Blood Contingency

Blood Contingency

Part 1

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.



2>>

Part 2

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

Part 3

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Part 4

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.

Part 5

As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.

Part 6

I wasn’t particularly given to discouragement, but to irritation certainly, and I was starting to become rather irritated with this case. A thorough retread of the scene of the latest murder and a similarly meticulous review of everything we knew so far had been completely unenlightening. I had to keep reminding myself that such a reexamination could never be a waste of time — given that sudden epiphanies about things like this usually arose from collected subconscious understanding — just to prevent myself from considering the entire day meaningless. Still, if Hironaku’s investigations into Tomizawa turned up nothing inspiring, I couldn’t help feeling I might as well not have gotten up this morning.

Ironically, this total lack of progress on my part did little to reverse my opinion of the prior two investigators of the issue; I was just as certain of their incompetence as I would have been had I shown up in Tokyo and solved the case overnight. Perhaps this was a double standard of sorts, but I honestly didn’t care.

Eventually Hironaku entered my office looking concerned. Though not an immediate source of worry since he often looked that way, this wasn’t terribly encouraging either; presumably he wouldn’t look that way if he’d had any success. “Well?” I asked.

He started his report standing at attention, and eventually in some annoyance I gestured for him to sit down. It seemed I’d been right about Tomizawa: at least on the surface, the man was utterly unconnected and uninteresting — though he was the same class of businessman as half of the victims. That wasn’t the inciting part of Hironaku’s account, however.

“There was something strange about everyone I talked to,” my dutiful assistant was adding after he’d given me all the facts. “I’m almost certain they’d all been questioned about this before, and not long ago. They seemed intimidated somehow. It looks as if we’re not the only ones investigating Tomizawa.”

I frowned. Although there were quite a few possible explanations for this (among them that Hironaku was simply imagining things), my mind for some reason jumped straight to one potential answer in specific and clung there. I couldn’t help recalling the furnace that had been Sagara’s eyes yesterday when he’d asked about the person who’d hurt his friend, and Tomizawa’s name had been the only thing like a clue that he’d had taken from that conversation. If he’d gotten started on it then, he could well have reached all of the people Hironaku talked to before the latter did. I wouldn’t have thought him that resourceful, but…

Well, it was still just a guess in any event. But, given Sagara’s tendencies to involve himself in anything that held the prospect of a good fight, to stand up for his friends to the point of almost suicidal recklessness, and to do exactly what I told him not to do, it wasn’t exactly unprecedented. And even if he wasn’t behind this, checking on him to make sure he wasn’t up to anything else didn’t seem overcautious.

Hironaku made his usual polite inquiry, “Sir?”

I stood up, apparently with some abruptness if Hironaku’s slight start was any indication. “Look into his business and see if he has any connection there with any of the victims,” I ordered; “we’ll drop this if he doesn’t. I’ll deal with the third party.”

Hironaku made a (rather annoying) curious face, but only said, “Yes, sir.”

Alternately relieved at having some kind of next step to take even if it had little to do with the actual case, irritated almost to the point of anger at Sagara for this as-yet-hypothetical behavior, I went first to the Oguni clinic to look for him.

The look with which Takani greeted me, however, was not at all promising, given that I hadn’t had a cigarette for hours and therefore knew her disapproval didn’t stem from that. A sort of flash of dark triumph showed in her eyes, though, as she seemed to consider something for a moment before saying anything. “They’re not here,” she finally announced.

I shook my head, annoyance and suspicions growing. “Why doesn’t that surprise me…”

“Sanosuke felt he could guard his friend better at his own home, or something like that,” she explained, sounding somewhat exasperated, “and wouldn’t listen to anything I said. It didn’t help that Tsukioka-san is just as reckless and pigheaded as he is.”

“Tsukioka may not be thinking clearly,” I reminded her.

She acknowledged the point with a nod; then that same triumph of a few moments before flickered again in her eyes as she said, “Which makes it entirely Sanosuke’s fault.”

That had been the only reason I’d mentioned it, so I merely nodded as well. Obviously she’d known I wasn’t going to be pleased about this, and was looking forward to having revenge for Sagara’s complete disregard of her concern for her concussed patient exacted through me. I had to admit, I was going to be glad to comply, since I was almost certain Sagara had moved Tsukioka to his own home so he could keep a more consistent eye on him during his comings and goings as he got in the way of my case.

“If you do go over there–” She pronounced this very casually, as if there were any question in the matter– “do make sure Tsukioka-san isn’t moving around too much, won’t you?”

“Certainly. And if you see Sagara before I do,” I added darkly, “don’t mention that I’m looking for him.”

“Certainly,” she echoed, her eyes flashing again.

I smirked slightly and left her.

It occurred to me to wonder, during my carriage ride from the clinic to Sagara’s neighborhood, why I knew where he lived at all. My ally the good doctor hadn’t needed to tell me his address yesterday, and futilely I tried to recall why I’d ever looked it up, an event which I thought had actually taken place the last time I’d been in Tokyo. It was lucky, given that circumstance, that he was even in the same apartment now as then. Not that any of it mattered; it was simply a natural train of thought consequent on going there for a second time in two days.

On reaching the disreputable longhouse, I lifted a fist to knock (pound, rather) on the patched door, but changed my mind as I remembered him neglecting to lock it on the way out yesterday. Testing, finding it unlocked again (or still), I entered without warning.

The place only had one room, so everything was immediately visible: Tsukioka on a futon in the corner, Sagara sitting next to him, apparently in the middle of a relatively quiet conversation and both foolishly drinking sake despite one’s wounded state. Sagara broke off whatever he was saying as I opened the door, turning and beginning an irritated demand, “And who the hell–” but stopped short when he saw me.

If he couldn’t tell by my face that I was upset with him, my practically slamming the door behind me would have made it evident. His tone was already defensive as he wondered, “What do you want?”

“I told you to stay out of this,” I replied stonily without preamble.

His undecided expression settling into a scowl, he growled back, “So? Like I give a shit what you tell me.”

All suspicions confirmed, I didn’t even bother to ask for particulars, but went on with the tactic I thought would probably be most effective. “While you’re out playing vigilante, interfering in police business, your friend here is likely to get assassinated.”

“Why the hell do you think we left the clinic? They won’t know he’s here–”

“Oh, of course,” I broke in with heavy sarcasm, “they’ll have an extremely difficult time guessing he’s gone to his best friend’s house. How long did it take you to come up with that brilliant plan, ahou?”

Sagara sprang to his feet, fists clenched. “Well, if they do come here–”

Again I interrupted; I was in no mood for excuses. “You’ll be out intimidating witnesses I’d prefer to have compliant? What’s your plan in that case, to have him blow up your apartment defending himself?”

“What makes you so sure they’re gonna come after him anyway?” Sagara took a step toward me, clearly ready for a fight. “You don’t even know what’s going on or who we’re up against or why Katsu got attacked in the first place. For all you know–”

“There is no ‘we’ in this, boy.” My own fists were clenched by now; if he wanted a pummeling, I was ready to give him one. “Nor are you in any position to be telling me what I do and don’t know about my own case.”

This seemed to anger him more than anything else I’d said. “So you were lying to me yesterday.” He was shaking his head slightly, and I thought that, for some reason, in addition to being irate, he was also maybe a little hurt. “My best friend gets half-killed, and you give me a bunch of bullshit to try and keep me from getting revenge. You are such a bastard.”

Absolutely nowhere was where I’d feared we might go with this, and those fears were justified more with every passing moment. It was interesting that Tsukioka wasn’t taking part in the exchange, though he was watching intently… perhaps he was still unwilling to talk to me, or maybe simply didn’t have the energy. At any rate, continuing my attempts at rational persuasion was obviously a complete waste of effort. “This is the last time I’m going to tell you without beating it into you,” I said in a tone of finality: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

Sagara’s flaring anger was almost visible in the air around him, and, as such, so was its unexpected cessation; it was like watching a fire die down as something seemed to strike him and he looked at me with a strange expression.

“‘I don’t want you involved,'” he repeated slowly, almost as if to himself, and then again, with heavier accents, “‘I don’t want you involved.'”

He was right; that had been an odd way to word it. This wasn’t his business, he was going to get himself killed, I didn’t need some idiot getting in my way, certainly… but to imply that I personally had some desire for him specifically not to be involved… It may have made my reply a little more caustic even than I’d intended: “Keep repeating it until you have it memorized, ahou, if that’s what it takes. Because if I get so much as a hint that you’re sticking your nose in my business again, I’ll break it along with the rest of you.”

Still he was giving me that look that I didn’t quite understand (or perhaps just didn’t want to), and either had no reply or was, for once in his life, restraining himself. But since the conversation was obviously over, I turned and left.

I’d really expected physical violence from that scene, and wasn’t entirely sure why it hadn’t turned out that way. On some levels Sagara was as incomprehensible as he was asinine, and I thought it was safe to say that I found him as aggravating as he obviously found me, for all I didn’t throw tantrums about it like he did. He was probably back there right now pouring out his irritation to Tsukioka the unfortunate captive audience, whereas nobody would be hearing from me about any of this.

Still, I was stalking away from his apartment with a severe scowl, cursing this maddening end to an unproductive day, Sagara for his stupid persistence, for his expressive face, for picking up on the fact that there might be reasons I wasn’t admitting for not wanting him involved, and for forcing me to say even that much.

Part 7

I’m struck, somehow, by the details of my surroundings. Or, rather, I’m struck by my attention to the details of my surroundings. For while the surroundings themselves are not entirely consistent — the settings alternating from one moment to the next — no matter where I find myself, I view the area with wearyingly, almost painfully precise, acute observation.

At times the stone walls of a labyrinthine cavern surround me. The rock is a dark, slightly warm-tinged grey, uniformly rough-textured, except where mineral deposits liven its surface with off-whites, yellows, and soft oranges in smooth streaks. Fantastically-shaped columns in all these colors rise like strange, unbearably slow-growing plants, marching away in infinite variety into the darkness not far to either side. The scene is lit only by a small flickering light like a fire of some sort; I think it must be an old-fashioned lamp or torch, though no such object is visible.

A web-like network of paths, smoothed to a dull shine by the passage of countless feet, oddly clean of debris and even dust, wind their diverse ways among pointed spires tapering to water-touched tips, boulders so large their full extent cannot be seen in the limited light, misshapen pillars that presumably reach the invisible ceiling, and sudden drops into abyssal darkness. On the rare occasion when the cavern roof dips low enough to be seen, I note that it’s as uneven as the floor, hung with lethal lengths of stone reaching their fragile points down toward me as if regarding me with the same minute attention I give to them as long as they’re in view.

The air is very still, damp with a cool wetness that makes me think somehow of clammy, unresponsive flesh, and faintly acrid. The silence breaks only to the echo of my footfalls and the occasional, distant sound of water dripping into some invisible pool.

At other moments, however, I traverse the claustrophobic corridors of some strange building or complex. The wood forming the old-fashioned paneling that criss-crosses the walls and ceiling is slavishly neat and well cut, and has a preternaturally even grain like the plasticky fake oak coating on cheap plywood furniture. There is a smell like that of fresh-cut wood, but beneath this lingers the same scent of acrid minerals and damp stone as the first setting, and I’m not fully convinced they aren’t actually the same place. The same mysterious light even accompanies me here as it does through the other locale.

Beneath the wooden decorations, the walls and ceilings are neatly plastered and painted, and I have a feeling that all of this covers hard cut stone. The hallways are eight feet wide and the ceiling precisely as high, and this, combined with their seemingly endless length into darkness and the suddenness of crossing ways’ appearance at either side, gives them an increasingly close and paranoid feeling in direct contrast to the cavern’s open moroseness. In fact, as I proceed, a sensation of discontent — of fear, even — grows steadily on me until the speed of my steps is almost double what it was when I began to explore.

Along with this comes, inexorably, the awareness that he is here. Exactly what connection this awareness has with the fear, the nature of the fear, or the continuing evolution of the fear, I can’t tell — but there’s undoubtedly a correlation.

Then, at times, I’m elsewhere; and, while I return continually to the two underground locations, and walk without destination there, this third option is never the same place twice, and my actions fit the circumstances. These scenes hold more narrative cohesion (within themselves, not with each other), as if they’re interpolations of clear but unfamiliar memory into an unsettling, nonsensical main story.

Like me, he’s moving alternately through the corridors and the cave; but whereas my progress is aimless and random, his is purposeful and directed. He’s coming closer. He’s coming to me.

Naturally this alters the nature of my own movement; it’s now as pointed as his. I don’t think I’m afraid of him, precisely, but I don’t want to meet him. And I am afraid of something. It’s a strange, almost giddy sort of fear, intoxicating and not all together unpleasant. In fact, it feels very much like the nervous excitement I remember feeling as a child playing hide-and-seek or certain varieties of tag. Here and now I find this reaction rather annoying, since I don’t consider this a game.

And he’s getting closer.

Heat washes over me even in the dead of night as I sit with my back to the low wall my compañones and I put together for defense. My gun propped at my side and the dull pain of a recent, treated injury throbbing in my left thigh, I remove my helmet and sponge the sweat off my face with a sun-bleached, fraying handkerchief, then return to eating the bitter pomegranate in my hand and occasionally chucking the seeds to a couple of nighttime crows.

He sits nearby, unconcerned with danger or cover, atop the stacked stones of the wall, wordless but speaking volumes with his presence. He’s clad like I am — like a soldier — but a single glance is enough to show that he’s not really one of us. His eyes glow faintly in the dark.

Evidently he knows the cave and the passages better than I do, for he subtly maneuvers me into one dead end after another. Every time I encounter one of these spots — where the path I’ve taken ends in a precipice or dives into a glassy pool, or the hallway I’m walking turns a corner that brings me abruptly face-to-face with converging walls — I’m forced to double back, and can feel the distance between us closing more rapidly. It can’t be long now.

Eventually I catch a glimpse of him leaving some spot I just traversed, and begin to run. It seems stupid, but I can’t stop myself; the agitation of the scene has approximately doubled at the sight of him, brief and unclear as that was — though he is not what I fear. Oddly, another sensation joined the fear at that moment as well: the feeling that, for all my reluctance to encounter him, still I want to. He’s only trying to get to me, after all… he’s been following me for so long… he must be so tired…

Mobbing the officials checking passbooks seems reckless, but if not now, when? Cries go up from all sides enumerating the grievances my people have suffered, and the entire busload of workers leaving the Bantustan for their daily toil surges forward. We have no cover, no weapons, and no great hope, but it seems we’ve chosen this time and place to take a stand as so many others have been doing over the years throughout the country we long to reclaim.

Through the chaos of shouting, the shots fired as the first police arrive, the crashing of cars and equipment beaten and overturned, only one thing remains constant: the light pressure of a cold hand on my elbow.

When next he catches up with me, I take a moment to look more closely at him before moving on. This steadier observation is no clearer, however. In direct contrast to the continually sharp detail all around me, he seems strangely blurred and imprecise. In fact, all I can make out of him most of the time is a vaguely human-shaped group of colors: brown, tan, black, white, red. As I begin running again — still unable to bring myself to endure an encounter — I reflect that the details are there; the problem is in my own eyes. Or, rather, in my mind — it’s almost as if something inside me simply refuses to recognize him.

Weariness has joined the other sensations with which I’m struggling, and my steps begin to drag. The burning sluggishness gradually suffusing my limbs only increases the other agitation, and heightens the awareness that it can’t be long before this all comes to an end. What end that will be I don’t like to think.

For maybe the hundredth time, I reassure my husband that we’re not sending military support against Iran and, in my position as solely an aide, I’ll be in little danger. The look on his face forestalls me reminding him, in this instance, that even should I end up in danger — even should the worst occur — I’m proud to face it while serving my country. Instead, I set down my carry-on and pull him to me for one last kiss before I leave for at least the next eight months.

And from across the terminal, I can feel him watching. I can’t see him and wasn’t aware until this point that he was here, but I know that gaze: focused and intense, bright brown like a bird of prey, unblinking.

Suddenly the boxy corridor draws up at a blank wall. For a moment my mind is equally blank as I glance from one corner to another, looking for a means of escape that does not exist, trying futilely to decide what to do. There is nothing to do. As I turn I hear his footsteps just around the corner.

Again his appearance seems to augment everything I’m feeling; now nearly in a panic and weary almost beyond endurance, I stumble back. I want to reach out to him; I wish I could pull him away from the terror that hovers around him like a cloud but is not a part of him. I do reach out, in fact… but only as I retreat. Unable to take my eyes off him in the grip of some sort of slowing paralysis, I move sluggishly from him, back, back, back… until I hit the wall.

There is nowhere else to go.

He steps toward me.

I wake up with a jerk.

As my harsh breathing and pounding heartbeat calm and the heat of nightmare fades in the cool normalcy of my dark bedroom, I stare up at the ceiling in some turmoil of mind. What the hell was that? I haven’t suffered from bad dreams since childhood, and why on earth should I be dreaming about him in any case?

Thanks to the haziness that surrounded him in those underground places, the majority of the dream, I don’t know how he looked there — though I’m certain his appearance was different than in what I’m pleased to call ‘real life’ — but I knew him beyond any doubt. It was the feelings that identified him: that fear, which, though prompted by his presence, was not specifically — indeed, was almost aggressively not directed at him; and the simultaneous sensation of strong sympathy…

I wish I had a name to call him by, even just in my own thoughts.

I know it’s simply the atmosphere — the dim light, the weariness of my body roused from sleep — but as I sit up with a sigh, I feel a nearly overwhelming sense of sadness, something severe that’s growing into what I might call misery.

This is very annoying.

As I rise and go in search of coffee — it’s early yet, but I might as well stay up, since I doubt I’ll get any more sleep — I count the days until the promised week will be finished and this will, hopefully, all be over. I base this hope, logically, on the idea that my current stress is caused by my lack of knowledge and combating desire to understand, and that once he’s explained the charade my life can therefore get back to normal. I base this hope, emotionally, on exactly that: hope. I’m not given to nightmares and confusion, and I don’t want to be.

Being forced to sit patiently — helplessly — and wait, sleepless and obsessing about the matter over coffee at four in the morning, isn’t helping. That young man is going to have a lot to answer for.

Part 8

“I feel like someone is… stalking me.”

I wouldn’t have heard this if I hadn’t been planning on spending only a short time at the police station that morning, since I was only in the habit of leaving my office door ajar under that particular circumstance. In fact, it was pure chance I was at the station at all; after two more days of absolutely no results on any front, I was utterly sick of the place.

“Someone has been following me,” continued the woman’s voice. She was undoubtedly talking to the officer whose desk was closest to my office door. “I tried to tell myself I was imagining things, but now somebody’s been inside my house… My brother tells me I’m being silly, but I’m very particular about my housekeeping and I know when something is out of place; I know when something is missing.”

The report I’d come here to consult locked back into my desk, I was moving toward the door when the next statement made me pause. The officer had asked politely for the woman’s name, and she replied, “Tomizawa Nori.”

Of course there were plenty of people in Tokyo called Tomizawa, but since it was a name of interest in my case I wasn’t going to ignore it. Positioning myself just inside the door, I listened now deliberately.

“Yes, my brother is Tomizawa Daitarou,” she went on. “I know he’s been in here a lot, but today I’m here without his knowledge. If he’d thought this was serious he would have come himself, and he won’t be happy I came… he doesn’t think anything is really going on. But, as I told you, I can tell.”

To his credit, the officer broke in at this point and attempted to get the information from her in a more organized fashion — but there was little more to be learned than her initial words had indicated. She kept mentioning her brother — who was, after all, the same Tomizawa that had employed the late Irutou — and I was amused to observe the mixture of emotions with which she spoke of him: though evidently proud of the relationship and happy to be associated with such a successful businessman, she just as evidently didn’t appreciate the way he at least attempted to run her entire life.

Interesting as this was, however, it was not useful. What did concern me was the basic fact: that someone connected to that single name Tsukioka had mentioned was being stalked none too subtly… and I was certain I knew by whom.

Now I was angry. Everything Sagara had done so far had been foolish and annoying, but at least it had made sense. This was just random and stupid, and now was causing the precinct pointless extra work.

I considered talking to the woman on the way out, but decided not to; it would be unwise to give her the impression that her brother was under any kind of suspicion — and further questioning in any other light would not make sense. Besides, I had other questioning to do.

Sagara was one of the few people I’d ever met that could make me genuinely angry rather than merely temporarily irritated. I didn’t like to think why this was, but it was a condition I could not ignore. And the ultimatum I would give him today was one he would not be able to ignore.

Stepping into his apartment, the first thing I saw was Tsukioka apparently hard at work, probably on his newspaper, at a dingy little table that stood on two legs, a large rock, and a piece of firewood. Though seeing someone so industrious under his own motivation — especially with the added inconvenience of a cast on his slung left arm — was good for my faith in humanity, none of this was particularly surprising: setting aside the condition of Sagara’s table, Tsukioka’s continued presence and improving condition had been reported to me by the lady doctor, who had visited daily as much at my request as out of her sense of professional responsibility. I thought she was still as annoyed with the two young men (particularly Sagara) as I was; she’d been happy to assure me that Tsukioka was recovering and hadn’t been attacked again.

Tsukioka looked up at me as I entered, his eyes dark and suspicious, and remarked, “In some cultures it’s considered appropriate to knock before entering.”

Ignoring this (not unintelligent) comment, I demanded, “Where is he?”

Tsukioka gestured, indicating the rear wall and, presumably, whatever lay outside. I stepped back through the door.

A dirty yard containing a privy separated the various buildings of this particular residential area, and here I found my quarry. Not expecting me and completely oblivious to my presence in the shadows just inside the entrance of the enclosure, he didn’t notice me until my hands actually gripped his collar. He gave a startled cry as I yanked him backward and stopped him from exiting the yard; I didn’t give him a chance for any further exclamation.

“I warned you to stay out of my business,” I growled, propelling him toward the nearest wall while his surprise still left him relatively mobile.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he yelped. Jumping back, away from me, regaining his balance and clenching his fists, he assumed what I thought he intended as a defensive stance. “I haven’t done a goddamn thing!”

“Tomizawa Nori,” I said, advancing. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

He frowned, actually loosening his fists a trifle and straightening as he stared at me. “Who?”

“Don’t fuck with me.” I took the last few steps necessary to seize him again.

He struggled violently as I shook him, shouting directly into my face. “I don’t fucking have any idea who or what you’re fucking talking about!” He managed to land a blow on my chest, but it didn’t stop me from slamming him into the wall and holding him there.

“Don’t bother lying to me,” I hissed. “I don’t know what you think you’re trying to accomplish, but leave the woman alone.”

For a long moment, unmoving and almost limp, he stared into my face, his breath tangible against my lips, as wordless as if I’d actually stunned him — but I knew better; Sagara Sanosuke wasn’t stunned by such a small amount of rough handling. He was obviously trying to think of what to say next, whether because he didn’t feel he could keep lying and was deciding how much to tell me or because his anger had rendered him momentarily mute.

“I…” His brows lowered in an expression almost more of confusion than anger. “I’m not lying. I seriously have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Was it the unexpectedly grave tone? Was it the look in his eyes as he stared into mine? Whatever the reason, I believed him. More than that, I felt like I could trust him. Which was as stupid as it was unprecedented.

And yet it was an impression I could not dismiss. With bizarre suddenness I wasn’t upset with him anymore… further proof that I genuinely believed him, for whatever reason. With the anger gone, I felt only the weary frustration and confusion that were such an integral part of this case.

“Fine.” Why did my response sound so surly? More importantly, why did I seem to feel a certain comfort from his proximity, as if he were a shield against the aforementioned feelings? Why didn’t I let go of him, move away from him, once the word was spoken? He was staring at me now as if he wanted to ask the same question. Honestly I thought he knew the answer as well as I did, and the months of denial and repression were suddenly seeming like a profound waste of my time and his.

I saw the resolution half-forming in his eyes and the restrained tendency of his movement toward me. His dark brows jerked down and then up again as if he couldn’t decide, not merely what to do, but what to think or feel. After all, just a moment ago I’d slammed him into the wall and told him not to fuck with me, and now I was giving him some kind of look I surely never had before. But hesitancy did not become him.

Perhaps it was to teach him better, perhaps to overcome those of my own instincts that still thought denial was a good idea… whatever my motive, I pulled his body against my own and his face to mine so decisively that it could have been described as roughness.

It seemed a stupid moment for kissing, and yet I couldn’t help feeling a growing sensation of completeness… as if some fundamental desire like hunger or thirst was fulfilled after ages of abstinence. His form was hot against me, his lips eager, his arms around my neck. Clutching at him, kissing him hard, I felt inclined never to let go.

Which was all just really… stupid… at the moment.

I was supposed to be working; he was supposed to be staying out of my way… and if he hadn’t been harassing that Nori woman, who had? But I couldn’t take my hands off him; just at the moment, I couldn’t do without him. I’d been so frustrated lately; none of my efforts had been paying off… and the feeling of him so close, his compliance as I ground him against the hard surface behind, the desire I sensed in him… it was all going a long way to make things right.

It still seemed like a stupid moment for it, though.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so. When I finally pulled my tingling lips from his just far enough to draw a deep breath, he did likewise and admitted a little shakily, “I’m confused.”

I gave a short laugh. “As opposed to…?”

“Hey,” he protested, “don’t go pretending you still think I’m the world’s biggest idiot when you just kissed me like you were going to eat me.”

“I’m fairly certain I can do both,” I replied. I wasn’t really clearly aware of what I was saying, though… His arms had slid to my back and tightened… I hadn’t realized until this moment just how much I needed a chance to think about something besides exsanguinated corpses and untrackable murderers. Needed a vacation of sorts from the realization that I was failing continually to do my job and live up to my own standards. Needed to feel a lithe, willing body in my arms and discuss the minutiae of how that came about and what was going to happen next as if it were the most important thing I had to deal with right now.

“And how ’bout an apology for just assuming I was doing whatever you thought I was doing when I wasn’t?” Without giving me a chance to reply to this demand, however, he went on. “How the hell did that turn into kissing me, anyway? I mean, I knew you didn’t hate me as much as you pretended, but how did we go from ‘I warned you to stay out of my business’ to your tongue in my mouth?” He wasn’t adjusting to this change of dynamic nearly as smoothly as his cavalier words suggested; most of his face had turned bright pink — except for his cheekbones, which were more of a bright red — and his tone was uneven.

Again I laughed slightly. “I don’t want to think about my business any further at the moment.” I’d moved my face back toward his, and now spoke almost directly into his mouth.

“You’re a strange guy,” he whispered, raising his chin so that his lips came again into full contact with mine.

Absorbing heat from his solid form, responding in kind to the increasing eagerness of his mouth and hands, it was easy to forget everything else I was supposed to be worried about. As such, it was also a very simple matter to pretend — for the moment, at least — that the pleasure I derived from the taste of his kisses, the rippling of muscle across the small of his back beneath his gi, and the pressure of his hips against mine arose purely from its fulfillment of my need for a distraction.

His next statement, when our lips parted again, was made in a satisfied, confidential murmur that I rather liked. “It’s always pissed me the hell off how much I didn’t hate you. ‘Specially back when you kept beating me up every day. Took me a while to realize you might be the same way.”

At this I couldn’t help chuckling again. “You’re under a number of false impressions.”

He jerked back — not far, but even half an inch seemed quite a distance when my arms were around him. Rather than confused, this time he looked wary and perhaps a bit unhappy. That was quite a confession he’d just made, after all, and my words could easily be interpreted to mean I didn’t really care about him at all in return. And while I wasn’t ready to admit (even to myself) the extent to which I did care, I didn’t want him under the impression that I was playing with him. Not that I didn’t still save my reassuring point for last.

“I only beat you up twice,” I began, withdrawing one arm and raising a finger, “so ‘every day’ is an inaccurate description. And I could beat you up again any time, so your implication that those days are past is also in error.”

He listened wordlessly, still with that guarded look, as I counted off these points that would normally have angered him. That they didn’t in this instance told me he was even more worried about my final point than I’d thought. Raising a third finger I finished, “And don’t assume my mental processes are the same as yours… I’m more the type to deny and ignore an illogical attraction than berate myself for it.”

