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



Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
33-
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm


Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after t
he next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if there turned out to be one.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt, jerking the equipage to a similarly precipitous stop, as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the latter neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” This was obviously untrue — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion were actually from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she was with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying harmlessly high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He was now holding a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised that they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, really didn’t do much for him; it wasn’t difficult to be brave facing a man on foot when you were on a horse.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The swordsman swept the weapon in his hand at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the bandit’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow did not break all the way through, but there was a loud cracking sound as the blade made contact, and a second similar noise as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter was now even angrier than before and ready for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, the fact that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it was a little more difficult to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife that the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic was standing and looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. “I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not realizing that he was inadvertently complimenting Seijuurou with his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

“How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou mildly, entirely ignoring the young man’s second question. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded. “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Divine lady Tomoe. The black lotus represents death, which Tomoe (among other things) does as well. Here’s the full-color version too:

Why is she in a yoga pose? I’m not entirely sure. Just what I thought looked cool back when I drew the picture, I guess XD

Divine lady Misao. Her symbol is a rabbit because she is, among other things, particularly fond of small, quick animals. Here’s the full-color version as well: