was no feeling of accusation whatsoever in Duo’s head; he’d been longing to hear this gossip for weeks, and now it was getting started in an even more interesting fashion than he’d anticipated. Finally he managed, “Seriously? I had no idea that’s what it was! Trowa described it as a soap opera, not a porno!”

Again Sano laughed, and again it sounded chagrined — but there was, perhaps, a sly, almost smug edge to it as well, as if, though the circumstance did embarrass him, he also felt a touch of pride at having gotten away with something so audacious. “The part he would’ve overheard was actually all soap opera,” he allowed. “The porn didn’t start ’til after he left.”

“So you went to yell at Hajime,” Duo prompted, amused and eager, “for not telling you where he went, and ended up having drama that ended in sex?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“And now you guys are dating?”

“Yep. Finally.” Heero wasn’t sure whether Sano knew how much he was teasing Duo by not immediately pouring forth the entire story in all its gory details, but in any case Duo probably deserved it for the manner in which he was planning to make the best possible dramatic use of his own interesting experiences.

“How long were you guys not dating?”

“Like, six months,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Because he’s an asshole.”

“Then I can totally see why you’re going out with him,” Duo replied with mock seriousness.

“The thing about Hajime…” Sano’s statement disintegrated into a frustrated sound as the TV came back on and he apparently gave up describing his boyfriend for now. However, a few minutes later, during a quiet stretch of game where a potential foul was being discussed at length and even the announcers had little to say, Sano got started again with the air of one that has been organizing his thoughts for the last while and is now ready to present.

“The thing about Hajime is that he’s really bad at talking to anyone about anything serious in his own damn life. Like, I feel like getting to know him has been spywork this whole time, because he sure as hell doesn’t open up about anything about himself that isn’t completely shallow.”

Duo was thinking that, amusingly, the very fact Sano was saying this indicated something much the opposite about him, as well as that this didn’t really explain why Hajime was an asshole because they hadn’t been dating for six months. However, more curious than ever though he was, he was prevented from prompting for more details by the game’s resumption with the announcement of no penalty. The good news was that it didn’t take much longer for Oakland to call a timeout and commercials to reappear.

Sano hesitated not a whit to continue what was pretty clearly a rant. “Yeah, so I could never figure out whether Hajime was straight or what, because he never lets you know anything about himself if he can help it. Turns out he just isn’t really into relationships or something, but guys are fine? I mean–” he laughed a little as he reconsidered his tone and wording– “obviously guys are fine, but it took me fucking forever to figure that out. I still don’t know what his actual orientation is, and I’m sleeping with him now.”

Duo was starting to put together a hazy picture of Sano’s relationship with his boyfriend and the leadup thereto, and found it partially pathetic and partially amusing — and withal even more interesting than he’d been expecting. On his end, Heero was mostly entertained to observe what a gossip his own boyfriend was.

A sack against Oakland forcing them to punt distracted Duo somewhat, and, though Sano joined him in lamenting the circumstance, it clearly hadn’t been enough to distract him from the rant he still hadn’t fully vocalized. Heero, continually entertained, wondered if Sano complained about his boyfriend like this to all of his friends.

“It’s like he lives behind these walls that he just doesn’t let down for anyone, even his fucking boyfriend… and then at the same time he has this totally unfair advantage since he can read my mind, so I’ve had to practice my ass off learning how to not let him hear shit in there so he’s not a total dick about it, while at the same time all sorts of stuff about him is still this big fucking secret.”

And now, abruptly, the situation had gone from entertaining to extremely uncomfortable. Because there was no way Duo could hear a description like this without being pricklingly aware just how close it was to a description of Heero. ‘Walls,’ he was already reflecting, was even the exact term he’d used in his own assessment of Heero back when he’d been trying to figure him out. He recalled something Quatre had said at some point about how nobody had ever been able to get very close to Heero; he recalled his own surprise and happiness, at a later point, in realizing he’d somehow gotten past some of those walls without knowing how he’d done it.

You weren’t human at the time, Heero reflected with bitter nostalgia.

Of course, Duo’s thoughts went on — all at the same moment, really; it was more of that speed of mind Heero had admired so much in the past — Heero wasn’t like that Hajime guy in any other respect, the situations weren’t the same, and it wasn’t fair to Heero to compare them. But there were walls, and there was an unjust advantage of communication magic. It was close enough.

And Heero, Duo reflected further with a sinking of heart, had probably picked up on all of these thoughts.

Heero had stood from his chair almost without realizing what he did, looking around in something like panic. He and Duo were both suddenly agitated and upset, and the only thing he could think to do about it was leave the apartment. Duo probably couldn’t keep from having or projecting these thoughts, and Heero couldn’t keep from hearing them, so to separate for a little seemed essential. It might also benefit Duo to be free to discuss this with someone in a similar circumstance — one that was close enough, at any rate, to have prompted this unpleasantness in the first place — and he would certainly not be able to do so with Heero twenty feet away.

Hastily Heero went into the living room and, avoiding Duo’s eye, looked around somewhat frantically for his car keys. Finding them on the kitchen counter, he made for them with grasping hands and a stiff neck, saying, “I’m going to run get some groceries,” as he seized them and turned toward the apartment door. It was a stupid thing to say, since they’d been grocery shopping literally last night — when Heero had evidently been too distracted by Duo’s butt to notice the number of M&M packages he was purchasing — but Heero had finally come to accept the fact that inventing excuses was not a skill he possessed.

“OK,” said Duo hoarsely. He knew exactly why this was happening. What he didn’t know was how to feel about it, and his head was in turmoil.

Sano had still been speaking when Heero emerged from the hall, but had ceased abruptly at this exchange, and now silence filled the room as Heero plunged out the door; Heero didn’t think he was imagining the awkwardness and tension of that silence. What exactly they would talk about in his absence he could not guess, but at least Duo would be safe inside his own head for a while.

Whether this had been the right choice Heero had no idea, but he still saw no alternative. In nearly as much mental turmoil as that in which he’d left Duo, he made his way out of the apartment building without seeing it very clearly, heading for his car with no intention whatsoever of turning it on just yet. It was outside that he noticed his feet were clad only in socks, which killed whatever intention he’d had left of driving anywhere eventually. He probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with any groceries he needed anyway, and would most likely have ended up spending a silly amount of money on items randomly thrown into a shopping basket as he blindly walked the aisles of the store.

His thoughts were largely incoherent as he sat behind the motionless steering wheel struggling to become and remain calm and rational. Struggling not to feel bitter or annoyed about this. And eventually, perhaps due to the calming, enclosed atmosphere of the car interior or perhaps in the natural course of the passage of time, he did manage to subdue his agitation to a relatively manageable level. He leaned the seat back and tried to relax. That was frankly impossible, but he could at least repeat to himself for a while that he mustn’t be unreasonable about this.

Duo had been through so much — more than Heero could really comprehend at this point, communication magic notwithstanding. If his response to Heero’s abilities seemed like an overreaction, seemed unfair and even unkind, that was because Heero didn’t yet understand Duo’s frame of mind. Perhaps he would never understand, but that didn’t given him the right to be unreasonable, to be unfair and unkind in return. The thought of being unkind to Duo, whom he loved, after everything Duo had already suffered, made him almost sick — and that feeling must be his strength, must help him remember that Duo was not being unreasonable and that he, too, must not be unreasonable.

He had neglected to check the time when he left the apartment or began this shoeless vigil, so when he did look he couldn’t be sure just how long he’d been out here. In his agitation he felt as if it had been approximately forever, and he longed to go back to Duo and make sure he was all right; but he felt that not only would it be wiser to give his quest for calm and relaxation a little more time and effort, he also knew the game had started at 1:00 and it wasn’t even 2:00 yet. He should give them at least through halftime to discuss whatever they were likely to discuss in there.

It occurred to him that the game, being a local one, must be on the radio somewhere, and that if he could find it, he could gage his timing a little better than by merely watching the clock. So he turned the car halfway on at last and began cycling through stations. When he found what he believed — and after a few minutes confirmed — to be what he was looking for, he turned the volume up and attempted to find a comfortable position in which to listen for a while. This endeavor proved anomalously difficult. He’d spent quite a few lunch breaks sitting in the car alongside Duo with no problem, but apparently when Duo was removed from the equation, so was all comfort. Or perhaps that was just the awareness of the discomfort he’d come out here to escape.

He tried to let himself be distracted, tried to pretend he was an avid Oakland Raiders fan that really cared what was going on and how it would affect the season, but, even adjusting for his indifference to football, this was incredibly hard. He could only muster the mildest interest in the events of the game, and when anything unrelated interrupted to disconnect the tether of his attention, it was next to impossible to think about anything but Duo. He didn’t care about the new burger at Carl’s Jr., he didn’t care about the World Series coverage on this station, and he didn’t care how the Patriots were faring against the Jets. He did care about what might be going on in Duo’s head right now, and the effect that might have on their relationship.

Had he actually been an avid Oakland Raiders fan, he must have been disappointed at the score when, about a hundred years later, halftime finally rolled around. He was not cheated of unpleasant feelings, however, since he already felt mummified by sitting still for so long in a place he didn’t want to be, listening to content he less than half appreciated, and now he had to remind himself that the plan had always been to wait until after halftime — no matter how tedious was the radio announcers’ talk about names Heero barely recognized and assessing plays he hadn’t seen.

Despite how long it had seemed, in reality it had taken no more than about thirty minutes to get to halftime. Getting through halftime, however, a process whose finite span was dictated by the NFL and the same for every game, felt about ten times longer. Heero was reminded vaguely of the days he’d spent at work attempting to exercise even the smallest measure of patience waiting to go home to the doll he had a crush on. Except that in this instance he didn’t even have paying work to distract him — just a boring halftime show — and the concern and agitation he felt now was far different from the anticipation and curiosity he’d felt then.

But just as those long days apart from Duo the doll had each come to an end, so the overlong first half of this damned football game must too come to an end and the second commence. Heero didn’t even pause to reassess his situation, decide for sure whether he thought this was a good time to go back in; he simply turned the car off — and with no slow motions, either — and headed back into the apartment building.

He did give some thought to how he should reenter. Would it be better to pretend nothing untoward had happened, despite the total absence of groceries in his hands to bear out the excuse with which he’d left; or should he make it clear that he did not require any statement from Duo at this time but would probably want to talk to him about these events later? How curious was Sano likely to be, and to what extent should Heero humor that curiosity? Well, the former point probably depended most on what Sano and Duo had discussed in Heero’s absence, and the answer to the latter was, ‘None at all.’ What Duo chose to share with his friends was up to him; Heero didn’t feel like taking part in it.

So it was with a hybrid of the proposed attitudes, and a steeling of self to any possible negativity within, that he re-entered the apartment. There, he was infinitely relieved to receive a smile from his boyfriend along with the picked-up reflections that Duo appreciated the privacy Heero had so precipitously and clumsily offered him.

Whatever the conversation had been about during the bulk of his absence, it was now, for some reason or other, about Hugh Jackman and how hot he was or wasn’t. Heero might almost have thought they’d invented the topic at random so as to have something safe to talk about when he returned, but they’d seemed to be in the middle of it when he entered, and they couldn’t have known when that would happen. At least he thought they couldn’t.

As Heero moved almost automatically to grab some M&M’s, he gave Duo a look he knew could not possibly convey everything — I’m glad you seem to be doing OK; it’s fine if you guys gossiped about me while I was out there; I hope it helped; we’ll talk about it later; I love you — but that he hoped would get at least a little of it across; and received in return a widening of Duo’s smile with a sardonic dimple on one side of the mouth and a reassuring crinkling at the outer corner of each eye that seemed — Heero liked to think he wasn’t imagining it — to respond, Yeah, it’s fine, we’ll talk about it later. He also caught sight, beyond Duo, of an inquisitive expression on Sano’s face. The young exorcist was holding forth on what a perfect Wolverine Hugh Jackman had made, but very obviously couldn’t restrain his look of curiosity about Heero’s actions and attitude as he did so.

Heero too was curious, wanting very much to know what they had talked about while he’d agonized in the car, but with the unspoken promise of discussing it with Duo later for his reassurance, he just took his fresh batch of M&M’s into the computer room to resume his previous task. It actually seemed a little absurd how relieved he was to be back in here within earshot (and mind-reading range) of Duo, but finding it absurd didn’t lessen that relief.

The Hugh Jackman conversation, which had been taking place over the top of the game anyway, was cut off abruptly when something one of the Rams did caused both Duo and Sano to protest loudly. Evidently a penalty call satisfied them fairly well, for they then fell to discussing the quarterback the Raiders had switched to.

The atmosphere in the living room seemed identical to that of the first half of the game before snarls had arisen, and this continued or restored ease made Heero wonder even harder what they’d talked about during those forty-five minutes or so in the middle, but he would just have to find out later. At least that lengthy time away had been enough for the program he’d downloaded to run through an entire cycle of cleaning up his hard drive, so now he could reboot the machine and see what effect it might have had.

The conversation in the living room shifted to how many NFL games each had attended in person, which between them was not an impressive number, and the listening Heero considered that football tickets — especially when the Raiders had not (he believed) been a particularly good team for several years — could not be terribly expensive and might make an excellent gift for his boyfriend at some point.

The next commercial break was spent discussing whether or not the Rams’ offensive line was supporting Steven Jackson the way it should after some comment of the announcer’s that at least Sano seemed to take issue with; and, curious though he still was, Heero’s attention waned. The computer was taking just as tediously long as ever to boot up, and he wanted to know why. He did chuckle quietly a little later when, a touchdown having been scored and a lot of hugging and butt-patting apparently having been featured onscreen, Duo and Sano agreed happily that football was a really gay sport at times, but mostly he was focusing on the computer and its issues.

After another commercial break’s worth of football talk that Heero didn’t really listen to, however, and when the announcers, upon returning, had started teasing a fellow sports analyst with pictures of his shag and mullet hairstyles of decades past, Duo caught Heero’s interest again by commenting with intense disgust, “I don’t even know what people were thinking in the 80’s with that kind of hair. Best decade ever not to go out in public much!”

“OK.” Sano had evidently caught the reminiscent tone in Duo’s expression of hirsute disapprobation, and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “How old actually are you?”

Duo muted the television for commercials before answering in a tone so studiedly casual that, to Heero at least, it stood out like a conversational beacon, “Hundred and eleven.”

Here was the first instance in Heero’s presence of Sano’s thoughts breaking past their usual restraints — restraints that, Heero now believed, had originally been put in place purely to prevent Hajime from reading Sano’s mind because there was at least a little of the same thing going on between those two as there was between Heero and Duo. But now Heero could easily detect the intense shock and curiosity in Sano’s head, even from the other room, as well as the sudden flood of theories that overtook him in a chaotic shambles. It never occurred to Sano to disbelieve Duo or take his words as a joke; he merely considered somewhat incoherently how it could have come to pass.

And at the same time, of course, he was expressing his astonishment and inquisitiveness aloud to his very tickled companion. “Fuck! A hundred and fucking what? How? Did Trowa Barton let you in on his big secret, or what?”

Heero knew very precisely the grin that was on Duo’s face now, and the exact degree to which Duo would have preferred to repress it in order to maintain the casualness he thought would play better into his desired delivery. And Heero had to smile too; even if part of today’s get-together had led to some unpleasant feelings, at least Duo had this to revel in.

“I was Trowa’s big secret, actually,” he was saying. “If I wasn’t immortal for a while, he wouldn’t have been either.”

“No fucking way.” Despite the profanity, Sano’s reaction to this was clearly positive. “You can’t tell me you’re stronger than Trowa fucking Barton.”

Duo laughed. He was having so much fun now. Heero’s smile, in the other room, had not diminished. “No, I can’t! And I don’t have crazy fans all over the place either!”

“I am not a crazy fan,” Sano protested. “I’m a totally normal fan. I have a friend who’s a crazy fan, though, and he’s going to flip the fuck out when I tell him this. Am I allowed to tell him this? What am I telling him, actually?”

Now Duo was laughing throughout much of what Sano had to say. “I don’t really know how much Trowa’d like you to tell your crazy friend, but I’m guessing ‘nothing.’ He’s pretty private about this stuff.”