His consternation melted away into an open, pleased expression that went a long way toward erasing my lingering uncertainty about taking this step. “That does seem more like you,” he admitted, grinning. Again he raised his lips to mine and kissed me slowly.

He was very good at that.

“So you gonna start calling me Sano now?” was the next important matter of business he felt the need to introduce as my hands went about a leisurely exploration of his body. “Or is it still going to be ‘ahou’ all the time?”

“It will still be ‘ahou’ whenever you deserve it,” I replied immediately. Since he really didn’t deserve it at the moment, though, I added experimentally, “Sano…”

Perhaps it was my tone, or maybe the breath of the word against his ear, but he shuddered tangibly, stiffening slightly against me and letting out a little sigh. I found this somewhat extreme reaction to that one simple word rather arousing, and it was the growing sensation of intense physical desire that reminded me of the specifics of our present situation. This was neither time nor place to give in to that sort of impulse.

“God knows what your friend is thinking by now,” I murmured after another kiss; they were becoming increasingly difficult to pull away from.

Sano started. “Oh, shit, that’s right.” He moved away from me now just as indecisively as he’d moved toward me earlier — torn, I thought, between worry that Tsukioka might come looking for him at any time and curiosity about just how far I was willing to go in the relatively public yard behind his apartment. “He probably thinks I’m dead,” he continued pensively, “and if he hasn’t come out here to check yet, he probably won’t…” I could almost hear the unspoken, “So we might as well keep making out,” at the end of this, and chuckled yet again. “Or maybe he did come out and check already.” He blushed slightly as he added, “I probably wouldn’t have noticed.”

This made me laugh outright. “Ahou,” I said, and pulled him back against me for one more — just one more — kiss. “Go back in. I have to get back to work.”

“Oh.” He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment as I began to straighten and smooth the uniform his searching hands had disarrayed. “I– What? No!” He scowled at me. “You can’t just leave right after you–”

“You have a houseguest and I have work to do,” I replied in what I’d intended as a cool, authoritative tone but that came out sounding somewhat fond and amused. “I hadn’t meant for this to happen just now.”

“You probably hadn’t meant for this to happen ever,” Sano grumbled. Brightening slightly he added, “But I was just too damn sexy for you to resist!”

I rolled my eyes and said again, “Ahou ga.” But I couldn’t help smirking a little, since his statement was essentially true. “My point is that I don’t have time for you today. I’ve already been here longer than I should have.”

“When will you have time?” he wondered, part eager and part suspicious.

“I don’t know. In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a crazy murderer out there somewhere.”

“I’ve been trying to forget,” he muttered darkly — then, throwing me a piercing look, added, “for you.”

Surprised into momentary speechlessness, I stared at him. Sagara Sanosuke, exercising deliberate self-restraint? For my sake? At last I said, “Thank you.”

Now he was staring at me. He’d probably never expected that phrase from my lips. Not that it was the first unexpected thing he’d received from my lips today. “You’re welcome,” he said. He continued in a tone suggesting he spoke almost against his will, “But if I do find out who did that to Katsu, nothing’ll keep me from going after him.”

Fleetingly he had that hard, deeply angry look in his eyes again, and I realized that his willingness to sit quietly and stay out of my business was probably actually based more on having no idea where to look or what to do than respect for my warnings. This should have annoyed me, but its only real effect was to make me laugh again. I hadn’t meant for this to happen today, but if I’d realized how therapeutic it would be I might have initiated it long before.

“Don’t laugh at me!” he protested, glowering. “Just because you’ve got no friends–”

I interrupted him with the command, “Go back inside.” Laying my hand flat against his chest I advanced, pushing him backward with every step. He only gave way, I thought, because he wasn’t really angry with me just then. He still appeared too surprised at this new development between us for any other strong emotion. There seemed to be a sort of glow about him, too — a flush of the face, a brightness of the eyes, an energy in his movements even greater than usual — and I wanted nothing more than to drink it directly from his heated skin. But there would be time for that later.

All the way across the yard he walked backward, staring at me with those shining eyes, but after he’d tripped a third time and nearly fallen he finally decided to turn and walk like a normal person. This was probably more in response to my mocking expression than the stumbles themselves. Near his door he stopped and again gave me his full attention. “When will…” he began, but trailed off with a pensive expression suggesting he was as uncertain about exactly what he was asking as he was of my probable response.

I shook my head. “I’ll come find you when I know.”

At first he seemed annoyed at this evasive answer, but after a moment he grinned and replied, “You know what’ll happen if you make me wait too long.”

I grimaced, and it was only half facetious. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You better.” For an instant he flashed a smile at me that was astonishingly bright and evidently a good reflection of what was going on in his head — an open, guilelessly happy look that seemed to encompass not only his feelings for me, whose depth I had perhaps underestimated, but also the wholeheartedness and strength that were such an important part of his character — before turning away toward his apartment, leaving me staring after him with a heart pounding rather harder and faster than I was used to.

Part 9

In the midst of the turmoil my brain has been experiencing all week, it actually feels a little strange to be meeting Renee normally for a normal date as I might on any normal weekend. And I can’t decide whether a dose of such normalcy is more likely to be a good, healthy, grounding circumstance or only make things worse by contrast.

“Let’s go make fun of antiques on Old Center Street,” is Renee’s suggestion when I, unable in my distracted state to come up with anything acceptable, wonder what she wants to do. I agree readily, drawn somewhat out of my reverie by the pleasant idea. It’s interesting how many of our excursions start with “Let’s go make fun of–“

Old Center Street, the original main thoroughfare of the city, is relatively short and narrow by today’s standards, and features a lineup of old or at least old-style buildings that, this century, mostly sell useless and spectacularly tacky junk ranging in age from twenty to two hundred years. There are a few art galleries, pretentious jewelry stores, and hipster clothing shops tucked in among these, and Renee and I have made the tour a few times since we started dating. Added to the reliable entertainment furnished by the things people are willing to pay money for, a pleasant walk in nice weather is never unwelcome.

Whether or not it can distract me from vampires remains to be seen.

Renee is a corporate officer for a line of hotels, and it’s not unusual for any meeting between us to start with the details of her latest amusing and frustrating inspections. Her sarcasm is pleasantly familiar, but even the entertainment value (and outrage at the idiocy) of the employees that populate her buildings is difficult to concentrate on from the very moment she starts speaking.

I struggle to pay attention, to stay invested, as we amble along, but I find myself watching the shadows with a concentration of vision that renders my hearing a secondary consideration at best. It occurs to me after a while, only increasing my irritation with myself and the situation, that the sun is still up; why am I already looking around like this in the daylight? I’m no expert, but I believe the majority of vampire myth dictates death or injury as a result of UV exposure, and all my encounters with strange people thus far have been at night.

An antique store we’ve visited every single time we’ve come down here draws us in as usual, and the work-related conversation gives way to sotto voce commentary on the available goods and resultant assumptions about the mindsets of people in previous decades and centuries (as well as the mindsets of people willing to buy these things today at these prices). It is somewhat engrossing, I have to admit, and there are quite a few minutes — many of them stacked all in a row — inside the store during which I give not a thought to vampires or anyone masquerading as such. But the issue rises to the top of my consciousness immediately again when I step outside and observe that sunset it upon us.

“What are you looking for?” Renee eventually wonders, indicating that my attempts to at least keep my searching glances subtle, if I can’t eliminate them entirely, have failed.

“Nothing.” The idea of explaining does cross my mind, and in a serious way, but is dismissed after not too long. Aside from the irritating fact that I’m now operating under an assumption that I’m being constantly stalked, and therefore anything I say to Renee is likely to be overheard by one of those people, I also find I can’t be sure of her reaction. Would she worry about my state of mental health, or dismiss my fixation and concern as meaningless? Would she consider this a legitimate threat that requires an actual police response, or merely a dark practical joke? I don’t know, and it’s not a conversation I want to have. We’ve been dating for several months now, but apparently we just aren’t that close yet.

Neither of us is particularly demonstrative, so when she slips her hand into mine with a firm grip, I know it’s not a casual gesture, but a bid for my fuller attention. She’s a demanding person and often possessive, which I don’t mind in general because these are characteristics that we share, but right now her desire to be my sole focus, though totally understandable, is an inconvenience. And I find myself annoyed all over again at my supposed stalkers for their ruination, when I can’t even detect their presence yet and am only just assuming, of something as personal as a date with my girlfriend.

At this thought, a new (if interrelated) consideration arises within me: why am I allowing the behavior of others — in this case, merely their presumed behavior — to dictate my own? Am I not my own man, a responsible adult capable of decisions, motivations, and strength of character entirely unrelated to what those around me choose to do? Even if I am being stalked — and even if I am being stalked by vampires — that such a circumstance should ruin my evening out with my girlfriend only means I’m allowing it to do so.

It’s probable that my resolve regarding this matter has been weaker than it should have because I’m so unaccustomed to dealing with this type of distraction. When have I ever found something so gripping, so engrossing? I’ve had little practice keeping my head under such circumstances, so even where I feel I should excel based on my own natural propensities, I’ve been failing simply through lack of experience.

In order both to provide Renee with an explanation of sorts and to take control of my own experience and frame of mind, I decide to tell her about the murders. It’s not what’s really bothering me, but it’s connected.

“That isn’t your case, though, is it?” she wonders when, after glancing around to make sure no one detectable is listening in (I can’t do anything about anyone hypothetically lurking in the shadows), I’ve outlined what I know so far.

“No,” I reply. “But I’m sure you’ve heard about the latest murder. The body was found at the grocery store in my neighborhood.”

We’re walking along the lamplit sidewalk between stores, and she doesn’t slow as she gives me an appraising look. “Yeah, I did hear about that. It didn’t occur to me that was the one you shop at, but I guess it was.”

I nod. It’s possible she believes now — and my manner of presenting this would not have deterred the belief — that I have some level of interest in the case, possibly even some discomfort or concern regarding it, because of its closeness to home. Being so disingenuous with my own girlfriend may not be the optimal way of dealing with this situation, but it’s better than nothing, than not dealing with it at all.

That I’ve sunk to ‘better than nothing’ makes everything all the more galling.

“Someone’s obviously going out of their way to make these look like classic vampire attacks,” she muses, and I appreciate that she’s humoring me and engaging in conversation about this, even if vampires aren’t the topic I would really prefer at this time. “And you have to assume the average person doesn’t have the equipment or know-how — or patience — to drain large amounts of blood from bodies.”

I nod, trying to keep from glancing down the alley we’re passing as I do so. It’s getting darker and darker, and I’m not so much wondering whether one of those people is nearby as assuming they are and just wondering whether I’ll be able to catch a glimpse of them. This has gotten extremely stupid.

“That makes it seem less random, doesn’t it?” Renee goes on. “Somebody planned and bought equipment for this.”

Even as I’m agreeing with her and entering into a discussion of what equipment might allow the thorough bleeding of a human body through small wounds in the neck — and, though neither of us is anything like a medical professional, certain questions of blood pressure and the seeming difficulty of the task arise almost immediately — I’m remembering, with a bit of a chill, something I overheard that Megumi woman saying: “Do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here? When I felt the touch on one of the police, I thought they might be farther along than they usually get.”

I’m coming to accept the fact that some part of me is taking the vampire idea entirely seriously, so it’s no surprise that that part feels some immediate, sardonic pity for my co-worker who isn’t likely to get anywhere on his case against a ‘vagabonding’ vampire. That same part of me wonders, furthermore, whether Megumi, with her holstered wooden stakes, is in the area to deal with the problem herself. If some vampires are the enemies of humanity and others are not, it seems the latter would feel a moral imperative to protect the weaker humans from the former. Somebody qualified had better be handling the matter, if the police are destined to fail at doing so, before more innocent people die.

Of course, maybe vampires simply don’t care about human murders. I’m pretty sure tracking down whoever is ‘vagabonding around here’ isn’t the reason the young man is present.

The rest of me, the part that believes itself the most rational and still insists that vampires can’t possibly exist, is simply more irritated than ever that I’m having these thoughts at all. It rededicates itself to the conversation with Renee, which may be about vampire attacks but is probably about the more human kind of monster the police are more accustomed to dealing with, no matter how much morbid know-how, patience, and purchased equipment they may have.

We look through a few shop windows as we carry our discussion onward, then cross the street and head back in the opposite direction, still leisurely doing the same, but make no move to further our original plan of browsing and deriving amusement from store contents. It’s as if we’ve come to an unspoken agreement not to get any closer to other people than we have to, whether because our conversation is confidential or because I’m still obviously distracted I don’t know.

And I wonder, as we walk, whether the growing sense that someone is watching us, listening to us, following us, is merely the inevitable result of my preexisting paranoia, or something more substantial.

Renee is too sharp for this. She knows perfectly well that I’m disengaged, even without my constant attempts not to look around trying to find the source of my suspicions. She knows I introduced the current topic of conversation in an attempt to keep up a real interaction with her, and she knows the degree to which I’ve failed. It’s no great surprise when, eventually, undoubtedly tiring of my half presence, she pulls my person two steps down the space between two buildings and my face down to hers for a kiss that’s far more pointed than passionate.

And now there can be no mistake: I’m certain I feel eyes on me, with every bit as much focus as Renee’s lips. It’s like a burning, not on the back of my neck since I can’t pinpoint any location so exact, but somewhere on my figure. And this time it’s undeniable.

As she draws away, Renee is giving me a piercing, calculating look. Clearly the purpose of that kiss was not to make another demand for my greater attention but to assess more precisely the lack thereof. And when I can’t help glancing around in a brief but undoubtedly quite visible (and futile) attempt at locating the fiery-eyed watcher whose scrutiny so intensified during the last several moments, my returning gaze finds Renee’s somewhat narrowed as she meets it.

“We should get going,” she says, and her tone is distinctly cool. I don’t think she’s necessarily upset with me, but she’s certainly not pleased with the situation.

I couldn’t agree more.

Part 10

I tried to insist I was surprised to find myself going to see Sano the very next day, but in fact it was no surprise at all: following yesterday’s unexpected, transformative encounter, I’d made little to no progress tracking down the murderer — still — and I found myself not only looking forward to having something else to think about, but actively yearning for his distracting company. Craving it. I knew I’d been long repressing an attraction to him, but I couldn’t help thinking it had broken out far more intensely than it probably would have if the dam hadn’t burst in the middle of a case like this.

This time I actually knocked, and relatively quietly too. The sun had only just disappeared behind the horizon, but I had no idea when Tsukioka was likely to be resting; no need to disturb him if I wasn’t here, for once, to wreak havoc of the peace of the household. Beyond that, I wanted Sano to come out here alone.

The way his face lit up when he saw who stood at his door was… not just gratifying, not just amusing and touching… it was exhilarating. And not simply because his face was so nicely shaped and that seeming inner light made him even more handsome and desirable; there was an answering spark in me, a flame fanned by the sight of him and his pleasure at seeing me, that was as galvanizing as it was confusing. I’d been away from him for months working in other parts of the country without any hint of discontentment; why did I find now, after barely a day and a half, that I missed him madly, was almost ecstatic to meet him again? It seemed I’d opened a greater floodgate even than I’d realized by admitting my interest in him. I would have to be careful.

This last thought, cold as it was and little quarter as I was inclined to give it right now, was reinforced by his manner of greeting me. After what had passed between us yesterday, I was expecting some enthusiasm, but I wasn’t expecting him to fling himself at me. He didn’t even bother to close his apartment door first.

Breaking the contact he’d initiated, not terribly happy with just how much I enjoyed the sensation of his breath against my face, I sighed, “You have absolutely no sense of discretion.”

“Never wanted one, either,” Sano replied lazily, grinning up at me.

I shrugged away from him, trying not to glance around to note the precise number and nature of passersby or neighbors who might have observed his attempted kiss. “Don’t get all over me in public.”

“That’s just like you.” Sano sounded annoyed. “We gotta sneak around. Keep things quiet. Don’t let anyone know that we might be human.”

“Who says I’m human?” I replied sardonically.

At this he appeared even more irritated, and, finally closing his apartment door, brought an accusatory expression toward me. “I’ve waited a fucking long time for you to get your head out of your almighty ass and pay some real attention to me,” he growled, “but no way am I going to do this if you’re going to be all embarrassed about me and pretend it isn’t happening.”

I wasn’t about to admit that he’d always had my attention, and to let him know that I didn’t think him nearly as worthless as he assumed I did would just be unsporting. “Good of you to realize how embarrassing it is for me to like someone like you…” I paused to admire the glow of anger in his eyes before continuing, “but that has nothing to do with it.”

“Well, then, what does?”

“I once stabbed you to make a point about the dangers of keeping people you care about around while you deal with serious situations.” Remembering the relative privacy we’d managed yesterday in the yard behind his apartment, I began walking in that direction.

Sano followed. “I thought it was to make a point about how Kenshin trying to protect people didn’t work.”

“It was a multi-pointed demonstration. What I mean is that it’s unwise for someone like me, someone in a position to have any number of enemies — especially right now when I have no idea who my enemy is — it’s unwise for me to publicize my close relationships.”

I thought he would protest further, but either he actually comprehended what I was trying to say or decided it wasn’t worth arguing at the moment. He only grinned complacently and echoed, “‘Close relationships…'” Then, the instant we were secluded within the yard that had been my destination, he was against me, pulling at me with strong hands mostly below the belt, dragging me into tight contact with him and leaning up to breathe into my ear, “You kissed me here yesterday, and it wasn’t even this dark out then.”

“And I would fuck you here right now,” I told him, almost growling in response to his groping hands, “if it were just a little cleaner.” My arms slid around him, reciprocating his suggestive gestures despite having just said that I didn’t intend to do what I was certain we both wanted.

His voice was husky and a little breathless as he said, “It’ll be really dark back here soon… You wouldn’t even notice how dirty it is.”

“I’d still be aware of it,” I said regretfully. “I’ve seen it in the light, and my imagination would make it worse when I couldn’t see it.”

He laughed, and the rich sound in the growing shadows was tinged with both amusement and a regret even stronger than mine. “It’s kindof insulting that you’d be thinking more about the walls and shit than me at a time like that.” His tone brightened as he added, “But it’s nice to know you do plan on fucking me sometime or other.”

“Right now is inconvenient,” I breathed into his neck.

Once again he didn’t protest when I expected him to. “Yeah, with Katsu here…” I could tell he was trying to stop pressing against me so meaningfully, stop grinding his hips against mine. He took a deep breath, drawing back slightly. “Well, at least kiss me.”

“Your self-restraint keeps surprising me,” I told him in perfect honesty. It wasn’t that I’d expected him to beg for sex right here and now — though, secretly, I might have liked him to — but neither had I expected this kind of forbearance from him, especially after I’d already been taken unawares by his consideration and constraint yesterday; I thought I’d reached my allotment for, oh, the next year or so.

“I think you’ll find I’m full of surprises,” he replied, and, despite his slightly flippant tone, I got the feeling he was quite serious; he was both chiding me for underestimating him and promising that there was more to him than he felt I was aware of.

He was wrong; I’d always been aware that there was an entire world beyond that shallow and careless exterior… but I’d certainly never let on that I knew, perhaps because I’d never before considered reaching into those depths and seeing exactly how far they extended. Now the thought of finding out everything that lay in that interesting space beyond the beautiful brown eyes unexpectedly caused me to shiver with an anticipation that, though it was not in itself physical, made me suddenly want to fuck him more than ever. Unfortunately, we’d already discussed and dismissed that possibility. So I just kissed him instead.

“You know, I honestly didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” he said eventually. “I figured I’d have to come looking for you and remind you I exist.”

After the consistency with which he’d returned to my mind even in the midst of the work I’d been doing, this idea was consummately absurd.

“What are you laughing about?” he demanded. “I’m serious. You think I don’t know your work’s more important to you than anything?” He added almost disdainfully, “I think I know you at least that well. Besides, aren’t you married? You probably already have shit to do after work.”

“Which is why I came here straight from the station today,” I replied with a touch of sarcasm.

“You are married, though, right? I thought Kenshin mentioned that sometime…” And now, though he was aiming for casualness, there was a certain concern in his voice as he essentially asked whether his involvement with me was causing infidelity on my part. Of course he wouldn’t like the thought of that. Neither would I.

“Technically, yes,” I answered. “It’s been more convenient not to divorce, but we’ve been separated for three years.”

On the east side of one of the surrounding buildings — Sano’s apartment, actually, if I was judging correctly — the shadows grew around us more quickly than in the rest of the yard. His shifting movement as he looked up at me, however, and what little I could see of his face told plainly that he was dying to ask why I’d split from my wife; he wanted reassurance that I was free to pursue whomever I preferred at this point, that this was all legitimate. Moreover, I thought, he wanted gossip.

“It was only natural,” I said, happy to give him what he wanted in this instance. “It was an arranged marriage. We never disliked each other, but there was never a strong attachment either.”

“No, no, no, you said that wrong.” I could hear the grin in the words. “You guys never disliked each other; therefore there was never a strong attachment.”

I laughed again. Trust him to put it like that.

Someone had entered the yard, no doubt on the way to the privy, and started at our presence. He couldn’t have gotten a very good look at us in the shadows, but whatever our low voices and close proximity to each other put him in mind of — a cop abusing his power, some kind of secret assignation, or the perfectly innocent (if fairly intimate) conversation it actually was — he hurried past with eyes averted.

Smirking, I went on in a quieter tone, “Tokio lives in Toyama with our three children. I don’t see them often, but we exchange a lot of letters.”

“Wow, three kids…” I wasn’t certain exactly what was in Sano’s tone. Jealously that I had three children with a woman he’d never met? Wonder at the fact that I was old enough to have three children at all? Or something else?

I decided to inquire. “Is that so unbelievable?”

“No…” He shrugged, biting his lip. “No, not really. It’s just… I mean… do you like them?”

So that was it. He still maintained some (probably more than a little) lingering suspicion that I was a heartless bastard, and was having a difficult time reconciling that with the idea of a fond father.

I chuckled again and, after the privy-using stranger had passed us once more and left the yard, started to do something I had never dreamed I might be even remotely inclined toward: tell Sagara Sanosuke all about my children.

It was, as the entire conversation had been, a profound relief. The topic was so far removed from the late local string of murders that I could almost pretend to forget the latter was taking place. Beyond that, I found myself enjoying the discussion for its own sake. I’d certainly never been one of those fatuous parents that rambled at length about every insignificant detail of their children’s lives, but my offspring were consistently fairly amusing and intelligent, for their ages, and I rarely if ever got the chance to talk about them.

Sano seemed more than a little intrigued — possibly because of that aforementioned lingering suspicion that no emotion so soft as fatherly affection could possibly exist in my heart, possibly simply because he liked children; whatever the reason, I appreciated his engagement and his interested questions.

I also got the feeling that he still wanted to do any number of obscene things to me right here and now, despite the unsexiness of our topic and the fact that we’d separated to a more reasonable distance for a conversation like this. And he was still restraining himself. The angle of his body, the pattern of his breathing, the way his eyes caught the occasional glint of light as they moved restlessly over me… these were the only symptoms he displayed, but they were clear enough.

This continued desire, the restraint, and even his evident absorption in a subject I hadn’t expected to engross him so readily made him that much more attractive to me as well. I was actually starting to consider lowering my standards of cleanliness and perhaps making use of this yard after all — despite the potential witnesses that occasionally passed through on their way to and from the amenities in back — when the conversation took a less pleasant turn.

It was inevitable, I supposed. Just because he’d refrained for a while from poking around in my business didn’t mean he’d forgotten about it, and I had mentioned that I sometimes described some of my simpler cases in my letters to my children. Even so, I could not but respond at first with an almost angry sigh when Sano asked how the murder investigation was going.

“That good, huh?” Though there was sympathy in his grinning tone, I still pinched his ass; it helped me resign myself to talking about this. “Hey!” he yelped, obviously having been expecting something else entirely from my moving close to him again. “What was that for?”

For no reason I could quite understand even in my own mind, I decided to confide in him. It was odd and seemed a little unwise, since, though things between us had changed, he hadn’t changed… but I wanted to trust him. I wanted someone to whom I could explain all my feelings of frustration and inadequacy regarding this case, and I wanted that someone to be him.

Fortunately, my good sense intervened. Maybe at some point I would be able to converse that intimately with Sanosuke, but that point was not the second day of our new relationship. Some things I would tell him; everything I would not.

“The name your friend provided may be of some use after all, but I’m still not sure yet.” Taking advantage of my regained closeness to Sano, I spoke in a low and guarded tone; I didn’t see anyone around at the moment, but this still wasn’t something I wanted to proclaim to the entire street. “Tomizawa fits the specific class that half the murder victims have been, and some of their deaths must have been advantageous to him in a business sense… but so far that’s all that links him to the crimes. Apparently he hasn’t changed his habits or acted at all strangely recently, and the people around him can verify where he’s been most of the time…”

“He hired an assassin?” Sano suggested.

“That’s the obvious conclusion,” I nodded. “The problem is that we’ve found no evidence of that yet… and he’s going to realize any time now, if he hasn’t already, that he’s under investigation, which will put him on his guard and may make evidence even harder to find.”

“Do you have to have evidence? Can’t you just go after him yourself?”

“I am authorized to carry out private executions,” I allowed, “but only when I’m personally convinced of someone’s guilt, and then only if the criminal seems likely to escape the law or cause serious trouble before he can be brought in. And I’m not convinced Tomizawa is our man.”

“Your job is so cool,” Sano murmured. He might as well have said, You are so cool,” for the tone he used.

I wasn’t about to admit how much his admiration pleased me; instead I just kissed him again.

“So what do you do next?” was his next question. He’d seemed reluctant to pull away from the kiss, and it was interesting that, even so, he’d gone right back to the topic of the murder case. Where the previous question hadn’t, this one set off warning bells.

“Keep investigating Tomizawa,” I replied, deliberately vague.

“And didn’t you say some woman with that name was being harassed? You thought it was me, but since it wasn’t, who was it? Is that part of this?”

I had long denigrated Sano’s intelligence, mostly for my own amusement, but in reality I’d been perfectly well aware that he was far from the idiot I always named him. And I knew perfectly well what the eager yet contemplative tone in his voice meant right now. Sternly I said, “I told you to stay out of this.”

“Yeah, and then you kissed me so hard it practically gave me a boner. Mixed messages, I thought.”

I couldn’t help smiling, but my voice was dark when I answered with words whose significance he had specifically comprehended only a few days before and that should mean even more now: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

The moon had risen as we talked, and now, by its light that intruded into our shadowy corner, I could clearly see the scowl on his face. “You still think I’m weak, don’t you?” He sounded more unhappy than angry, but the anger was building.

“Only relatively,” I said lightly, and even I didn’t know whether I sought to tease or reassure. Either way, he couldn’t doubt my complete seriousness as I went on, “But, Sano, this murderer is a monster. It’s my profession to deal with him. It’s not yours.”

“I used to fight — sometimes even kill people — professionally too, you know,” he tried, sounding surly.

“But not anymore. There’s no reason for you to be involved in this now.”

He pulled away, and the sudden absence of his warmth against me left a coolness even greater than physical contrast could account for. “I don’t need this,” he said quietly. “I don’t know whether you think I’m going to get in your way and fuck things up, or if you’re trying to pull a Kenshin and protect me, but either way, you don’t have to, because I’m not weak.”

I didn’t know if I was more annoyed at the suggestion that I was ‘trying to pull a Kenshin’ or the fact that he’d completely ignored the possibility that I didn’t want to see him used against me by the unknown enemy. But I couldn’t throw him on the ground and kick open an old wound this time to make my point. Well, I could — and would, if he made me angry enough — but at the moment it didn’t seem the optimal course of action.

Instead I said tightly, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This is my job, which I’m going to do my way. It’s not your responsibility, and there’s no reason for you to get involved.”

“No reason except maybe I don’t want you involved with this monster either,” Sano shot back, “but since you have to be, it’d sure make me feel better if I could help.”

I stared down at him. It wasn’t that I couldn’t comprehend his frustration at the idea of being left behind or even the implication that he wasn’t strong enough… it was just that I hated the thought of him being exposed to a murderer who had, so far, drained all the blood from eight bodies… hated it even more than I’d suspected I would. And I appreciated his reciprocal desire for my noninvolvement — again, more than I’d suspected I would — but that didn’t change a thing.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last, “that I can’t take your feelings into consideration here.”

“Funny how you can take yours, though,” he said bitterly.

I was going to tell him that we couldn’t have it both ways. I was going to tell him that it made sense for him to be the one to give way in this scenario because I was assigned to this and he was not. I was going to tell him that it didn’t matter whether or not he was weak when the important factor was his level of strength relative to the anonymous murderer, and that was something we couldn’t know. I was going to tell him to stop being an idiot. I was going to tell him again that I was sorry. But I ended up telling him none of these things, because the irate, hurt expression on the face that caught the moonlight as he turned it up toward me suddenly affected me as it never had before.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve really been happy you came ’round tonight. But right now…” He broke off with a growl of frustration and turned away. Two steps from me he finished belatedly, “Good night,” unwillingly, as if he thought I didn’t deserve it but couldn’t bring himself to leave without it.

With very much the same attitude, I sent softly after him the only thing that was really available for me to say at that point: “Good night.” And though I was a little annoyed and more agitated, I refrained from adding, “ahou,” tempted though I was.

Part 11

On Sunday I allow a call from Renee to go to voicemail. It feels both rude and cowardly, but I don’t know what I could say to her. It keeps coming back to our degree of closeness and what I feel I can or can’t tell her. I have to admit I’d like to tell her about the strange things that have happened lately, the strange things I’ve been prompted to believe or at least start obsessing over, but I can’t foresee a good outcome to that venture.

Perhaps once this is all finished, when I know exactly what’s going on and can work from a position of understanding rather than confusion and doubt, Renee and I can have a long, elucidating conversation. Of course that’s assuming I do at some point discover what all of this is about, that it does end, and that I’ll have any desire whatsoever to talk about it by then. At the moment, my primary motivation for discussing it would be to gain insight and comfort in my confusion. In a more knowledgeable position I would not need either… and though I like Renee enough, and respect her opinion enough, to think I might enjoy hearing her take on this situation after it’s all over, will I feel the need to talk to her — or anyone — about it at that point? I’ve already established that I’m just not as close to her as I thought… it’s possible the urge won’t even arise.

Currently, I definitely don’t have anything reasonable to say to her, which is why I let her call go to voicemail. She’ll just have to guess where I am and what I’m doing that doesn’t allow me to take it. And since I do have a few errands to run, I have a legitimate excuse. Let her think I’m hooked up to headphones at the gym, or that I don’t get any reception at the cleaners picking up my laundry (which is true).

For never calling her back I have less excuse.

Sunday is difficult to get through for more reasons than that. Recognizing my own restlessness, I run not merely my usual weekend errands, but all the errands that could possibly need running — everything I’ve been looking for a convenient time to get done, regardless of whether today is actually a convenient time — but eventually, no matter how long I take, there are simply no errands left. Then, just as I feared, I can’t entertain myself for the rest of the evening via any conventional means. My mind wanders from television and from books with equal rapidity, and I can’t even pretend I don’t know exactly what it would rather concentrate on.

Eventually, in a move very uncharacteristic of me but that I’ve apparently been driven to, I spend the rest of the evening at the computer half-reading news stories, looking at memes that aren’t funny, and trying not to type vampires into any search engine or wiki. And I’m upset, still or again, at this commandeering of my attention by something I don’t even really understand.

On Monday, when it appears that the work to which I’ve dedicated my life is not going to be enough to occupy me fully in the face of this nonsense, I decide to take a different tack. Of course it would be optimal to do my job with as much devotion and concentration as usual, but since this clearly is not an option, I try to balance out the two things that are obviously going to be on my mind all day. Every time I start to get distracted thinking about the anonymous man or the woman Megumi and what I know — or guess — about them so far, I direct my thoughts into a very specific channel. As long as I’m essentially being forced to think about this, I might as well get some benefit from it.

So by the end of the day, piece by piece, I’ve come up with a narrative — a collection of theories, arising from everything I’ve observed and subsequent extrapolation, about what is going on and the intentions of the two strangers — working from a basis of belief that they are, in fact, vampires.

Entering into the thing so credulously is a sort of last resort, and obviously one I did not see fit to try before — mostly because I fear that, once I start acting as if I believe in this silliness, I won’t be able to stop. But I find that it does help keep my thoughts, if not entirely under my own control, at least organized. It strips away a layer of the unknown that is causing so much of my agitation, so I don’t have quite such an irritated headache when I at last head home, reviewing the story I’ve concocted during the workday:

Vampires have lived subtly among us for perhaps all of human history, their occasional public encounters with the living inspiring books like Dracula and the surprising number of vampire movies it’s turned out I’ve watched. Something in their nature — a lesser immunity to human weapons than popular culture indicates, maybe, or possibly just the fact that they’re vastly outnumbered — makes secret and probably quietly cooperative cohabitation safer and easier than continually preying on and being at odds with humanity, and ‘vagabond’ is the term vampires use to describe others of their kind that jeopardize the secrecy of their existence by indiscriminately murdering humans.

Megumi is a vampire-hunting vampire, appointed (perhaps only by herself) to track down such vagabonds and end the threat they pose to both human and vampire society. It’s a necessary function, but one that doesn’t make her very popular among her fellows. I wonder whether it’s defiance, or a natural sense of honesty, or some other consideration that causes her to wear her stakes openly the way she does. To humans she merely looks like a cosplayer, but to vampires it must be perfectly, disturbingly clear what she is.

Megumi has no business with me, and, though she feels sorry about certain aspects of this situation, sees no reason to interact with me. She would never even have approached me at all if I hadn’t had ‘the touch’ — presumably some smell or other sense that rubs off on a human after their first contact with a vampire. Which brings me to that other vampire.

The young man remains far more of a mystery than Megumi, and even in the midst of the faint relief this hypothesizing exercise is, it’s frustrating how little I’ve learned about him. Still, what I could come up with, I have.

He wants something from me — some interaction or information or recognition that he’s traveled internationally to obtain — and he believes there’s some chance I’ll realize what it is before he comes back. Both he and Megumi know me from before, well enough to recognize me in an instant, and the young man, at least, expects me to remember something from that ‘before’ as well.

Allowing for the reality of vampires demands, somewhat annoyingly, that I allow for the possibility of other supernatural elements of existence as well. As such, I see two possibilities for ‘before.’ The first is that my own awareness of some previous part of my life has been erased or rewritten — through some sort of supernatural brainwashing designed to force me to forget the existence of vampires, for example, or perhaps through repression of some traumatic experience. The second is that the two vampires, who could conceivably be hundreds or thousands of years old, somehow recognize me from a previous life. I’ve never subscribed to reincarnation theory — and, if I had, I would have assumed a degree of change in a person from one life to the next that would make a reborn soul impossible to recognize a lifetime later — but in already considering the seemingly impossible, I suppose it’s rational enough.

In either case, whatever happened ‘before’ is something he and Megumi took part in with me, and something he wants me to remember. If I haven’t remembered under my own power by Wednesday — one week from when he first approached me — he’s going to enlighten me. And then I’ll have a choice to make.

And some part of me does remember. It’s the part that disapproved of him so heartily at our first meeting, that plunged me into a dream I didn’t understand, that keeps dredging up fear over innocuous things and pity for someone I don’t know. But since that’s all it seems able to do, I think the chances of my remembering anything more, in any level of detail that would provide answers to current questions, are not great.

How much I actually believe of this scenario I’ve put together is dubious. However, having constructed the narrative, supplied as many answers as I possibly can, and ordered my thoughts allows me a good deal more relaxation and patience on Monday evening than I’ve had for several days. I can wait for Wednesday.

‘Waiting for Wednesday’ is the most thorough and accurate description I can come up with for the entirety of Tuesday. It doesn’t matter that I don’t consider myself flighty; reality is stronger than any self-satisfied preconception.

I suppose, though, this happens to everyone at some point. In everyone’s life there must be events that lead to frames of mind entirely at odds with their chosen methods of productivity; we are only human, after all. I can’t help thinking, however, to the detriment of any comfort this train of thought might otherwise have provided, that others ‘only human’ don’t have jobs quite so important as I do — quite so constantly involved with security and crime, life and death, even if I am only hammering away at paperwork at the moment; nor are they distracted and held back by something quite so nebulous, so possibly frivolous, as I am today.

The loss of a friend or family member… the consideration of a proposal of marriage, or perhaps excitement for the big day itself… nervousness about some major opportunity that could be lost as easily as won… all of these changes or choices would, I think, be perfectly justified in distracting someone from even the most important, meaningful, and engrossing of employment. And even in those cases it would still be better to try for investment in work, but anyone would understand if that proved difficult or impossible.

And what do I have? What remarkable, life-altering circumstances are keeping me from concentrating on working to protect and serve my fellow Americans? The prospect of meeting a near-perfect stranger I guess — I don’t actually know — will answer some questions for me.

So in addition to impatient, curious, distracted, and annoyed, I’m embarrassed as well. I might almost feel ashamed, but for that, at least, my self-confidence proves too strong. I know I’m not weak-minded, and therefore must assume that it’s logical for this strangely emotional and gripping situation in which I find myself to be distracting me as much as it is, that my current fractured frame of mind and resultant imperfect behavior is to some degree forgivable.

As I spend the majority of the day considering tomorrow’s possibilities in between everything else I should be thinking about more exclusively, I come to a dismaying realization that should have struck me much sooner in order for me better to manage my impatience: merely ‘waiting for Wednesday’ isn’t enough; it must, logically, be Wednesday evening, Wednesday after dark that I’m actually waiting for. Regardless of how much I believe in the whole vampire idea, my visitors have only shown up once the sun was down. I doubt, somehow, that before work is an option, and it was evening just as I got home when he appeared the first time. Which means I have one entire work day more than I was envisioning to get through.

With this in mind, I have little to say about Wednesday, and would have little excuse to make for myself if anyone were to wonder about my level of distraction. But either I’m hiding it better than I thought I was, or my co-workers figure everyone’s due a day or two of distraction now and then — an indulgence I might not allow them in return on as little information as they have here. Or perhaps they’re all too distracted themselves, what with a murderer likely to make national news (if the media gets hold of the details) running around our usually fairly peaceful little city. The number of people assigned to that case is growing, but I am, thankfully — or perhaps unluckily — not yet among them.

If I had to face the prospect of even one more day of this — of trying to concentrate on paperwork that consistently takes a second priority in my head to the aggressively more engrossing yet uselessly circular vampire thoughts, until I think I’d almost rather be on traffic duty than this; of listening to news and station gossip regarding the murders and wondering whether I might not soon be in a position of greater knowledge about this, whether Megumi really has anything to do with it; of feeling like a waste of public resources as my paycheck covers easily as much idle daydreaming (for lack of a better word) and subsequent irritation and ineffectual self-castigation as proper work — I might actually be tempted to call in sick. And this temptation, hypothetical though it is, annoys me more than almost anything else. I’ve never been even the least bit inclined to lie about my state of health to get out of work. I can’t help thinking all over again that the vampire boy has a lot — an ever-increasing lot — to answer for.

When at last I punch out for the day and try not to move with undignified haste toward the door and the parking lot, I finally abandon all attempts at not allowing this to dominate my brain. I’m wondering what his exact plans are, how exactly the evening is going to go. Megumi appeared at the station last week (though the sun was more completely down when I left that day), and the young man has shown signs of stalking me; I’m sure he knows where I work and could show up here easily if he wanted to. But somehow I get the feeling — I fact, in a way, I hope — he has more to say to me than can comfortably be said standing next to my car in a relatively busy lot.

The apartment again, then. That’s what I think I’ve subconsciously been expecting all along anyway. Perhaps he’ll be waiting outside the door just as he was in the previous instance. Will he expect an invitation inside? Perhaps he’ll require an invitation inside, if he really is a vampire. I do seem to recall hearing that aspect of the legend at some point.

So the last question I’m pondering as I head toward home, growing more and more agitated and anticipatory with every street closer I move, is whether or not I’ll be willing to extend that invitation.

Part 12

The personal conviction I’d told Sano I lacked in regard to Tomizawa was becoming more of a possibility. The farther we looked into his affairs, the stranger they seemed — and, while there wasn’t yet any definitive evidence linking him with the murders, certain facts that came to light appeared to make it only a matter of time.

Oddly, he didn’t seem to have observed that he was being investigated. With police spies prying into various aspects of his professional and personal life, the only likely explanations I could see for his evident indifference were that he was stupid enough not to have noticed, or secure enough not even to twitch under scrutiny. And judging by his confident, dictatorial personality, the latter seemed more likely.

Yet he should be worried. If he had any sense, he must be worried, since he did have at least one thing to hide. His sister Nori’s fiance, one Shibue Touru, had cleanly disappeared just a few months before, and Tomizawa had hushed it up. Apparently he’d told his sister he was working with the police trying to find Shibue — which was what she’d meant, that day she’d come to the station, in saying, “I know he’s been in here a lot” — but this was the very first the police had heard of the matter. And why would a man that had abetted a criminal in his flight (for this was, I thought, the most likely explanation for the circumstance) remain so completely unperturbed under police investigation?

In any case, after a few days of snooping, the missing Shibue became a suspect, more questions than only the aforementioned were raised, and I had a specific line of inquiry to pursue — which was all extremely satisfying in comparison to what had gone before.

It seemed to me that the unknown entity whose surreptitious presence and occasional forays into Nori’s house had sent the woman to the police in the first place might well be Shibue: the criminal on the run still missed his fiance and longed to see her, and occasionally also found it convenient to obtain supplies or temporary shelter in a home where, if he was caught, his presence would be far less likely to draw immediate police attention — since Nori was obviously completely ignorant of whatever her husband-to-be had done to force him into hiding.

So the next step was to see if I could manage to track down Nori’s stalker. I had to be the one to do it, since not one of the police agents available for my use did I trust with such a task. Hironaku was extremely disappointed, but he was also heavy-footed and absolutely out of the question. Besides, if I saw a chance to confront the unknown watcher and attempt to bring him in, I was going to take it, and I didn’t trust any of my subordinates with that task either.

Nori’s report had indicated she was primarily being watched at night (which seemed to contraindicate the possible other explanation that her overzealous brother had assigned her a bodyguard without telling her), so the next step must obviously be to mimic the watcher and quietly observe Nori’s home at night in the hopes of observing more than just that.

Here she was to have lived with Shibue, and it had been, I’d come to understand, set up with her brother’s funds as a would-have-been wedding present: a good-sized house in a neighborhood with more pretensions than real class but plenty of real money. As such, this was an inconvenient monitoring job with its large perimeter and number of sides to the building, but at least the resultant complexity — the necessity of regular surreptitious shifting of position in order to regularly cover the entire area — granted an interest to the proceedings that might otherwise have been absent.

And someone besides me was definitely watching the place, though whoever he was, he was too skilled to pinpoint right away. Starting just after full darkness had fallen, I detected some interest pointed toward the house from somewhere in the immediate vicinity, but it seemed to be quickly snuffed out every time I concentrated on locating it more precisely. In fact it took me the entire night to become convinced I wasn’t imagining things. Like Tomizawa himself, the anonymous presence was probably aware of and apathetic toward the police surveillance. Which brought up the bodyguard theory again but certainly could not confirm it.

By the time sunrise neared and the presence disappeared as subtly as it had been manifesting all night, I’d learned nothing definitive, only confirmed Nori’s suspicion of being watched. I had no clear indication of criminal activity here, nor that the watcher — Shibue or whoever he turned out to be — had any connection whatsoever with the murders. Nevertheless I felt I’d made progress; as previously mentioned, having what seemed like a clear path to follow, even if it turned out to be a tangent, made for a remarkable contrast in morale. I had a plan for the next night — possibly the next few nights, depending on how skilled the watcher really was — and no need to sit idly waiting for anyone else to bring me information.

This time, despite my improved mood, it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself heading in the direction of Sano’s neighborhood without thinking. After avoiding him for the last couple of days, my desire to see him certainly hadn’t diminished, but I hadn’t thought it particularly increased either. Evidently I’d been wrong.

Continually showing up at Sano’s home very clearly not on police business was hardly in keeping with the careful behavior I had recommended to myself the last time I was here, but somehow, despite being aware of that, the direction of my steps did not change. Indeed, with this on my mind, I thought they actually hastened, as if to say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I might as well get it over with quickly.” Or perhaps just wanting to get to him sooner for his own sake.

This neighborhood was not the type to be busy at dawn, but still there were a few people about. It was the type of neighborhood to be wary of cops, and my uniform won me some looks suspicious and even bitter — proportional to the small number of pedestrians, quite a few looks suspicious and even bitter. But I ignored them and hurried on.

He was sure to be asleep; I couldn’t picture him up before about noon unless he’d never gone to bed in the first place. Of Tsukioka I was less certain, though I had to admit I was a little annoyed at the thought of his presence. It didn’t matter much, though, since all I planned on doing was quietly looking in, taking a brief glimpse that would, I hoped, tide me over until a more propitious time. Then I would hire a carriage home, sleep a few hours, and get back to work with whatever new strength that glimpse I was apparently so desperate for had afforded me.

The door still wasn’t locked; I was going to have to have a word with him about that. It was all very well and good that his entire neighborhood knew better than to trespass on the property of the former Zanza, but blatantly ignoring rudimentary safety precautions, especially with an unusually bloodthirsty murderer running around Tokyo, was idiotic. It even opened and closed quietly enough — with a careful hand — that it was unlikely to awaken a sleeper within.

And there was only one sleeper within. My surprised gaze immediately ran the length of the room, taking in the single occupied futon, the table that had been cleared of the mess of papers I’d last seen on it, the dishes left over from a meal for one. Tsukioka was gone.

I had come here to admire a sleeping Sanosuke possibly without even waking him, but now a certain amount of concern forced my plans to change. I doubted I would see signs of a peaceful solitary dinner near a soundly sleeping Sano if there had been an attack, and I also liked to think he would have let me know, but what had happened? Was it possible Tsukioka’s medical condition had worsened and he’d gone back to the clinic? Or… surely they couldn’t have been stupid enough to think all danger past and him safe to return home alone?

Despite fully intending now to wake Sano up, still I had to pause to admire him. He slept full-force, as it were, the same way he did everything else. In this case that meant he sprawled, ungracefully but probably quite comfortably, across a futon that didn’t look too intolerably filthy, with a blanket twisted around him in a manner simultaneously haphazard and precise.

It was as if he’d made an art out of sleeping, out of arranging that blanket to be tight where he wanted and loose everywhere else, out of pillowing one arm under his head and relaxing down onto it as if this was the most important thing he’d ever done and he was damn well going to get the most out of it… and yet it was only sleep, and nothing to be stressed about or given a great deal of thought. I didn’t know how he always managed to be so much of so many seemingly contradictory things… so intense yet so carefree… so aimless yet so decisive… so much of what annoyed me, yet so much of what I fiercely wanted…

His eyes opened while I watched him, before I had a chance to make any move to awaken him. He didn’t start or gasp or sit up abruptly, and I wondered if he’d sensed my presence in his sleep in order to be so unsurprised to find me actually there when he awoke.

“Hey,” he said, both tone and expression marking him groggy but pleased. “I haven’t seen you in two and a half days!”

“You were mad at me and I was busy with work,” I shrugged, unable to remove my gaze from his. In his current state, his eyes appeared simultaneously soft and bright, an interesting and compelling look.

“I’m always mad at you,” he said in tired protest, “and you’re always busy with work.”

I smiled. “Well, here I am now. Where’s Tsukioka?”

Blinking and yawning, Sano seemed for a moment unable to comprehend the change of subject. But finally the puzzled look slid from his face and he gestured vaguely with the bare arm he wasn’t using as a pillow. “Read that note on the table.”

I did so, unfolding a half sheet of paper that was covered on one side with smudged and indecipherable doodles and on the other with artistically messy handwriting.

It’s clear you need some privacy, and I think I would be more comfortable elsewhere anyway. Don’t worry about me; I’ll stay with some activist friends who have even better reasons to lie low than I probably do. Don’t let Takani-sensei worry about me either; the worst is over, as she ought to know. Try to keep out of trouble, though this new complication of yours makes that seem even more unlikely than usual.

He hadn’t signed it, but it wasn’t exactly a great mystery who had left it. Nor was what he meant by that last line. It was, to my memory, the first time I’d ever been called a ‘complication,’ but probably not entirely inaccurate. Honestly the note itself — or at least the altered situation it represented — was a bit of a complication, and I was suddenly rethinking my intentions here yet again, somewhat more pointedly than before.

As my eyes left the paper they immediately found Sano’s, and it was just as immediately apparent that he not only had the same thought I did, but read that simultaneous consideration in the shared gaze. I might have teased him by pretending to be unaffected by the word ‘privacy’ in that note or my reflection of a few minutes ago that his futon didn’t look too intolerably filthy… but he already knew we were both thinking the same thing, and the new edge to his smile clearly reflected his expectations for the scene.

Refolding with deliberate movements the liberating missive as I did so, I asked, “Do you ever lock your door?”

For half an instant Sano looked annoyed by my critical tone and confused at what he viewed as another change of subject, but then the probable motive behind my words registered and he went back to grinning in anticipation. His answer was, “Yeah… when I need to.”

“Then you do have a key.”

“Yeah… somewhere…” Though his previous statement had been vaguely flirtatious, Sano’s tone had now slipped into one of intense focus as he probably realized I wasn’t joking about wanting to lock the door — and that he was going to need to figure out where ‘somewhere’ was before any further progress could be made. With a comical level of concentration he finally added, “I think it was on the window-ledge.”

I found two keys side by side where he indicated, guessed correctly on the first attempt which one fitted the door, and wrestled the aged lock into granting us more privacy than even Tsukioka had with his departure. And apparently just the observation that my quest was nearing completion had been enough for Sano, as he hadn’t waited patiently for me at his end of the room. Even as I turned toward him, I heard his barefoot steps across the floor, then found insistent arms slipping around me and a hot body pressed to mine. My own arms rose to caress his back and pull him closer as his lips and hot breath and grazing teeth slid up my neck. Undoubtedly in response to cloth against his flesh, in between a series of nipping kisses just underneath my jaw, he murmured, “Take off those damn gloves.”

I chuckled and obeyed, not at all averse to following a direct order when the result was the beautiful feel of his skin beneath my naked fingers and palms. He’d begun grinding unrepentantly against me too, breathing somewhat harder near my ear, and the longing he thus displayed was in no way unreciprocated. “Now take off those damn clothes,” he whispered.

I let out a sighing breath and obeyed.

What was it about this stubborn, vehement, easygoing, infuriating person that had me so captivated? That made it so I could never get enough? That filled me with a tingling desire for him down into my bones? His physical passion and ability to respond to my own were not in any way surprising, but, though making love to him for the first time was a spectacular and deeply gratifying experience, there was more to it than simply satisfying my body… or even than a few hours of psychological rest from the demands of my work. Something about him specifically seemed to have a nearly supernatural power to enthrall, to draw me in and engage me as I hadn’t been engaged in a relationship for years, perhaps forever. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was about Sano that I found so enchanting.

For that matter, I had no idea what drew him to me. We drove each other crazy in every possible way, and we’d been rivals at best when we’d first met… and yet here we were, content or even decidedly happy together in the morning sun through the shouji on his not-too-intolerably-filthy futon, sticky and cooling and calming after having demonstrated very clearly that any disliking we might have for each other ran parallel to, and perhaps less deep than, an emotional state that was very different indeed.

The weariness of having been out all night combined with the exertion just now had left my mind pleasantly foggy, and in the comfort of Sano’s embrace and bed I didn’t see much need to work at clearing it — and no reason I couldn’t rest here instead of heading home as I’d intended. I doubted Sano had been planning to get out of bed any time soon in any case, and I certainly didn’t object to a companion as long as he didn’t snore too loudly. Sano himself, however, seemed surprised at the sedentary tendency of my movements after we’d finished.

“You’re going to sleep here?” he wondered, his words close to my ear and still somewhat breathless.

Eyes closed, I replied, “Is that a problem?”

“No, not even a little bit! I just… figured you’d go home.” He sounded as if he couldn’t believe his luck, and I found I rather liked the implication of his happy astonishment that I would remain with him after sex.

“I was out all night.” If my words weren’t explanation enough, the weariness I couldn’t keep from them must have been.

“And I just wore you out the rest of the way, huh?” Had I ever heard him so pleased with himself before?

“Ahou.” But I didn’t bother to deny it.

He kissed me on the cheek and settled into restfulness against me. “I won’t move for a while, then,” he murmured. And I was unsurprised to find I liked the sound of that too — of his casual solicitousness, even if it was probably born in part of laziness and a preexisting desire to do exactly as he’d stated.

Just as I was ready to drift into very comfortable sleep, however, he made a lie of his promise by stirring again. In a slightly more alert and now faintly accusatory thoughtful tone he said, “But you know… I think you were trying to use sex to keep me from asking about your case and what you were out all night doing.”

This roused me slightly too. “If I thought I could use sex to do that, I certainly would try.” I interrupted myself by yawning, but he didn’t jump in, so I was able to finish, “I can’t think of a more pleasant way to keep you off the scent.”

He snorted. “Well, I guess I can’t really say, ‘Oh, don’t ever fuck me again, you sneaky bastard…’ but it won’t work, you know.”

“I thought it worked extremely well just now.”

This time he laughed. “Yeah, you’re right about that.” And he nuzzled his face into my neck. I thought he might drop it there and let me sleep, but that was no realistic hope; half a minute or so later he persisted. “So what were you out all night doing?”

I didn’t trouble my tired self trying to prevaricate. “I have a feeling Tomizawa may be involved with the murders, and whoever is stalking his sister along with him.”

“So you’ve been stalking the stalker,” he finished with satisfaction.

“Something like that, yes.”

“But you probably still don’t have enough evidence to just assassinate Tomizawa yet, do you?”

“Not yet, no.” And when in response to this he hmm‘d pensively against my skin, I added firmly, “Stay out of it, Sano.”

In frustration he said, “I could help you, you know.”

“And you know how I feel about that.”

We had started to move back into more upright positions as this threatened to turn into a more active discussion or even an argument, but now he buried his face in my chest as he said, “You made it pretty clear how you feel just a little while ago.” And though he said it at a mutter, it was one of embarrassment rather than annoyance or defeat as he referred to how I felt in a completely different context than the one I’d meant.

With a sudden unexpected pressure in the space just beneath where his forehead rested, I found my arms rising to draw him close again. Had I made it clear how I felt? Because I wasn’t sure I knew how I felt. In fact I’d rather been wondering the entire time — or, if I’d been avoiding the how, I’d at least been wondering why I felt that way. In any case, it seemed he’d taken some confirmation from my actions and attitude that I hadn’t, perhaps, intended to give… but that I didn’t, perhaps, mind having given.

Almost involuntarily I found myself saying softly, “I just want to make sure you stay safe.” And that it sounded so maudlin and trite under the current circumstances didn’t make it any less sincere.

He clenched the arm he had around me as he replied, in loving annoyance, “You asshole. What if that’s exactly what I want for you too?”

I didn’t know how to answer that — at least not without saying something I’d already said that hadn’t convinced him then and probably wouldn’t now — so I remained silent. He too said nothing more, as if he’d made or accepted some point — I couldn’t tell which. And despite the utterly inconclusive nature of the conversation, it seemed to be at an end, and we drifted to sleep in a surprisingly pervasive atmosphere of lingering contentment and satisfaction with the situation and each other.

Part 13

It neither astonishes me nor vindicates any concrete expectation that the area in front of my apartment is devoid of figure or motion; my thoughts on the matter have been such a mess that his presence or his absence there seems equally feasible. I unlock the door and enter, flipping switches in motions no different than usual, finding everything inside no different than usual. I hang up my jacket and keys, remove and put away my gear, and move toward the bedroom to shed my shoes and tie with no particular haste. The only thing setting this evening apart from any other is the fact that I’m not very hungry and therefore giving little thought to what I’ll have for dinner… and perhaps a heart-rate just slightly quicker, more anticipatory, than on most nights.