“What stuff? How were you guys immortal?” Sano’s tone was buoyantly demanding, and Heero wondered if he was bouncing up and down on the sofa as he said this. His thoughts, however, after that initial burst of wonder that had broken down his barriers, were becoming more difficult to hear as the walls rebuilt themselves. This was interesting to observe, and somewhat promising in relation to Duo’s tendency to project everything that crossed his mind.

Finally Duo presented the meat of the story. “Trowa accidentally cast a curse on me in 1923 that made me a really sucky sort of immortal for 87 years. We only just managed to break it this May.”

“Holy shit! Does that — no, don’t turn that back on yet!” It seemed as if Duo, in his amusement, fumbled the remote, for it was a couple of seconds before the reinstated TV sounds disappeared again. “What really sucky kind of immortal? And why would that make — I know jack-shit about curses.”

“There’s always a kind of backlash to a curse, so the person who cast it is part of it until it’s broken. I couldn’t die because I was made of plastic, so Trowa couldn’t die that whole time either. He didn’t even age.”

“Made of plastic?” Sano echoed, and it was clear that any frustration Duo had felt earlier at Sano not pouring out gossipy details all at once was being amply repaid.

“Yeah, I was a doll.” There was a pause during which some facial expression must have asked the next question, for eventually Duo added, “Like a Barbie doll? Obviously I wasn’t an actual Barbie doll, but I was that same size. I could wear Ken clothes.”

At this statement Sano gave an incredulous laugh. “That sounds like… not a lot of fun.”

“Oh, you don’t even have any idea.”

Duo began to expound, with no great organization of topic, upon his trials as a doll over the many decades — how he’d lacked most physical sensation, the limitations to his personal movement, how he’d been considered a child’s plaything and passed from hand to hand with no stability of home or relationship. The sound on the television remained muted, and no thought of football crossed Duo’s mind; Heero, listening, wondered whether those two even remembered there was a game going on in front of them. Though admittedly the doll story was far more fascinating.

Of course the breaking of the curse had to be touched upon in greater detail as well, and Heero could tell Duo felt awkward talking about Heero’s part knowing Heero heard every word and probably more but wasn’t actually involved in the conversation. Hoping to assuage this, Heero got up and went into the next room under the pretense (and with the actual intention) of getting more M&M’s.

“So of course everyone else who worked there,” Duo was saying, “wondered what that was all about.”

“Yeah, I just fucking bet!” Sano chortled.

“Actually that’s an understatement.” Heero made sure to keep his tone light despite the sardonic nature of his comment, just to be sure Duo knew he didn’t mind the conversation being about him more or less in his absence. “People were visiting my desk nonstop for almost the entire month just to see Duo.” He smiled at his boyfriend as he lifted his fresh handful of candy, then turned to head back to the computer room.

More relaxed, Duo went on about the curse-breaking month. Heero, having been present for its telling once before in different company, already knew it made a pretty good tale — more engaging, at least, than trying to get his computer to run faster. And when it transitioned to a discussion of Trowa’s powers and the artifact — which Sano, of course, was somewhat familiar with after having extracted its leftover energy from Quatre just above a week ago — the talk did not become any less interesting.

The way Duo told the story — even the manner in which he referred to the misery of being a doll and the long years of suffering — made it seem light and funny, as if his tribulations had been no more than the ‘pain in the ass’ Sano remarked they sounded like, tedious and inconvenient and annoying rather than harrowing and traumatizing. Of the gregarious Duo Heero found this a little surprising, but at the same time thought it wise: Duo and Sano probably weren’t close enough yet for that kind of pain to be shared, no matter how (possibly inappropriately) open Sano was about his own relationships and experiences.

And Sano was open. Despite not being able to read his mind at this point, Heero judged him completely straightforward when he eventually remarked, “Shit. And I thought I was special just because I was possessed by a ghost one time.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to be surprised. “What? That sounds pretty special to me! Aren’t ghosts super rare?”

“Yeah, but not as rare as people who get turned into fucking dolls and then live forever!”

“Hey, the curse is broken,” Duo protested. “I’m not going to live forever. I wouldn’t want to!”

“My point is that your experience was really… one-of-a-kind, you know? I was thinking it was pretty cool that I got to do something most people will never do, but you–”

Duo interrupted with, “Hey, you’re supposed to not be a crazy fan, remember? Mine was not cool.”

Sano laughed. “Yeah. Right. Sorry. I wouldn’t want to trade or anything.”

“But how did you manage to get possessed by a ghost? You mean a real ghost, right?”

“Yep, a real ghost.” Sano seemed pleased with himself, and Heero believed he’d really meant that he wouldn’t want to trade, despite probably not fully understanding how not-cool Duo’s experience had been. “This poor guy got killed by — it’s really complicated.” Sano paused for a moment as if considering the best way to relate the information, and Duo waited eagerly for the story. Today was turning out to be a much more compelling and involved meeting with the exorcist than he’d expected, and the fun aspects of it were balancing out the uncomfortable pretty well.

“OK, someone was being threatened,” Sano resumed. “Did you know we have an actual yakuza right here in town?” Duo didn’t seem to know the word, and Sano said, probably in response to a confused expression, “You know, Japanese mafia?”

“Oh, is that the real way you say it?” Duo sounded enlightened. Heero’s laugh wasn’t quite loud enough for them to hear down the hall.

“Yeah, we’ve got one. And there was this… person… being threatened by this yakuza — some of them — and had to kill someone for them to save someone else from being killed.”

“O…K…” Duo thought he’d worked through that statement fairly well, but wondered why Sano was being so vague. Heero guessed it was because murder and other criminal activity had been involved and Sano didn’t want to implicate anyone. In this context it was probably even a client confidentiality thing.

“So this guy who got killed really wanted to make sure the person who killed him knew he wasn’t mad about it. He understood they did it under duress to save someone else’s life.”

“Wow, that’s really big of the guy.” Duo was thinking uncomfortably of the circumstance as he imagined it. “I don’t think I’d be looking out for the person who killed me like that.”

Heero wondered whether that was true. Duo had, after all, always been looking out for Trowa, who had, if not killed him, done about the next best thing. He remembered Duo telling Trowa that he’d forgiven him ‘back in, like, the forties.’ It might take some time for Duo to forgive, depending on the provocation, but he would probably always do so. Proportionally speaking, the twenty or so years that had passed before he’d managed to forgive Trowa for cursing him might translate into a matter of weeks to ‘forgive’ Heero for being able to read his surface-level thoughts. It was an unexpectedly reassuring idea.

“Well…” Sano sounded a little uncomfortable right alongside Duo, though probably for different reasons. “I’m… really oversimplifying here. The point is that he really, really wanted to talk to the person who killed him, which is why he became a ghost, but he couldn’t talk to them because they weren’t necrovisual.”

“So you volunteered, like a badass, to help him.”

The grin was audible in Sano’s tone as he replied, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Was it scary? What does it feel like?”

“It was pretty easy, actually. I mean, I collapsed afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t a lot of work for me. You sort of get… pushed back… like you’re in another room… The ghost just sort of takes over, and you don’t really have to worry about anything that’s going on. Actually it took some effort if I wanted to know what was going on.”

Heero was reminded by this description of the Imperius Curse, but Duo hadn’t read Harry Potter yet and would not, of course, make the same connection.

“So afterwards,” Sano went on, “a lot of the stuff he said I had a hard time remembering, even though he was talking through my actual mouth.”

“Which I guess didn’t matter so much, since it wasn’t you he was talking to,” Duo speculated, “but I bet it was pretty weird anyway.”

“Yeah, it was like some movie I watched forever ago… or more like some movie someone else watched in another room, but over and over and over again so it’s like, ‘I should remember this really well, but I don’t.’ Or maybe–”

At this point, both Sano and Duo interrupted the meandering description to give the first indication since the long-term muting that they were still aware of the television. Their sudden, simultaneous reactions to the body-slamming of a Ram by and over the shoulder of a Raider were loud and enthusiastic; apparently some things were every bit as cool as the details of ghostly possession. Heero gave a rueful smile and shake of head as he listened to them go on about it for a bit.

He’d set the hard drive to defragmenting, a process that would undoubtedly take longer than the rest of the football game and probably Sano’s visit. He sat back in his chair and ate some M&M’s as he listened for further interesting conversation in the next room.

Eventually the body-slam evidently ceased to engross, for when the sounds of exultation had faded Duo finally asked, “So did you get to find out all sorts of interesting stuff about ‘Heaven’ or whatever?”

“You know, I was more interested in getting the guy to move on, because he was haunting me for weeks and weeks and it was a pain in the ass. But Hajime had a long talk with him about that kind of shit, and I don’t think he really learned all that much. I mean, somebody becomes a ghost by not going to the afterlife, so he couldn’t really know all that much to tell Hajime about.”

“But there is an afterlife of some sort.”

“There’s something.” By the sound of Sano’s voice Heero was reminded of Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, and was given to believe that this subject didn’t interest the exorcist much. “Hajime said the ghost said something was ‘pulling him’ or something. And I know a good medium who likes dead people better than he likes living people. So it’s not like people stop existing when they move on… but that’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Now Duo sounded unusually pensive, and it seemed that most of what interested him about this lay somewhat deeper in his mind than the superficial level Heero could pick up on. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess some kinds of magic kinda answer some questions about how the world works…”

“Not the really big questions, though,” Sano shrugged. “You still have to decide for yourself about God and shit.”

“Right,” Duo snorted. “God.” There was an unaccustomed bitterness and derision to his tone that made Heero prick up his ears even more than he yet had.

Sano, for his part, chuckled, with just a hint of the same sound to his voice. And Heero found himself slightly jealous that, however little they’d actually touched on the topic, they were in there discussing something he and Duo had never really talked about. He could guess, but he didn’t know precisely what had caused that tone in his boyfriend’s voice — but Sano seemed to understand it. Which of course was a normal and acceptable thing for a friend to do, though Heero had just been thinking Duo wasn’t close enough to this one yet to be sharing a number of personal feelings. But maybe Heero’s ideas of closeness were less than entirely applicable here and in many social situations. He tried to quash his jealousy.

There was little else to incite it. After the nearly shared feelings on God, enough moments of silence passed that apparently both men in the living room thought it appropriate for the television sound to come back on. And though at first they didn’t seem much given to discussing the game or even reacting audibly to it — in fact, Heero could hear Duo in his head turning over the information he’d received today — eventually, gradually, they seemed to grow more and more engrossed. By the time the two-minute warning rolled around, they were enthusiastically discussing football again, assessing the Raiders’ eventually satisfactory performance and the near guarantee of winning at this point.

What currently worried Heero most was that Sano might want to hang out for some indefinite period after the game talking football or curses or possession or whatever. He chided himself for being so selfish, for wanting the guy out of the way so intensely, but that didn’t change the feeling of pre-emptive annoyance at the basically hypothetical thought of not being able to talk to Duo about personal things for so much longer. He would never have guessed Sano’s appearance here could possibly raise such emotional topics that would need to be covered after his departure.

The level of celebration when the Raiders took a knee and the game ended at 16-14 was no more than expected, and there remained only the question of when, now the purpose of hanging out was fulfilled, Sano would get up and leave and Heero could have a nice private chat with Duo. And at first it did seem that what Heero feared would come to pass, for both speakers in the living room sounded relaxed and complacent, as if ending their conversation and their continual snacking on leftover Chinese food was the last thing on their minds. And though after canvassing the Raiders’ prospects for a while they went back to discussing magical experiences, a topic not entirely uncompelling, Heero couldn’t rouse the same interest within himself for eavesdropping as he had before.

Every bit as anxious and impatient as he’d been in the car around halftime, he sat drumming his fingers almost audibly at the computer desk, wishing Sano gone, longing for the intimacy of aloneness and a conversation that would mean a lot more to him than this one did. Eventually he started responding to every statement Sano made with a semi-sarcastic but silent response such as, “Yes, that’s a lot of fun; why don’t you go think about it at home?” or, “Why don’t you go tell your boyfriend that? I’m sure he’ll be interested,” or, “Don’t you have homework to do?”

And at that point he heard Sano say, “Well, I got homework to do, so I better get out of here.” And Heero, recalling what he was and what Sano supposedly was, blushed at the thought that the statements he’d intended as entirely silent and private could possibly have gone out and been heard. No worse than rude they might have been, but still he wouldn’t have said any of them aloud. Attempting some sort of apology would be far too awkward, though, so he planned to stay firmly put in this room until Sano had gone.

The process of Sano getting gone was progressing apace. Often with Duo, a goodbye conversation was really just a continuation of the previous conversation in a different, last-minute-addendum sort of tone, so technically they were discussing football yet, but Heero could sense the goodbye coming. Eventually, though still on about quarterbacks and stats and such, they even removed from the sofa and toward the door. Restraining any further sarcastic remarks, Heero listened intently until finally he heard actual goodbyes and the opening and closing of the egress.

Then he took a deep breath and stood. It was funny how much he could long for something he doubted could be terribly enjoyable. At least there was still approximately a ton of almond M&M’s waiting for him out there.

Duo was waiting for him out there too, staring straight into the hall from which Heero emerged as if, though lacking any mind-reading abilities of his own, he knew perfectly well what Heero was thinking now. Wordlessly they moved into first a hug and then a kiss, then separated; Duo went to flop back down onto the couch, Heero to move the M&M’s bowl onto the end table whence it could be easily reached from the spot beside Duo.

Mostly empty Styrofoam boxes of expired Chinese food stood open here and there on the floor in an arc between sofa and television, and Coke cans were taking up more space than Heero would have thought a six-pack could account for. It would all need to be cleaned up… but not yet. For now he just sat in awkward silence next to Duo and ate M&M’s. He was starting to feel he’d had a few too many M&M’s today.

Duo was reflecting that, if Sano’s conversation about magic and magical experiences was going to lead to uncomfortable topics and panicky tension between him and Heero, maybe Sano, harmlessly fun and amusing as he seemed, wasn’t the best person to be inviting to the apartment.

With great effort, Heero restrained himself from responding to this, waiting for Duo to bring it up aloud so they could hold the conversation properly. But Duo’s thoughts then shifted to how uncomfortable it still was to be aware of Heero reading his mind, and with a sigh and a bit of a frown he said, “I’m starting to recognize the look you get when you’re hearing something in my head but not saying anything about it.”

And there it was again: the unjust resentment. All Duo disliked was the combination of Heero’s ability with his own lack of control, but it sure sounded as if he was complaining about something Heero actively chose to do. Heero didn’t quite know what to say, since much of what he was thinking would have come out sounding bitter and combative if he’d attempted to arrange it in words.

When Heero thus remained silent, Duo continued, “So you might as well just say whatever you wanted to say. About Sano, I mean.”

Struggling to put unpleasant thoughts behind him, Heero did as he was told. “I don’t think you need to keep Sano away. Stuff like that’s probably going to keep coming up until we get this fixed, so there’s no reason to cut yourself off from something that will make you happy.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to see you freaking out.”

“It’s… OK, though.” Heero dropped his head onto the couch cushion behind him, unwilling for the moment to look at Duo. “You weren’t being unreasonable or anything…”

“But why should you have to hear that kind of thing at all? It’s not fair!” Clearly Duo meant this was unfair for both of them, but the reasons he felt this way that flashed across the surface of his mind were so tangled that Heero could barely understand any of it. But he definitely caught a hint of the involuntary mistrust he’d sensed in Duo before; Duo obviously felt, whether he wanted to or not, that Heero spying on his private thoughts — even if Heero received his own punishment in so doing — was a big part of the unfairness of the situation.

Heero wondered whether if, instead of their powers being one-sided, they could each read the other’s mind, all these problems would be alleviated… or doubled. He was certainly glad that just at the moment he was able to hide his resentment at Duo’s feelings. He felt something that echoed Duo’s words somewhat, though — why should he have to feel this resentment at all? Why should this situation exist? It seemed pointless and foolish.

Duo took a deep, frustrated breath. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind I told Sano about — a little bit about it. I didn’t want to — I mean, it’s funny the way he talks about his boyfriend, but it seems pretty awful too, and I didn’t want to be like that…”

Hastily, looking over again at where Duo was staring down at fidgeting fingers in his lap, Heero assured him, “No, that’s fine. That’s why I left — so you could talk about it with someone who might understand.”

Duo nodded. “I just told him I didn’t like you being able to read my thoughts either, but I haven’t figured out how to control my thoughts to keep them private.”

Heero mirrored the nod. He appreciated Duo’s restraint in this matter, agreeing that, while he truly didn’t mind Duo discussing their issues with someone that might understand, and while there was a certain entertainment value to the way Sano talked about Hajime in the latter’s absence, he wouldn’t like to think Duo was quite that open about him.

“And he said Hajime can probably help, at least a little. If I hang out with Sano and Hajime’s around, Hajime can let me know every time I’m projecting thoughts, so then I can get a feel for how to… not do that.”

It seemed that Sano, when presenting this informal and rather uncertain-sounding plan, had done it as casually as he did most things, and Duo, though he’d accepted the offer and thanked him, hadn’t given it much real thought at that time. Now, in repeating the idea to Heero, though his words had been somewhat listless with lack of investment, he began to reflect upon it properly at last… and, in so doing, awakened in himself that remarkable optimism that carried him through so many trials. All of a sudden he was considering the plan in greater detail and with a growing feeling that it was a really good one. And abruptly he was filled with a hope that was easily — indeed, almost overwhelmingly — detectable in his head.

He didn’t need, after all, full and proper communication training working one-on-one with someone devoted to teaching him everything a non-communicator could possibly master of that branch of magic; he just needed to learn how to stop shouting out his thoughts all the time. And if he could do that without inconveniencing Heero, without constantly reminding Heero of this problem, that would be great. And if he could do it while making a better friend of a sympathetic fellow magician? It sounded perfect.

Duo’s optimism was catching, and in addition to simply feeling better about the entire situation, Heero was, almost against his better judgment, inclined also to think this a very good plan. In fact, beyond some possibility of jealousy on his part that was in no way a deciding factor (nor even something he would ever bring up), he couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea except for one particular. “I don’t know Hajime well,” he said carefully, disinclined to mention this at all in the face of Duo’s (and his!) sudden optimism but feeling he must, “but is he really likely to want to help you with this?” Heero specifically remembered one conversation in which Hajime had made it pretty clear, without actually saying so, that he wasn’t interested in teaching random people about communication magic.

The grin Duo’s mouth spread into was as infectious as his optimism. “Sano said he’s sure he can convince him.”

And Heero, grinning back, had the sudden amusing mental image of Sano and Duo watching football over at wherever Sano and Hajime lived (in Heero’s imagination it was a mirror image of this apartment), with Hajime sitting in the next room at the computer totally disinterested in the game but occasionally poking his head out to let Duo know he was projecting. There would probably even be Chinese food in Styrofoam all over the floor… but certainly no almond M&M’s.

“It sounds great, then,” he said.

Duo reached for Heero’s hand. He was reflecting on how much he wanted to get this problem solved, and Heero thought Duo’s determination toward that end was even greater than his. It seemed to sting Duo even more that he felt this irrational mistrust and irritation than it did Heero to be the victim thereof. But Duo was also still filled with hope and cheer at the thought of a plan that might — that he was sure would — help. And in light of that, though he knew it must be impossible to banish completely from his mind an issue so recurring and provocative, he wanted to try to think about something else. So he said, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Read Oz.”

That was true. Though they’d read far less together since the curse broke, they had managed to get through a few more installments of the Oz series… but they’d finished the latest one in August and never started the next. And beyond an inherently entertaining and bonding experience, pressing onward would be an excellent method of distraction from anything they might not want to think about — allowing them to share reactions and opinions about story and characters that, though casual and perhaps frivolous, were genuine and often reflected deeper feelings.

It occurred to Heero, as he considered this suggestion on how they should spend their next few hours, that perhaps Duo’s growing autonomy, for all Duo wasn’t as sure of it yet as he would like to be, was to some extent the source of his optimism. As a doll, he couldn’t have had much he could use to reassure himself and maintain his sanity, and therefore his optimism, though a crucial resource, couldn’t have been more than blind, unsubstantiated, ephemeral. But now, as a human free to move and choose, making money and again a part of society in a meaningful way, his optimism could be based in the knowledge that he had the personal power to effect change in his own life — that things could be better because he could work to make them better. Even when his personal power had nothing to do with the situation in question, when he seemed every bit as powerless to deal with some problem as he would have been as a doll in that same situation, the mere knowledge of how much more effective he was overall must boost his optimism regardless of the specific circumstances.

And at the moment, when he had a plan for the future and a plan for the present, it was no surprise he was beginning to feel unstoppable and almost ecstatically cheerful.

“You’re right,” Heero said, smiling and squeezing Duo’s hand. “And we only have four books left, I think.”

“Which one’s next?”

“I think it’s The Lost Princess.” Heero rose and pulled Duo after him.

“Ooh, sounds like more Ozma stuff.” Duo was very fond of Ozma. “Or… maybe not, if she’s lost.”

Heero, who couldn’t quite remember what happened in this particular book, said nothing to confirm or deny, only pulled Duo in a stumbling sort of near-dance across the minefield of food boxes and empty soda cans that was the living room floor toward the computer room and the bookshelves.

“It’ll probably still be awesome either way,” Duo added cheerfully as they went, demonstrating yet again his admirable, semi-inexplicable, to some extent sharable, always wonderful power of, even in the face of frustration and disappointment, becoming and remaining happy.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.


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The Prevention of Gross Injustice


During the deep winter, having the wood stove on the arbiter’s platform was a distinct blessing. In late autumn, however, with a temperature chilly enough for a fire but not nearly low enough to justify the remarkable level of heat the stove produced in the immediate vicinity of Kenshin’s entire right side, he could never determine whether too hot or too cold was the better option. But since he now approached his fifth anniversary as an arbiter for the sovereignty and his requests to rethink the arrangement of the assessment hall had consistently been ignored, he doubted anyone would jump to accommodate him any time soon.

Too hot or too cold, he would cease to be bothered by the uncomfortably fluctuating temperatures the very minute this assessment became a little less tedious — that is, if they ever managed to get through the small fry. These consisted of acquaintances of the accused — from household slaves to employees of the young man’s father to ‘friends’ probably better described as ‘convenient drinking companions with no real depth of attachment’ — and Kenshin couldn’t think very highly of any of them.

Of course the avowal of slaves at an assessment wasn’t worth nearly as much as that of any person at liberty, since, caught between potentially vengeful masters and the law, they tended to say what they believed would best benefit them (or at least stave off punishment); but even the free and supposedly honest people that had been offering information thus far hadn’t struck Kenshin as particularly reliable. Half of them had sworn up and down that the accused was buried to the eyebrows in his father’s treasonous dealings, while the rest had maintained he’d taken no part whatsoever in them and was, in fact, the best guy in the world.

Kenshin found each style of avowal suspicious in this situation, and reflected wryly that liars would always lie. Respect for truth, most likely, would not be found among the undoubtedly numerous reasons any of them might want this assessment to go one way rather than another. Some of those reasons would probably come to light, bidden or unbidden, during their assessments, many of which Kenshin would also have to arbitrate. He didn’t greatly anticipate that.

This assessment, however, teased interest despite the frustrating tangle of dishonesty that had comprised its first hour and a half. The accused had a very handsome and honest face and a lively, compelling manner that could have predisposed anyone in his favor; his air of mingled annoyance and concern was understandable at the moment, too, given that, whatever his state of innocence or guilt, it must be disconcerting and worrisome to hear half the people he knew painting him as a saint while the rest decried his many evil deeds.

The queue of liars seemed, thankfully, to have come to an end with the latest one, whose earnest statement that, “Nobody who buys everyone drinks as much as he does could be a bad guy,” had the ring more of rote practice than of genuine feeling. As this particular young man was not in custody, he could go about his business freely when dismissed, and he gave the accused a casual encouraging wave on the way out. Neither circumstance forced Kenshin to rethink his opinion that the avowal had been more than a bit of an act aimed at freeing the frequent buyer of drinks.

Kaoru, overseer of assessments, watched the last of the riff-raff allowed out the exit, which was relocked behind him by the sentinel there, then glanced back to where a messenger had been waiting, patient and silent, beside the door near the back of the hall that led deeper into the building. At her movement, the man shook his head. She gestured her thanks, and the messenger imitated the latest witness by leaving the room and having the door locked behind him. Then Kaoru turned toward where Kenshin sat on the arbiter’s platform. “Looks like the father of the accused continues to refuse to avow.”

“All right,” said Kenshin. None of them could be happy about this, but unfortunately no inference could be drawn from it; conceivable motives came to mind in droves for someone to refuse to avow, whether the accused was innocent or guilty. It did decrease the amount of information the arbiter had to work with, but there was nothing to be done about it. The accused, Kenshin noted, merely appeared to have been expecting this; there was no guessing the exact significance of the deep breath he drew and released at hearing the news.

Again Kaoru glanced around the hall, a somewhat unnecessary movement as she stood at its head beside the arbiter’s platform and therefore had a clear view of everyone present. “The last witness will be here as soon as possible; there’s no telling how long it may take. Do you want a break, or would you prefer if Megumi questions the accused out of order?”

Kenshin’s eyes were drawn to the accused, who, where he waited in the care of a two-person armed escort, had twitched visibly at the mention of ‘the last witness.’ Evidently the final participant’s avowal would be the most important — or, at least, the information that had the accused most agitated. Curious and wishing to proceed, Kenshin said, “I would prefer to hear from the accused.”

With another nod, Kaoru also fixed her eyes on the young man. “Sanosuke of lineage Shishio, please step onto the witness’ platform.”

Unlike Kenshin’s platform, which was reached by a small flight of stairs in order that the arbiter might observe the proceedings from an elevated angle, that from which witnesses avowed was a single step up from the floor and mostly surrounded by a plain railing as if the witness were in a cage. This cage Sanosuke now entered, moving with a vigor that matched the energy of his gaze and general bearing, seeming somewhat loath about the upcoming questioning but with an evident determination to get this over with.

“Megumi,” Kaoru said, “the time is yours.”

The questioner had been availing herself, in between witnesses, of the drinking water on the table where the hall scribe sat recording what was said. Now she turned with her usual impassive gaze and began the traditional reiteration of the initial statement of the accused: “At the beginning of this assessment, you maintained your innocence of the accusation of complicity in the treasonous activities of your father Makoto. After the avowals we have heard from the previous witnesses, do you wish to change this statement in any way?”

Sanosuke scratched his head and appeared a little annoyed. “I don’t see why I’d want to change what I said because of any of that bullshit.” Then he threw a quick look, half penitent and half concerned, with an overlay of sheepish joviality, up at Kenshin. “Guess I shouldn’t swear in an assessment, huh?”

The young man was so winning that Kenshin couldn’t help a somewhat indulgent feeling as he looked down at him. It was Kaoru, however, as overseer, that replied: “You may not abuse anyone present, but otherwise we’d prefer you to speak as naturally as you can.”

The grin Sanosuke returned for this seemed relieved he hadn’t landed himself in trouble with almost his first statement, but still far more determined to get this over with than in any way happy to be here. Then he turned back to the questioner and said squarely, “So, yeah, I don’t want to change what I said. Still innocent of that.”

“Very well,” Megumi replied. Kenshin didn’t think he imagined a slight smile, if not on her face, at least in her bearing. It took a lot to compromise Megumi’s professionalism, but Kenshin knew her well enough that he could tell when she was hiding amusement. “If you are willing to avow on your own behalf, you will need to take the Oath of Honesty.”

Over the years Kenshin had seen many witnesses — even some he’d eventually declared innocent — display reluctance or discomfort regarding the Oath, so he knew the signs. And if Sanosuke had any problem repeating the ritual words after Megumi, swearing to speak the exact truth to the best of his ability and belief, he certainly hid it well. He was either completely ingenuous or an extremely convincing actor.

Megumi’s first question once the formalities had been seen to was, “If you were not involved in your father’s treasonous activities, surely you must at least have been aware of them?”

“Uh, not exactly,” Sanosuke replied. “I wasn’t really surprised when I heard what the accusation was, but I didn’t realize before that’s what he was doing.”

“So you always knew your father didn’t have the most solid moral code regarding business?”

“Regarding anything. ‘Always’ might be an overstatement, but, yeah, I’ve known that for years.”

“But you were not aware specifically of any criminal activity.”

“That’s right.”

Megumi excelled at her job of drawing from witnesses as much information as she could so the arbiter of the assessment could make the fairest judgment possible. And it not infrequently happened that she got a hint of some crime additional to or separate from the one in question; in such cases, she strove to clarify the situation as far as she could. Here, Kenshin could see, she was working to differentiate between the stated accusation ‘complicity in treason’ and the unspoken possibility ‘failure to report criminal activity,’ of which Sanosuke might still be guilty even had he never taken part in his father’s misdeeds.

“Would you tell us,” she requested, “what details you know about your father’s business?”

“Um, sure.” Sanosuke sounded a little skeptical, as if Megumi was asking for either a large amount of or some particularly dull information. “His main job is — I guess was — working with different factions all over the kingdom negotiating accords and shit. I always thought it was the most boring job I ever heard of, but I guess if he was secretly working with enemies of the sovereignty, that makes it more exciting. Probably more money in that, too… not like we ever needed more money.”

As Sanosuke went on in a very rambling fashion to describe his father’s work as he understood it, Kenshin was hard-pressed to restrain blatant laughter. Very little of what the accused had to say contained any significant detail, and some of it seemed so improbable as to suggest Sanosuke either knew next to nothing about the actual workings of Makoto’s employment or was, once again, an extremely skilled — and entertaining! — dissembler.

Megumi was a bit too deadpan as she asked her next question for Kenshin to believe her unaffected by Sanosuke’s amusing account. “You just recently turned nineteen, I believe. As a legal adult, how is it that you know so little of your father’s business?”

Sanosuke’s straightforward gaze strayed from Megumi’s face for a moment as if he didn’t want to meet her eyes. Tone equally abashed as he eventually looked back at her, he said, “Well, you know… up until just this last month or so, I never really cared about… serious shit. I mostly just fucked around and enjoyed myself. Dad’s been trying to get me into the business for years, but that was just so boring…”

“But I understand that changed when you turned nineteen. Your father finally managed to force some responsibility on you.”

“No!” It was the vehemence of annoyance. “Well, he tried, but that’s not what made me start thinking about things more seriously and shit. He just sat me down on my birthday and said it was time — ‘long past time,’ he said, asshole — time for me to start taking responsibility and learning how to run things and whatever, and said I was going to have to start doing some shit around the estate if I wanted to keep doing everything I liked doing. So all that did was make me really pissed at him.”

“And your new duties included the purchase of domestic slaves?” When Sanosuke replied in the affirmative, Megumi pursued, “And that was how you first encountered the sovereignty agent?”

It was the same discernible twitch as before. Evidently Sanosuke really did have some significant agitation relating to this person, who must be the final witness they were waiting for and was probably delayed on official business. Kenshin congratulated himself on having been correct about the interest level of this assessment, and waited in great anticipation, rubbing at his overheated right thigh and shifting slightly away from the wood stove, to hear the rest of the story.

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said. “Yeah, that’s how I met him.”

“Describe how that happened, please.”

“I went to the slave market looking for a kitchen girl, but I saw this guy — Saitou, the agent, who of course I didn’t know was a sovvie then — and I decided to buy him instead.”

“Why did you decide to purchase someone completely different from the type of slave you needed?” Megumi asked.

“I really didn’t want to be there,” grumbled the accused, “especially since the slave market’s open so damn early so you have to go first thing in the morning to get the really good ones. But dad made it pretty clear I wouldn’t get any more money or get to do anything I wanted ever again if I didn’t do what he wanted. So I was really pissed at him. I figured if I bought some slave who was totally not what we needed, it’d show him I wasn’t the right choice for that job and he’d let me off it. Plus it might make him mad, so it was sorta revenge too. Also the slave was really fucking hot, so, you know…” Sanosuke cleared his throat, blushing, and his eyes strayed from Megumi’s face again.

“So you purchased what you believed to be a slave” — Megumi was shifting smoothly onto a new track, Kenshin could tell, though Sanosuke probably couldn’t — “with the express purpose of raping him.”

Sanosuke’s hands had been lying on the railing in front of him, occasionally sliding idly from side to side, but now they jerked back toward his body as he stiffened upward, looking appalled. “What?! No! Of course not!”