At the bedroom door, however, before I have a chance to reach for the light, I’m greeted by sight and sound simultaneously unexpected and exactly what I was waiting for: “Your week’s up.”

“I have to admit,” I say, going still in the entry to the room, “I’m not surprised to find you breaking and entering.” So much for needing an invitation.

He’s seated on my bed with his jacket lying beside him. I note systematically that he doesn’t appear to be armed: his short-sleeved dress shirt is open halfway down his chest, its white material too translucent to disguise much of anything underneath. His unearthly eyes seem to glow as he looks me up and down and gives a monosyllabic laugh that conveys no amusement whatsoever. Slowly he stands. “Do you remember me?”

I can’t look away. Even with the jacket removed, he’s exactly the same as a week ago, and yet there’s something utterly riveting about him that wasn’t present before. Can it be merely the fact that I’m anticipating an end to the confusion and perhaps the whole strange situation, that I’m eager for answers? No, it’s something more. In that inhumanly beautiful face, above that slender, muscular body advancing smoothly toward me, eyes like that are enough to nullify completely any concept of heterosexuality a man might have about himself.

That isn’t why I hesitate answering his question, though. Yes, I’m caught up, all of a sudden and for no reason I can pinpoint, in his mysterious attractiveness, but in addition to that I feel I do remember him. I can’t recall anything specific about him, but he’s so familiar I could almost… well, I don’t know what. I don’t know, and therefore I don’t know what to say.

He stops just in front of me, and it’s all I can do not to reach out and seize him. His eyes, holding mine, seem to convey an uncanny amount of emotion, but I can make little sense of the turmoil they reveal. He’s hopeful… darkly, hopelessly hopeful… but what else, I can’t tell.

The heavy silence doesn’t need much time to become oppressive, but somehow I feel that to answer, to crush that desperate hope, would be even worse. I don’t need to speak, however; he can tell just by looking that I haven’t remembered whatever he wants me to. Slowly his expression hardens, the hope dimming. “You never were much of a spiritualist.” It’s almost a mutter, equal parts disappointment and… fond acceptance?

Abruptly I want him… so clearly, so intensely I simply cannot restrain myself. I want to be with him, to be close to him, to touch him, hold him, make love to him, be one with him forever, and nothing else in the world seems meaningful or even real. My hands, almost of their own volition, move to clutch at him, to pull him against me, and through the incomprehensible haze of longing and desire that’s overtaken me I’m vaguely startled at how cold he feels. But should that really be a surprise at this point?

“Calm down.” His voice next to my ear is a whisper so husky it nearly qualifies as a growl. “I’m not seducing you today; I just want to make this easier.” I get the feeling — how, I probably wouldn’t know even if I were more lucid — that he wants me as much as I suddenly want him, but his frigid hands have taken hold of my wrists with shocking strength and kept them still. Cold breath moves along my neck, sparking an intense, prickling shudder through my entire body.

My instincts war within me: the more wary screaming to push him away, to break away myself, because when I feel his lips part against my skin I know what’s coming next; the more hedonistic replying that nothing that feels this good, that I want this desperately, can be bad; and the most logical replying that, while, yes, it can be bad, it can’t be that bad because vampires aren’t real.

They all snap silent as his fangs pierce my flesh. There is a stab of pain, a cold, tugging sensation followed by a slow spread of burning heat, and then… nothing.

I don’t know how long the blackness lasts; it could be moments and it could be hours. It’s like traveling through a tunnel, assuming there exists a tunnel that strips you of not only your sight but of every other sense as well as all presence of mind. On one side everything was, if not precisely normal, at least framed in a context I’m familiar with and could try to sort out eventually; on the other, as I emerge from the sensory deprivation, everything is chaos.

I remember. In a tumultuous rush, the living of an entire lifetime in an instant, I remember everything — Japan, my childhood, the wars, the Shinsengumi, my life as a spy, my wife and children, and Sano… Sano…. Sano….. I remember what happened to us, to him, to Takani, the bizarre events of those last weeks, what he did and what he wanted… I remember it all, and all at once; and as I struggle desperately to make sense of it, to calm and order my frantic mind, and most of all to reconcile it with America and the current millennium and everything I think I know about myself, I’m fairly sure I’ve gone insane. I’m probably babbling, too, out there in the physical realm that I’m barely feeling at the moment.

His arms are around me. That’s the first thing I realize as I begin to come to my senses. I’m sitting on the bed now, still in deep shadow in a room whose blinds are closed and lights turned off, and he’s holding me. The gesture is purely for physical support, and at the moment I’m so torn by various emotions and so lost in my fractured state of mind that I can neither enjoy nor wish to escape his presence.

“Sanosuke…” I gasp after who knows how long, calming further but still severely agitated. “How…”

“We live forever with people who live over and over,” he replies coolly. His arms drop from around my shoulders, and I feel very unsteady on the edge of the bed, as if I might topple and fall right off the world. “Eventually,” he goes on, “we get the ability to make you remember your past lives, if we want. Some assholes do it just to torture their victims, or make them feel like death’s better than the insanity of remembering everything all at once… but I’m not quite to that point yet. Though I did work pretty hard to perfect the technique.”

I don’t really hear his answer — don’t grasp his meaning just yet, at any rate; I’m still struggling within my head. It’s more than anyone should have to take in so suddenly, more than I can assimilate quickly or even, I fear, at length… the one thing I can think to do is try to ignore most of it and only give thought to what I absolutely have to. Though this is easier resolved upon than done.

At that moment I realize that what I’ve thought of as a ringing in my ears is actually a ringing in the room, and that the glow in my eyes isn’t just a remembered light from Meiji-era Japan. Not fully aware of what I’m doing, but glad to have something to cling to of the existence I thought I knew — my life, the ‘real world’ of my current consciousness — I reach clumsily for the cell phone that is the source of the sudden light in the room. How it came to be on the bed rather than in my pocket as it was before I’m not sure; perhaps that gives some clue as to how long I was in that tunnel.

It’s my girlfriend calling, but there’s no way I can answer in this state; she would think I’ve gone crazy, and I’m not entirely sure I haven’t. I can’t quite manage to reject the call, though, with fingers that aren’t obeying my commands very precisely just yet.

The next moment I’m on my feet, throwing the device back down on the bed, face aghast and a hand raised as if to ward off a blow. Above her number, naturally, her name appears… I seldom bother with individual ringtones, but I do keep everyone in my contacts organized…

Saito, Renee

“Oh, my god…”

I would declare this a coincidence — my reeling mind is already protesting that it’s a common enough surname — if not for the ensuing bitter statement out of the darkness near my nightstand: “Yeah, she called a few minutes ago too. Funny who fate decides to toss together, isn’t it? Though actually, far as I can tell, it’s people’s souls that find each other… someone you had some connection with in a previous life’s more likely to find you than someone you didn’t. This one’s less fucked-up than some I’ve seen… Yahiko and Chou ended up married a couple of lives down the line.”

I’m not sure whether it’s more startling to find that Sano is still here, that I’m apparently dating my own something-great-granddaughter, or that all of this is suddenly making so much sense to me. Yahiko… Chou… the names mean something, despite a large part of my mind wishing in a panic that they didn’t. And Renee is…

“I hope you’re happy,” I say in an effort to speed the process of regaining my mental stability, but unfortunately it comes out as something like a snarl. “I’ll never be able to look at her the same again.”

“Happy?” Sano wonders, skeptical and more bitter than before. “Yeah, right. But satisfied that I won’t have to watch you happily in love with someone else again? A little.”

“You’re not like I remember.”

“No shit. A hundred fucking fifty years’ll do that to you. Not to mention constant rejection.”

I sit down on the bed again, on the opposite side now from him, and lean my head in one hand. Though I open my mouth to speak, nothing comes out; I simply don’t know what to say next. I’m remembering his cold, blank face in that cellar, his despair when he awoke, and, most significantly, my own feelings at that time.

All the emotions from those days are coming back, slower than the memories but no less overwhelming. Sano… I… loved him… I loved him and I lost him… or perhaps he lost me…

Maybe I still love him.

God, that is just too much to think about at the moment.

“Rejection?” is what I finally manage to come up with. My tone still isn’t very steady, but I’m beginning to feel readier for a real conversation.

“I think you’ve had enough shock for one night,” he replies. Despite the slight sound of sympathy in his voice, yet it’s colder than anything I remember Sano saying back then; but I get the feeling this is normal for him now. ‘A hundred fucking fifty years’ indeed…

I turn to look at him. He’s standing with arms folded, watching me, the glint of his eyes in the darkness dimmer than it was before. “Sano…” I begin, though still with no clear idea what to say. I have two lifetimes now in which I can’t recall ever being so stymied.

“It’s OK,” he says softly. “You have a lot to think about. I’ll give you a few days, and then we can talk.”

“Sano,” I repeat, more decisively this time, standing and facing him. “I want to know–”

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot you want to know,” he cuts me off brusquely — another tone I don’t remember hearing from him before. “But not right now. You’re gonna have a choice to make here after not too long, and you need to be in your right mind for a while first.”

“What choice?” I ask, though the thought that I really don’t need to is already stirring in the back of my head.

And he’s gone.

I don’t even hear the apartment door open and close. Apparently vampires have the ability to silence locks and latches in addition to their own movements. Or maybe he can turn into mist.

Oh, my god, he’s really a vampire.

Of course he’s a vampire. I was there for that. A hundred and thirty-some years ago.

I slump back down onto the bed and again put my head in my hands.

This is overwhelming and beyond agitating, and right now I don’t know how to deal with it. Two lives are suddenly jumbled together in my head, two different senses of self, and, though it’s all clamoring for attention, none of it is what at least part of me feels I should be thinking about. Not while considering the fact that Sano — Sano, whom I remember full well now, whom I loved — has been alive — undead, I suppose, is the correct word — for all these years and has sought me out after so long in another country, another era, another language, another ethnicity… for what?

Just as I was able to put together a set of theories about the situation over the last couple of days at work — a set of theories I’m now much closer to believing in their entirety, as far as I’m capable of thinking about them at all — I feel I can theorize with a fair degree of accuracy what he wants from me now, what choice I’m going to have to make. The look on his face as I died in his arms — the horror and despair and frustration — is such a painful and deeply ingrained memory I almost can’t believe I ever lost it, hundred and thirty-some years or no, and I know what it is he wants.

But I almost can’t handle thinking about my own death like that.

And… how many times must I have died since then?

With a deep, desperate breath something like a sob, as if my body wants to remind itself and my mind that I am still alive, I collapse onto my side on the bed, curling up and closing my eyes. The first two fingers of one hand have somehow found their way just to the left of my trachea as if I were taking my own pulse, running up and down over the two sore spots on my neck, feeling the dried blood there as if it’s brail spelling out a readable message. But it tells me nothing… nothing that isn’t totally overridden by everything else that’s bombarding me, that is.

Memories, many of them seemingly conflicting if not downright impossibly contradictory, shuffle like semi-transparent cards in front of my mind’s eye, overlaying each other and blending improbably together into an incomprehensible mass comprised of two childhoods, two young adulthoods, two manhoods, two different set of police protocol — oh, that’s annoying — two worlds in which I’ve lived, two languages I suddenly speak, two lifetimes’ worth of beliefs and attitudes and recollections. And Sano’s face is superimposed across the whole — Sano’s handsome, enthralling face in all its variety of expression: his sometimes goofy pleasure, his ready anger, his more serious moments still with eyes sparkling, all of it so easy yet so intense… even the more modern aloofness, coldness, bitterness… I can’t stop seeing them. I can’t stop thinking about him.

But I can’t think exclusively about him, no matter how much part of me wants to, no matter how much that seems the only way to stay sane at the moment. The rest of it simply can’t be ignored. It all has to be worked through before I can decide what I think about Sanosuke and what’s happening now, the turn things have taken. If I, Joseph, am going to get on with my life, Hajime will have to be integrated. And I, Hajime, am strong enough to deal with this without going mad. Obviously Sano thought so, or he wouldn’t have burdened me with a past incarnation; he did specifically say he wasn’t doing it to torture me. There’s some irony in this thought, but that’s thirty-five years into the story and has to be put off until I get back around to it.

For now, I’m starting on February 18, 1844. Not that I have any memories from quite that early, but I will work through this as methodically as I can from as early a point as is relevant. I will put it all in place so I can move forward and make the choice I have to make, possibly the most important one of my life. Of this life, anyway.

I already have the beginnings of a dire migraine, and a sense of sorrow growing in the pit of my stomach that’s more than a little like nausea. I suspect these symptoms will only worsen as I lie here thinking and remembering and sorting, and I’m certain that when I call in sick to work tomorrow, it may be Sano’s fault, but it won’t in any way be a lie.

Part 14

Rich people — at least those determined to make a show of their wealth — often purchased their own downfall in the form of extensive landscaping that provided cover for spying on or secretly approaching their houses. Tomizawa Nori’s home was not the first I’d encountered that made for ridiculously luxurious monitoring conditions. The perfume of flowers in the darkness might not be my favorite scent — since spending the better part of a day in bed with Sano, there was a distinctly more human smell or combination of smells that came immediately to mind at that thought — but I certainly preferred it to filthy back streets with full gutters.

Even this, however, could not erase the awareness that the criminal I sought — possibly the other clandestine watcher of Nori’s house I specifically awaited right now — was a thief of large volumes of blood, and I had never been able to figure out or believably speculate what he wanted it for. Considering this, even among the azaleas and young tulip trees, my mind seemed to conjure up the scent of blood to blend with that of the pleasant greenery in an ominous mixture. Takani — who thus far had been useful for more than merely her postmortem perspective on the victims she’d examined; I would have to keep her in mind as a consultant, when one was needed, for future cases — had been unable to come up with a use anyone might have for so much (if any) coagulated blood, and therefore assumed the stolen liquid had been put to its intended use immediately upon its withdrawal from the bodies… which meant the smell was entirely an illusion, as it seemed next to impossible that any actual blood was being stored at this location or any other related to the case… but the imagination was a powerful thing that could easily compromise the luxury of this posh spy job.

I was uneasy before that, however; the unreal combination of scents merely accentuated a preexisting mood. The other watcher had not, as far as I could tell, appeared yet, and it was later than I’d sensed him last time. Of course Nori hadn’t been able to say for certain whether she’d been watched every night, and I’d spied on her house just the once before — but I couldn’t help worrying that I had spooked the mystery man (if that was the right way to put it when he didn’t seem to have cared at all about my presence) and wouldn’t be able to get any information here. The eventual emotion distilled from this set of concerns was not so much agitation as irritation, since not only would that mean this was a dead end and I would return to having few or no leads, it might take several more nights of sneaking around this place before I would be able to determine for certain it was a dead end.

Just as I had on the previous instance, I was shifting gradually around the perimeter of the property, carefully keeping hidden but observing the house and its surroundings methodically from every angle. And I would have believed my concentration on the job — combined with irritation at the idea that this might be a waste of time and the agitation of the imaginary scent of blood and uneasy imaginings about what that blood could possibly have been wanted for — would keep me entirely occupied… but I had to admit that, after how events had run lately, I wasn’t actually particularly surprised to find myself thinking about Sano as I moved surreptitiously from one shrubbery to the next. That irresponsible idiot of mine must be rubbing off on me; this was no appropriate time to be dwelling on the taste of his lips or the stupidly amusing nature of his conversation or the unanticipated delight that arose within me when I considered that he was my irresponsible idiot.

Something compelled me almost overwhelmingly about the idea that I had (in a way) someone to go home to, someone I could seek out for comfort, companionship, and more after I’d wearied my body and mind on this or other professional pursuits. I felt almost giddy, like a child, at the thought of this change in my life and how ridiculously happy it made me. And, strangest of all, it was a new giddiness, a new happiness; I’d never been this way about Tokio.

No, I supposed, it wasn’t really strange. While Tokio and I had enjoyed each other’s company to some extent, and even enjoyed the sex that had produced our three children, we’d never had a passionate attachment. I’d never been overcome with thoughts of her and her charms while on a potentially dangerous assignment, and I’d never been ecstatic at the thought of going home to her. And what the difference between my attitude toward my wife and toward my new lover had to say about the true nature of my feelings for the latter — the ones he claimed I’d already displayed pretty clearly — was something I shied somewhat from thinking about. Anyway I shouldn’t be thinking about any of this.

Even as I forced the reflections away, though, and took a firmer hold on my current purpose, I was smiling.

The attack came from behind, but something so completely undetectable could have come from directly ahead and I might still have been oblivious until being hit by it — and to me this indicated that the attacker had only imperfect confidence in his abilities, believed he needed the added advantage of attacking from behind. In any case, I was knocked forward by a blow that, though it didn’t break any bones, definitely hurt as I went flying into a tree small enough to snap when my body smashed through it.

As quickly as I was back on my feet, spine aching after having bent too far in an odd direction, drawing my sword and whirling, the unexpected enemy made little more than a flash in the corner of my eye. I threw myself to the side, straight into a shrub that let off a strong but not unpleasant scent as I crushed many of its leaves and branches underfoot, and sensed I’d barely evaded another attack in so doing. The third blow I didn’t manage to dodge, however — it felt like an elbow that jabbed into the side of my neck just below my jaw — as again I failed, though not moving at all slowly, to face the enemy or determine what side he was coming from. And not yet having caught sight of him or any idea what to make of him except that he was startlingly fast, I felt my starting disadvantage as sorely as my aching back and neck and rattled head.

Crunching footsteps in the mulch, light and quiet though they were, gave the sole indication of his trajectory for the moment, and once more I threw myself instinctively in what I thought was the safest direction from his current charge. I couldn’t turn quickly enough to see him unless I could anticipate his movements, and I couldn’t anticipate his movements unless I could get a reading on his ki. And it was present — this was definitely the same interest I’d felt pointed toward the house last night — but in combat it seemed astonishingly weak and unfocused for someone so fast and strong. As such, I needed a very precise fix on what I was looking for before I could make any use of it.

As I worked on that, I took another blow: a tendon-straining punch to the left shoulder that, while painful, did allow me a blurred glimpse of its deliverer before he darted off behind me again. He appeared quite mundane in that unclear moment, and, though there could easily be — and probably was — more to him than one half glance could tell, still I was reminded of Tsukioka’s ‘pretty normal-sized’ attacker that ‘moved really fast.’

I’d nearly lost hold of my sword in the percussion through my shoulder, and shooting lines of pain ran down my arm, but at least I was starting to get a feel for the man’s motions and combative intentions. When next I turned, it was toward where I anticipated him moving to — and I was correct. He’d been drawing back a fist for another strike, but faltered when he saw me face him. The thrust of my sword wasn’t as graceful or correctly aimed as I would have preferred, but my arm still stung and throbbed and it was the best I could do. At any rate, the blade did manage to pierce his kimono just under his raised right arm — and, I thought, the flesh beneath — before he ducked away to the side again with a faint sound of tearing cloth.

Pretty normal-sized indeed. Of average height, somewhat but not remarkably fat, with a very traditional (for this era) cut to his black hair, wearing (as far as I could tell in the shadows) totally uninteresting clothing, the only things even a little noteworthy about his appearance — the ‘more’ I’d assumed there must be to him moments before — were a brightness of eye a little uncanny in the dark garden and an apparently pretty significant level of dirtiness — some of it, I was sure, dried blood — to his run-of-the-mill clothing.

And why should he be so reluctant to let me see him? His features gave me no new information as to his identity, and there had been no reason just now for him to back off from delivering the blow he’d been planning. My opinion of earlier strengthened: he lacked confidence in his own abilities, and probably didn’t want me to get a good look at him in case he felt the need to retreat and remain anonymous thereafter.

His next hit was similar to the first — what I believed was a shoulder-led body-slam aimed at my mid-back — but I managed mostly to dodge, and, though the displaced brunt of his momentum still caught me in the side and sent me spinning, I used that centrifugal motion to strike out against him, and this time definitely felt my sword connect with flesh. I might have made better use of the blow if I hadn’t briefly been so disconcerted by his complete lack of reaction to it. His body barely moved except, a moment later, to jerk free of where my nihontou stuck in his side; he certainly gave no pained vocalization of any sort. In fact, I realized suddenly, I couldn’t even hear him breathing, and surely it was unusual for someone — especially someone overweight — to exert himself so much so silently!

I was on the verge of panting and gasping. Another blow to the chest like that last one, off-center though it had been, would knock the wind right out of me, render me incapable of fighting and terribly vulnerable for at least several seconds. The stranger hit hard, and I found myself reflecting in no small amount of gratitude and relief, as I whirled yet again trying to find him before he could connect, on what a blessing it was that he used his body rather than a more conventional weapon. The very first hit would have killed me, I was certain, had he been wielding even just a dagger; it would have been instantaneous with a sword.

I didn’t have to wonder why he was thus unarmed, though, since the most likely answer was immediately apparent and fit right in with his weak, undirected ki: this man was no warrior. He probably had no idea how to use even the simplest weapon, and it probably hadn’t even occurred to him that he could try. Scantly as that seemed to fit with the incredible strength, speed, and endurance he demonstrated, or the extreme danger I now found myself in thanks to those attributes, I believed it. Here was someone with natural abilities such as I’d rarely seen, but little or no aptitude or training for combat, who’d been thrown into a combat situation for some reason or another.

And what that reason might be I pondered as I took a blow to the side of my stomach, above my right hip, that sent me sprawling again. Rising with a difficulty I tried to conceal, I managed to retaliate successfully, only to find the piercing point of my sword once more completely disregarded. But even with this remarkable capacity to shrug off what should have been staggering strikes, the man’s lack of confidence in his own skill combined with his reluctance to let me see him and clear lack of training made it seem even stranger that he’d attacked me at all tonight. Was he so desperate to see me out of the picture that he’d come up against me despite having little belief in his ability to succeed? He seemed wary or even frightened of me, and perhaps desperation alone had driven him to try what he felt was expedient but hazardous. And while normally I would have said he had good reason to be frightened and had made a fatal mistake in choosing to attack, in this case I couldn’t be so optimistic.

Because it only took a few more exchanges of hits to convince me I could not win this battle. My blows seemed to have no effect whatsoever, but I couldn’t take many more of his. And though I struggled to continue fighting steadily, to avoid showing how much damage his assault had done, eventually I must falter and render evident just how much he had the upper hand. And the instant his confidence improved and he stopped dancing around trying to avoid my gaze, he would end this with one decisive punch.

Of course the idea of ‘one decisive punch’, of undirected brute strength, the uncalculated application of force in the hopes of a good outcome without any real planning, must make me think, for a second and far more dangerous instance during this night’s work, of Sanosuke. He was just the type to plunge into a battle he wasn’t sure he could win, fists flying, recking very little of what wounds he received. But I had to do my lover the credit of admitting that, though at one point in his career he might have been similar to this flailing attacker — undoubtedly as an even younger man than he was now — he’d long since grown out of the combative niche this stranger currently occupied and probably always would.

And if I wanted to appreciate Sano’s ever-improving ability to give matters serious thought, to plan for things, to restrain himself — in fact if I wanted to appreciate anything about him again — I needed to find a way out of this battle as soon as I possibly could.

A fist to the side of my face that set the world spinning wildly interrupted my attempts at coming up with an escape route and nearly, I thought, fractured my cheekbone. I managed to stave off any follow-up by a stab directly into my opponent’s thigh, but he, as usual, simply drew back, seeming to ignore the wound completely, and dashed off to the side out of my sight. I fought merely to stay upright and unwavering as I turned yet again to find the man; as soon as the shockwaves through my head ceased, I would recommence trying to think of a way out of this.

But my opponent’s ki was suddenly gone.

Calm air, the sounds of night insects, the sweet smells of the garden around me, and, most of all, an abrupt complete lack of any discernable intent anywhere nearby… it was uncanny. I stood very still, reaching out with every sense that might give me some hint as to what my opponent was up to, and gradually my injuries began to assert themselves. At first I forced the pain and debilitation into relative invisibility, just as before, in case the unknown might be watching, only to determine eventually that he had simply disappeared. For now — however long ‘now’ might be — it seemed I was safe.

Lesser warrior that he was, he must have entertained the same idea I had — that this was a futile battle against a stronger opponent — and, unable to see his mistake, had made a judicious retreat. The wounds he’d taken from me must have done some damage after all — honestly I couldn’t see how they could have failed to, his lack of reaction or apparent weakening notwithstanding — and he, not knowing how close his victory lay, hadn’t felt he could take any more. My attempts at hiding just how badly I was faring had probably saved my life. I did not look forward to whatever he might try next to get me out of his way.

I needed a doctor immediately. Takani probably wasn’t going to be happy about this, but at least I’d managed to avoid delivering her another corpse. Reaching her at all in my current state might be a bit of a difficulty, however; I felt as if I’d been pummeled nearly to death, and, though nothing seemed to be broken — even my skin — my entire body throbbed with pain of various depths, and felt ridiculously weak, as if the first step I took might send me toppling into the dirt.

Hurrying footfalls, concerned voices, and lantern light were approaching up one of the nearby paved paths from the direction of the house, and I spent a moment trying to decide how (or whether) I should deal with the servants coming to see what in the world was going on in the garden. I feared there was little choice at this point, and at the very least I could benefit from their presence. Fortunately, I had a ready-made excuse for being here.

The first man to leave the walkway and round the shrubbery that obscured any view of me stopped short and gaped at the disheveled cop with dripping sword in hand, the absence of opponent or dead body or other indication of exactly what had gone on here, and the devastation to this area of the landscaping. Before he could even begin to pull himself together, a second man, this one bearing a drawn saber even a private security guard probably shouldn’t have been carrying, appeared at his side.

Covered though I was with growing deep tissue bruises and strained tendons in multiple joints, I managed to draw myself up to a straightness that was clearly imposing (it helped that I had the higher ground) and look down on the men with an air of command not inappropriate to my actual position as a representative of the police force and, by extension, the government. I withdrew a cloth from my pocket and began cleaning the blood off the blade in my hand, which gleamed portentously in the lantern light, with a movement far more composed than I felt. “One of you go find me a cab,” I ordered in a tone that indicated I was not looking for any argument. “And tell Tomizawa-san I need to talk to her about her stalker.”

Part 15

Was I really reassured at some point by my ability to buy macaroni and cheese after thinking about vampires? I underestimated the power of habit, the relentless tendency of the human mind toward normalcy. What I theorized on Wednesday evening — that Sanosuke must consider me strong enough to assimilate the memories of an entire lifetime without going crazy, or else he wouldn’t have restored them — might indeed be true… but in the end, I believe, far more than any strength of spirit I may or may not possess, it was that mundane human resilience in the face of the incomprehensible that helped me through the tumultuous task of integrating my previous incarnation into my awareness of self.

In fact I integrated Hajime — or perhaps I, being Hajime, integrated Joseph — so quickly, I probably could have worked the second half of Thursday. After the tangle of emotions and the migraine and the seemingly unconquerable confusion of Wednesday night, it was startling how rapidly my state improved, how neatly things settled into place in my head, after a fitful few hours of sleep and a cup of strong coffee. By lunchtime I was calm and collected, and relatively equanimous toward the two different identities I now have to work with.

Of course, no matter how shockingly easy it all turned out to be — and it is a shock every single time I consider how simply I’ve adjusted to such a huge and sudden load of new information about myself — everything is different now. Although from Thursday afternoon onward I’ve been able to go through my usual routine without much of a hitch, it’s been a bizarre exercise in acclimatization.

At work on Friday it was as if everything I did was for an audience — as if I was holding up the modern United States police and my involvement in it for inspection — except that audience, that inspector, was inside me. I’ve been gaging Hajime’s reaction to every aspect of my life, but they’re my own reactions. Everything seems new because I have a new perspective from which to view it, and even the old — the memories to which I now have access that were hidden from me before — becomes new again each time I recall something from my days in Japan and examine it in the light of my attitudes and experiences as an American with a somewhat different personality.

It’s been surprisingly undisagreeable.

Despite not feeling nearly as disturbed as I might have expected by being, in a way, two people at once, I’ve been keeping Hajime in the background, as far as this is possible, treating my former self more like an index of philosophies and information I suddenly have access to (and am free to disregard, if I wish, in making decisions) than anything that compels. This is not because I consider my Japanese life any less a part of me or any less worthy of being referenced in my choices going forward, but because that life has been completed, and my modern self, the life currently in progress, has a greater right to remain in the forefront and as undistracted as possible under the circumstances.