“You did just say,” Megumi pointed out calmly, “that one of your reasons for buying the slave was that he was ‘really fucking hot.'” Her coolness made the quoted profanity sound very childish indeed, and Sanosuke flushed a deeper shade of red from an apparent combination of emotions.

“I don’t rape slaves, all right? That’s something my asshole dad does, not me! I mean, I know it’s something a lot of people do, but not me!”

This, Kenshin reflected, though it could not be entirely verified, was consistent with the attitude the Shishio household slaves had displayed toward Sanosuke in their avowals.

“I won’t say I didn’t totally want to have sex with him or that wasn’t part of the reason I bought him, but I always ask. I’d never force someone — I told him he could say no and it wouldn’t be a problem.” Sanosuke’s voice dropped to a mumble as his hands came down on the railing again and his gaze fell to the floor. “And he seemed like he was totally fine with it.”

“In what way did Saitou indicate he was engaging in sex willingly?”

Pensiveness now seemed to overcome Sanosuke’s chagrin, and he appeared, as he slowly drew breath and opened his mouth to answer, as if he wasn’t sure his explanation would make sense to his listeners. “He seemed so strong and so in-control…” Distinct admiration rang in his timbre. “It felt like, if he didn’t want it, he would’ve definitely said so. He didn’t really seem like a slave at all, and after a while I couldn’t even think of him as one. Sure, I gave him a job to do, but he was more like… I don’t even know. I didn’t know he was a sovvie, but from the way he talked I did get the feeling there was something else going on — like he had a reason to be there besides just that I bought him and brought him there.”

“And since you’ve discovered he did have another reason to be there, have you considered that Saitou might only have accepted your sexual advances because he believed it would endanger his position or even his personal safety to refuse you?”

Hotly Sanosuke replied, “I told him he could say no!”

“You were in a position of absolute authority at the time, and he was in the position not only of a slave and someone who needed to maintain cover, but someone who had never met you and couldn’t be familiar with your personal policy regarding slave rape. Did that never occur to you?”

Sanosuke looked stricken. “I… no. Shit. No, I… never thought of that. I really… really… didn’t feel like it was… I thought it was all just fine at the time, but… shit…” His eyes broke from Megumi’s again, fixing on the floor, and in this instance they did not re-ascend.

With a tone infinitesimally more gentle than before, Megumi shifted the subject slightly. “How did your interaction with Saitou proceed from there?”

“I… well, I had no real job to give him,” Sanosuke told the floor, “so I made him just a sort of odd-jobs man to do whatever muscle-work anyone needed. There wasn’t a lot for him to do, so mostly he just ended up… in… in my room.” He hastened on in a faintly defensive tone, “But we talked a lot! It wasn’t like we were just having sex all the time.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“He would never want to talk about himself. Obviously that’s because he was a secret agent all along, but at the time I just figured a slave didn’t have a lot of interesting stuff to say about his own life. So we mostly talked about me, and how I grew up, and what I liked to do. Oh, and about dad and his work.” Sanosuke’s mouth tightened into a frown before he went on more slowly, “I guess…” This point seemed to be novelly occurring to him here and now. “I guess he got a lot of information out of me, actually. I couldn’t have helped him with details, but what I said probably told him what to investigate and where to look and shit.”

Kenshin repressed another smile. If the vague and rather hilarious information Sanosuke had given earlier about his father’s business was typical of his elaboration on the subject, it might not have actually been remarkably helpful to the sovereignty agent.

Megumi suggested next, “You seem to regret these interactions.”

With a faint sigh Sanosuke admitted, “Yeah, I guess I do. I was thinking before that we had some good times, and he had some important stuff to say to me, but I guess I was… always kindof a dick to him. I didn’t think it was rape, and I thought it made sense he didn’t talk about himself… but I was always the one in charge, and he probably couldn’t say no, and I just talked about myself on and on like a total ass.”

“You say he had important things to say to you?”

“It seemed important at the time.” Sanosuke shrugged, and the casual gesture did not nearly suffice to downplay words he obviously meant very intensely. “When he got to know what kind of life I always had, he had things to say…” He chuckled faintly and with a mixture of bitterness and appreciation. “He was fucking rude about it, but he always got his point across. He just made me kinda realize how I was wasting my life. I was already not really thinking of him as a slave, so that’s probably why I didn’t notice how weird it was that this supposed slave — who’d been a slave his whole life, supposedly! — knew so much about… life stuff.”

So that was the real reason Sanosuke had started ‘thinking about things more seriously and shit.’ Even from the brief description of their interactions, Kenshin could see what an impact this Saitou agent had made on the young man.

“Was it your inability to see Saitou as a slave that kept you from determining he was a spy?” was Megumi’s next question.

“Yeah, that was probably part of it.” Sanosuke scratched his head, appearing a little easier now they’d left behind the question of whether or not he had committed rape — especially on someone he obviously admired. “But also I didn’t want to ask him a bunch of questions in case I blew his cover. I knew he was up to something, and I kinda really wanted to see him do whatever he was there to do because I figured that’d be one in my dad’s eye.”

“So your attitude toward your father had not changed?”

“Actually it did change.” The young man’s brow furrowed as he recollected. “I kinda went from thinking of him as this mean old dad who was forcing me to do work and threatening to take away my allowance and shit to thinking more about how I grew up with this terrible person who probably kept me from being… something better, you know?”

Kenshin had a feeling he could guess at the origin of this alteration in attitude. It was a stroke of luck Sanosuke had run into someone that could cause that revolution in him when he had. Really, it was a stroke of luck that laziness and thoughtlessness were (to all appearances) the worst of Sanosuke’s bad traits, given the circumstances of his upbringing.

“But, yeah, as far as wanting to get back at my dad for whatever I was mad at him for? That didn’t change.”

“But you still didn’t question Saitou about his intentions?”

“Yeah, like I said, I didn’t want to ruin the plan. Whatever the plan was.”

“I wonder if you didn’t want to ruin your sexual arrangement with Saitou as well.”

To Kenshin, an experienced arbiter that had worked extensively with Megumi in the year and a half she’d been questioning at his assessments, it was obvious why she returned to this topic: though slave rape was a matter of hazy legality and Sanosuke had been unaware of the true identity of this supposed slave, still sexual assault of a sovereignty agent was serious — another potential crime for which Sanosuke might be condemned — and it was essential the issue be examined thoroughly.

But to Sanosuke this probably wasn’t nearly so evident. His eyes had previously, gradually returned to the questioner’s face and his expression had cleared somewhat, but at this latest statement his brows drew back together as his gaze fell once more. “Yeah, there was probably some of that too. I didn’t want to change things with him. I didn’t want to scare him off.”

“Given the way things turned out, do you wish now that you had questioned him?”

Sanosuke scraped a foot, at which he stared fixedly, back and forth on the wooden flooring of the platform. “I don’t really know. I’m afraid shit would have gone down just the same even if I had.”

“So you don’t consider yourself in any way responsible for your father becoming aware that Saitou was a spy?”

“He didn’t know Saitou was a spy–” Here Sanosuke interrupted himself impatiently in order to answer the actual question right in the middle of his protest– “no, I wasn’t responsible for that! — but if dad knew Saitou was a spy, I bet he would have just killed him right then.”

“Are you aware of your father having committed murder in the past?”

“Not for sure, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Sanosuke’s voice grew somewhat distant. “Actually I always wondered, when my mom died… not right at the time, but later I wondered… did she maybe cheat on him, and he…” His shoulders lifted somewhat helplessly, and Kenshin guessed this dark speculation was one he’d never been able to put into words before. The most lazy, resentful teenager had certain lines he might not want to cross, even in his own mind, about his father.

“You may want to hold onto that thought,” Megumi remarked somewhat sardonically, “for when it’s your turn to give avowal at your father’s assessment.”

Sanosuke scowled, and, forcing the scribe to lean forward abruptly to catch what he had to say, grumbled something about maybe just completely refusing to show up, then fell into an unhappy silence. Kenshin doubted the young man looked forward to the referenced event, even if he knew the assessment of Makoto would be little more than nominal, a last courtesy offered to someone already condemned in all but the final legal sense and doomed to high-security imprisonment for the rest of his life.

“But to return to the compromise of Saitou’s situation,” Megumi went on. “How exactly did that happen, if you had no part in it?”

“‘Exactly‘ is tough,” Sanosuke admitted. “I just noticed one morning that I couldn’t find Saitou anywhere, and I kinda wanted… to find him… so I was wandering around looking, and my dad noticed and called me into his room. He asked me what I knew about Saitou — called him ‘that slave you’ve been fucking’ all annoyed — so I told him — and it was totally true! — that I didn’t really know anything about his past. Of course I knew a lot about Saitou personally by then, but I knew that wasn’t what dad wanted, so I didn’t bother saying that. Anyway, dad said he noticed Saitou could read (which I never noticed because I was too busy ordering him around and talking about myself like a little shit), but of course dad got suspicious.”

That such a revelation would render a person like Makoto suspicious made sense, Kenshin reflected. In a house-slave, a certain degree of literacy might not be totally unheard-of; but in the type of person Kenshin was envisioning based on the description given of this agent thus far — probably someone, in the eyes of a slave-owner, pretty distinctly intended for manual labor — the ability to read would seem decidedly out of place. And anything out of place might set off alarms in the head of a paranoid traitor to the sovereignty.

“He said he wanted to question Saitou — whatever that actually meant — so of course I was starting to freak out a little bit on the inside. But he was going away on business for a couple days and couldn’t put it off, so he couldn’t get to questioning Saitou right away. He said he already had him locked up, and he needed to stay that way — with a guard — and I wasn’t allowed to see him.”

Just as locks and guards came up in the avowal, Kenshin noticed the sentinel at the inner door step aside and allow a man to enter the room. At Kaoru’s nod of acknowledgment Kenshin had to assume this was the agent, Saitou, their final witness and a significant part of this interesting drama; so he said nothing as the newcomer silently passed rows of benches standing empty at this private assessment and took a seat at the end of one in front. Sanosuke, his back to the door and apparently having missed the overseer’s nod, had noticed none of this.

Megumi was asking, “Do you believe your father ordered you not to contact Saitou while he was gone because he was suspicious of you as well?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. Dad was just trying to get back at me for having Saitou around in the first place. We’d already had this big argument about me buying a slave just for… uh, personal reasons… instead of what we actually needed, and he wasn’t any less pissed about it at this point… but I think it was just the usual ‘why can’t you take life seriously?’ bullshit, not him thinking I was working with Saitou on some secret mission or something.”

“And did you obey your father in this instance?”

“Hell, no! The second he was gone, I went straight to see Saitou. I was trying to think of a way to get him out of there, but I didn’t have any ideas that weren’t totally crazy, and he didn’t have any ideas either, and I was really frustrated… I told him I was sorry, since it was basically my fault for buying a slave just because he was really hot and to annoy my dad… Saying sorry didn’t fucking help, but it was all I could do for him right then. Well, I mean, besides…” Sanosuke cleared his throat.

Kenshin rather expected Megumi to probe further into this latest implication of sexual activity, but what she asked instead was, “Your father had left him under guard?”

Sanosuke scowled. “This guy Usui, who’s worked for my dad for a while — he’s this asshole thug — he was guarding the room when I got there, and even though I supposedly wasn’t supposed to see Saitou, Usui let me in pretty easy. I didn’t think that was weird at first because I was distracted, but later I did wonder why he did that. Only then, as soon as his guard shift was over, he showed up in my room saying he wanted to make a deal.”

Sanosuke’s lip curled in distaste and discomfort. “He knew me and Saitou were fucking. I mean, it probably didn’t help that… Well, anyway, he figured I might be willing to do something for him if he agreed to help Saitou escape.”

“Do what for him?”

“Um, basically… fuck him too.”

Megumi looked a little taken aback. “Why?”

Sanosuke flushed. “You don’t have to make it sound like it’s impossible to imagine or something.” At these words, one of the guards that stood a couple of steps behind the witness’ platform was forced to turn an inadvertent laugh into a cough. Kenshin noticed Kaoru giving the man a reproving look.

“What I mean,” Megumi said composedly, “is that allowing a prisoner to escape would be a dangerous risk for this Usui to take. Why would he jeopardize his position working for your father for the sake of sex?”

“You have to understand…” Again Sanosuke looked as if he feared this explanation might be a little beyond him. “Usui’s always wanted dad’s business. Not just like he wanted to work for him; he wanted to take his place. He probably knew my dad was doing illegal stuff, and he wanted to be doing it himself, I guess. Anyway, the weird thing was that dad always knew what Usui wanted, so I never could figure out why he kept him around — friends close and enemies closer and all that, I guess? So Usui could never do anything open to try to get some advantage over my dad; he had to do sneaky shit.”

“And he would have believed sleeping with Makoto’s son would give him leverage in the future?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.” Megumi nodded her understanding. “But why would you believe such an obviously untrustworthy person would keep his end of any bargain?”

“I didn’t really have any choice!” protested Sanosuke. “I couldn’t just let my dad do whatever he was going to do; I had to try something. And, I mean, I have… a lot of sex… most of the time, so what was a little more if it might help with something? And, hell, it did end up working, didn’t it?”

“Did it?”

“Well, yeah, he did keep his end of the deal, didn’t he?” Sanosuke’s expression gradually became pensive. “Actually that’s kinda weird, now I think about it. He really isn’t the kind of guy to keep a deal like that… but since he did, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

In order to allow her to draw out information as effectively as possible, Megumi, like any questioner, was given an overview of events relevant to an assessment prior to interrogating witnesses. And Kenshin could tell now that what she’d just heard did not entirely tally with what she’d known before entering the hall today. As usual, however, surprise was absent from her voice as she wondered, “Usui himself told you he had released Saitou?”

“Actually I haven’t seen Usui since then. I figured he was keeping his head down until after dad got back so one of the other guards could take the blame for Saitou escaping. They were really freaking out, too, when it turned out Saitou was gone — one of ’em ran away, and I really couldn’t blame him. And then the second dad came home, the whole place was just suddenly swarming with sovvies, like they knew exactly when he was going to be back, and we were all arrested. But, yeah, if you need me at Usui’s assessment — he is getting assessed, right? — I can tell you everything I know about him.”

In direct contrast to how he’d reacted to the idea of making avowal at his father’s assessment, Sanosuke seemed to be taking a grim pleasure at the thought of disclosing everything he knew about someone he disliked so much more straightforwardly. And there was a touch of tightness around his mouth, a tilt to his brows, a fleeting haunted look in his eyes that he seemed to be trying his best to hide, indicating (to Kenshin, at least) that, no matter how bravely he’d implied this encounter had merely been an additional instance of something he had quite a lot of, he was more distressed about his interactions with Usui than he was letting on verbally.

If Megumi had also noticed how much Sanosuke had really suffered by fulfilling his part of the bargain he’d made, still she chose to wrap things up and not pursue the matter. And when the questioner had declared herself finished with the accused, Kaoru took over by wondering whether the arbiter had anything to ask.

Kenshin smiled at her. Both she and Megumi could probably tell how engrossed he was in this assessment — for one thing, he hadn’t made a single request regarding the nearby overhot stove — just as he could read Megumi’s little reactions of surprise and the outrage Kaoru had been subtly evincing about the Usui business. He shook his head.

Kaoru nodded again, then turned back to Sanosuke. “The sovereignty thanks you for your avowal, Sanosuke of lineage Shishio. You may take your previous place.” She gestured to where Sanosuke’s escort still stood behind the platform.

Though he’d clearly been depressed by several items brought up during his avowal, and though he appeared understandably wearied by the ordeal, the young man’s energy of movement didn’t seem to have decreased; he hopped down the single step and turned with alacrity to face the guards that had come to meet him. Kenshin had been watching meticulously for how Sanosuke would react to his first sight of Saitou since before his arrest, what might happen when their eyes met, but the seat Saitou had taken was to the right of the platform, and Sanosuke had stepped down on the left and again entirely missed his presence in the room.

He could not long remain in ignorance, however, as Kaoru next said, “Our final witness will please step onto the platform.”

Even had Kenshin not been specifically observing, he doubted he could have failed to catch sight of Sanosuke stumbling abruptly on his way back to the open space where the accused and his escort stood and then turning in a movement that incorporated a deep breath and a significant stiffening of spine. Sanosuke still could not meet Saitou’s eyes, however, since the agent, having taken his place on the witness’ platform, now faced away from him.

As the assessment proceeded, Kenshin divided his attention between the final witness and the accused. Saitou took the Oath of Honesty, and in doing so immediately displayed a disposition seemingly the polar opposite of Sanosuke’s: perfectly composed, with no emotions tied up in this business whatsoever. And he wasn’t what Kenshin would have described as ‘really fucking hot.’ Of course Kenshin had little interest in men — the elegant questioner or the lively assessment overseer were more his speed — but even by his admittedly vague standards of what made a man attractive he found this one a little too harsh. But there was no accounting for taste.

“To begin,” Megumi was saying, “for clarity: you are an agent of the sovereignty transferred here from another location in order to investigate Makoto and his business dealings.”

“That is correct,” replied Saitou.

“You had arranged to pose as a slave in order to enter Makoto’s household, because you had some information that led you to believe he would be inclined to buy you.”

“Yes. The scar on my chest, which would be visible on a slavers’ platform, would draw associations with an old enemy of Makoto’s. We believed he would not be able to resist purchasing me.”

Kenshin noticed Sanosuke nodding slowly as if this information, though he hadn’t put its pieces together before, added up to a reasonable conclusion.

“But in fact,” Megumi pointed out, “it was Makoto’s son who purchased you. Do you believe it was a coincidence that Sanosuke had taken over the task of buying household slaves just at the time you were planted in the slave market?”

“Yes, I do.” Saitou’s demeanor made Megumi’s seem warm and casual by contrast.

“Sanosuke tells us that when he brought you home and sexually propositioned you, he indicated you had the option of refusing. Is that true?”

With a curt nod Saitou replied immediately, “He made it as clear as someone in his position at the time possibly could.”

“Would you have felt safe rejecting Sanosuke’s advances?”

Here, Kenshin was interested to note — though he couldn’t be entirely sure he wasn’t imagining it — Saitou hesitated briefly before answering, “No. I would have believed doing so would endanger my position in the household.”

A quick glance at Sanosuke showed a stricken expression so poignant as to infect Kenshin somewhat with its sudden misery. And guaranteeing the continuance of that unhappiness, Megumi persisted on the dreary topic by asking Saitou, “Do you believe Sanosuke took advantage of you?”

Saitou frowned, and spoke in a pensive tone that, though as cool as before, held a touch of darkness. “Slavery has allowed mankind new and more incisive ways to objectify and abuse each other. Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not. No one who has not acted as a slave can realize the layers of oppression that can be inflicted on one human by another, nor how humans change when they are put into the positions of master and slave. It’s a system the sovereignty would do well to examine closely in the near future.”

It was such a lengthy and unexpectedly moralizing answer that everyone stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Megumi gave her head a tiny shake and said, “I wonder if you aren’t trying to avoid the question.”

“I apologize,” Saitou replied dryly, “if I got a little too philosophical.” Much more bluntly he continued, “I believe I took advantage of him by cultivating a relationship under entirely false pretenses and using him for information.”

Watching Sanosuke, Kenshin believed he could pinpoint the exact instant of heartbreak — during the last syllable of ‘entirely false pretenses’ — and felt his own heart go out to the young man. It was a shame Saitou never looked around and saw the face of the accused, on which rampant emotions played as openly as children on a lawn.

Kenshin also noted, however, that Saitou, for all his cool bluntness, had still avoided the actual question Megumi had asked. He probably did believe some advantage had been taken, and now had deliberately eschewed specifically saying so — Kenshin didn’t think it was mere wishfulness on Sanosuke’s behalf that made him believe it — in order to spare the accused the pain of the admission. Whether that would have hurt more or less than ‘entirely false pretenses,’ Kenshin wasn’t sure.

Megumi seemed satisfied, at least for the short term, on the point of whether or not Saitou had been sexually assaulted, for she moved on to another part of his interaction with Sanosuke. “Is it true that Sanosuke was not responsible for the betrayal of your intentions to Makoto?”

“Yes, it is true. That was a slip of my own.”

“And did Sanosuke contact you during your imprisonment in an attempt to determine a way to free you?” When Saitou confirmed this as well, she went on. “Sanosuke reported that neither of you had any idea how you might be able to escape your confinement; yet you were able to escape soon thereafter, so clearly you did have some idea.” Saitou nodded. “Was it because you didn’t trust him that you didn’t confide your plans in him at that time?”

Kenshin, accustomed to seeing the story of events twist and evolve as it passed through various witnesses at an assessment, was not disturbed or surprised at hearing a slightly different account of Saitou’s escape from the Shishio estate than Sanosuke had presented. But Sanosuke was looking distinctly confused, and that expression only intensified as Saitou answered, “No, not because I didn’t trust him. It was because I believed it would be safer if he were not involved in my escape attempt.”

“Then you were unaware,” Megumi suggested, “of the bargain Sanosuke was making with Usui.”

“I was unaware.” Now there was a discernible, if still minimal, hint of emotion, of tightness, in Saitou’s words and bearing. He had never once looked around at Sanosuke, but at this moment Kenshin believed a certain muscular tendency indicated he would like to. “I was unaware of that,” he repeated stonily, “until just now at this assessment. If I had known of Usui’s intentions, I would have escaped and killed him much earlier than I did.”

Abruptly Sanosuke seemed to understand how things had really happened, and it might only have been possible to detangle the mess of emotions on his face with a decent stretch of time and some fine tools. It looked as if he might burst out with some surprised and unhappy exclamation, contrary to the rules of the assessment hall that forbade witnesses not on the platform from speaking, but he managed to control himself, and the mouth he’d opened snapped back into miserable closure.

Kenshin got the feeling Megumi wanted to be done with this; she probably felt the dreary atmosphere emanating from Sanosuke as well as the arbiter did. “You spent nearly a month in the Shishio estate,” she said to Saitou, “and must have become fairly well acquainted with Sanosuke and his lifestyle. Do you believe Sanosuke had any connection with his father’s illegal dealings?”

“No, I don’t believe it. Sanosuke has merely been lazy and useless and a waste of significant potential for most of his life, not actually criminal. In fact, whether he intended it or was even aware of it, he assisted in my investigations and should be commended.” Though this statement was spoken with the same lack of hesitancy as most of Saitou’s statements, it was also even more coldly professional, and Kenshin could tell Sanosuke drew very little comfort from the proposed commendation. It was evident, moreover, that Sanosuke believed Saitou had no personal interest in him and regarded him only as a facet of a job he’d been busy with that was now about ready to wrap up.

Whether or not Megumi, like Kenshin, remained far less convinced than Sanosuke was, she now turned to Kaoru and declared herself finished questioning this witness. And Kaoru wondered formally, as before, if Kenshin had anything he wanted to ask.

Kenshin stared at Saitou for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it was unlikely he had any clearer idea of the situation that Sanosuke did. He hadn’t been present for the more emotional parts of Sanosuke’s avowal, hadn’t even looked him in the face this entire time; and Sanosuke’s described behavior during their near month together had been very… frivolous… certainly nothing to indicate his interest in Saitou had been anything beyond physical, casual, transient — and that in a context of master and slave not easily translatable into normal interaction.

Saitou didn’t know what a difference he’d made in Sanosuke’s way of thinking. He didn’t know that what Sanosuke had done in an attempt to free him had been a real and deliberate sacrifice rather than the throwaway action the young man had implied it was. He didn’t know Sanosuke had never really been able to see him as a slave — especially given that, based on Saitou’s comment, ‘Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not,’ that perception of Sanosuke’s had not been strong enough to be plainly demonstrable.

Kenshin, having leaned far toward ‘completely ingenuous’ and away from ‘extremely convincing actor,’ fully planned on declaring Sanosuke innocent of the crime of complicity in his father’s treason. He wouldn’t even need to spend his mandatory ten minutes considering the matter; rather, he could concentrate on cooling down his right side for a bit. He did consider Sanosuke guilty of some misconduct in his sexual relationship with Saitou, but that behavior, Kenshin was sure, arose from an ignorance and thoughtlessness that Sanosuke was at least on his way to relinquishing. Besides, Saitou had clearly reached a philosophical breakthrough regarding the system of slavery and the treatment of slaves during his time posing as one, so it wasn’t impossible that Sanosuke might have some assistance in considering matters of authority and consent.

And Sanosuke would need assistance in more than that. He’d just had his entire attitude about life turned upside-down, been arrested for and accused of treason and displaced from his longtime home in the process, had his father (whatever his father might be to him) exposed as the worst of men and finally come to terms with his own suspicions about him, and discovered that he himself might be a rapist and was probably at least, as he’d put it, ‘a total ass.’ He needed someone strong and steady and wise in his life right now, and Kenshin had a pretty good idea who that person could be.

If those two ever actually spoke to each other again. Given the level of misconception Kenshin believed he currently observed between them, he wouldn’t be surprised if they went their separate ways from this hall and became little more than bitter memories in each other’s lives.

But what was an arbiter for if not the prevention of such gross injustice?

“I do have a question for you,” Kenshin said, fixing Saitou with a calm but penetrating gaze. “And I would like to remind you, before I ask, that you have taken the Oath of Honesty.”

Saitou looked wary. “Of course.”

“What,” Kenshin wondered in a friendly tone, “are your precise feelings toward the accused at this time?”

There was a long silence during which Saitou’s narrowed eyes remained locked with Kenshin’s, and the arbiter feared the witness might attempt to refuse to answer. Of course if Saitou believed Sanosuke had been doing nothing more than enjoying casual and convenient sex with a perceived slave, he would feel pathetic admitting to any deeper sensibilities. No one liked declaring unrequited love, and the strength to be completely open about something so personal, something that could be turned so easily into a weapon in callous hands, was not one everybody possessed.

But Saitou rallied with a nearly invisible breath and squaring of shoulders. He kept hold of Kenshin’s gaze with his eyes as if it were a lifeline and stated, in just as indifferent a tone as he’d used for anything else he’d said here today, “I have developed an emotional attachment to the accused that, though I can’t call it ‘love’ at this time, is more than friendship and certainly more than I would feel for someone I was merely using to further my investigative efforts.”

A choking sound issued from where Sanosuke stood, but Kenshin was not looking in that direction; he’d felt it more courteous to maintain that eye contact Saitou so clearly needed to make his declaration. Now he gave a slight smile. “Thank you,” he said, and stood, making an automatic and almost unconscious movement away from the wood stove as he did so. “I will withdraw to deliberate, and return with my arbitration in no less than ten minutes’ time.” As Saitou twitched slightly toward the step down from the witness’ platform — on the side away from Sanosuke, of course — Kenshin added, “Please remain where you are until I return.”

Saitou nodded, and stood very still and stiff where he was without looking around. Kenshin met first Megumi’s eye and then Kaoru’s as he turned for the door into his cloister, and each gave him a subtle smile of her own. They knew him too well; they must be aware both of what he’d been aiming for out here and what he planned on saying when he came back.

The arbiter’s cloister was normally unpleasantly chilly at this time of year, but today it was a nice change after the wood stove. Kenshin closed the door behind him and stretched his arms and back, rolling his shoulders and yawning. Then he drew out his pocket-watch to begin counting down.

He hadn’t arbitrated such an interesting assessment in quite a while; and he felt that when, ten minutes from now, he returned into the hall and declared Sanosuke innocent of all criminal behavior at this time, and dismissed both the accused and the final witness to go about their business simultaneously, he would have done a good day’s work.


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

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


His Own Humanity: The New Familiar

It was not a scent or a visual or a sound… he couldn’t quite describe to himself what it was, but it fascinated him.

Cairo thinks about the changes in his life, and about Quatre and Trowa.


Of course by the very nature of the circumstances he couldn’t be certain, but Cairo didn’t think he’d done nearly as much thinking during the entire length of his life prior to some recent point. All his memories before that point — and it was hazy exactly when or what that point was — were unfocused and far more a series of ideas than specific recollections of events. He knew he’d always had a human companion, but had he always recognized that that companion had a name just as he did? He knew other humans had always been around, but had he always been aware of the precise relationships among them? He knew he’d had friends in the form of other dogs, but, while there had always been a certain pack hierarchy that had come naturally to them, had he always been conscious of exactly who and what they were to him, or to the humans they all interacted with?

He knew now that his particular human, called ‘Quatre’ (a name, not merely a common sound), was still fairly young in human terms and loved Cairo in spite of being busy with many human things. He knew now the degree of relationship to Quatre of many of the humans around him — Bernard and Catharine were Quatre’s father and mother, for instance — though there were still some pack dynamics he had yet to fathom, such as where exactly Darryl fit into the scheme of things. And he knew his friend Scrat was very young and a relatively recent addition to the home, though why she was never his mate (and why this didn’t seem to bother either of them) he wasn’t clear on.

And then there was Trowa. Trowa seemed to be an even more recent addition than Scrat to Cairo’s sphere of experience, but, once again, Cairo couldn’t be exactly sure of time frames before that mysterious point when he’d started thinking. Even now he didn’t do much tracking of the passage of time, but felt he could if he wanted to. He knew about days’ beginnings and endings, and he could count, and determine how long it had been since such-and-such if he were inclined to pay attention. In any case, he wasn’t certain how long Trowa had been around, but he was certain it hadn’t been very long.

Trowa was interesting, though. Quatre kept him around as his mate, and quite a bit of time — tracked or otherwise — could probably be spent puzzling over this. Quatre and Trowa were both distinctly male, and yet, Cairo had come to recognize during the meetings he’d had with the newcomer, just as distinctly mates. It was an exercise in this thinking business looking at that relationship from all angles and trying to determine the reasons for it, and he’d had little success thus far. Though he thought he remembered, with the vagueness of all pre-thinking memories, particularly liking the smell and shape of some male dog or other in the past, still the idea of taking another male for a mate seemed strange. Perhaps it was a human thing that would remain forever beyond him.

Trowa was interesting, too, because there was something about him that Cairo had felt about no previous acquaintance. It was nothing he detected with any of the senses he’d always been familiar with — not a scent or a visual or a sound… he couldn’t quite describe to himself what it was, but it fascinated him. Every time Trowa was around, Cairo found himself drawn to him in further attempts at defining — and also the mere desire to experience — this odd sense.

Trowa was kind to him, but did not exactly seem invested. He would play tug-of-war with the rope willingly enough, and gave out pets whenever Cairo came near, but was obviously far more engrossed in whatever Quatre did. That was only to be expected, given the obvious bond between the two humans and the fact that Quatre was pretty clearly alpha; but it also confused him that the unexplained sense about Trowa could exert so much pull when Trowa obviously wasn’t deliberately attempting influence or dominance with it, when his thoughts weren’t even fully on Cairo at any given moment.

Quatre too had been less invested than usual in interacting with Cairo lately. At least, Cairo thought it was less than usual — he believed Quatre had been more attentive to him in the past, but that same barrier to specific memory was still in place. In any case, he put together, over the days of watching and thinking more, an impression of distraction on Quatre’s part based (he theorized) on the new interchange with Trowa. Trowa certainly did not threaten to replace Cairo, as there was a world of difference between the type of relationship each had with Quatre, but he did take up a lot of Quatre’s time and energy that could otherwise have been spent on the dog.

Cairo was saddened by this. Again, it seemed logical — a mate must always be distracting — but to a creature that enjoyed spending time with and having the attention of a beloved companion, it felt tragic to have lost so much of that companion’s notice.

Today was a happy day, however. Quatre had evidently recognized Cairo’s forlornness, and that recognition was the reason for this car trip. Cairo enjoyed riding in the car — though not, evidently, as much as did the frantic Scrat — and considered the experience more than sufficient apology for recent neglect. Quatre made cheerful human noises to him as they went along, and Cairo looked out the window and saw all the incomprehensible things, and it didn’t much matter that he was beginning to feel a little sick — today was a happy day.

He’d partially emptied his stomach, which felt a bit better in consequence, by the time Quatre let him out of the car, but he was still salivating a great deal, and thus was pleased to see one of Quatre’s human friends nearby with a bowl of water for him. This friend must have a name — almost everybody did, Cairo was learning — but he couldn’t remember it; he was fairly sure he hadn’t encountered this one since the thinking had begun. He appreciated the water regardless.