So I continue to identify as Joe, but that doesn’t mean I’m not Hajime underneath. Attitudes from those days bleed through, and I wouldn’t really want to stop them, even if some impulses I’ve had since recovering that part of myself have been unnecessarily harsh… arising from a hardness of character born of wars I fought in during that lifetime that gave me an edge beyond what I have now.

This all made for a work day yesterday even more distracted than Wednesday before Sano’s return, but, thanks to that aforementioned power of habit, I struggled through it. I have to admit, I’m glad it’s Saturday now, that I have Saturdays off work with my current schedule, and that Sano’s previous promised time of appearance was adhered to punctually enough that his current ‘few days’ can be taken at face value. Even allowing for variable interpretations of ‘a few,’ I’m expecting him as soon as the sun is down.

The waiting isn’t nearly as difficult as previously, because I’m not nearly so single-mindedly impatient for this meeting as I was for the last. There are points I want to discuss, yes, questions I want to ask… but one question — the biggest question — I’m afraid I already know the answer to, and I’m not looking forward to having it brought to light. And I want to see him again, yes, but simultaneously in a way I’d rather not. In fact I’m so conflicted about what I assume will happen this evening that every time I look at the clock I feel perfectly torn: how can time be passing so slowly and yet so quickly?

At least Renee appears to have given up calling for now. She’s persistent, but she also knows how to pick her battles, and must have realized we won’t be having a date this weekend. Does she realize we won’t be having a date ever again? Who knows? I’d have to speak to her to find out, and I’m just not ready for that. Less ready, in fact, than I was before, now I know she’s some manner of descendent of mine. It’s something I’ve been trying not to think about. As before, this seems cowardly… but trying to determine how to deal with the situation is necessarily a lesser priority at the moment.

My frame of mind, comprised as it is of desire, reluctance, and avoidance all vying for the same space, boils down to agitated impatience and inability to sit still, and the evening turns out much like Sunday’s: I can’t read, I can’t watch television, and I end up on the internet wasting time and trying to numb my thoughts with its banality. And I’m wondering, as I did on Wednesday, how exactly he’s going to do this. Will he knock on the door like a civilized person? As if Sano was ever a civilized person… Or will I find him in my bedroom again with no idea how he got there? I chuckle briefly as I consider that that’s a fairly good metaphysical summary of our relationship back in Japan.

It’s upon returning from a trip to the bathroom that I find him seated on my sofa, and I can’t help speculating on whether he’s really as stealthy as I’ve been assuming. I was, after all, extremely preoccupied when he left the other night; it’s possible the silence in which he did so was an illusion caused by my inability to recognize sounds just then. And now perhaps he waited until I was out of the room to enter — quietly but not actually silently — to preserve that illusion.

Looking at him, as it were, through two different sets of eyes at once — and far more self-possessed now, able to interpret coherently as I wasn’t on Wednesday night — I can see both the similarities to and the divergences from what he once was. Of course it’s all new to Joe, but what I notice from that perspective that contrasts with the old Sano therefore stands out all the more strikingly against Hajime’s intimate knowledge.

Visually very little has changed. He wears his hair longer now (and I do have to wonder how bodily development works in vampires), but before it constricts into a small, messy tail in back, it still pokes out wildly on top. His skin is significantly paler than in life, but it’s a paleness I had a chance to get used to before I died, so nothing unexpected there. Another unsurprising difference from his time as a human is the shining eyes… but in the light of my living room their independent glow is less distinguishable. And of course his clothing is unfamiliar, except as far as it’s the same jeans and button-up I’ve seen on him whenever I’ve met him here in the U.S. — it seems likely vampires don’t have much need to do laundry — but the same old kanji, perhaps representing the same old futile clinging to the past, decorates the jacket lying at his side.

No, the real alteration is in expression and bearing. Just as I observed at our last few meetings but didn’t properly recognize or process, there’s a coldness and hardness about the way he carries himself that is completely alien to the Sagara Sanosuke — even the undead version — I remember. He’s sitting in what should seem a perfectly casual position in the corner of the sofa, but there’s something uncompromising about the pose that I find chillingly foreign. And the lines around his eyes… there’s a bitterness, a harshness there that was never present before. There’s no trace of the joviality or even the anger, the lively passions I so loved in him once upon a time, in face or figure.

Originally I planned on taking a seat near him at the other end of the sofa. But in an echo of the repulsion I’ve felt toward him ever since he walked back into my world last Wednesday — a repulsion I now regrettably understand all too well — I stop in the middle of the room, staring fixedly at him in a mixture of desire to go to him and to get as far away from him as I can.

“Breaking and entering again, I see,” is how I greet him, and the sarcasm in the statement is all Hajime.

He just nods, and the difference in him is even more apparent. Back then, Sano certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to let himself into my home without permission if he felt the need to do so, but — I know this; I knew him — there would have been an emotional reaction to being found there. He would have grinned sheepishly, and (contradictorily) maybe a little triumphantly as well, when confronted with his intrusion. Any compunction would have turned to brazenness, and he would have followed his initial reaction with something flirtatious or suggestive. Or there might even have been anger at the idea that I could possibly object to his presence, given our relationship, or doubt its importance, given whatever reason he’d had for breaking in. He would never merely have nodded with such disinterested acknowledgment.

Furthermore, he’s here now after having done something he freely admits some vampires do specifically to torture their victims. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about having had those memories forced on me, but it was certainly a momentous ordeal that has reordered my entire existence… and yet Sano exhibits none of the uncertainty or guilt I know he would have felt in the Meiji era about approaching someone — especially someone he loved — on whom he’d recently inflicted pain and confusion and transformation for his own purposes. He should be hesitant, concerned, if he truly is the Sano I remember… but he isn’t. He’s sitting, unruffled and with no hint of tentativeness about him, ready to being a life-altering conversation.

And I can’t help thinking this change has occurred not because he’s outgrown the awkwardness of youth and gained a perfect aplomb, but because he’s shed many natural human emotions and reactions. Many of the things that made him Sano. Inadvertently at this thought — which is, after all, only a guess until I have more information — I shudder. For a few moments I can’t bear looking at him, so I move to fetch one of the chairs from my dining table and place it in a spot decently far from but facing him. Then I sit and force myself to meet his gaze once again.

“You’re doing OK with the memories,” he says, and it’s not a query whether I’m all right, just a cool observation.

I nod. I have no comment on that topic, at least not yet. And after all, it isn’t as if he asked a question I need to answer.

He mimics my nod, just slightly. “OK, then. You probably have lots of questions. Where do you want me to start?”

Dealing with this in an orderly fashion seems like the easiest way to keep my head on straight, keep from plunging back into everything that made Wednesday night so hectic. With that in mind I ask, “What happened after I died?”

He gives me a somewhat skeptical look. “That’s a lot of time to cover.”

“You covered a lot of time the other night as well.”

“Even that wasn’t this much. But let’s see…” He leans back, stretching out his legs to cross them at the ankles, and props one elbow on the sofa’s armrest, and the movement and pose are a shiver-inducing echo of my old Sano. So are the words that follow.

I’m reserving judgment on precisely how I feel about Sanosuke at the moment, suppressing Hajime’s profound emotions on the matter as best I can and assessing the vampire from Joe’s point of view. That makes it significantly easier to sit here listening to him speak, easier to attain some sort of impassivity about him and his story. How long I can keep it up I don’t know, but for now at least I’m able to take in what he says without too much intense reaction of heart.

“Your assistant — Hirotaka or whatever his name was — he was just sure Meg and I conspired to kill you and then ran off together.” Sano shakes his head with a smile both bitter and rueful. “I guess I can’t blame him for thinking that; what other explanation was there when you turned up dead, and me and Megumi missing? But seriously…” He laughs faintly, derisively.

“Meg stuck around in Japan for a while, trying to keep practicing medicine. She went to Nagasaki to avoid the heat in Tokyo, and dealt with mostly prostitutes and lowlifes and people who appreciated a doctor who only worked at night. But she found out pretty quick that vampires don’t make good doctors. I think she had some really bad experiences before she decided to call it quits. That was a huge blow to her. Being a doctor was what she always wanted. I don’t even remember how many years she wandered around the world just miserable before she found something else to do with herself.”

I nod my wordless understanding. Apart from feeling I have nothing useful to say in response to these unhappy details, anything I could say on the subject would lead into very uncomfortable territory, and in fact directly to the main reason Sano is here… a reason neither of us, I think, is trying to avoid, but that we’re working up to with a measured account of events in the order they occurred. So instead of commenting on Megumi’s sad fate, I ask, “And what about the rest of your friends? Tsukioka and Battousai and everyone? How did they deal with what happened?”

“I only kept up with them through letters after that.” Sano looks pensive, and there’s definitely some regret there. It’s no surprise he couldn’t interact in person with his living friends once he’d begun needing and craving their blood for his own survival, but it couldn’t have been easy for him to abruptly abandon every relationship he’d formed throughout the second half of his life. “Katsu literally sent me back a letter that was just four giant kanji ‘bakayarou’ when I first wrote to him, but after that we were OK. We wrote each other for a few years, but eventually his newspaper got him killed like we all expected.

“You know I still have a print he did? It’s probably worth a fortune these days, but I still hang onto it.” Sano’s glowing eyes turn distant as he says this, as if he’s seeing into the past. I wonder if that’s a skill some vampires actually have. “Anyway, I heard about him in a letter from Kenshin months and months after it happened: a politically motivated murder trying to send a message to anyone else with bright ideas about exposing dirty truths. It was inevitable, I guess, and I think he was probably happy enough to go that way — doing what he thought would be most helpful to the political situation in Japan — but he was the first. Besides you, I mean.

“And Kenshin… He knew Megumi and I didn’t murder you, of course. Actually he was just sure we were both killed by whoever got you. His response to my first letter was just stupid relieved. Kinda annoyed too — like he couldn’t hide it — that I took so long to reassure him. Just like someone else we knew once. Also I think he had to get the police chief — that guy who liked him so much; what was his name? — to make them stop harassing Kenshin and Kaoru about where Megumi and I might be hiding.”

“Uramura,” I murmur. It’s so strange to think that Sano and I have memories of the same set of days, months, and years, but where his must be a bit hazy at certain points after the passage of over a century, mine are relatively fresh and sharp, since they were the last things to occur during the time just recently restored to me.

Sano nods and moves on. “Kenshin never knew for sure about you and me. I’d have gotten around to telling him eventually, if, you know, we hadn’t both died. But I think he guessed. His first few letters were really… like he was offering condolences and support without actually saying it, even though I’m sure he didn’t like the idea of me being with you. He was always like that. He was a really good guy.”

Though Himura’s death hasn’t actually been mentioned yet, there’s a moment of silence between us that feels deliberate, like a respectful gesture. I always had mixed feelings about the man, and am neither surprised at nor can I disagree with Sano’s speculation about his lack of approval of our relationship, but looking back at him now through Joe’s eyes… and, if I’m to be perfectly honest, with Hajime’s grudging awareness of all the facts of the matter… he truly was exactly what Sano says: a really good guy. I wonder what form he currently inhabits, how his present life is going.

“Of course Kenshin and Kaoru got married eventually,” Sano continues at last, more lightly, “once they figured their shit out. Took ’em even longer to figure out birth control, though, because they just kept having kids. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.” He gestures uncomprehendingly in the air with one pale hand, and I can’t help a brief laugh. “I think Yahiko got tired of the constant baby-making, because he moved out as soon as Kenshin handed over his sakabatou. Into my longhouse, actually…” Again his look is distant, this time with a slight smile. No doubt we’re both remembering that longhouse and what were probably the happiest moments of the end of our lives.

“And Kenshin had to deal with a few more serious enemies before he gave his sword up. I didn’t get many letters from Kaoru, but she always gave me more details than Kenshin did — he would make it sound like it was nothing, but she was more worried about him after every different conflict. And eventually she turned out to be right: all that fighting and struggling to protect people without killing just tore him apart, and he died before he was even fifty. Kaoru lived to be seventy-something, with eight million grandkids, though. Yahiko married her oldest daughter eventually, but I didn’t write them many letters after Kenshin died.”

“And where were you writing letters from?” I know this will usher us into the story of the next hundred years, the real story Sano is here to tell, and drop us off at the doorstep of the question he’s here to ask, the offer he’s here to make. But that’s the point we’ve reached — everything has been laid out sensibly, and this is the next step; I’m as ready for it as I’ll ever be.

“Oh, all over the place. There wasn’t much reason for me to stick around Japan after you died, and a lot of good reasons to leave. Even if I wasn’t wanted for murdering a government agent, they held your funeral during the day, of course. I did hear eventually, from Kenshin, that a bunch of interesting people showed up — him, to begin with, and Chou, and some of your old Shinsengumi buddies who were still alive… You’d have been surprised how popular it turned out you were.”

The half amused and half dismissive hn sound that comes out of my mouth has nothing whatsoever to do with my current life.

“So at first I just wandered. Learned about vampires a bit more, figured out how to keep going without too many random murders. Thought about killing myself but never quite went through with it. I probably would have eventually, but then I ran into this kid — this really nice little eleven-year-old M?ori kid — in New Zealand. Before that I never thought much about what I believed about the afterlife — it was too painful, with all the people in my life who were already dead. But this kid… this kid was Sagara Souzou.

“It was such a huge shock; I had to stick around his village night after night after night until I could be absolutely sure I wasn’t imagining things, and they thought some evil spirit was haunting them or something.” He chuckles darkly. “They were right about that! But the point is, it was proof that reincarnation is a thing. That’s when I realized I had something to keep living for — though of course ‘living’ isn’t the right word.” He fixes me with a sudden direct gaze that, with the vampire brightness of his eyes, is startling and piercing. It’s almost hypnotic, like every glance of those eyes the other night. I can’t look away. “I realized,” he corrects himself, “I had something — someone— I could be looking for.”

Part 16

Somewhat unusually and not entirely to my satisfaction, the elderly Oguni rather than the younger and more hale Takani was the one dragged from bed to assist me once I’d made it to the clinic of my choice. Of course the man’s medical skills were not in question, and at that point my attitude was very much, ‘Any port in a storm,’ but I was conscious of some disappointment at not finding the woman there. Not only had I come to regard her as a useful ally, and someone to whom more details of the night’s events could be given than to the other doctor, she, as the examiner of all the bodies, was already involved in this affair, whereas the old man was not.

Thankfully I had no broken bones, though the damage to muscle and tendon was bad enough. Between the growing swelling that already constricted my movement in some areas and the pain throughout my body, it was more or less a miracle I’d gotten as far as the clinic in the first place. After a thorough and painful (though mercifully quick) examination, Oguni dispatched a preteen messenger — a great-nephew, I thought, awakened to act as the clinic’s errand boy and apparently not averse to the adventure — to rouse someone that worked at the closest icehouse and purchase a certain quantity for use on my various strains and bruises. Then Oguni declared that, though my life was in no particular danger, pressure, cold, and rest would be required in fairly copious amounts to ensure continued full function of limb — and he got to work with bandages.

The pain wasn’t the worst of it, nor the knowledge that I’d been brought so low by such an apparent amateur. It was the prospect of being forced to stay here with these constrictive wrappings on — the one around my left shoulder was already proving particularly troublesome — pressing ice over internal wounds and languishing in ineffectual stillness while the murderer I sought perhaps struck again. The doctor was already musing on the possibility that several days’ worth of motionlessness except for the gentlest of stretches would prove necessary for my complete recovery. And while I grudgingly agreed to be clinic-bound for the entire coming day, to anything beyond that I would not consent. I didn’t declare this aloud, but I was fairly sure the doctor recognized my resolve, for with a disapproving expression he merely tightened up some of the bandages, applied the ice more firmly, and recommended a dose of laudanum.

The latter I resisted at first, a little worried I might have been followed here and disliking the idea of being unconscious or, at best, hazy-headed if my attacker were to strike again; but eventually I gave in upon consideration that, if he should reappear, I would be in no condition to deal with him in any case, and therefore might as well take advantage of the analgesic and the assistance toward sleep while it was available.

Exactly how many hours I was unconscious I couldn’t be sure, but it was mid-morning when I awoke, groggy and breathing shallowly, to find Takani giving my throbbing wrapped injuries another once-over with ice. I wondered pointlessly if they’d replenished the supply or if this was about the end of it; I had a vague idea I had been iced continually as I slept, though that might have been a drug-induced dream.

“Stay still,” the doctor commanded, putting her free hand on my right shoulder to keep me from trying to sit up. “This round’s almost done.”

I attempted some deep breaths; somehow it seemed I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, and this paradoxically made me crave a cigarette. My voice as a consequence sounded weak as I asked, “What time is it?”

“That doesn’t matter,” she replied firmly, “because you won’t be going anywhere or doing anything for several hours at least.”

I let out a faint breath that was the closest thing to a laugh I could manage at this point. “You are formidable, doctor.”

“That means a lot coming from you.” A faint smile showed on her face, but overall her expression was dark. She probably knew just as well as her associate did how soon I planned on rising and resuming my work, and that there was little she could do to stop it. And as if she didn’t want to hear me say so, she changed the subject by asking, “What happened to you?”

“I had a run-in with the man I suspect is our murderer. Can you send a message to the police station for me?”

She blinked, as if the seeming non sequitur took a moment to parse. Then she asked suspiciously, “What kind of message?”

“To bring my assistant here. If I’m going to be lying around uselessly all day, I can at least get something done through him.”

At this Takani seemed to relax a trifle. “Of course.” She let the cloth-wrapped ice (which had gradually been transforming into merely a wet cloth) fall into a bowl that sat nearby, and, taking this in hand, rose to her feet. “Anything else you need?”

“A package of cigarettes,” I deadpanned. She gave me a very severe look whose reproof lessened very little even when she realized I was joking, and left the room.

When the same boy as last night — if his meticulously wide-eyed enthusiasm was anything to go by, he had aspirations to the medical profession himself — had been brought in to receive a verbal message I wasn’t sure I could put to paper at the moment, then departed, Takani began cleaning up the melted remains, on and around me, of the morning’s icing process. The pain occasioned by the blows I had received was still somewhat numb throughout my body, consequent on the lingering effects of the laudanum, but I thought those effects also accounted for my inability to breathe quite properly, and I couldn’t decide how quickly I would prefer them to diminish. I was still groggy, too, but definitely didn’t want to sleep anymore; there were tasks to be set in motion, even if I couldn’t do them myself.

At length Takani remarked, “I suppose you’d rather not give me details of what happened last night, but it might be useful for me to know.”

“I don’t mind giving you details,” I replied in all honesty. “You’re not likely to get yourself killed doing something stupid with the information.”

“Another compliment!” This time there was definitely a smile on her face. “Though I wonder if that wasn’t really an insult aimed at somebody else.”

Since insulting Sanosuke in his absence only made me miss him to no purpose, and since speaking with these shallow breaths seems to render it wiser to limit my remarks to the more important ones, I got to the point. “A woman named Tomizawa Nori has been stalked lately, possibly by her missing fiancé, who may be the murderer I’m looking for.” I went on to describe with some specificity the events that had landed me here. As I spoke, I came gradually to adjust to the seemingly lower level of air entering my lungs, until my breathing and speech felt almost normal; meanwhile Takani, having finished her cleanup work, leaned against the counter and watched me, as she listened, with critical eyes.

“That’s interesting,” was her eventual remark when I had finished. “Strength and speed but no training or combative abilities?”

Remarkable strength.” I made a small gesture to the numerous pressure wraps across my body, but quickly returned my hand to its prone position beside me when the motion proved uncomfortable.

“Well, we already knew he was very strong — assuming this is the murderer — based on what Tsukioka-san had to say after he was attacked… but who would have guessed, after that description, he would turn out to be so unskilled?”

I wanted to nod, but there was a spot on my neck and another on my face — already aggravated by the small movements of lip and jaw required for speech — that ached and stung and contraindicated the gesture. I wondered what these bruises looked like from the outside. Eventually I agreed aloud and elaborated. “Sometimes a madman may be superhumanly strong, and these murders certainly have seemed insane… but would a madman have the knowledge and precision required to drain bodies of so much blood and leave hardly any trace of what he’d done?”

“It’s possible…” She trailed off, the fingers of one hand tapping thoughtfully against the opposite arm. “If he’s a doctor or a scientist, that might explain both what he wants the blood for — or at least it would suggest a reason, if he’s conducting some kind of experiment — and also his lack of combat training. Do you know what your suspect’s profession was before he disappeared?”

“Merchant. He dealt in building materials. I don’t know that he had any connection with any medical or scientific profession. It’s not a bad theory, though.”

Mutely she shook her head. Then a long silence fell during which she seemed reluctant to leave the room but unable to think of an alternative. My guess was that, having examined the murder victims and assisted Tsukioka after his attack, she felt too caught up in this simply to walk away, but had no idea what else she could do. Fortunately, as I’d said, she wasn’t likely to plunge impetuously into danger trying to figure it out. It was nice to have someone so level-headed around. Though some part of me put in at this point that having a specific someone a little less level-headed around might have been nice too, in a different way.

The ensuing conversation, broken by wordless periods during which we both, presumably, contemplated the matter to minor effect and I tried to ignore my injuries, brought her up to speed on what details she hadn’t been acquainted with yet. It surprised me somewhat, but I found I really didn’t mind telling her everything about the case; evidently I considered her an even better consultant than I’d realized. Not that it helped. The point we kept returning to was the difficulty of reconciling any rational motivation for the murders with the amount of blood stolen from the victims. Under normal circumstances, reasons for murder were thick on the ground, and if the theft of blood was discounted it was no difficult matter to assign a motive to these crimes. But the theft of blood could not be discounted.

When Hironaku arrived, it was with evident and great reluctance that Takani vacated the room with the comment, “Call if you need anything; I won’t be far off.” I was tempted to tease her with another mention of cigarettes, but decided against it.

“Sir,” my assistant breathed in horror, wringing his police cap between hands that threatened to twist it out of all usefulness, “what happened?” He was looking me over with eyes as wide, and probably just as observant, as the messenger boy’s had been, and I reflected that whatever bruises were not currently covered in bandages must indeed be a sight to behold.

“I may have found our suspect.” And there may have been a touch of flippancy in my reply to his flabbergasted question and gaze.

“And he did this? To you?” Though Hironaku had never seen me so much as draw my sword, ever since being assigned to assist me he’d had an almost unaccountable regard for my strength and combative skill. I knew there were certain rumors that navigated the police force from time to time — quite ridiculous, some of them, though others were closer to the truth — about my history and abilities, and Hironaku must have been listening. His attitude at the moment, however, was more irritating than amusing. He needed to stop goggling at me and consider how to be productive.

I had barely started describing last night’s encounter for a second time this morning — and more sternly than I’d delivered my previous remark as I tried to get Hironaku to think rationally — when I heard a commotion outside the room. Takani’s provoked tone, though raised, was unable to hide another voice I recognized instantly, and I became more irritated than ever at my own immediate pleased reaction to the sound. Only moments later, despite the doctor’s attempts at preventing it, the door flew open, and my difficult-to-deal-with lover entered.

For a few moments I sat quietly in the bed and watched as three outraged people made chaos in front of me — Hironaku outraged at what he considered a gross invasion of an officer’s privacy by a random unrelated party and demanding the intruder remove himself immediately, Takani outraged at essentially the same thing and insisting I needed calm and quiet above all else, and Sanosuke outraged because… well, he was Sanosuke, wasn’t he?

The scene carried a certain entertainment value, especially as I observed the seemingly very effective man-handling abilities of the good doctor, but what humor I could draw from it quickly turned to aggravation as, despite her strength of personality, her strength of body proved insufficient to eject this latest visitor from the room. Hironaku’s comments accomplished little in that direction either, and Sano managed to advance halfway toward the futon with the two of them essentially in tow and no coherent dialogue among the three. So I snapped out an imperious demand for silence, and, despite the pain in my face in so doing, made it loud enough it could not be ignored.

Though he’d undoubtedly come because I was here, Sano didn’t seem to have looked very clearly at me up until this moment, and now his brows went down and his jaw somewhat slack as he took in the bruises and the highly bandaged shirtless upper half that showed above the blanket. “Shit,” he muttered, shaking off the others almost without effort or apparent thought and moving right up to the bed. “You…” He didn’t seem to know what to say, and eventually just added, “Shit,” again. Unlike Hironaku, he had seen me draw my sword, and was therefore fitter to assess the seriousness of this situation. Moreover, he had an emotional involvement that (I sincerely hoped) Hironaku distinctly lacked, which must make this scene all the more distressing to him.

However much I might have enjoyed hearing it, I didn’t allow him to express his concern — assuming he would eventually have been able to — since I was in turn a little distressed by the stricken look on his face and wanted to put things on a more businesslike footing. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

Immediately the outrage returned. “I saw that kid–” he gestured around– “he’s the one they always use around here for running errands and shit — going into the police station, and when I saw this guy come out and head straight for the clinic, I thought–”

In the middle of his second gesture, this one at Hironaku, I broke in. “And what were you doing outside the police station?”

“I was–” Sano cut his explanation short and glanced around. He was glowering, but when his eyes returned to mine I could see the dismay and worry not far beneath. And yet he still had the presence of mind to question silently whether I really wanted him to answer and, essentially, reveal all.

I found I didn’t care at this point. I was glad he was here, but I was annoyed he was here. I appreciated his concern, but not his storming in here and interrupting. And if he’d been waiting around outside the police station for me, possibly hoping to reassure himself with a sight of me alive and well… well, I appreciated that too… and it also annoyed me. This relationship of ours would be difficult to maintain if everything each of us did so continually aggravated the other. But I’d known that going in. The others in this room might as well know it too. I gave Sano an expectant and impatient look.

In response, Sano’s thunderous expression deepened, and he said loudly and with some defiance, “I thought you would come back to my place again after you were done for the night and get some sleep. So when you didn’t show up, I was worried.” His voice dropped to an unhappy mutter as he added, “Looks like I was right, too.”

The phrase ‘come back to my place again and get some sleep’ could potentially have been interpreted in a couple of different ways, but only at a stretch. The expressions on the other two faces in the room — Takani’s in particular — made an interesting picture. Hironaku had some strange larger-than-life impression of me, and if he thought me capable of romance at all, I doubted a former kenkaya fit his mental image of my type. And the doctor knew me to some extent, knew my history with Sano — including the stabbing — and knew Sano even better than that, well enough never to have seen this coming.

As I looked past him at the two gaping people just behind, Sano’s face slowly took on a pinkish hue. Though still angry, still deeply concerned about my condition, now he was also a trifle embarrassed. Well, he had been the one to insist on bursting in here and stalling a police discussion with personal concerns. Though as I saw him square his shoulders slightly, it occurred to me that, chagrined though he was, it wasn’t the disclosure he minded so much as the manner, completely out of his control, in which the information had come to light. I couldn’t say I disagreed.

“Well, as you can see, I took some damage last night, but I’m in no danger now. I was about to tell Hironaku what happened. If you sit down and shut up, you can listen too.”

Sano started in surprise. “You’re not going to kick me out of here?”

“Not if you can behave yourself,” I replied, gesturing to the spot beside my futon. I wasn’t about to admit I might not be physically capable of kicking him out of here at the moment.

Appearing simultaneously pleased and just as disturbed as before, he dropped to his knees beside me.

“Sir…” Hironaku’s voice was half curious and half protesting, with an overlay of doubt. Takani, on the other hand, remained silent. She seemed to have returned to relative placidity after the shock of revelation, but I doubted she knew what to say just yet.

I didn’t give her the chance to think of anything, nor Hironaku any response at all. I simply started again on the story of the skirmish I’d taken part in. After not too long, Sano reached for my hand, and I had to ponder briefly whether I would allow him to hold it. It actually wasn’t that difficult a decision, considering his presence really was a comfort and the others in the room now knew about our relationship. The young man was even savvy enough not to move my arm with the gesture, so I couldn’t complain.