As Quatre and his friend vocalized at each other and Cairo finished his drink, the dog’s interest suddenly piqued at an unexpected touch of the familiar. At first he couldn’t be certain he was really detecting something present and not remembering something past — did memory work that way? — but after a short while he was convinced he really did sense it: that same strange feeling he always had about Trowa. But Trowa was not present. Where did it come from?

Since sniffing around was essentially the only way he knew to search out any phenomenon and made him feel as if he was accomplishing something, he set to, though well aware it was not a smell he sought. Just the seeking movement involved must be productive; he became sure of this when he was successfully able to track the sense over to the immediate vicinity of Quatre’s friend. Was it the friend himself? The humans were still largely ignoring him while making loud noises at each other — they were some distance apart — so he continued his investigation.

There it was: an object held loosely in the hand of Quatre’s friend, making, like many objects, its own noises similar to the human sounds. And it definitely felt the way Trowa did. That strange sense was unmistakable, and just as compelling as when Trowa exuded it. Cairo went right up to the thing for closer examination.

It seemed to imitate the humans’ noises very well: though it was quieter, Cairo’s ears could detect no other significant difference. Perhaps, then, it only imitated that other sense too? Human objects were often remarkable that way.

Still, did Quatre know about this? Was he aware that a sense identical to his mate’s, whether genuine or imitation, hung about an item seemingly in the possession of his friend? Cairo wasn’t certain Quatre knew about the sense in the first place, but the similarity seemed worth noting even so. This might be something important, something he would want to attend to. What was the use of Cairo being able to think if he couldn’t make decisions that would help his dear companion? He would have to show him.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



His Own Humanity: Consummate Timing

It started with a feeling out of nowhere that she should omit the green onions, and she laughed at the unexpected strength of the impression as she removed the vegetables from the thin produce-section bag and set them on the cutting board. She liked green onions, and part of the reason she’d even decided to try this recipe was the anticipated combination of these with chicken broth and soy. And yet, as she reached for a knife to begin chopping and raise the crisp smell, she was struck yet again with the bizarrely strong thought that she would like this concoction better without green onions.

She tended to prefer trying recipes as they were written, and deviate the next time only if she’d found some element specifically inhibiting her enjoyment of the finished product. There was no reason to strike green onions from this lineup her first time through; it would be silly and slapdash. But now with each crunching contact between knife and cutting board, the idea reiterated itself more emphatically and with more detail. Green onions were a bad addition to this recipe. She wouldn’t like their texture here. They wouldn’t keep well if she wanted to freeze some of this for work lunches. Better to save these ones she was chopping for the enchiladas.

Finally her hands stilled, and she let out another laugh more puzzled than the previous. What was this, chef’s intuition or something? Had her subconscious decided she was an expert master of the kitchen all of a sudden, for it to be throwing these baseless ideas at her? Well, if she was so determined, on some level or other, not to have green onions in this soup, who was she to argue with herself? With a shrug she finished chopping them and then swept them into a Tupperware container for enchilada use later.

In the next room, Goldie started barking. Cathy turned down her cooking music a trifle and went to see what that was about. Before she had traversed even the short distance from the kitchen to the living room, however, the answer came to her: Goldie had seen a rabbit out the window and lost her head.

Cathy paused. She’d managed to curb her pomeranian’s urge to bark at every single thing in the world, but rabbits, for some reason (perhaps because they were just Goldie’s size) were more than the dog could tolerate in silence. Therefore, that Goldie was currently protesting the presence of a rabbit minding its own business out in the bushes in front of the apartment was not only a perfectly natural assumption, but really the only assumption. But Cathy hadn’t assumed. She knew Goldie was reacting to a rabbit as surely as if she’d already seen it; in fact, much in the style of a memory, she felt as if she had seen it: white tail, ragged grey-brown body, round at rest and scrawny in motion…

With a bemused smile, she went to fetch her dog off the back of the sofa. “Come on, Golden Crust, time to shut up.” The glance she cast toward the night-dark outdoors revealed no lagomorphic invaders, but it didn’t really matter.

Goldie twisted in Cathy’s arms to try to keep looking out the window, but she’d stopped barking as soon as she’d been lifted from her perch. Cathy filled the absence of yapping by singing along with the song that was playing in the kitchen, into which she carried her pet. There, she distracted Goldie with some little bits of chicken before leaving her on the floor under the table, turning the music back up so she could sing louder herself, and getting back to her recipe.

Her vocalization faded, however, in the middle of what would otherwise have been a particularly satisfying held note, when she knew that Celine Dion’s The Reason, one of her favorite pieces to accompany by one of her favorite artists to imitate, would be playing next.

Now she was frowning. She turned from her barely resumed cooking endeavors to stare up at the iPod docking station on top of her refrigerator. All conjured visual details aside, knowing about the rabbit was one, fairly explicable thing. But this? The mix was on shuffle, as usual, so there was no way she could know what would play next. The chances of guessing were one in about six hundred — worse than that, really, since she didn’t even remember everything on there.

For the full minute and a half or so that remained of the current song she stared, motionless, at the red iPod that looked disproportionately small between its accessory speakers, while Goldie hindlegged up toward her knee to request more chicken. Only when the strings, piano, and synthy-sounding brass thing that started next had turned center stage over to the pensive voice of Celine Dion did Cathy turn her own pensive attention to her dog.

“Goldie,” she said, “how did I know that?” She bent and lifted the pomeranian to face level and repeated, as her nose was licked, “How did I know that, Goldie Gold Rush?” After kissing the top of the little head, she replaced the dog on the floor. “No more chicken right now, baby.”

Goldie did a jumping wiggle dance in a full circle around Cathy, then ran out into the living room again. Cathy, meanwhile, threw another glance at her iPod — and the aural equivalent of a glance at Celine Dion — before trying to focus once more on her late dinner preparations. “Baby, you know what I mean,” she sang along experimentally, and then fell silent, frowning again.

How had she known what song would play next? How had she known what Goldie was freaking out about? How had she known not to put green onions in her soup? Why was she suddenly knowing things without having to go through the usual steps of finding out?

The intense scrutiny she’d been giving the recipe since turning back to it had led nowhere, as the decision on how to alter the preparation steps to accommodate the lack of green onions had been put off by her wondering how she knew what she knew. Now the decision was further postponed when a jumbled set of information, like a handful of colorful beads that hadn’t necessarily all broken from the same necklace, came to her just as the previous knowledge had. In this instance, however, she believed — no, she knew that the idea — if such an incohesive collection of thoughts could be called that — had arrived specifically in answer to her question.

“What is all this?” she wondered pensively as she went about her mental examination. Individually, the little bits were fairly understandable; some, like the rabbit, were precise enough to call up or even provide a visual in her head. In brief vignettes that faded in and then out she saw faces, and with each came a concise encapsulation of how she felt about the person (though for the last it was merely the awareness that she didn’t know him). And they, in combination, had somehow prompted or led to this thing that was happening. So far, so clear.

This clarity provided little assistance, however. What exactly did her elderly next-door neighbor, her co-workers, her newly discovered relative, and some spiky-haired guy she’d never met have to do with this odd experience she was suddenly having? She couldn’t think of anything in common among the five of them.

“Emily, Heero, Dorothy, Trowa, some guy I’ve never met,” she said contemplatively, then repeated it twice more in a sing-song chant of curiosity as she started giving specific thought to each.

Emily was a funny old lady that lived in #9 with her chihuahua. The latter liked to play with (and to some extent bully) Goldie when their humans met at or on the way to the nearby dog park, but accepted his mistress’s fond remonstrances about his overbearing behavior, worded as if to another human, with surprising obedience. Always having been fond of Emily, Cathy sometimes took her dinner or lent a hand with her chores.

Heero was a decent guy that generally just wanted to be left alone and do his job, an attitude Cathy respected even if she did prefer a touch more social interaction than he seemed to. He’d had a difficult time lately, what with the unpleasant behavior of one of his few friends and the sales team’s seeming obsession with the matter. So far there had been very little Cathy could do to help, other than try to put a damper on any gossipy conversation she happened to have any influence over at work so as to spare both Heero and Duo the discomfort of hearing Quatre endlessly speculated about.

Dorothy was not a bad manager, despite sometimes coming across a little like a puppeteer entertaining herself rather than an audience by trying to whip up the most interesting possible interactions among those under her charge — which was the reason, as Cathy had overheard Heero speculating just yesterday, she was considering having Duo train with Wufei. Dorothy was somewhat strange, even without taking those eyebrows into account, and always had an air about her of knowing more than she was saying. Perhaps she too, then, sometimes knew things she had no rational way of knowing.

And Trowa… Trowa was, for all practical purposes, still a stranger. He and Cathy had determined their relationship, at that chance first meeting in Quatre’s office, by tracing their lines back to shared great-great grandparents Sinead Barton and her common-law husband Walter Young, and there was very little rhyme or reason to the closeness Cathy seemed to feel with such a distant relation she’d talked to for a few hours at most. Ever since she’d met him, she’d had this somewhat inexplicable desire to help and comfort him, almost as if he were one of her actual brothers rather than a previously unknown cousin to the fourth degree. Maybe this unprecedented sense of family had something to do with this unprecedented trickle of improbable knowledge… though she couldn’t imagine what.

Even in the midst of wondering about tonight’s strange business, she still managed to hope Trowa was doing all right. If Heero was having a hard time with Quatre’s predicament, Quatre’s boyfriend must be even more unhappy — especially since Quatre’s problems seemed to date back to that fight Trowa had mentioned they’d had the day she’d first met him. She wondered how Trowa was handling the disappearance.

In answer — once again, she knew it was in answer to her concerned curiosity — she got a sense of Trowa that took her breath away. Without knowing how she could possibly be so certain, she was aware all of a sudden that Trowa, this very moment, was suffering deeply. She could almost see his pale, freckled face, half shadowed by its concealing fall of hair in the darkness of some dimly lit place, concentrated in despair and helplessness. No, there was no ‘almost;’ she did see it, briefly but clearly. Trowa was at a park somewhere, beside a grove of trees, standing stone-still and hurting.

Cathy made a mournful sound as she tried to reorient herself to the things around her, remind herself where she still was. “Sorry, but you’re distracting,” she said to the iPod as she moved to turn off the music above the refrigerator entirely. Then, just as sluggishly, she started to put away the soup components. She wouldn’t be finishing this tonight; it was a little late, thanks to the shopping she’d done immediately after work, for dinner anyway, and suddenly she was peculiarly devoid of appetite.

She still had no idea why she was knowing and seeing what she was. Something strange had started, for some reason, had entered her life without warning, and thus far she seemed to have little or no control over it. Would it continue?

Yes, it would.

Would it improve?

Yes, the beginning was always the most grotesque and difficult to deal with, the time when manifestations were unbidden and unbiddable.

“Well, that’s good to know!” she said with a nod.

Possibly, though, none of this mattered at the moment. After all, if it was going to continue and it was going to get better, she had time and optimism on her side. Others might not have such happy resources.

Continuing her tidying efforts one-handed, she pulled out her phone and called Trowa.

After two rings she guessed, “His phone is off;” after three, “He doesn’t have it with him;” and after four, “He doesn’t want to talk to anyone;” but when Trowa actually answered, with the deadest-sounding greeting she’d ever heard, she said in facetious triumph, “Ah! There you are!”

He made no reply, so she went on. “Since you aren’t willing to call your cousin when you need cheering up, your cousin has to bring the cheering up to you.”

“Cathy. That’s so kind of you.” He didn’t ask how she’d known he needed cheering up. It was probably a pretty consistent need lately. “Today has been… bad.” There was in his voice, immediately under the dullness and lack of energy, a sound of something agitated and miserable pent up and building.

“On top of everything else lately?” she commiserated. “I’m sorry!”

“Just now I had to overhear an argument that led to romance, and I couldn’t stand it. They didn’t remind me at all of myself and Quatre, but romance two doors down was too much for me; I couldn’t stay to hear any more of it.”

“Of course you couldn’t.”

“It was foolish of me to come here, though.” He said it more to himself than to her. “Quatre and I came to this park the first night I met him, for a few minutes, and… I haven’t seen him in a week.” His volume rose slightly. “I believe most people could easily last a week, but I…”

“You miss him and you’re worried,” Cathy supplied. It felt as if Trowa needed to confide in someone, needed to pour out in full whatever was weighing him down. Would he have sought anyone to hold this therapeutic conversation with if she hadn’t called?

No, absolutely not.

Well, it was a damn good thing this silly knowing-things thing had started tonight rather than tomorrow, then.

“Quatre is one of the most important parts of my life,” was Trowa’s quiet response. “Before I met him, I was… for so long… for so many years…”

He was only about Cathy’s age; how many years could he possibly have spent in the state he was beginning to describe?

The answer was no exact number, but it was very distinctly a startlingly larger span of years than Cathy had been expecting (and she was getting to the point where she was beginning to expect these answers to some, at least, of her questions). Breathless, she continued listening as the anticipated outpouring seemed to build momentum:

“I did something terrible once, something that separated me from the rest of the world and put me into a world of my own where the only thing I could do was work to make amends. There was nothing else in my life. Nothing else existed to me. Just trying to fix what I had done wrong.”

Wondering what Trowa could have done that was bad enough to be described in such terms, Cathy got the feeling Duo had been involved somehow — and that it had, indeed, been very bad.

“It’s over now. The problem is solved, though I didn’t have much to do with its solution. And Quatre is… I can hardly describe it… he was the first part of the real world to come into my world — my little, miserable world that was all about penance and had no room in it for anything that would make me happy — and try to pull me out, now that I can come out. He’s not just someone I love because of his personality; he is the entire world to me. He represents everything that exists outside of those 87 years and all the unhappiness and the person I was for all that time.”

There it was. 87 years. Trowa probably hadn’t meant to mention that exact, mind-boggling number, but, lost now in his cathartic monologue, might have forgotten whom he was talking to.

“He wouldn’t want to hear me say that I can’t live without him, but I can’t live without him. I don’t mean that I’ll die if he doesn’t come home or if we can’t find him; I mean that what people consider ‘really living’ is impossible for me as I am now without him. Even with the curse broken, I would still be trapped in that other little world, I would still be that other, miserable half person if Quatre hadn’t pulled me out.”

A broken curse, was it? ‘Magic,’ then, Cathy supposed, was the word she wanted to describe this night, utterly incredible as that seemed. And actually she was accepting it remarkable calmly — maybe with this improbable knowledge thing that seemed to be her share in the supernatural came a heightened ability to accept the things she improbably knew.

“And every day he’s not here, I feel like I’m slipping back, losing ground. I’ve been working on becoming more my own person and an active part of the real world, but I’m not strong enough to stand on my own. I’ve made resolutions, and I’m trying just as Quatre wants me to, but I’m not there yet. I need him. I don’t want to depend on him, I don’t want to be a burden on him, and I think, with his help, someday I’ll be beyond needing him — but I’ll never be beyond wanting him around or loving him. And right now I do still need him, and I miss him for that and every other reason.”

Sounds like you could do with some psychiatric help, cousin, she didn’t say aloud. He was probably well enough aware of that.

“And listening to these people tonight talking about their relationship and how it should be changed by one of them being in love with the other… I said it didn’t remind me at all of Quatre and myself, but in some ways it did — just the fact that it was two people connecting like that, and talking about the ways they work together, and what their future should be. It made me miss Quatre so much… it was just such bad timing…”

And then, after he’d further tormented himself by leaving for a place that would only remind him more of Quatre, the state of the night’s timing had somehow reversed when Catharine had called at precisely the right moment to trigger this outpouring of thoughts and feelings that would probably otherwise have remained unproductively dammed up behind Trowa’s habitually tight lips. And that had only taken place because her weird knowing-things power (was it a power? Yes) had only started to manifest, in some kind of unexpected awakening, at precisely the right moment to prompt her to think about Trowa and sense his needy despair.

Was some supernatural hand guiding this process? God? Fate? Some magical overlord? Or had Trowa’s plight, perhaps, spurred his cousin’s new spiritual development? Or was it all, including the miraculous moment at which it had happened, merely an unthinkable coincidence?

To these questions, unfortunately, there came no answer.