When I’d finished the tale, Hironaku, who had gone a bit breathless without needing any laudanum, said what he’d obviously been longing to ever since the relevant moment in my discourse: “That matches the description we have of Shibue!”

“It does, but don’t get too excited; what I saw was so limited, it could match any number of descriptions.”

“It does seem like it must be Shibue, though, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted, “it does. We can’t assume, but that is seeming more and more likely.”

“And what about Tomizawa Nori?”

“I spoke to her immediately after my attacker disappeared. Based on what she said about her missing fiancé, I didn’t feel it was wise to tell her he’s under suspicion along with her brother; I just informed her that her stalker may be more dangerous than we had realized, advised her to increase her guard, and told her the police would be in touch. I think now, though, it would be safest to take her into protective custody. Even if this person who’s been watching her is her fiancé, we have no way of knowing what his intentions toward her might be. If he’s our murderer, it’s possible he’s less than entirely sane. I don’t want the woman’s dead body to be the next thing the doctor here has to examine.”

“Thank you,” Takani said quietly with a nod.

Hironaku glanced at her as if he’d forgotten she was there, but must have remembered me discussing details in front of her in the past, for he made no complaint. As if to compensate for that lack of complaint, however, his next glance was at Sano — who had, to his credit, been remarkably quiet throughout this conversation — definitely with some disapproval. But all he said was, “I’ll send someone over there.”

“Quietly,” I ordered. “Plain clothes. And tell her to keep her personal security guards at the house as if she’s still there.”

“Yes, sir. Do you want a police presence there as well?”

I paused for a moment before answering. I had been thinking about this, and, though I’d reached a decision, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it. If Shibue or whoever he was realized Nori had left, he probably wouldn’t return to that house — assuming it was Nori drawing him there in the first place and not something to do with the building itself. Police walking the grounds would probably suggest Nori’s continued residence, which might invite the unknown man to attack again, which could allow him to be identified more specifically or even captured… except that the attacker I’d fought last night had been so reluctant to allow me, a single officer, to see him, it seemed highly unlikely he would be willing to approach a group of such. A smaller number on patrol might draw him in better, but the average police officer — or even two or three of them — wouldn’t stand a chance against the stranger’s strength and speed. A lack of police presence — using the security guards as bait, as it were — might make Shibue feel safer to approach, but might also, again, lessen the implication that Nori was actually still inside and simultaneously any desire Shibue would have to approach.

“No,” I finally said. “We’ll get reports from the guards if the suspect shows up there again.”

“We’re counting on private security?” Hironaku wondered skeptically.

“The security guards are only a precaution. I’m afraid Nori’s house is going to be a dead end to us after this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I want the observation of the Tomizawa brother tightened up. I want to know everywhere he goes, everyone he speaks to, and details on every member of his household. If he and Shibue are working together on these murders, they have to be communicating somehow.”

“So less focus on his business and more on his personal life?”

“It would be preferable to cover every angle,” I said with a sigh, “but we only have so many operatives.”

“I could–” Sano began.

I cut him off without even looking at him. “No.” Practically feeling his hand growing hotter in mine with his anger at having yet another offer of assistance rejected, I added quietly, “We’ll talk about it in a minute.”

Sano shifted, made a small grumbling noise, then subsided.

“Yes, sir,” Hironaku said belatedly.

“Send verbal reports with any updates to me here.” I sensed Takani tensing at these words, and guessed she wanted to reiterate just how long I needed to be receiving those reports in this location. Before she could, I added, “I’ll let you know when I’m at home again. It won’t be any earlier than tomorrow morning.” And at this the doctor’s lips and eyebrows pressed together, and she said nothing.

“Yes, sir.” Hironaku hesitated before turning to leave. “Any other orders?”

“Just be careful. Our suspect is incredibly strong, even if he lacks training. He’s been reluctant to let himself be seen, so try to keep to public places or groups, at least for now.” Hironaku was less relentlessly irritating than most of the assistants they assigned me for things like this, and I didn’t want to sacrifice him to the blood thief if I didn’t have to.

With another, “Yes, sir,” he bowed and left the room.

Takani watched him go, then slowly folded her arms and gave Sano and me a very calculating look that seemed to rest longest on our clasped hands. “Well,” she said at last, “as interesting as listening to police orders is, I think this development is even more so.”

Sano’s grin was somewhat sheepish. “Yeah, it’s kinda crazy, isn’t it?”

She shook her head with a wry smile, her eyes still roving over us both. “It certainly is. And I can’t decide whether to scold you about harassing my patient, or scold my patient about potentially hurting you.” And though she spoke lightly, I could tell she meant ‘hurting’ in the most serious sense. It was about the reaction I’d expected from Sano’s friends. God knew how it would be compounded when Himura eventually found out.

And what could I say to her? That Sano’s safety — physical and emotional (probably, by necessity, in that order) — had become one of the highest priorities in my life? I certainly didn’t plan on making avowals of devotion in this woman’s presence, for all I felt we’d become closer lately and today even something like friends. So what I decided on was, “Don’t worry; I’ll send him away if he causes any trouble.”

Seeming to accept this, at least for now, she laughed. “This is Sanosuke we’re talking about.”

“Hey!” Sano protested. “Saitou’s obviously been way more trouble than me today!”

“He has.” And Takani gave me a warning look I knew very well not to disregard. Her concerns were unfounded but understandable; I simply had nothing I was willing to say at the moment to refute them.

The doctor transferred her steely gaze to the young man beside me and said, “I suppose it’s all right if you stay with him, especially if that will encourage him to stay, but you might as well make yourself useful as long as you’re here. I’m going to send for some more ice.” And with that she left the room.

Not wasting an instant, Sano turned toward me, bent over, and kissed me — more gently than his abrupt movements had promised. It aggravated the bruises on my face, but I enjoyed it well enough. When he pulled away, he was scowling again. “You asshole. Why would you send for your stupid assistant and not me?”

“Who says I didn’t send for you? You weren’t at home for a messenger to find.”

Taken aback Sano wondered, “Did you?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I would have, after my work was done.”

Sano looked as if he didn’t know whether or not to believe me, but still, almost against his will, liked what he’d heard. “So you do want me around,” he said in a tone that was equal parts grumbling and flirtatious.

“Of course I do, ahou. How else could I warn you about this new danger?”

Obviously irritated at this implication that, rather than actually desiring him near me, I merely wanted to lecture him, Sano made a frustrated noise and flopped onto his side, propping himself up on an elbow. This allowed me to lie down more fully as well without him towering over me quite so much.

“I don’t want you testing yourself against this enemy,” I said wearily. “I want you to take the same precautions I gave Hironaku: keep to public places and groups as much as possible. I’m going to give the same advice to the staff here. Until we know more about this man and are able to plan an assault on him that won’t fail, I don’t want to give him another chance to get at anyone he thinks might be involved. Especially you.”

“You think he’ll come after me?”

“I have no idea. But if he didn’t know before which investigator specifically is pursuing him, he does now. That may make you a target. And he is very strong.”

“It’s kinda more you I’m worried about at this point. I can take care of myself–” and before I could protest, Sano added grudgingly, “–and I’ll take those stupid precautions — but you’re lying here wounded not in a public place or a group.”

“Then it’s a good thing I have you to protect me.”

At first his scowl deepened at the sarcasm I just couldn’t keep out of my tone, but gradually his face smoothed as he realized that, facetiousness notwithstanding, I was making a legitimate request. He sat up again and looked down at me. “You really want me to stay here with you.” His intonation had the disbelieving flatness of a statement rather than the rise of a question.

“You’re my precaution in this scenario,” I replied, instead of telling him I’d prefer him in that role than anyone else in the world, or something else similarly maudlin.

“Guess I’d better stay, then.” His put-on casualness was a sort of mirror to my professionalism: a mask over what he really meant. He lay back down, and this time didn’t prop his head up but rested on his outstretched arm. After a few moments he said, “But, damn, Saitou, you really know how to scare a guy. Coming in here and seeing you all purple-faced and shit…”

“Should I apologize?” I wondered sarcastically.

He chuckled unhappily. “Only, I didn’t think it was possible. The last time I saw you get your ass handed to you, it was by Shishio. I really don’t want to think you’re up against another Shishio-level enemy practically all by yourself.”

And yet again we were back to the idea of his helping me out on this case. He just wouldn’t let it go. And I was too tired and sore to debate any further at the moment. “Cheer up,” I said, sounding as worn out as I felt. “Maybe he’ll spontaneously combust.”

Somewhat mournfully still, Sano chuckled again.

Part 17

No matter how much I would like to pretend otherwise, I’ve been dreading this. The aversion I’ve felt regarding Sanosuke from the moment he walked into this current life of mine is based not merely on the fact that he is a vampire, an obligate murderer, but also on the point about to be raised in this already ambivalent conversation.

“It’s gonna be up to you like always.”

“…someone I could be looking for.”

“You’re gonna have a choice to make here after not too long.”

“…constant rejection…”

I can’t ask him what happened next, can’t prompt him to continue his story as I did before. He’s going to tell me no matter what I do, and I don’t have the courage to speed that process. At the same time, I can’t stop staring, and I don’t think vampiric allure has anything to do with it. I may not want him to go on, but I won’t shy from that inevitability. Can he see the antipathy in my eyes as I look at him? I’m sorry for that.

He takes and releases a deep, preparatory breath, and I’m reminded so poignantly of his panic at finding himself unbreathing in those first moments when he awoke a vampire that I draw a sudden, quick gasp into my own, working human lungs without thinking.

“Saitou Hajime died in 1879,” Sano begins quietly at last. “Nine months later, in 1880, the same guy was born named Fernando in Brazil. It took me about sixteen years to find him, though; I was almost ready to give up, but that’s never been something I’m very good at.” A slight, wry smile touches his pale lips, but this time I can’t return it. It doesn’t touch his voice. “By then you were in Canudos and could have seriously benefited from super strength and immortality… but you still didn’t want it, even when I told you how you died before — I couldn’t do the giving-back-memories thing yet at that point. So you died again in 1897.”

“Canudos?” I echo.

“Look it up,” he replies, somewhat harshly. “You don’t need to remember all your past lives.”

I shudder. “No, I don’t,” I agree.

“But after that,” he goes on, his tone growing even harder, “I watched you die again in 1920, 1957, and 1980. I’ve watched you die five times, Saitou. Every time it’s because you refused to let me change you. Every fucking time. You could have lived, we could have been together forever, but every fucking time you said no. You just made me watch.”

The pain in his voice is beyond anything I can fathom, and contemplating what his existence has been since Japan is almost more than my mind and heart can handle. I can’t say a word.

“You always thought I’d get myself killed doing something stupid before I was twenty-five…” He laughs bitterly. “But Canudos… the Rif War… riots in Johannesburg… the fucking Persian Gulf… here I am a hundred and forty-eight, and you’re the one who can’t get through half a life.”

Still I’m unable to speak. What must he have endured, finding me again and again, helplessly watching me die time after time… what must he have suffered?

“It doesn’t have to be that way…”

And that’s what it comes down to: the same point, I suppose, it came down to every lifetime: my power to bring this series of tragedies to a halt, to end his suffering.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–“

It didn’t mean anything to me when I overheard him telling Takani this outside the convenience store, but now the chilling significance of the statement strikes me with cruel, inexorable force. Eventually he isn’t going to ask for my permission, whether I want him to save my life or not, whether I want to share his eternal fate. He’s simply going to force the issue the moment he finds me.

The deep and multifaceted horror I feel at this idea must show in my face, for his twists and hardens in despair and frustration as he looks quickly away from me. “I’m not strong,” he whispers. “You always said it back then, and it was true. I’m not good enough. I’m becoming just like the rest of them no matter how hard I try.

“I can’t stand to give you up, to let you live your own lives and go on without you… but time changes me, and every time I meet you again I’m a worse person than I was before. Someday the Sagara Sanosuke you knew in Japan will be completely gone, and all that’ll be left will be this monster who’ll turn you without thinking and keep you forever like a slave or a pet. And I know I should just walk out into the sun and end all this, but then I think about finding you again and I can’t do it.

“I still love you. I’ve loved every version of you, every time; there are things about people that don’t change no matter how many times they’re reborn, no matter what situation they’re born into or what kind of parents they have or how they grow up — and you’re always the same guy who fights to make things right, who fights until he dies to make things better for people, fights for whatever he believes in and somehow always manages to believe the right things. I’ll always love that. And I don’t want to hurt you, but one of these days it’s going to happen. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Silence falls like a heavy weight. We’ve reached a juncture where I must speak, and can’t allow not having the faintest idea what to say to keep me from saying something. I open my mouth, but how can I express even a fraction of what’s going through my head?

I anticipated what the eventual primary topic of this conversation would be, and I recoiled… but I see now I was responding solely to the same abhorrence I felt at the time of my death in Japan: an aversion to the prospect of losing my humanity. Now as the full implications of the situation slowly dawn on me, my emotional reaction broadens immeasurably. Because whatever he is or is becoming, the fact that Sano never stopped searching the world for me crashes down on me like a weight as heavy as the silence, sending out ripples through all my other thoughts and feelings.

He never was, as he freely admits, very good at giving up, of letting go of the past; in fact I even wondered just a few minutes ago whether his continued insistence on wearing that aku ichimonji isn’t an indication that this aspect of his character hasn’t changed. But for that stubborn tenacity still to be in ascendancy over a century later? It’s enough to startle even someone that knew him intimately during his mortal life.

There is, however, a certain question I’ve been assiduously dodging the way I won’t allow myself to do with the offer he’s here to make, and only in this avoidance, this suppression of an important point, could I possibly be at all surprised at learning how devotedly he has sought me out over the years. He loves me. He said it himself, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t know it — but the true strength and depth of that love, a love that could keep him endlessly on my trail despite my inevitable reception of him every single time, is something I never recognized — and something that’s making my heart beat rapidly now.

His dogged disinclination to let go of the past cannot account for everything he’s done, and wasn’t I just recalling, with some sorrow at its apparent loss, his intense emotionality? That inability to let go could only send him on this hopeless eternal quest when combined with a profound and dedicated love — a love I underestimated, both in Japan and certainly here and now. Here, at least, because I wouldn’t allow myself to look at it squarely, because I didn’t — and don’t — want to face the related question, Do I still love him? In part because that question and its answer will make his offer all the more complicated to deal with in its turn.

“I’m sorry.” The words that eventually emerge from my open mouth seem ridiculously, agonizingly inadequate. Are they better than saying nothing at all? I don’t know. “I’m sorry it’s been so painful for you. I wanted to save you from…” Helplessly I pause. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to save him from; plain death was the worst I could imagine. If I’d even dreamed of this possibility, of course I would have tried with all my power to guard him from it… but none of us had any idea. “…everything.” It’s true enough, if still ridiculously inadequate.

Though he accepts my statement with a nod, there’s a faintly afflicted expression on his face indicating he knows perfectly well, as I do, that we’ve slipped from the main point. “This wasn’t something you could save me from,” he says, lifting a ghostly pale hand. “Even if we’d known more about vampires at the time — or anything about vampires — there wasn’t a lot we could have done.”

“We could have stayed inside at night,” I suggest with a shake of my head. This is prompted by the back of that raised hand, which, from wrist to fingertips, is covered with an unexpected, familiar burned patch. That must have been there the whole time, of course — I specifically took note of the paleness of his hands the first night — but I didn’t notice it until it meant something to me.

“That wouldn’t have helped. Remember, I wasn’t a random attack.”

I frown. I do remember. Just as I remember the circumstances of that burn. “We’re lucky the sun didn’t kill you that first day.” I’m still staring at his hand where he’s lowered it to his leg once again. It’s easier than looking at his face.

“‘Lucky,'” he snorts. “Right.”

Taken aback by the bitterness in his tone but not quite ready to discuss the disturbing changes to his character, I remark instead, questioningly, “That still looks almost fresh.”

Sano raises the appendage a second time and gives it the type of nearly blank look generally used to examine an already quite familiar object. “Vampires may be a lot stronger than humans,” he says at last, “but we grow and heal a lot slower. It takes a lot of blood to get rid of something like this. ”

My emotions at this information are indescribable. He’s carried that mark for over a century when presumably he could have hastened the healing process by consuming more blood. He hasn’t given in yet. He isn’t a… Well, he is. He is a monster. No matter how he restrains himself, he’s still a vampire, someone who preys on his fellow man in order to survive. The urge that’s arisen within me — to go to him, to hold him, to kiss his scarred hand — is overwhelmed by the familiar cold reluctance.

Maybe he senses that resurgence of hesitancy, for he brings us back around to our earlier topic. “The point is–” He sounds unhappy and impatient– “this isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t feel sorry about it. It wasn’t even my fault,” he adds with only the hint of a sour smile. “You did everything you could, and I was even ready to listen to you for once. How were we supposed to know stepping out to use the bathroom would get me killed?”

Again I shake my head.

He takes another unnecessary deep breath. “There’s only one part of the situation you have any control over. And I’m still myself enough to give you a choice, for now.”

“I know,” I murmur, averse to hearing him say it unequivocally but knowing he’s about to.

And he does. As he leans forward, my eyes are drawn inexorably from the sun-scorched hand on his knee to his chalky, earnest face — the face I so loved in a previous life. “Let me make you a vampire, Saitou. Stay with me forever this time.”

I wonder if in previous instances he framed it as a question rather than a command. It doesn’t much matter — except as an illustration of the gradual alterations he’s undergoing — because the answer is still no. Just as it was in Japan, just as it has been every time, just as it always will be. He must know, based on those aspects of my character that remain the same throughout every reincarnation, that I could never consent to become an undiscerning killer. In fact it hurts that he would even ask, continue to ask, as if that might change. But I suppose the idea of giving me up, giving up the only means he can think of to be with me for more than a single too-short lifetime, is just as horrific to him as I find the idea of indiscriminately murdering innocent people to meet my own selfish needs.

And how long can this cycle go on? Anguish, protracted on his part and brief but endlessly repeated on mine; rejection, turmoil, unwanted personal metamorphosis? Death after death after death? How long can he hold out? Next time — hell, perhaps this time — will my refusal of his plan be met with a snap of teeth and a return to that sensationless tunnel, at whose end in this instance will lie slavery and self-loathing? Or is he stronger than he thinks, and this process is destined to repeat far oftener than either of us can anticipate? Will I be stepping from my flying car onto the landing pad of my floating apartment in the year 2500 to confront a pale, unknown but unnervingly familiar visitor approaching me with an offer to which the answer will still be no?

I wonder what I’ve said to his question — or command — in the past. Not the purport of my reply, but what words and demeanor I’ve used. For I find that now, no matter how decisive my opinion, it won’t come out of my mouth. Just as I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I didn’t remember him, to crush his distant hope that something in me might have recognized my old love without his having to resort to vampiric tricks to restore my memory, I can’t straightforwardly tell him the method he has in mind for keeping us together forever is and must always be totally unacceptable. At least not now. Perhaps I do love him, and can’t admit it. I know, whatever my feelings, I don’t want to cause him further suffering. It seems so simple to say, “No,” and yet I find it’s something I have to work up to.

“I’m going to need some time,” I finally manage, “to think about this.”

He doesn’t complain, or demand to know how much time, or protest that it’s a really easy question — which it is — or give any of the passionate reactions I’ve stopped expecting from him but part of me yet craves. He merely nods. I get the feeling, however, he’s disappointed just as he was when I couldn’t offer any verbal reply to, “Do you remember me?” He undoubtedly knows what I’ll eventually say; it would require a flagrant repression of pattern recognition beyond even Sanosuke’s stubbornness not to be aware of that. As such, I may actually be prolonging his suffering exactly as I was reflecting I’d prefer not to in failing to say it candidly now… but still I can’t manage it. I’m simply incapable. He mentioned there are challenges he feels he’s not strong enough to meet — completely different than what I had in mind when I disparaged his strength in the Meiji era — perhaps without realizing that I too suffer from weakness in certain unexpected areas.

Another silence falls, this one unbearably tense. No, he didn’t ask how long I needed or complain about the ease with which I should be able to come up with an answer… but surely, underneath this wordlessness, he doesn’t believe the time I require will be a mere matter of seconds or minutes? That I’ll say what I have to say here on the spot? The thought almost makes me smile, incongruously in the midst of this painful drama, since it would be so characteristic of the old Sano. And I wish I could at least produce some timeframe, some estimated period during which I can hope to work up the nerve to give him the forthright answer that’s already in my head. But I can’t even do that much.

And after a while he demonstrates he is not, in fact, waiting for me to speak again. He abruptly leaves the sofa, prompting me to stand as well, and says, “I’ll come back tomorrow night and see how you’re doing.” And though his movement was startling, his words are a relief: that he didn’t declare he would return for my answer, only to check on me. He has some kindness and consideration left, whatever he’s lost.

It’s my turn to nod blankly, since I can’t think of anything to say or which of my many interconnected feelings to allow on display. And instead of trying to figure out how I’m going to tell him what I have to tell him, I’m staring at his familiar yet altered figure, his still-beautiful face, and remembering happier days.

Between one memory and the next, he’s gone. I actually hear the soft sounds of the door opening and closing this time, but I’m too caught up in emotion and contemplation to add this information to my dilettantish interest in how silently vampires do or don’t move. Without looking after him, my eyes in fact locked on the space where he previously stood, I remain motionless for several moments in my bright, empty living room. Then I step slowly to the sofa and sit down exactly where he sat. The abnormal chill in the slight depression is the only remaining sign he was even here.

I press my palm against the cool spot on the couch’s side where for a while Sano’s arm rested, thinking of that old burn and everything he said to me, everything he’s suffered, and everything I need to say to him. Presently I lean forward, removing my back from a cushion that’s already losing the elusive coldness of Sano’s presence under the influence of my own, and drop my head into my hands.

Part 18

I couldn’t say I knew something was wrong, for no identifiable sense gave me any such information. Even the paranoia that must have generated the idea, based on an underlying and never-stilled concern about certain possible combinations of events, was not clearly apparent when I awoke. At first I recognized only the absence of Sano and the presence of a feeling that something was wrong.

Of course there were a number of possible explanations for his having risen and left the room, the most logical of which was a need to visit the toilet. Or he could be having a conversation with one of the doctors; he might even be assisting in some midnight business for which medical clinics were specifically prepared. He could have stepped outside for some air, or detected something unusual and gone to investigate. Though these last two options angered me just in considering them, since they would directly defy my edict (as would, technically, a visit to the outbuilding, but that at least was a necessary breach of the companionship rule), they were understandable and not unpredictable actions. And yet I felt something was wrong, to an extent that would not allow me to go back to sleep.

For one thing, I wouldn’t have awakened in the first place, in this hurt and weakened state in desperate need of rest, if he hadn’t been gone long enough for my muddled consciousness to sense it through my incoherent dreams. For another… well, I simply worried about him. I wouldn’t be content until I knew where he was, nor possibly until I’d given him another lecture on safety in the current scenario.

I looked around, feeling the immediate pain in my neck that came from turning my head. The examination room, lacking windows, was filled with deep shadow; in fact the only light filtered dimly through the door’s paper from the hallway where a single small lamp was kept lit overnight for the benefit of patients or staff needing to move around the clinic during the hours of darkness. I could see nothing with any clarity, but I could make out what I knew to be a jug of water and its accompanying cups on the counter — I’d made use of them earlier, and thus distinguished their shapes now — which eliminated ‘getting a drink’ as a possible motive for Sanosuke’s disappearance.

My entire body was ridiculously stiff and painful, and the muscular impulses required merely to sit up were agonizing. I rather expected the ever-increasing discomfort would go hand-in-hand with a similarly rising irritation, but found it was not so; that sense of something wrong, that irrational concern about my irresponsible lover, overrode, for the moment, most of the annoyance I might have felt with him. When I located him hanging around outside for no good reason, or whatever the case turned out to be, normal emotions could resume.

Walking was torture, and I had to take a minute or so to practice this activity I’d mastered thirty-five years ago to make sure I could do it effectively before I even considered leaving the room. Glad I was that I’d refused a further dose of laudanum and was alert enough for upright motion at all.

With Sano’s help and a great deal of inconvenience, I’d changed last night out of what I’d yet been wearing of my uniform into a yukata that had proven much easier to sleep in, and this garment should be sufficient for now. But I wanted my sword as a precaution, and couldn’t remember where it had ended up when I’d first come to the clinic early yesterday morning. If I couldn’t find it almost immediately, I would leave without it; I didn’t have the patience for a prolonged search. Upon sliding the room’s door quietly open and allowing a greater amount of light inside, however, I saw it lying neatly on the counter atop my folded clothing not far from the water jug. Since I was certain Sanosuke hadn’t folded the garments — and uncertain Sanosuke knew how to fold garments — I supposed I had Takani to thank for this.

I would prefer to brook the wrath of neither of the two doctors in residence, so I made an effort to move down the corridor as naturally and evince as little discomfort as possible despite the reluctance of my muscles to do anything I told them. But I hoped not to encounter anyone — except Sano — since the doctors, no matter how I moved, would definitely still scold me and cause delay thereby, and any other patient might be startled or even frightened at the sight of my bruises, my weapon, and my air of determination and concern. Fortunately, in this case my wish was granted.

At the side entrance there were a couple of pairs of geta, small and large, provided for anyone resident in the building and capable of using the external facilities rather than a bedpan, and into one of these I gratefully stepped. I didn’t know how many pairs were usually present or if any might be missing, but I felt this was the most logical direction in which to start my search. This impression was strengthened when I found the door unlocked and observed a hook beside it, where a key might have hung, empty.

I saw no one immediately outside, and silently followed the path curving around into the back. The night was neutral, as the previous had been, with only a faint intermittent breeze, and a scattering of small clouds blocked out the stars only in negligible patches. The rear yard, with its outhouse at the far end and a fenced-off garden seating area where patients could take the air, stood peaceful and quiet in the shadows, yet somehow my every step heightened the sensation that something was wrong.

A lantern’s bright spot showed the grain of the outhouse door even at this distance, but it was to darkness rather than light that my eyes were drawn. For between the clinic’s main building I’d just left and the outbuilding I’d thought to approach to check for Sanosuke, there stood a shed that must be passed to reach one from the other. An unassuming structure in the same style as the rest on the property, there was no reason for it to catch my attention… except that there was also no reason for its doors to be gaping open, a portal into deep blackness like a yawning mouth in its face, at this time of night and with no one around.

Though it seemed superstitious and nothing I would have liked to admit aloud, I felt as if my concerns and the impression of wrongness I was gripped with were all suddenly concentrated on this one spot, on the invisibility beyond those wide-flung doors. I felt as if I’d left my relatively comfortable futon in the examination room, abandoned my own injunction of keeping inside or to crowds as much as possible, forced myself through pain and difficulty to walk out of the building, specifically to come here and enter this shed and find what I would find there.

I checked the sword at my side. The tie of a yukata wasn’t the most convenient restraint for slinging a weapon, but it would do; I could draw at any time as long as my opposite hand was also free to steady the sheath. Then, without attempting to pierce the gloom within the shed with my naked eyes, I walked straight past it to the outhouse and reached up with perfectly steady hands to unhook its small lantern. Finally, without hesitation, I turned back and moved in the direction of the unknown.

My geta clattered somewhat on the step up into the little building, and the noise echoed like gunshots in the silent night. As a matter of course I thrust the lamp forward and took a careful look around at the entry, ensuring no ambush awaited me. All I could see, sharp yet indistinct in the minimal light, was the perfectly mundane accumulated storage of years, exactly what one would expect to find in such a place. And the disarray of much of it indicated, I thought, a recent struggle here, though not a particularly wide-ranging or long-lasting one — certainly not one as dire as what I’d gone through at Tomizawa Nori’s house. I moved forward across the cluttered floor toward the back of the building, the tapping of my shoes continually galling in this vacuum of sound, then halted when the light fell on… fell on exactly what I’d…

White cloth greyed with the dust into which it had fallen… tanned skin faded to pallor…

I wasn’t aware of how still I stood until motion beside me seemed blurringly fast: a rake, previously holding only precariously to its wall peg after whatever struggle had stirred the shed’s contents, now gave up the fight and fell with a clatter to the floor. And it didn’t actually fall any quicker than gravity dictated; it was just that my perception had slowed as it took in every horrific detail of the scene: the stiffness, the paleness, the awkward angle of attitude and limb…

The light shifted, and I found my previously raised arm, trembling slightly, sinking with its minimal burden toward a limp position at my side as if the lantern were simply too heavy to continue holding up.

Eventually, after how long I did not know, I tore myself from where I stood. With every forward step I took, I seemed to grow colder, less connected with my surroundings. By the time I fell to my knees beside him and set the lantern down, I was completely numb. I felt nothing, I heard nothing, I saw nothing but him. His face was placid; at least he didn’t seem to have died in pain. The wound on his neck was the same as all the other victims, but he lacked the appearance of emaciation most of those had exhibited. He didn’t seem to have taken any other hurt, besides hitting the floor in an uncomfortable position and achieving rigor mortis there.

Vaguely surprised by these detached reflections, I abandoned them for the moment as I reached out and brushed aside a haphazard lock of brown hair, touched his face.

Had I thought I had gone cold? It was nothing, nothing in comparison to this. He was stone; he was ice. As cold, predictably, as death.

Had I thought I had gone numb? It struck me like a sudden attack from a heavy weapon, perhaps like the one he had once carried but infinitely more enormous and impossible to parry or dodge. I shuddered, abruptly unable to breathe. Under that attack my chest was being slowly crushed, and a stabbing pain arose there and spread rapidly through me. The only clear thought in my darkened mind was that I was too late; I’d lost him. I’d failed and lost him forever. The entire world was shrinking, contracting like my faltering heart, narrowing until its full extent was my hand on his face and the overwhelming, inescapable fact that he was gone.

Death, in the abstract as well as in the specific reality of lethal wounds sometimes delivered by my own hand, had always been an inextricable part of my reality. Any samurai, any soldier, even a police officer in this new and tamer era lived with and embraced the possibility of dying at any time, and walked surrounded by death wherever he went and whatever he did. It was grim, unfortunate, but unavoidable — and when it came with honor, at times acceptable or even desirable.

Yet there had been instances when this inevitability for which I’d been prepared was more difficult to tolerate: Okita, my friend, lost not in the glory of battle but in a miserable sickbed as his once-brilliant body betrayed him; Yaso, my wife for a mere two months, cut down ignobly by some random killer on the streets of Gonohe; Ookubo, one of the few statesmen I had respected and admired, assassinated for daring to do his job. In these cases death was not so much a quiet, constant companion as a cruel and relentless oppressor.

But it had never felt like this before.

There had always been some degree of grief, of bitterness against the hand of the tyrant, of questioning what I could have done to prevent this, of bleak anticipation of what the future held in the absence of the deceased… but never such an overwhelming weight of unendurable pain. No experience in my life, no failure, no loss, nothing had ever hurt like this. His passions stilled, his determination defeated, his laugh silenced, his love extinguished, his prospects destroyed… I had failed him.

And then…

Then he opened his eyes.

I believe for a few moments my heart actually stopped. The hallucination, however, continued. He looked up at me with a gaze that was far too bright for that dim enclosure, and the new arrangement of his features was familiar. It was one that might previously have irritated me: a complacent, ignorant expression suggesting he hadn’t been paying attention, didn’t know what was going on, but was too lazy to be worried.

“Was a dream…” he murmured a little hoarsely.

And at the sound, I started to believe that maybe this was really happening. After having thought him dead, my reaction to finding him alive was every bit as earth-shattering. I still could not move or speak.

“Saitou…” Sano murmured, and sluggishly raised a hand to take mine.

His fingers and palm were frozen cold. Surely a living human body could not be that cold! I couldn’t reply.

Watching my face in the uncertain light, his took on a look of slowly growing horror and fear. “Saitou,” he whispered again, “what the hell is wrong with me?” It seemed a struggle for him to move, but also that his strength was gradually returning. The straightening of his awkwardly placed limbs seemed eminently unnatural, and he sat up woodenly, clutching at my hands, his glowing eyes wide and desperate. “I can’t breathe,” he said frantically. “S-Saitou…”

Finally I found my voice, but all I managed to say was, “Sanosuke.” At the sound he started and shuddered, clinging to my chest. I ignored the pain this caused; it was nothing compared to what I’d felt a minute ago, what in a way I still felt. I never would have thought to see him so frightened, but it made sense; his entire frame was infused with that impossible chill, and… he was right: he wasn’t breathing, except in quick bursts just before he spoke, as if the only air entering his lungs was doing so exclusively to push sound back out again. How this could be I couldn’t begin to fathom, but I had to set aside my own wonder and confusion in the interest of supporting my understandably agitated lover. “Calm down,” I whispered. “You’re all right.” Though this didn’t seem anywhere close to true.

“I’m not,” he protested, but I thought his desperation was calming somewhat. “I’m dying… I’m dead… I’m… I don’t know… ”

I put my arms around him despite the pain and the unnerving cold. “You’re not dying. You’re not dead.”

Sano still clung. “Then why the fuck am I not breathing?”

I thought his profanity was a good sign. Having no answer to his question, however, I prevaricated, “Have you tried breathing?” I was surprised I was breathing, in fact, surprised at my own ability to formulate coherent words. My chest still seemed incapacitated by the aphysical blow it had received at my original assessment of the scenario; my entire body still throbbed with shock.

“Why should I have to try to–” He interrupted himself by drawing in a shuddering gasp of air and letting it free. After a few more of these he muttered, “I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I,” I assured him, “but you are alive.” I said as much for myself as for him.

Perhaps a little uncertainly he nodded, released the front of my yukata at last, and looked around.

This caused my world to widen abruptly back out, and I recalled surroundings and a situation that had completely slipped my mind until this moment. I decided to decide later whether or not this preoccupation was a legitimate source of chagrin. “Can you stand?” I asked.

He took another deep breath as if desperate for air, and repeated his nod. That he believed himself capable of rising contributed to my ongoing sense of how close he might have come to never rising again.

As we both got rather unsteadily to our feet, I noticed but did not quite understand his change of expression; I hadn’t realized how intently I had my eyes, hungry for his every life-affirming movement, locked on him. He looked down at his hands, flexing them, and muttered, “Feels weird.”

“Weird?” I echoed.

“Yeah… I feel… stronger. Being dead should be a lot worse than this.”

“You’re not dead,” I almost snapped. I couldn’t deal with that idea right now, given how deeply it and its subsequent contradiction had shaken me.

“Yeah, maybe not…” He said it abstractedly, though, and not as if he really believed it, as he began a sort of self-assessment by feeling at various parts of his body. His movements had loosened up from the stiffness they’d originally carried, and he appeared to be unhurt, but his frown only deepened as he examined himself. His probing fingers kept returning to his neck as if he expected to find something there — and not the spot beside his trachea where he might have felt his only visible wound, but the back just beneath the shaggy ends of his hair. Finally, still flexing his hands as he had before and still appearing distressed and confused, he leaned against me and slowly dropped his face to my shoulder.

“What happened?” I asked as I wrapped him in my arms again, continuing to disregard the discomfort such close contact occasioned.

Against my collarbone his head shook slightly. “I don’t… I don’t actually remember. I feel like… a bunch of stuff happened, but…”

“It’s all right,” I assured him, responding to the trace of panic in his uncertain tone. “It may come back to you. We should go back into the clinic.”

“Right…” He lifted his gaze and looked around uncomfortably, then added at a mutter, “I must have been attacked.”

Grimly I nodded. Normally this would have been the perfect opening for a sarcastic remark, since it was very obvious he’d been attacked, but I wasn’t capable of it — or even remotely inclined toward it — at the moment. “Let’s try not to let it happen again.”

As we made our way out of the cluttered shed, after extinguishing the lantern I wasn’t going to bother returning to its place, I attempted to keep an eye out for any signs of the attacker in the immediate vicinity. I hadn’t sensed him when I left the clinic, and I sensed nothing now, but I would be damned if I failed Sano again. It proved difficult, though, with him clutching at me as we walked; it wasn’t that the pain was distracting — it was, but I’d dealt with worse — but that every particle of my being wanted to concentrate solely on him and the fact that he was alive. I wanted my arms to remain around him without release; I wanted to hold him so tightly he became a part of me, keep him so indivisibly close that nothing like this could ever happen again. Stunned and sore, I reeled from the back-to-back shocks I’d taken; Sano was supporting me every bit as much as I was him.

The horror of what might have been and the sense of deliverance from that possibility seemed to wash over me in waves, and a particularly strong instance of these contrasting emotions struck the very moment we’d made it back to our examination room — originally intended for my use with him only on the periphery, but now destined to be a medical haven for us both. I slid the door closed, plunging us into blackness, as soon as we’d stepped inside, ignoring the awareness that I mustn’t stay, that I needed to seek out a doctor. I couldn’t leave his side for even one instant just at the moment.

Succumbing briefly to that deep relief that shook me so intensely, I held him tight against me. My battered frame screamed in protest, despite his unnatural coldness almost resembling the ice that had been used on my bruises and strains more than it did a living human body, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was here and relatively safe, that he wasn’t dead. I found myself trembling slightly, which was embarrassing, and breathing more unevenly than he was though no actual wound had been delivered to my chest.

“Hey…” he whispered, the uncertainty in his voice similar to that of his movements as his arms slipped upward in an invisible mirror of mine. “It’s… all right…” Evidently he hadn’t expected to be offering me comfort like this — possibly at any time in our lives, but especially tonight when he had been the one attacked.

“I know,” I replied in just as harsh a whisper… though I didn’t necessarily know. His arms were agonizing around my back, as if he were grasping me much more tightly than he needed to, but I didn’t mind. Anything to continue reassuring me he wasn’t dead.

How long we spent in that embrace, that consoling close connection that nevertheless postponed the night’s crucial next step, each of us struggling for different reasons to breathe properly, crushed together in the darkness and clearly unwilling to let go, I also didn’t know.

Part 19

Through the blinds, out past the parking lot between the cars, I can see the horizon darkening. I’ve never been much of a sunset-watcher, and it occurs to me that I’m not really sure how long this basic daily occurrence actually takes. I suppose subconsciously, after thirty years — perhaps even sixty-five years — of seeing or at least being aware of it on a daily basis, I really am familiar with the length of time at this season between the disappearance of the sun and full darkness setting in, but consciously I find I haven’t a clue.

There are other things I don’t know: where he spends his days, how soon after dusk he awakens, how quickly he travels, how much residual sunlight in the atmosphere he can tolerate outdoors. I can make educated guesses, but they’re based on pop culture as well as information more than a century old — and, as I’ve already noted, someone can change a lot in that many years. Eventually I let the blinds snap back into place and compel myself to think about dinner.

The water in the pot is perhaps halfway to boiling point when I’m not so much startled as intrigued by the sound of the front door opening. My interest isn’t piqued by the same issue I’ve been pointlessly dwelling on — how quietly a vampire can or can’t manipulate objects in his environment — but by the fact that that door was dead-bolted. He doesn’t need to scan the room; his glowing eyes jump immediately to me even as he’s closing the entrance behind him, and he takes a seat at my small dining table without removing them from me. He’s dressed the same as last night and every night, and I reiterate to myself the theory that vampires don’t need to change clothing much.

There can be no such thing as an un-charged sight of him, and my brain teems even just with this glance. The way he looks at me recalls my realization yesterday of how much he must love me, which is still a diamond-hard awareness my musings glance off of, can’t get any purchase on — and that’s only the most basic level of my reaction to his presence. However, amidst all the complicated reflections and feelings half acknowledged, memories of the past and fears for the future, one interesting point stands out: I’m happy to see him. Uncomplicatedly happy that he’s here, that I can be with him again for a little while. I try very hard not to assign any interpretation to this.

Instead I remark, “That door was locked, you know.”

He glances over. “It probably still is.”

“You couldn’t open locked doors back in Japan.”

“I don’t know if I ever tried,” he replies, and I miss the nonchalant shrug that would have accompanied such a statement from him in the distant past. “But vampires are weird. Those of us who survive get all sorts of interesting abilities as we get older.”

“So I’m seeing.” I lean against the kitchen counter and watch him, content for the moment to do only that — to observe him, assessing as best I can, coming no closer but drawing no farther back. “And you obviously don’t have to be invited into someone’s home.”

He frowns slightly, and it’s an expression of thoughtfulness rather than unhappiness. “That one… used to be true. I think it still is, in some places. But even in the parts of Europe where it was the biggest problem, it was already fading when I got changed. I’m trying to think…” He shakes his head. “I don’t remember ever getting stuck at somebody’s door because of that.”

So fascinated am I at this unexpected description of the situation, it takes me a moment to realize my water is boiling. As I hastily tear open the side of the box and somewhat clumsily pour the dry noodles in while trying not to remove my eyes from my vampire ex, I ask in great interest, “Why? How does that work?”

Now he does shrug, though as casual gestures go it’s still pretty stiff and chilly. “Nobody’s really sure. The favorite theory — at least right now — is that, thanks to all the vampires in popular culture and everyone’s growing interest in them — I mean, we’d never heard of them, but Dracula was only twenty years later — society’s kinda given vampires a collective invitation in, so vampires don’t have to worry about individual invitations anymore.”

This is utterly engrossing, and if I’m stirring my noodles properly, it’s through muscle memory alone. “So… human collective consciousness affects what vampires can and can’t do.”

“Something like that. There’s a lot about us that isn’t really well understood. Nobody likes to call it ‘magic,’ but how else can you describe it?”

Magic. How else indeed? Looking at him like this, talking to him like this… remembering a previous life and our time together in it… reflecting on how surreal and difficult things have become… I can’t think of a better word. I shake my head slightly and ask, “Is anyone studying all of this?”

Sanosuke chuckles monosyllabically. “One thing you figure out pretty quick about vampires is that we’re really private. We probably don’t actually need to stay as secret as we do — it’d be easier to live openly with humans — but there’s this fear of ‘them finding out’ that kinda throws a wet blanket over everything we do. Most vampires aren’t down for being studied.”

I nod. “It seems like a…” I search for the right term, and settle on, “scientific shame… but I’m not a vampire.” And as I offer a shrug of my own, I realize I’ve said the wrong thing. Yesterday he told me he would come back tonight to ‘see how I’m doing’ — not to press the issue of his potentially life-changing wish — and here we’ve been having an interesting conversation on a relatively unconnected topic… I don’t think it’s wise to bring up points more specifically connected to that question I can’t answer yet. Deeming this an excellent moment to pay some real attention to the macaroni spinning in the hot liquid at my side, I turn toward it and stir more pointedly.

It seems to be with some difficulty Sanosuke avoids the segue I inadvertently offered him and says instead, “Ask Megumi about it if you’re really interested. She thinks it’s a scientific shame too.”

Directing my words into the steam rising before my face, I asked as casually as I can manage, “Am I likely to see her again?”

“I’m almost her only friend. As long as we’re in the same area, we’re gonna hang out as much as we can. She’ll probably show up here eventually too.”

His words give me a faint, shivering glimpse into the lonely fate of a vampire, a member of a ‘really private’ people — a people unwilling to be discovered by the majority of the population among which they exist, unwilling even to learn more about themselves if it means ‘them finding out.’ For a doctor, that must be almost unbearable. For anyone, that must be almost unbearable.

“Do you have other friends?” I can’t help asking, quiet and concerned despite the awkwardness of the question. It isn’t my place anymore to pry into his private affairs… though obviously he’d like it to be, which is part of the problem.

“No.” He doesn’t pause before saying it, doesn’t seem to be adding up or considering whether So-and-So really counts as a friend. Just a flat negative. “Other vampires don’t like Meg very much, and they know I created her… They’re mostly a bunch of assholes anyway, so I don’t really try with them.” And he doesn’t even mention the possibility of human friends.

This, I think, sheds some light (an inappropriate metaphor when discussing a vampire if ever there was one) on a couple of different points. If because of this prejudice against Takani and her vampiric creator — whatever that stems from — Sanosuke has formed no meaningful relationships, engaged in no emotional intimacy except with one person that evidently isn’t always around, for 130 years, is it any surprise whatsoever that he’s clung all the more tenaciously to his love for me? Is it any surprise that tracking me down and experiencing, even if only for moments in between lifetimes of suffering, what was perhaps the truest and deepest connection he ever felt has become his driving purpose?

Beyond that, is it any wonder he’s altered so much? On an endless search punctuated with disappointment and rejection, usually alone and with no prospect of any companionship, any uplifting interaction to reinforce his humane instincts, beyond brief contact with that single aforementioned friend — his only other options being ‘a bunch of assholes’ that don’t accept him in any case, is it any wonder he has, as he said himself, become a worse person? He claimed time changes him, but I think it may be more circumstance than natural progression.

And in a situation like this, is there any hope for the future — his or mine?

I can’t speak as unhesitatingly as he does; not only do these thoughts sadden and appall me, I haven’t had over a century to get used to all of this. So it’s a moment or two before I ask, “Why don’t they like her?”

“When she comes around, you’ll have to have her tell you all about it.”

I nod, accepting that this isn’t his story to relate, and silence falls. I don’t know what to say. Can I voice the ideas I just turned over in my head? Can I suggest that perhaps his tendency to throw himself so fully into everything has done him a disservice in this case? Because it seems there are other options, alternatives to living in a lonely echo chamber of the old emotions he can’t let go. It seems he needn’t have transformed into what he is today, if only he had ever been willing to think of something other than me and finding me again and continually making his horrendous offer. He could have saved himself, and perhaps he still can… but can I tell him that? I’m afraid I don’t know him well enough anymore; I may be mistaken in my entire assessment, and in any case I can’t voice it aloud.

Presently, with no apparent incitement other than the passage of silent time, I find him at my side. His quick, noiseless movement is startling, but at least the concept of vampires and their uncanny abilities has been specifically on my mind to prepare me for it. Now he looks into the pot on the stove and grimaces faintly at its swirling contents. “You and your gross noodles,” he comments.

Though his words make me chuckle, which is a relief in the present atmosphere, I’m distracted by his physical closeness. Though not quite against me, he is standing very near — near enough that I should feel his body heat, rendering its absence conspicuous. And though my right hand continues its mechanical stirring motion, the rest of me is frozen in indecision. I’d like to touch him, to connect with him a little, to reassure the part of myself that still thinks of this as impossible that it’s all true. 130 years ago, if we’d been alone like this and he so close to me, I would have reached out without conscious deliberation. It might have been a blatantly sexual gesture, or merely a playful one, or something gentler and more casual just to take pleasure in his presence… but even ‘gentle’ and ‘casual’ is far beyond me right now, and there’s a gulf between us that may never be spanned. I don’t like it. I still don’t know how I feel about him, but I don’t like it.

I do manage to respond to his comment, however, using the process of extracting a couple of macaroni from the water and letting them cool in order to test their softness as a mask for my discomfort. “These won’t be plain, though; they’ll have cheese on them.”

“Yeah… ‘cheese…'” He returns to the table — he really does move disconcertingly quickly — and resumes his seat. “Some foods I’m glad I never had to try.”

“You dodged a bullet with this one, then.” I set the colander in the sink and carry the pot to it. Over the ensuing waterfall I raise my voice to continue, “If you were human in this era, I suspect you’d eat nothing but macaroni and cheese.”

He laughs, and perhaps just a touch of the tension between us is dispelled. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“I know I am,” I murmur as I throw a quarter stick of butter into the bottom of the still-hot pan and let it start to melt. “If Kraft macaroni and cheese had existed in Meiji Japan, that’s all you would have eaten back then too.”

He laughs even louder this time, reminding me hauntingly of the old Sano. “OK, fine, when you sound that sure about it…”

I echo his mirth, then ask in some interest, “Is there any normal food you can eat?”

“Nothing at all, unless you count water. Not even raw meat.”

“What happens if you try?” It’s a rather disgusting topic, but apparently it doesn’t bother him, and I’m curious.

“It sits in my stomach and rots.” And with this matter-of-fact answer, the topic becomes even more disgusting. “And makes my breath smell really, really bad.”

Grateful I’m not squeamish, I even laugh a little as I wonder, “Worse than after drinking blood?”

“I guess it’s a matter of taste,” he admits, “but the blood at least gets absorbed. The food just sits around.”

“And your body really has no way of getting rid of it?”

“Oh, it does.” His tone is dark all of a sudden. “We can get most of our old functions working again temporarily if we drink enough blood all at once.”

“Oh.” I fall awkwardly silent, and for a moment the only sound in the room is the newly squishy stirring of macaroni now complete with sauce. I don’t really want to pursue this, but it’s something I feel I need to know. “And you never drink much blood all at once.”

“I only feed when I have to,” he confirms shortly. And another awkward silence fills the room.

Extracting leftover peas from the fridge, removing the Tupperware lid, and getting the microwave started gives me half a minute or so I can safely spend with my back to him as I ask what may be another unwelcome question: “And what about animal blood?”

“I wish,” he says fervently. “There’s another scientific shame for you: nobody knows why it has to be human blood.”

“That seems like something easier to study, though,” I muse, beginning to gather up accoutrements for my dinner — plate, fork, salt and pepper, napkin, Coke and cup with ice with which to drink it. “To determine what’s nutritionally unique about human blood…”

“I don’t think it’s that, though…” As I turn back toward him with utensils I plan to set down on the table across from him, I find he’s sitting less stiffly than he was when he first took that position: he’s got one foot up on the chair, white hands folded over the raised knee near his face, and his other foot kicking against the floor slightly. I like that; it reminds me of how he used to be. I realize belatedly that his tones have grown less cold, too, during the course of our discussion; is it possible that this vampire talk really has set him somewhat at ease? That would be ironic, considering how uncomfortable I feel.

“It’s another stupid ‘magic’ thing,” he goes on– “but don’t ever let any vampire besides me or Meg hear you use that word, I swear — because it seems like there’s something about the actual act of drinking blood from a human body that makes all the difference. Otherwise the ones of us who don’t like murdering people could just live off the rejects from blood banks. That stuff’ll keep you going for a while,” he adds in a distasteful sort of aside, “if you can stand the anticoagulant, but it doesn’t really satisfy you. And the longer you go unsatisfied…” His hands rise in a helpless gesture. “…the more likely you are to murder people.”

An unpleasant thought strikes me: is he perhaps growing warmer and less constrained this evening, more like his old self, because he’s getting the chance to educate me on being a vampire? He hasn’t brought up the big question even obliquely, but is this all really just a subtle training session of sorts for the future he has in mind for me? Perhaps he believes that if he simultaneously relaxes me into the concept and talks about it in a fairly down-to-earth manner, it will be easier for me to accept. If that’s the case… well, it’s not likely to make the thought of becoming a monster easier to accept, but it is a kinder way to accustom me to these ideas. For I’m not sure if I could have asked what I have tonight under many other circumstances.

Case in point, I wonder now, “Has anyone ever attempted drinking animal blood from a human? Pig’s blood from a human’s mouth, for example.”

He blinks in surprise, letting his foot down off the chair and staring at me. “I don’t know! I never have.” After a moment he lets out the heartiest laugh of the evening. “God, can you picture what a mess that would make? It’d be like a bird-mom giving her little babies food, except the food is blood, and no matter how careful you were, you’d end up with it all over each other — ’cause you’d only get a mouthful each time, so you’d have to keep coming back for more, and eventually the vampire and the human and the entire fucking room would just be covered in pig’s blood.”

“You could use a straw,” I suggest blandly, though it’s a struggle to keep a straight face.

And at this Sanosuke drops his head to the table and laughs until I’m sure he would be crying if he were still capable of it. It’s somewhat reassuring to realize vampires aren’t immune to a touch of hysteria when they’re highly amused during a situation of intense repressed emotion. I don’t hesitate to laugh along with him, through my macaroni and cheese, and for a minute or so everything is… not wonderful, not even good, but… OK. We’ve struck a balance. He’s a vampire; I don’t know how I feel about him; I’m still ill at ease and often horrified around him; but it’s good to be here with him.

And apparently he agrees, for eventually he chortles, “Oh, my god, Saitou, it is so good to be with you again.” And the smile on his handsome, colorless face is 100% my old Sano.

We continue the conversation — mostly about vampires, yes, but I don’t mind so much — for some time as I finish my dinner and clean up. He never mentions his desire to make me one of them, though I think on a couple of occasions he’s tempted to as he was earlier, and an odd feeling starts to take me. Sitting here across the table from him, talking over dinner, asking some decidedly getting-to-know-you questions… I almost laugh out loud when the realization hits me. But I don’t think we’re quite back to the point where explaining funny thoughts that pop up at random would come naturally just yet. So I merely keep up my end of the discussion, sometimes haltingly and never without effort, and remain privately of the opinion that this is without a doubt the strangest date I’ve ever been on.

Part 20

“Well…” Takani sat back on her heels with an expression so baffled it hardly had room for the revulsion and pity lingering around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She made a helpless gesture. “You appear to be dead.”

“Told you so,” Sano mumbled. He hadn’t rebalanced himself enough to say it brazenly as he normally would, but merely that he said it at all was reassuring.

And I was certainly in need of reassurance. “How?” I wondered, trying not to sound as demanding as I felt of the doctor already mystified by this situation. “Why?”

She gave a slight shake of head indicative of continued bafflement and began to count on her fingers. “Very little heart activity, no respiration except when he’s thinking about it, unlivably low body temperature, almost no gut motility or salivation… He has none of the functions of a living body except for…” She threw her hands up. “…being alive!”

None of us knew what else to say. It was medically impossible, yet undeniably present in front of us — for Sano, undeniably present within his own body. And I wasn’t about to confess aloud that, horrified as I was at the concept of his being dead somehow, I was still intensely, overwhelmingly relieved he was alive.

We sat wordless for quite some time. The situation made for a significant distraction from the far more straightforward and comprehensible nature of my own form, but didn’t entirely erase my awareness of pain and difficulty navigating my wounds. But of course Sano’s condition concerned me far more, so for the moment my state seemed an irritant rather than a true debilitation. I stared at him with frustratingly exhausted eyes, simultaneously unable to look my fill at his moving and sometimes breathing figure and trying to solve the conundrum of what had happened to him.

Takani stared too. She’d done all the basic-level probing she was capable of, but, though she’d mentioned more in-depth testing before declaring him dead and falling as contemplatively silent as Sano and I had, she’d made the suggestion without much energy — not, I believed, out of any lack of interest in answers or determination to find them, though the sheer lunacy of the circumstances undoubtedly did present a barrier of sorts, but out of pure weariness. Earlier, when I’d recovered myself enough to seek her out, she’d informed me — with no reproach, merely as an explanation — that she’d only been in bed about an hour and a half after a late call to assist with a difficult childbirth.

And Sano, in as close to perfect seiza as I’d ever seen him, was staring as well: down at his unmoving hands, pale as the death I still wanted to deny, that gripped each other in his lap. How did it feel to hear with functioning ears, to process in an active brain that you were deceased? What was moving under his unusually calm exterior? I realized I wished Takani would go away.

As if reading my thought, she took a deep breath and looked around in a movement very much like shaking herself awake, tearing her eyes from Sano with the manner of one that hadn’t really been seeing what she was looking at anyway. With an effort she turned toward me. “This changes your investigation.”

“It does,” I agreed, taking a deep breath of my own; it aided in transition. “It suggests an explanation for why my opponent didn’t react normally to being injured during our fight.”

“Yeah,” Sano agreed, lifting one of the hands he was so fixated upon and clenching it into an experimental fist. “I don’t feel like I’d react much if you injured me right now.” The faintest touch of a smile appeared on his face. “Matter of fact, I dunno if you could injure me right now.”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, trying for levity and largely failing.

Takani didn’t appear to approve in any case. “Whatever I can learn about your condition,” she said sternly, directing her words first at Sano and then at me, “may give us more information about the murderer.”

“Nice to know I’m a test subject for criminal investigation now.” Sano too was aiming at casual banter, and succeeding better than I had.

Takani reached out and poked the center of his forehead with a pointer finger. “Understanding what’s happening to you and how to treat it will be a secondary benefit,” she admitted facetiously. Then she yawned.

I took the opportunity to say, “You should go back to bed.”