Meanwhile, Trowa continued to pour out his heart. “Because it wouldn’t even have been so disturbing to overhear if, earlier today, just today, I hadn’t found out that Quatre may be in danger. We thought he was hiding; we thought it was simple. He’s the kindest person in the world, so of course we believed he doesn’t want to face anyone while he’s possessed and acting so unkindly to everyone — it was horrible to think of him going through that alone, but it made sense.”

Possessed?? To a list that included living for 87 years and still looking 25, knowing things with no way of knowing them, and invoking and breaking curses, Cathy added demonic influence. No wonder their projected completion date kept getting pushed out!

“But earlier I discovered that he sent a dangerous email that may have gotten him kidnapped. I know he’s not dead, but I haven’t been able to find out anything more than that yet — not where he is or how he’s doing or what kind of trouble he might be in. I was never very good at divination, but I’m unforgivably bad at it since my drop in power.”

Cathy filed away the very useful word ‘divination,’ which it would have taken her some time to come up with on her own, while pitying Trowa thoroughly for considering a lack of natural talent in some area ‘unforgivable’ simply because it would have been a useful skill in a certain situation. She just wanted to hug him. Feed him some chocolate, maybe.

“My computer was destroyed in the fire, so I have to sneak into Quatre’s room and use his just to access the internet. I’m more helpless than ever. I thought before that this is a little like all that time I spent trying to find Duo, but now it’s almost worse. I can barely divine anything, I have no computer, I’m not ready to trade favors yet, and the person I’ve been counting on to help me become effective and self-sufficient in some area other than surviving to see the curse broken is the person who’s possessed, missing, and possibly in serious trouble with a moon-worshiping cult that contains at least a fire commander and a brainwashing communicator.”

Even as she added brainwashing and the ability to command fire to the list she’d mentally headed ‘Magic That Exists,’ Cathy noted that this seemed to be the end of the rant. She hadn’t interjected at any point, wanting neither to break Trowa’s flow nor to remind him that he was talking to someone supposedly unfamiliar with the supernatural life he seemed to be so deeply entrenched in. Now she tried to think of something to say.

Before she could, however, he cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said in the placid tone she was more familiar with, though he also sounded somewhat embarrassed, as if he’d just come out of a deep reverie and remembered she was on the line. “I don’t know what made me go on like that.”

She did. She didn’t understand why it had started when it had started, but the consummate timing had been everything.

“Probably the majority of that made no sense,” he went on, “and you believe I’m crazy now, but…” There was no mistaking his sincerity as he finished, “thank you for listening.”

Listening had clearly been key. Useful as some of his statements had been to her, with what was happening to her tonight, he hadn’t really needed her to understand most of what he’d said. The mere opportunity to say it to a sympathetic listener seemed to have been invaluable to him.

“I’m happy to listen to my crazy cousin any time,” she answered lightly. “But Trowa…” Despite the greatest benefit having been drawn merely from her open ear presenting itself at just the right time, she felt that what she was about to say would form a capstone to that, and be of no little importance. “Please remember that you and Quatre both have other friends! Other people care about you and want to see you be the person you want to be, and other people care about Quatre and want to see him safe. You’re not alone, even without him around, and you’re not the only one who wants to save him! I think you’re stronger than you think you are. And even if you feel like you’re more helpless than ever, your friends will help. Don’t forget about us!”

After a deep breath he said slowly, “You’re right. I think sometimes I feel it’s not fair to rely on one of my friends the way I used to, after what I did to him, even if he has forgiven me. And I’m only just starting to think of another as a close friend. But you’re exactly right. I’ve even had strong proof of it lately, but tonight made me lose track for a while. I can count on them, and I shouldn’t forget it.” He’d stopped using names, she noticed; he’d recollected himself.

“And me too!” She voiced it facetiously, but she meant it. “I’m your cousin, aren’t I?”

No, she wasn’t; their precise relationship had some other name she wasn’t getting at the moment.

She did know she wasn’t his mother, though.

Trowa didn’t elaborate either; how much he realized she grasped now that he wasn’t quite as he’d originally presented himself, she couldn’t be sure. “Thank you so much, Cathy. You don’t know how much better I feel after talking to you.”

“Like I said, bringing the cheering up to you!”

“And you don’t know how much I needed cheering up after this awful day.”

“Actually, I think I figured that out.”

“I can’t say I’m happy, but… I’m less unhappy. I’ll survive.”

“Make sure you do! And also remember you can call me if you want to talk crazy at someone? You don’t have to wait for me to call!”

He gave a faint, sad-sounding laugh. “You’re right.” Then with a sigh he added, “I should check whether those two lovebirds at my house are done with their drama yet so I can get back to work.”

“They’re at your house?”

“Yes, one’s a guest and the other showed up looking for him so they could make a scene. I have no idea what they may have been doing in my absence.”

“You should kick them out,” Cathy advised. “That’s so rude of them!”

“They should eventually be useful. One of them has already been useful. And they had no idea what I’ve been through today and how their conversation would affect me.”

“But still, in somebody else’s house…!”

Again Trowa laughed softly, then said formally, “Thank you for your concern, and again for your call.”

Sensing that the latter would end now if she didn’t say anything to prevent its doing so, Cathy briefly considered bringing up the new magical ability that had set all of this in motion. Trowa obviously knew a fair bit about magic, and could probably explain what was happening to her tonight, what circumstances involving himself and a few others had set it in motion, and what she could expect in the future — if not necessarily whether God had had a hand in it.

But after only a moment’s thought she decided against this. She didn’t know whether magic had told her what advice to offer Trowa a little earlier, and she didn’t know whether magic was the impulse of her decision now, but she was sure it would only add to Trowa’s stress if she sought guidance and information from him tonight. The power she’d gained was odd and inscrutable so far, but not yet unpleasant or disruptive; she could get by without harassing her friend and relation about it for now.

“Of course!” she said. “Go boot some people out of your house.”

“Good night.”

“Bye!”

Cathy looked down at where her lap had been occupied by a yellow-orange, lion-shaved pomeranian ever since she’d wandered with her phone into the living room and sat down on the sofa. “Well, Goldie Bacon Pie,” she said contemplatively, “it seems like I’m an oracle, Trowa’s at least 87 years old, and Heero and Duo and Dorothy are probably all in on it. What do you think about all that, Goldie Goldmine?”

In reply, the dog gave Cathy that happy pomeranian grin, turned a circle on her lap, and jumped down off the couch.

“You think more chicken, I can tell.” Cathy shook a finger at her pet and stood. “You are not healthy, Goldie Glutton!” Though what, exactly, she wondered, was the caloric benefit or drawback of small bits of chicken to an also-small dog?

Nothing good, apparently.

How was she to go about getting more specific answers to things she wondered about? It seemed a fairly useless talent if all she could summon was a general sense and the occasional vague vision.

It would involve speaking aloud. These spontaneous answers to mental questions were a sign of her awakening talent, and wouldn’t last. Eventually she would have to do things properly.

“All right, universe,” she tried, “how about a more specific answer about poms and chicken?”

No reply.

On a whim she asked next, “Where is Quatre Winner?”

No reply.

She shrugged, unsurprised and undisappointed that this wasn’t working for her yet. If magic ran in families, it was even possible that her divination would be, like Trowa’s, unforgivably bad. And she wouldn’t be quitting Winner Plastics and setting up a crystal ball stand on a corner somewhere no matter what her unexpected talent turned out to be like.

She did think she might have a look on the internet to see if anyone else had ever experienced a sudden awakening of visionary ability, and how they’d dealt with it if they had. Other options might be to talk to Heero (though much the same restraining considerations applied to him as to Trowa), to Dorothy, or to Emily next door. Oh, and she never had given much thought to the unknown young man whose face she’d seen in connection with the beginning of this affair.

All of this might turn out to be a bit of a burden, really: an unknown, unexpected magical power, and she ethically barred from discussing it with the people that might be most helpful… a bundle of possibly confidential information having been laid on her shoulders during a friend’s moment of weakness… a desire to help and support that might be far more difficult than she’d originally imagined…

And yet dealing with burdens was something she secretly rather relished. She enjoyed a busy schedule full of responsibilities, doing her best at difficult tasks others shied from, pitting herself against challenges. She really feared very little in the world, and the positive stress induced by the importance of any given venture only honed her skills toward dealing with it.

A need for research on an obscure topic? A set of friends not what they seemed, possibly dangerous and in danger? An awareness of the existence of cults staffed by kidnappers and brainwashers, a world into which she might, if she pursued this, be dragged? A side of herself she’d never imagined?

Bring it on.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

The title of this fic has an obvious meaning and two secondary meanings or references. The first person to guess what those two meanings or references are will win a ficlet from me on the topic of their choice.

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera


The amount of work available to an exorcist at any given time was completely unpredictable. Hajime could — and sometimes did — go weeks without hearing from anyone, and feel grateful that he had another source of income a little less fickle. And then, because that was the way the world moved, he would get multiple requests for help in a single day, and send a fifth call to voicemail because it came in the middle of the fourth. This was satisfying, and, as he connected to listen to the message the last caller had left, his mood was complacent as he looked forward to an upcoming week of work.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou. This is Bridgestone Gains at U.S.Seido.”

Hajime stiffened. It had been an ongoing relief not to hear anything from Seido for the last five months, but just under that relief lay always the awareness that it wasn’t impossible that he might. He’d been keeping his ears open for any news about the yakuza that might concern him, such as any hint of haunting of premises or possession of persons — since, after the service he and Sano had rendered them back in March, any subsequent necrovisual problems were sure to prompt Seido to contact no one but him — but as yet hadn’t heard anything to worry him. He’d carefully kept himself from anticipating never having to deal with them again, and was glad now that he hadn’t allowed hopes to arise that would have been dashed today.

“It has come to my attention,” Gains went on, “that the police want to question you.”

Hajime’s frown deepened. This was news to him, and hadn’t been one of the reasons he’d conceptualized for Gains to be calling him.

“They can be so inconvenient…” The old man’s voice was easy and fairly cheerful, so very different from how he’d sounded when Hajime had interacted with him before. “Especially when there are important parts of your life they just wouldn’t comprehend.” Gains chuckled. “It’s like a drama class exercise just talking to them! I very well understand the position you’re in: even if you had nothing to do with the young man’s disappearance, there are a lot of questions you’d rather not answer. I have certainly been there.”

Disappearance? Hajime made a sudden gesture of understanding.

“So I thought you might appreciate a place to stay for a while. I can offer you somewhere to relax and be sure nobody will bother you until a more convenient time… after all this business with your missing client has been sorted out, for example. It’s an extremely comfortable suite with everything you could need, and there’s more than room for two, if you wanted to bring your partner.”

Now Hajime smiled grimly. Apparently ‘this kind of queer bullshit’ wasn’t so much a problem in this context. He’d known at the time that the homophobic sentiment had been a subconscious one brought out by Gains’s shade-induced anger, something he wouldn’t have verbalized under normal circumstances, but it was still darkly amusing to hear him now offering Hajime a sort of luxury vacation or retreat with his presumed gay lover.

“So call me back and let me know whether or not this would help you out. The offer stands as long as you need it.” Gains left his personal cell number, something Hajime assumed not a lot of people were allowed — his initial call had come in from ‘Restricted’ — and said a friendly goodbye.

Pensively Hajime saved the message, hung up, and pocketed his phone. He had a lot to think about all of a sudden.

So Gains was keeping an eye on him, was he? Looking out for him, apparently, and minutely enough that he knew about things like related police agendas before Hajime himself did. What a lovely thought. Who didn’t want a mob secretary peering silently over his shoulder?

That was all Hajime had time for before his phone vibrated again. If this was Gains with a second try, he was just going to have to leave another message, because Hajime definitely hadn’t decided on a response yet. It was with some reluctance that he withdrew his phone once more and looked at it, but then he answered quickly when he saw the caller’s name.

“Someone is leaking police information to U.S.Seido,” was how he greeted his friend.

“What?” demanded the startled Chou. “How do you know?”

“Because I just got a call from Seido about the police wanting to question me.”

“Shit. Even I just heard about that.”

“I assume this is about Quatre Winner?”

“That’s right.” Chou sounded distracted now; he was probably running through various co-workers in his head, trying to decide who he thought was passing information to the local yakuza. “Yeah, Winner senior reported Winner junior missing, and you talked to the son the last day he was around, I guess? The guys on this just want to ask you some questions — you’re not a suspect or anything — but I figured you’d still want a heads-up before they showed up at your door.”

Hajime thanked him with genuine gratitude. And when Chou said nothing in response, Hajime added a little impatiently, “You do remember I can read minds? If you want to know who’s spying on the police, we can come up with a way to find out.”

“Yeah…” said Chou slowly. “I’m not sure I do want to know. You know we don’t touch Seido unless we absolutely have to.”

“You’d probably be better off knowing anyway.”

“Yeah…” Chou said again. “Yeah. I’ll let you know if I want to set something up.”

“And let me know if you hear anything else about me.”

“Right. Or if that Winner guy turns up.”

“I’ll probably hear about that before you will.”

“What, from Seido?”

“God forbid.”

Chou laughed darkly. “Well, try not to get yourself killed by the mob, OK? I’m already working on a shit-ton of paperwork.”

“I’ll make it as complicated as possible just to keep you late.”

“Yeah, you have a nice day too.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Hajime re-pocketed his phone and cast a calculating glance around. He barely noticed, though, such details of the room as Tokio asleep on the couch or the DVD’s of the series he and Sano were currently watching strewn across the coffee table. He had a decision to make, and it needed to be made quickly.

Of course there was the option of just letting the police talk to him. He wasn’t a criminal, after all, and had no reason to fear the law. But the possibility that the specific officers that came to talk to him would happen to be aware of magic and would understand what was going on did not strike him as great — and otherwise, explaining that, carrying a sword, he’d talked to Winner junior the last day he was around because he’d been hoping to exorcize angry supernatural energy from him might provide a reason to fear the law.

If his last few months’ independent study of communication magic had progressed in that direction, brainwashing the police into believing that the completely unsuspicious Hajime Saitou had nothing useful to tell them would have been quick and convenient… but that had never been a technique that interested him much, so he hadn’t looked into it.

Conceivably he could make something up the normal way, invent some other, less magical reason to have visited that Winner Plastics office last week — but if he was going to mislead them, why bother having the conversation at all? They had a job to do, and the missing young man needed to be found in any case (not least so he could be exorcized); rather than complicate things (and probably get himself in trouble later for obstructive behavior), it seemed better to avoid the questions entirely, to fade out of sight until the matter had been resolved.

But did that mean taking Gains up on his offer? In some ways it was tempting — it would certainly be a very neat solution to the problem, and Hajime had to admit to some curiosity about the kind of accommodations Seido would provide — but in others it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine accepting what was essentially a friendly favor from a mob secretary. And yet how would it look to Gains if he refused? U.S.Seido was an organization that needed to be dealt with carefully, and he certainly didn’t want to stir resentment by appearing antagonistic toward them.

What inoffensive excuse, though, could he offer Gains for not accepting? Where else could he go? Of his three friends, one lived across the country, one was the cop he’d just talked to, and one was likely to be visited at home by police looking for Hajime should Hajime not be immediately locatable; he couldn’t stay with any of them. And a hotel would probably not satisfy Gains — why pay for an impersonal room when Gains was offering one much more convenient and luxurious for free? And if Seido people continued watching him, engaging a hotel room and then claiming he was doing something else seemed unwise.

This was irritating. Just when Hajime had been anticipating a happily busy week, something like this had to come up. Now, no matter where he stayed, he would probably have to put off the appointments he’d made, leave people hanging that really did need his help, and probably lose business because of it. Quatre Winner had chosen an inconvenient time to disappear.

It undoubtedly hadn’t been his fault, though: his was a particularly severe case, and the young man couldn’t really be blamed for rash actions under the influence of that anger. Furthermore, the artifact possession added an interest to the situation that made it impossible for Hajime to be annoyed with Quatre personally, despite any inconvenience he might have caused.

And these thoughts had given Hajime an idea. He scrolled through his contacts to the B’s. Then he couldn’t help gazing, motionless, at the name for a moment with an echo of the wonder he’d felt at their first meeting; it seemed impossible that he should really have this person’s number. He remembered hearing him described in college as ‘an immortal magical superhero who can do pretty much anything’ — and now he was about to casually call him. Suggesting to such a person such an imposition as he now had in mind displeased him, but alternatives were scarce.

“Hello?” came the tired voice from the other end.

“It’s Hajime. I understand that boyfriend of yours is missing.”



Sano stared down at the message again in puzzlement and perhaps a bit of annoyance. Can you feed the cats? it said without a word of explanation. And though he’d written back, Sure, why? a good thirty minutes ago, word of explanation was still lacking. At least Hajime had said ‘can you,’ and ended the text with a question mark, rather than making it an order.

Tokio and Misao wouldn’t be expecting their dinner for another hour or so, which gave Sano some time to make plans before he headed over there. Not that his plans took terribly long: he wanted to know what was going on, why Hajime had texted him such an unexpected request and then started ignoring him, and that meant camping until the exorcist came home and explained himself. Sano would only be working on homework (and then probably video games) for the rest of the evening; he might as well do that at Hajime’s house. He was pretty sure he’d left his physics textbook over there the last time he’d used it anyway.

So he packed up what books he did have as well as his 360. This, of course, meant taking his own car, since he wasn’t going to haul around an X-Box on the bus, but he tried not to grumble too much when the circumstance couldn’t be avoided. At least tomorrow’s bus ride to school from Hajime’s house wasn’t a bad route, and quicker than from his apartment.

Misao jumped up his leg and climbed to his shoulder the moment he was inside the door. She always seemed aware, somehow, when someone was approaching the house, and Sano wondered a little whether she had some kind of divinatory ability Hajime knew nothing about. Though with Hajime, it was more likely that he knew perfectly well and just hadn’t mentioned it. He had, after all, gone almost half a year without deigning to tell Sano that he believed him capable of subconsciously using every different branch of magic. Sano still wasn’t quite over that yet.

“Hi, Misao,” he greeted the little cat as she sniffed at his face. “You hungry?”

She replied that she was, and that he should definitely give her a lot of the wet food she liked so much.

Sano laughed, and didn’t bother responding except by heading into the kitchen. Walking with Misao on his shoulder was always something of a challenge — especially because, even in the few months he’d known her, she’d increased in size, and eventually probably wasn’t going to be able to ride up there anymore. At the moment, she splayed out and dug claws into Sano’s flesh. He’d gotten used to this by now, and resigned himself to its effects on his shirts.

As he entered the kitchen, Tokio gave him an indifferent-sounding greeting from where she stood beside her food bowl. Sano bent to retrieve her water dish, at which point Misao jumped down. As he then moved to grab the other one and rinse them both out, he asked, “Do you guys know where Hajime is?” He might have said something like, “Where’s the uncommunicative bastard who normally feeds you?” but had learned that the cats didn’t do very well with sarcasm. In any case, they didn’t know where Hajime was, so it mattered very little how Sano referred to him.

He went through the somewhat complicated process of doling out a specific amount of dry food alongside a specific amount of wet food for each of the animals, then stood back against a counter while they ate. His eyes were turned toward Tokio’s almost manically quick gulping motions, but he wasn’t really watching; he was puzzling, somewhat annoyed, about Hajime.

It wasn’t as if Sano wasn’t a regular fixture of this house these days, well known to the cats and well versed in their care. It wasn’t as if he minded. He would do much more than just feed the familiars for his friend and sometimes professional partner, provided Hajime asked at least relatively nicely… but where was Hajime? Normally a request for Sano to feed the cats came when Sano already knew what Hajime was about. Though admittedly, now that he thought back on previous instances, this had always been because Sano had known beforehand where Hajime would be rather than because Hajime had actually told him at the time of the request.

Assuming that standing around being frustrated and curious would get him nowhere, he wandered into the den and set up his X-Box. To assuage his annoyance, he would play some Madden for a bit before starting his homework. Hajime, though he sometimes watched a game with a compelling atmosphere, could work up no interest in Madden, so it was better to play it when he wasn’t around in any case.

Then a couple of hours passed without Sano realizing, and the next thing he knew, it was 9:30 and he hadn’t actually started his homework and Hajime had never appeared. Swearing for multiple reasons, Sano pulled out his lovely phone and texted, Seriously where the hell are you? making sure to spell all the words out properly so Hajime would not completely disregard the message. Of course he might — today’s precedent suggested he would — completely disregard the message anyway.

Then, reluctant but aware he needed to hurry, Sano turned his attention toward his books.

The next morning, at what felt like a hugely early hour on a day when he didn’t have to work at oh-dark-hundred, he was partially roused by Misao attacking his feet. It took several instances of him shifting so she fell off the couch, her jumping back up, and him grumbling at her to stop before he reached a greater state of consciousness and realized that it must be breakfast time for the cats. Which meant Hajime must never have come home, since he would have fed them by now.

He dragged himself up and into the kitchen, where Tokio was waiting looking reproachful. Waking sluggishly as he moved, Sano set out food and water and gave slow thought to his day. He needed to check his phone for any response to yesterday’s texts, then get ready for school. Maybe Hajime would answer him or come home while Sano was nicely distracted in class. Assuming class was able to distract him at all.

As he was heading back to the den, however, to look at his phone, the doorbell rang, so he turned again in the opposite direction.

To his surprise, it was two police officers. And if the unexpected advent of badges and uniforms at such an early hour hadn’t startled him, “We’re looking for Hajime Saitou” certainly would have.

“What?!” After this outburst and the jump that accompanied it, Sano shook himself. These guys didn’t appear stern or combative — in fact they seemed fairly friendly — but, well, cops were cops. And the fact that they’d shown up here right after Hajime’s already aggravatingly mysterious disappearance was worrisome. He apologized for his reaction, then added, “Hajime better not have stabbed someone.” Though not a joke the officers would fully understand, this might at least make him appear a little less wary.

“I don’t think so,” one of them smiled. “We just needed to ask him some questions; he’s not in trouble.”

This was probably all the information they would relinquish about what they were here for, so Sano would have to deal with the situation based on only that. If Hajime wanted him to relay some specific story or something, he should have left better instructions than, Can you feed the cats?

Sano stepped aside and said, “He’s not actually here right now, but you guys can come in if you want.”

At that moment Misao, from beside Sano’s leg, yowled up at the officers, greeting and demanding attention.

One of them smiled and stepped inside, crouching to the cat’s level to pet her as Sano moved back to allow him to do so. “Well, hey, there,” the cop said. “What a pretty baby!”

Misao remarked that, while she often wondered what non-communicative humans were saying to her, she was well aware that it probably wasn’t anything she would really care about. Sano thought he might tell her sometime and see what she thought about being a ‘pretty baby.’

“So Mr. Saitou isn’t home,” the second cop, less interested in meeting the cat, remarked. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“No idea.” Sano looked around for the inevitable appearance of Tokio, and followed her movement toward them as soon as he saw where she was. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts.” This was true, but, without mentioning the original Can you feed the cats?, didn’t give any indication that he was aware Hajime was up to something odd. He shrugged. “He never tells me where he’s going, but he usually doesn’t stay out all that long.”

Now the cat-friendly officer had transferred his attention to Tokio, and said from his crouched position, “So you think he might be back here later?”

“I really don’t know,” Sano answered. “I’m heading off to class pretty soon here, so I won’t be around, but you guys could come back and check.”

The officer nodded as he rose, and at the same moment Sano darted to catch Misao around the ribcage before she could bolt out the front door — something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but apparently couldn’t resist trying. “Nope,” he told her. She protested, squirming, in his arms.

“Are you his roommate?”

“Nah, just a friend.” Sano tried not to sound bitter; no reason to indicate to the police that he wished he were, in fact, a very specific type of roommate, more than just a friend. “Sano Sagara.”

The first cop nodded, while the cat-friendly officer smiled and said, “Well, we’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Sano was wrestling with Misao, trying to encourage her up onto his shoulder rather than any other direction, and didn’t look at the face of either policeman.

“Have a good day,” the first said as the two men turned and walked down the front steps.

Sano closed the door behind them, ceasing his struggle with Misao, who batted vengefully at his ear and then started to slide down his arm so she could jump to the floor from a slightly lower altitude. Sano turned to face the house with a frown, looking slowly back and forth between the two cats and feeling the frown grow into a scowl.

“What the hell do the police want with Hajime?” he wondered aloud.

Neither cat entirely understood him, but they picked up on the fact that he was simultaneously angry and concerned, and that both emotions were, to some extent, aimed at Hajime. Misao, losing track of her annoyance about being prevented from leaving the house, wondered whether Hajime was all right; while Tokio, in her superior way, asserted that Hajime was a very effective and powerful being that probably didn’t need anyone to worry about him.

He could hear the alarm he’d set on his phone going off in the next room; he didn’t really have time to pursue this issue right now if he wanted to get to class on time. He made a frustrated noise, which startled Misao, and headed for the den.

Well, if he put off showering until tomorrow, he would have a few spare minutes right now. He decided right away to take this route, and thumbed through the contacts in his phone looking for a specific one.

Though he’d spent some time with Chou and did have his phone number, Sano couldn’t remember ever having called him before. So far they’d gotten along in that way people did where it wasn’t obvious whether or not they actually liked each other, and in fact it could easily be inferred that they didn’t; Sano wasn’t sure what the case actually was, nor how Chou would react to a call from him, but he wasn’t about to refrain when Chou might have some answers.

“Well, this is new,” was how the cop greeted him. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Yeah…” Sano wouldn’t have minded some banter with Chou — the guy was kinda fun to mess around —
but it was more important to seek information. “Have you heard from Hajime? Do you know where he is? And why are your buddies coming around bugging about him?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Chou sounded amused.

Sano made a frustrated sound.

Chou laughed openly. “You guys are a trip.”

“So do you know where he is?” wondered Sano impatiently.

“Nope.”

“But obviously you knew he was going somewhere,” Sano insisted, very impatient. “And what do the cops want from him?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that kind of thing.” Chou’s languid tone was clearly calculated to annoy. “I’m not really supposed to, you know?”

Sano tried very hard to keep from rising to the bait, because the more calmly he could deal with Chou, the sooner he could find out what he wanted to know. “Probably not,” he agreed, sounding annoyed despite his efforts. “But it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Might lose me my job, though.”

Sano took a deep breath. “Come on, you know it won’t. I don’t know where he is, and some cops showed up at his door looking for him and didn’t tell me why.”

“Well, he runs around doing weird shit,” Chou replied lazily, “so that’s no surprise.”

“Seriously,” Sano growled. “If you know where he is, tell me.”

“I already told you I don’t know.”

“What do you cops want with him?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Obviously he didn’t tell you anything.”

With a loud sound of irritation Sano said, “Fuck you!” and hung up. He probably shouldn’t have done that, but he felt like Chou had been deliberately giving him crap and wouldn’t have provided any answers even if he happened to have them. So he went to get ready for school.

On every break during and between the two classes he had that day, he texted Hajime continually. Finally, as he prepared for work, he called. Hajime had never once broken his promise to answer whenever Sano called, and in return, in a sort of unspoken covenant, Sano had refrained from abusing that promise: instead of bothering Hajime whenever he felt like hearing the guy’s voice, he only called when he had a legitimate reason to.

And it was not because he felt his current worry about Hajime’s whereabouts and safety wasn’t a legitimate reason that he had not yet called in this scenario, but because he dreaded initiating the first phone call that would not be answered, dreaded pushing Hajime to break that promise. It felt as if they were progressing toward some sort of crisis… perhaps one that had been long in coming. And now, as his call went directly to voicemail for the first time he could remember, there was a palpable painful clenching of his heart. Agitated, he shoved his phone back into his pocket and headed for the Panda.

He couldn’t bear to try again that day — try calling, anyway; he kept texting at every available opportunity. When he returned to Hajime’s house that night, he tried not to rush inside in the hopes that Hajime might be there, but was still disappointed when he wasn’t. So he just apologized to the cats for the lateness of their dinner and went to bed on the couch in the den again.

Tuesday was much the same, except that he gave up texting about halfway through the day. But by the time he was done with school and work, he was so desperate for answers that he cast about for anything else he might do to get some. He scrolled, aimless and agitated, through his phone contacts again, trying to think who might know anything about what was going on, and stopped at the name of a new friend. It was a long shot, he supposed, but by now he would try anything.

Duo had informed Sano that the number he’d given him was actually his boyfriend’s, since he didn’t currently have a phone of his own, so it was no surprise that it took several rings to get an answer — the taciturn Heero had probably seen the caller name and handed the phone over. And when Duo’s cheerful voice finally answered, Sano got right to the point:

“Hey, this is going to sound weird, but have you heard from Hajime? I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, and weird shit’s happening.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Duo wondered, sounding immensely curious.

“So you know where he is.” Sano’s irritation at the déjà vu the conversation thus far impelled didn’t allow Duo a chance to reply, as he then burst out with, “No, why should he tell me where he’s going? I’m just the friend who can feed the cats when he’s got something else to do, and talk to the police for him, and go fucking insane worrying about him! Why should he tell me anything?”

“As far as I know, he’s perfectly fine.” Duo’s tone of reassurance sounded no less curious and interested than before. “He’s staying at Trowa’s new house.”

“What?” Sano was so surprised that he’d already followed this up with, “Why?” before the very obvious answer — to keep away from the police — occurred to him. That they’d even met one of the biggest celebrities in the magical world was already hard to believe; that Hajime was staying at his house was next to impossible.

“The security guard at the office last week got his name when he came in,” Duo was answering, “and then when it turned out Quatre had disappeared, she remembered Hajime was there the last day anyone saw him, so then when Mr. Winner called the police, Hajime’s name came up.”

“Oh.” So Quatre failing to show on Friday had been upgraded to a disappearance, had it? And the police wanted to question Hajime about it, and Hajime didn’t want to have to explain that he’d been visiting Winner Plastics to perform an exorcism — yes, officer, I’m perfectly serious; no, sir, they’re just normal cigarettes. It all made sense, even if the involvement of Trowa Barton — the real Trowa Barton — still seemed improbable. But, “Why the hell couldn’t he have told me that?” Sano demanded of no one.

“He wanted you to be able to convince the police that you really didn’t know where he was?” Duo suggested.

“You know,” Sano replied sourly, “I might think that might have been his reason if it wasn’t so totally normal for him not to tell me things. You don’t happen to have Trowa’s address, do you?”

“Going to go give Hajime a piece of your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I wish I could see that,” lamented Duo. “Hang on.”

Once he had the address and an admonition to ‘break a leg’ that Duo might or might not have known he would be at least a little tempted to take literally, Sano set out with grim purpose. Now he was glad he’d driven to Hajime’s house, since it meant he could (assuming his car would start) head straight to his next destination without working out an unfamiliar bus route and nursing his impatient irritation for however long that would take.

His curiosity about Trowa Barton was mostly referred, but that didn’t mean what he did feel was weak or transient. He was very interested in seeing this new house, since that would indicate Trowa’s financial situation. What kind of money did a super-powerful immortal magician make? What kind of home would he live in? This was secondary to Sano’s feelings in relation to Hajime, however. He was incredibly annoyed with the guy for letting him worry and not telling him anything about what was going on; and in addition to the annoyance, some of the worry still hung around as well for good measure.

The house turned out to be a nice, decent-sized one in a nice neighborhood, with the forlorn look of a newly purchased home. Sano hoped Duo had given him the right address, because he didn’t hesitate to park in the empty driveway and march right up to the door. And perhaps it was rude, but he first rang the doorbell and then knocked — just in case. After not too long a wait and the sound of footsteps descending a staircase inside, the door opened to disclose Trowa Barton, and suddenly Sano was a little embarrassed.

“Hello,” said Trowa. He didn’t look terribly surprised to see someone he’d barely met on his doorstep — he mostly looked tired and unhappy — but Sano had already noticed that his wasn’t the easiest face to read. In any case, Sano had already knocked, trespassing on the property of the Trowa Barton with a minimal acquaintance with the man and a demand that really had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t going to get any less awkward and embarrassing no matter what he said. He cleared his throat, preparing to explain himself.

“You’re here to see Hajime, I assume,” said Trowa in the interim.

“Yeah,” Sano replied, the word emerging hoarse and abashed.

“Come in,” Trowa said unenthusiastically. This only made Sano feel more awkward, but what other option did he have? He must reassure himself that Hajime really was all right before anything else — and if that meant inconveniencing the Trowa Barton, that was what he would do.