Her face tightened with extreme reluctance. “It’s you two who should go back to bed,” she mused, sounding as if she were trying to convince herself, “but as long as my patients are asleep, I might as well be too…” Her concern for us both, but for Sano most specifically, and her professional interest in his state were abundantly evident. But so was her weariness, and probably my own — if not my intense desire, after her initial diagnosis, to talk to Sano privately.

“You can examine him further after we’ve all had some rest,” I told her firmly. “In the meantime, I promise to wake you again if anything medically interesting takes place.”

She tilted her chin upward and replied with mock haughtiness, “I don’t know if you would recognize ‘medically interesting,’ officer.” But it was only a joke, and she pushed herself to her feet the next moment. Neither of us rose with her, so she looked down imperiously as she added, “But make sure you do call me if anything changes.” At the exit she glanced back with a pensive, worried expression, clearly unsure she was doing the right thing in postponing further exploration… but eventually she did depart, closing the door behind her and leaving us to each other’s company in the brilliance of all the lamps she’d lit for her examination.

Slowly, in a movement almost as reluctant as Takani’s had been if probably for different reasons, Sano too finally got up, and went to deal with the obtrusive lights. I watched him carefully, unsure exactly what to say. His movements were fluid, easy, even natural, but there was something about them that made me feel cold. And his face, when he turned toward me again, appeared pensive but nothing worse, yet I shivered. He simply could not be as detached from this as his outward aspect suggested. I wasn’t certain how best to inquire, but between my wounds and the emotional battering I’d taken tonight, I was too hurt and exhausted to come up with any circumspect way of asking what I needed to know.

So I opted for bluntness. “How are you feeling?”

He paused in extinguishing the last lamp, visage averted from me and stillness uncanny. And the forced cheerfulness that emanated from him as he replied was like a blow. “I feel great, actually! I feel like I could run five miles without breaking a sweat. I mean,” he added with a stiff chuckle, “obviously I’m not really sweating right now, but the point is, I feel… probably better than I ever have. I don’t get it–” he shrugged as he put out the final light– “but it’s not bad.”

Still blunt, but finding it easier to make this specification in the darkness, I said, “I meant emotionally.”

For another moment he stood still, and I realized I’d neglected to draw Takani’s attention to the new and preternatural luminance of his eyes. I’d only noticed it vaguely myself, caught up as I had been with other concerns; now I focused on it, not as something I particularly liked or drew interest from, but as essentially the only object on which my own eyes were willing to settle and proof that he was looking at me as fixedly as I was at him. And in fact it was this topic, rather than any response to my question, he chose to bring up next: “I can see a lot better in the dark all of a sudden. It is really dark in here, right?”

“It is,” was all I could say. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his eyes were glowing, to add the question of what that might mean to the ever-expanding list. Not yet.

His black silhouette and those two points moved toward me, footsteps remarkably quiet across the floor, and I sensed him fall to his knees beside my futon. “Megumi was right: you should get some sleep.”

Though my body cried out in agreement, I refused to lower myself into a prone position just yet; I knew that when I did, unconsciousness would not be long in coming, and there were things needing to be said first. “Sano,” I insisted. “Are you all right?”

After the longest silence yet — so long, in fact, with that utterly motionless figure beside me, I might have believed I’d dozed off and missed his answer — he finally took one of the profound preparatory breaths I was already beginning to associate with speech rather than a need for oxygen with him. He probably didn’t require quite that much air, though, for the brief whisper he gave: “No.”

I sat up more fully and reached for him, and he came willingly into my arms. It shocked me all over again how cold he was, and the contact between us still hurt, yet I drew him against me and held him firmly. Apart from the chill, his body felt nothing but hale and strong, giving no indication of whatever turmoil lay within, but all that did was give me reason to cling tighter as if trying to get at that hidden interior.

I didn’t know whether it was the new closeness, or the intensity of my embrace, or my anticipatory wordlessness, or the concealing darkness around us that allowed him finally to elaborate. “I’m so fucking scared right now, Saitou.” He continued to whisper, as if any more volume might attract the attention of what he feared. “My body feels just fine — better than just fine — but I’m still dead. What if this is just… putting off really being dead somehow? When’s it gonna catch up with me? Am I gonna drop down dead all of a sudden — for real this time — without any warning? I don’t know what the hell’s going on, and I don’t really think Megumi can figure it out.”

The light of his eyes disappeared as he buried his face in my shoulder, and I felt my own body trembling as I held him. I couldn’t muster the energy, this time, to tell him he wasn’t dead; I couldn’t even tell myself that anymore. I did, however, have a train of logic I could use to reply to his primary concern. “The man who did this to you — Shibue or whoever he is — has been murdering people for months without any sign of weakening or dropping down dead all of a sudden. I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

“That’s… a good point,” Sano allowed shakily. “I have at least a couple of months, then.”

“And you should have more faith in Takani.” I was grasping at straws here trying to comfort him, but I supposed it was better than nothing. “Imagine what she’d do to you if she knew you didn’t think she could keep you alive. Or whatever we’re calling this.”

He gave a reluctant chuckle. “She might kill me.” It was dark humor, but it was humor. Something in him had eased a little — I couldn’t tell how I knew — so I was satisfied for the moment.

I pulled at him. “Lie down here with me. You may feel better than fine, but you could still do with some rest.”

He drew back a little. “But I’m freezing cold.”

“You’ll save the clinic on ice, then.”

He gave in, clearly craving the closeness, and stretched out against me, as comfortably as we could render the arrangement, on the futon not really intended for more than one person. And he was freezing cold, but my half-joking rejoinder also held true: though the pressure remained uncomfortable, the chill of his body felt actively good against my strained muscles and bruises. If I could fall asleep while a doctor rubbed ice all over me, I could fall asleep like this. I didn’t know whether he would be capable of it, and I didn’t like to abandon him in his current state no matter how much I’d managed to comfort him with my logic and weak humor, but I was about at the end of what I could handle for the night.

And in fact I very soon lost consciousness, and did not awaken for how many hours I couldn’t tell. My dreams during that time wrenched at my heart, appalling and tragic, half remembered and quickly fading upon awakening though they were, and it was with renewed poignancy and relief that I found Sano still in my arms, still cold and unbreathing and unmoving at my side, when I opened my eyes.

Clearly having roused before me, if he’d slept at all, Sano recognized my wakefulness immediately, drew aside, and sat up as if he’d been waiting to do so. The room, an interior chamber removed from sunlight by multiple filters, was only a little brighter now that it had been when I’d gone to sleep, but I thought I could make out the expression on his face: bleak, haggard, wearier than last night if that were possible, and reflecting deeper troubles.

“Did you sleep?” My question came a little hoarsely, and I had to clear my throat.

Sano shook his head, those newly glowing eyes swinging from side to side like carriage lanterns at a sharp turn. He pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, appearing childish and forlorn and as if he wanted to ward off reality with this defensive posture. He inhaled, perhaps to speak, then merely let it out in a sigh.

I struggled upward more slowly than he had done, feeling my way through my injuries. I thought they were diminished somewhat since last night. I wanted to clean my teeth, to visit the toilet, to find some breakfast… but all of these needs paled beside that of attending to this wretched-looking Sano of mine. I would have reached out for him, inviting him again into my arms, if he hadn’t just pulled away from an embrace that had lasted presumably many hours already. So as it was, I watched, waiting for him to speak.

When he finally did, it was in a fainter voice than I’d ever heard from him, it too almost childlike in its uncertainty: “He broke my neck. He took me by surprise and hit me so hard…” He raised one hand to the back of the organ in question exactly as he had last night. “I couldn’t move. I was just paralyzed on the floor. I think something else was dislocated too, but it kinda didn’t matter right then.”

I merely continued to stare at him. There would be no purpose in commenting that his neck appeared unbroken and nothing on him seemed dislocated.

“He drinks blood,” Sano went on desolately. “That’s what happened to all the murder victims.” Now his hand crept from the back of his neck to the front where the two puncture wounds — long suspected to be the point where our unknown killer had drained the blood from the bodies — stood out copper-colored against the unnatural whiteness of his skin. “He bites you right here and sucks the blood right outta you.”

“But none of the other murder victims…” I had no adequate way to describe what had happened to Sano, so I merely gestured at him to indicate what I meant.

“That’s because I drank his blood too.” Now Sano hid his face between his knees, and the supreme horror of this part of the night’s story sounded strong in his voice. “I thought it was a dream, but… that’s how he made me like this: he drank my blood, and gave me his blood to drink in exchange. My injuries healed up completely, and now I’m like this. Because I drank his blood.”

I was simply out of consolation to offer, words or gestures. What could anyone say in response to that? With an inward steadying of self I tangented to the logistics of our situation. “How long have you remembered all of this?”

“It’s been coming back to me ever since I woke up in that shed out there.”

“But you didn’t tell me any of it last night.”

“It took hours to put all the pieces together.” Finally he raised his bright eyes far enough to look at me again over the curve of his kneecaps; I couldn’t read their expression. “Besides, I figured if I told you I drank some guy’s blood, you’d never get to sleep.”

That startled an “Ahou” right out of me, by which I meant — though I couldn’t say it in so many words — I was supposed to be looking out for you last night, not the other way around.” It was very much like when he’d tried to comfort me in that desperate moment in the dark when we’d first entered this room; it was unfair that he, after what he’d suffered, should be the one to feel the need to offer support. It was just like him.

Now he lifted his face farther, high enough that I could see the slight smile on his lips. “More like ihou now, isn’t it?” — a terrible pun having to do with a relic of a dead person.

“Stop that,” I commanded, glad to find I could still feel irritable even under these circumstances; it normalized things somewhat.

His smile widened into a grin, the first real instance of that expression I’d seen from him since he… died. Finally he let go of his knees, stretching his entire body out alongside mine once again and staring up at the ceiling with a sigh. “Not looking forward to telling Megumi about the blood thing.”

“As eager as she is to find out more about your condition,” I reminded him, “you’re under no obligation to tell her anything.”

“Well, but she’s involved in all of this now; I feel like I owe her that much. Besides, it’s like she said last night: the more she can learn about me, the more we’ll know about the guy who did this.”

“Do you remember anything about him?”

Sano raised his arms to pillow his hands beneath his head in a gesture almost shockingly casual under the circumstances. “Not a damn thing, except what he did: nothing about what he was actually like.”

A long silence followed, less miserable and uncomfortable than any that had gone before. Sano was strong; despite his fear and uncertainty and disgust at what had happened and what might happen, he was recovering his confidence and presence of mind. I felt almost as much relief at this as I had at finding him alive in the first place, and touched to no small degree by the realization that it seemed to have been interacting with me that had helped him take this step. It seemed we really could get through this together, trite as that sounded.

Eventually I voiced something that had been on the periphery of my awareness since last night: “We can’t stay here. He was able to target you on your way across the back yard; our continued presence puts everyone in the clinic at risk.”

Sano nodded. “Maybe I really won’t have to tell her about the blood, then. She’s not gonna like it, though.”

“No.” I chuckled darkly. “Even if she weren’t already concerned for our health as a doctor and a friend, this will be a blow to her scientific curiosity. But it can’t be helped; we wouldn’t want a repeat of last night.”

He shuddered, the most human physical reaction I’d seen in him for a while. “Fuck, no,” he muttered.

Not particularly looking forward to rising and moving around, I stirred and said, “We should let her know as soon as possible, and then leave. We’ll go to my house.”

Sano turned a lopsided grin toward me. “Your house, huh? I guess that’s something to look forward to.” Then he added, “As long as you don’t mind having a blood-drinker under your roof,” in a tone that reminded me very much of the one he’d used once upon a time to confirm that I was married: would-be casualness barely masking a deep concern. I realized he’d mentioned the blood-drinking more frequently and more pointedly than he probably would have if he hadn’t been sounding me out for a reaction I hadn’t yet given.

The truth was, we had a lot to consider and discuss relating to Sano’s attacker and how the events of last night changed my perspective on the murder case and my professional plans — but postponing such discussion until a more private, secure, and leisurely setting still seemed the wisest course. So I wasn’t thinking about the seemingly perverted and decidedly unsettling answer to our long-standing question, ‘What does this murderer want with so much blood?’ And I was trying not to think about the ghastly scenario Sano had mentioned, of his having been forced to partake in our enemy’s gruesome predilection. But it appeared I needed to think about it, at least briefly, in order to reassure him.

“I don’t mind having you under my roof,” I told him firmly, “regardless of what some maniac with sharp teeth did to you.”

A faint hissing intake of unnecessary breath and its release with a more appeased sound was the only indication he gave of the relief I believed he felt. And after a moment he sat up again and turned away from me, apparently toward the clock on the wall; I couldn’t make out its hands in the dark room, but evidently he had no trouble telling the time. “Should be late enough to wake kitsune up by now,” he mumbled. In a fluid movement that illustrated just how hearty and strong he still felt physically, he jumped lightly to his feet. “I’ll go get her.”

Much more slowly and painstakingly, I moved to follow. “First walk with me to the outbuilding.”

In accepting the hand he offered to help me up, I couldn’t but sense his strength. And in the light from the hallway that spilled over him as he opened the door, I couldn’t miss the unquestionable apprehension in his face. “Bring your sword.”

I didn’t protest, despite how absurd the admonition might have seemed to an outsider, only moved to retrieve the article in question.

The Oguni clinic tended toward quiet and calm at most times of day, I’d already noticed, and hopefully Takani was yet resting; so it was both typical and desirable that we met no one in the corridor on our way. My movements still hurt considerably, but I could feel a definite improvement, and this allowed surer steps with less specific concentration than last night; I appreciated that.

Stepping into the same geta as before, I noticed the hook beside the outer door still empty; presumably this exit had been unlocked ever since Sano had left the building on the same errand that occupied me now. We should have considered that, I reflected uneasily, though admittedly we’d had good reason for distraction.

I gestured, pleased to find the motion not as painful as yesterday. “Do you have this key?”

“Oh, yeah.” As I turned to glance at him, Sano, just behind me, lifted a hand, ready to thrust it into his pocket, and the door slid open under the influence of my own. But his expression instantly twisted, altering horribly, as he gave a sudden unexpected cry of dismay and pain and staggered backward.

Occasioning some serious discomfort in my limbs — though by now I was rather accustomed to it — I hastily followed him the two steps he’d stumbled, heart racing as if to make up for the sluggishness of his and glancing around as if I weren’t fully aware of our solitude and expected to find some newly arrived enemy. Sano was clutching at one hand with the other, holding it so tightly against his chest that I couldn’t see what might be wrong with it; and on his face was a look almost more astonished than hurt, though the pain was evident as well.

“What happened?” I demanded, eyes again darting from him to find the answer. But the corridor was, as I well knew, unpeopled except for ourselves, bright in the sun that streamed through the exit flung open to the morning air.

“The– the light,” he gasped, and his words, like his face, seemed to hold more surprise than anything else. He finally released his tight grip in order to gesture almost desperately with his right hand toward the door and the rays streaming through it, and I was every bit as shocked as he to see what had happened to his left: it was covered from fingertip to wrist, on its outside face, with an angry redness, shining and blistered, a hideous welt at least six inches long. It was what I imagined a sunburn might progress to in a far hotter climate than this; it appeared agonizing, but, more than that, impossible to have happened in the mere moment the direct sunlight had spent on his skin. Impossibility, however, had been thoroughly negated where he was concerned.

Footsteps and voices sounded from different parts of the building, undoubtedly roused by Sano’s cry, but I didn’t know that I wanted anyone but Takani to see him. “Come back into the room,” I urged, taking him by the shoulders, disregarding the open door just as we’d previously disregarded its unlocked state. I couldn’t move him until he was willing to move himself, but that took only a moment; soon we were barricaded against prying eyes again in the examination room that had been my home for far too long, though it was only a matter of time before someone knocked.

Sano held his hand out from his body, wincing and hissing with pain, face screwed up so harshly I expected to see tears that, presumably, his eyes no longer produced. He couldn’t utter a word, he was evidently in such distress. Looking at the boils and flaming redness of his fresh wound, I couldn’t say I blamed him.

The implications of this event were so numerous, and potentially interacted so intricately with the other inferences Sano’s condition had raised about our unknown foe, my head was spinning trying to keep them all in the background where they belonged. I needed to help Sano; I needed to talk to Takani; I needed to get our plans for leaving back on track.

I didn’t need, right at this moment, to dwell on just how close I’d apparently come to losing Sano again, this time to the most innocuous of natural phenomena.

Part 21

Yes, there’s unquestionably a feeling of pleasure — delight, even, or joy — that comes with seeing Sano again. My memories of our time together in Japan have such a freshness about them, not to mention my feelings for him then, that how I feel now hardly seems relevant. This strikes me as a trifle unfair, but hasn’t the whole thing been?

Vampire ex or no vampire ex, my life goes on, and that means I need clean clothing for work I really do have to attend, and that means laundry must be done. The experience is undeniably different than usual with Sano hanging around making conversation, though. As if a long-lost friend has returned? Something more than a friend? Or something completely separate from that — a predator, a demanding stranger whose goals must perhaps make him an enemy, no matter how happy I am at his presence?

“Damn lotta laundry you got here all at once,” he’s commenting as I rotate the second load into my undersized dryer in preparation for filling my tiny washer with the third.

I don’t bother pointing out just how small the loads have to be thanks to the aforementioned diminutive nature of my laundry room, which is really more of a closet off my kitchen; I merely reply, in a tone of somewhat sarcastic accusation, “I usually only have one or two loads, but last week something had me too agitated to get a lot of my chores done.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Do you always approach me like that? So I’m miserable and confused for a week?”

The query restores the hard expression to his face, probably because it reminds him of just how many times he has approached me, whether like that or in some other manner, and his voice as he answers holds that cold unhappiness I’m getting used to. “I keep hoping you’ll remember me on your own.”

So my assumptions along those lines were correct. Finished starting the washer, I turn my attention to folding and hanging the still-warm contents of the basket I recently set atop the dryer. “You never were very good at pattern recognition.” My nonchalance is a deliberate contrast to his darkness and heaviness.

It seems to work, too, for he chuckles, only a little morose. “And I’ve seen a lot of patterns; you’d think I’d be better at it by now.” He’s leaning against the kitchen cabinets just outside the laundry room doorway, and at this he unfolds the arms he had crossed and places his hands on the countertop instead. “But, no… it hasn’t always been like that… You haven’t always been in a good position for me to give you a week.”

Every time I glance over at him, I find his gaze locked on me; I don’t think he ever looks away. Now when I meet his eyes briefly in asking, “What do you mean?” I find him staring as intently as ever.

“When you’re doing well… when you’re well-off… when you’re safe…” He shrugs. “Getting a week to try to figure shit out is a luxury. Sometimes when I find you, it turns out you’re in such a bad position I don’t even know if you have a week. I have to jump in right away and give you your memories back — or just tell you about everything, like in Brazil, before I learned how to do that. You may think it’s pretty bad this way, but it’s worse with no warning at all.”

I hang shirts in silence for a moment, then nod. I can’t quite bring myself to point out that not restoring my memories of a previous life, refraining from demanding I choose between hurting someone I once loved and becoming a monster, simply not approaching me at all might be even less unkind than either of those two options. It’s already obvious how impossible he would find letting me go, and I still haven’t confirmed how I feel about his return to my life, so bringing up the inappropriateness of his actions would only wound him. And even if he’s wounding me, I’m not inclined to reciprocate.

“I like to see you in a life like this.” There’s a forced sense of greater lightness to his tone as he says this, and I feel like we’re skirting he-wants-my-answer territory again. “I mean, you’re always in danger, but at least in a life like this it’s official. And obviously you make enough money to be comfortable… You can afford your gross-looking mac and cheese, and a washer and dryer in your apartment, and all that…”

Again I nod without a word, without bringing up the fact that my life has been decent and relatively uncomplicated… up until now.

In a way this exchange, in which everything each of us says or could say has the potential to hurt the other, is a mirror of many we had in Japan, where everything each of us said had a tendency to aggravate the other. Of course back then there was a specific subconscious reason to become agitated at the sound of the other’s voice; and here and now I’m far less willing to hurt Sano that I was to annoy him in those days… but the parallel remains. It’s a tense conversation even in its easier moments, hinting at possibilities I’m not eager to face.

Am I grateful for the interruption of a knock at the door? I wasn’t necessarily unhappy to be alone with him, but that tension was undeniable and not particularly enjoyable. I do worry a little, however, about who this might be. A neighbor coming to talk about local safety? Apartment maintenance appearing for an unusually late job? Renee wondering why I haven’t called her? None of these options is palatable, and the last is downright nightmarish, considering I still haven’t figured out what to say to her.

Whether or not he guesses my specific concerns, Sano obviously recognizes my uneasiness about the visitor, for he reassures me, “I think it’s Meg. Want me to get it?”

He’s offering to answer the door at my apartment just as he felt free to do at my house in Japan (though in that instance without asking). I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, so I tell him, “That’s OK,” and move past toward the entrance.

And Megumi it is. Like Sano, she’s still wearing the same outfit I saw her in previously — the one that makes her look like a video game character — but unlike Sano, she gives an immediate smile when she sees me. “I thought I had the right place. May I come in?”

“She’s a better vampire than you are,” I throw over my shoulder into the kitchen. Then to Megumi, “Yes, come in.”

As she does so, she reaches out a startlingly cold hand and clasps mine, shaking it with contrasting warmth. “It’s good to see you again.” And I think she means it. I know she means, by ‘again,’ not a reference to our meeting in the police station parking lot some days ago but rather to however many previous lives she’s known me in.

I return the handshake and agree with her, every bit as sincere. I can’t help staring a little, though, and I hope she’s not offended. I simply don’t remember her as nearly this… beautiful.

Despite my relationship with Sano being the most meaningful of my Japanese life, the capacity for attraction to women was, I believe, just as strong in me as attraction to men. Whether the same is true in this incarnation I don’t yet know, but currently it’s the male side of things in question; I’ve never doubted I liked women. I’ve never had any problem recognizing and admiring female beauty. My awareness of Megumi’s was always somewhat abstract, given how thoroughly occupied my aesthetic appreciation of others was by Sano at the time… but I surely would have taken greater notice if she’d looked like this.

In the dark station parking lot it wasn’t nearly as evident, with my attention so caught up in the mystery of the situation, but here in the brighter lights of my apartment, up close, with the bafflement and confusion and frustration of that scene behind me, I can easily categorize her looks as ‘stunning.’ The precise perfection of her features, the luster of her hair, the curve of her figure… it’s almost unbelievable.

But as I stare I realize just as immediately that there’s something else different about her as well, something less pleasant: a sense of otherworldliness, of horror almost, that’s deeply repellent, perhaps especially so as it contrasts with her incredible beauty. It’s not the same feeling I’ve had about Sano — I still believe that arises more from the awareness of what he wants from me than from any kind of innate human fear of a predatory alien being… but the latter is exactly what I believe this reaction to Megumi must be. Sano I recognize as someone that at least should be human, but in Megumi my instincts see little to no humanity at all. Ironic, when Sano is the one most concerned with losing track of what he was. Unnerving.

“She’s a hotter vampire than me too,” Sano remarks, obviously observing my reaction.

I pause and give my two guests a back-and-forth comparative scan. And though my goal is primarily to bait Sano, and though there’s still something about him that has far more of a personal draw than Megumi, with all her astonishing loveliness, can command, when I nod and agree with him my statement is nothing but the truth.

Sano makes a snorting, huffing sound, and, while it sounds like a darker reaction than such a meaningless tease would have prompted in him back in the day, it’s a relatively lighthearted moment nonetheless — especially when Megumi seems to validate my facetious intentions by laughing in response.

Since I resumed my progress into the laundry room in order to finish up that chore before I sit down to have a proper conversation with Megumi, Sano’s face is out of sight; therefore I can’t be sure of the precise reason he targets her with his retort, “Yeah, Meg’s a walking stereotype these days.” Is he jealous because I indirectly called her hot? Or is he simply unable, at this juncture, to aim a snide comment at me?

I ask, “What stereotype?”

“Sano’s just jealous,” Megumi answers, “because he doesn’t look like a Hollywood vampire.”

“Oh, fuck that shit,” Sano grumbles.

As they then fall silent for a few moments, I prod, “That still doesn’t tell me what the stereotype is.” By now I can probably guess, but I’d rather have one of them elaborate.

Megumi does so. “Real vampires — most of us, anyway — look more and more monstrous the longer we survive, and all of us appear less and less human. Many vampire stories used to reflect this: we were horror story villains meant to inspire fear. But over the years the public perception of vampires has changed somehow, and now we’re portrayed as sympathetic villains or even heroes, and almost always superhumanly sexy instead of frightening.”

I nod my understanding, both of the phenomenon she describes and of the specific stereotype she therefore seems to embody. Why she’s evidently not included in the ‘most of us’ that look more and more monstrous the longer they survive has yet to be revealed, but everything makes sense so far.

“It’s bullshit.” Sano is still irritated. “Some of the old stuff used to be almost accurate, but these days people have this entire concept of vampires that’s 100% wrong. There’s nothing sexy about us, for one thing,” he finishes in disgust.

I glance over, giving him a skeptical look, unwilling to bring up aloud the way he somehow forced me to want him so desperately in order to ‘make this easier’ when he was restoring my memories of life in Japan.

“Well…” He obviously knows exactly what I mean with the expression, and has the grace to look a little sheepish. “Yeah, I mean, there is that. We’ve got a sort of sexual attractiveness we can turn on and off to help us hunt. But it’s not like we can take it any further than that; we can’t do any of that shit anymore — at least not without eating, like, three people first. And you can stop rolling your damn eyes at me, Meg; we’re not all born aces.”

“It’s certainly easier not to worry about the circulatory system that way.”

I believe I understood that exchange, though the reference to aces might have gone over my head if sexual or romantic orientation hadn’t already been at least a little on my mind. I never knew Megumi was asexual; as she says, it’s probably more than a bit of a blessing in her current form. I think back to my concerns about this specific topic in Japan, and wonder how sexuality in the long term is affected by becoming a vampire and the changes in bodily function that transition represents — by the apparent need to ‘eat, like, three people’ before attempting sexual activity. It seems insensitive to bring up, however, so instead I revert to what I previously wanted to know: “And how do you manage to look like a Hollywood vampire?”

“I’m a cannibal,” Meg replies easily. “I drink blood from other vampires, which heightens all of my abilities and makes me…” She gives a reluctant chuckle. “…sexier.”

“Yeah, she’s like a vampire squared.” I glance over in time to see Sano aim a blow, lightning-quick and totally unnecessary, at Megumi’s face and she, from where she’s seated at my dining table, catch it and throw it back with zero apparent effort.

“And you can survive that way?” I’m about done folding my laundry, and very interested in this new information.

“As long as I feed on non-cannibals. Which is a shame, really; if cannibals could all live off each other, we could leave humans entirely alone.”

“So why do you do it?” I hang the last pair of pants and emerge, deciding that, today at least, I’m not ready to put away my laundry (including underwear) in their presence. It can wait where it is until they’ve gone.

Megumi leans back in her chair with that outlandish undead fluidity and soundlessness I’m just about accustomed to by now. “Drinking the blood of other vampires gives me insight into their abilities and evolution, and helps me understand vampires as a species better. There are a lot of things about ourselves that we don’t understand, and cannibalism helps me study them.”

This starts to answer some of the questions I took from my conversation with Sano about the mysteries of vampirism, but not all of them. Before I can decide what to ask next, however, Sano responds to my assumption of the third seat at the dining table by lifting a pack of cards he’s withdrawn from somewhere and asking, “Wanna play?”

Since a card game — whatever card game — seems an optimal technique for staving off awkwardness among the three of us as we chat, I readily agree, and the next few minutes are spent going over the rules. This involves Sano writing out a list of scoring parameters on a piece of notebook paper I retrieve at his request, and I find myself inordinately interested in what his handwriting looks like in English and modern times.

I’m also intrigued by his reaction to his role as rules authority for the game. It’s only a reminder for Megumi, with whom he’s obviously played this before, but to me it’s all new, and Sano is surprisingly engrossed in — indeed, at times almost excited by — the simple action of teaching me how it works. He always did love to gamble, and, though we’re not wagering anything here and now, it seems games of chance still rank among his favorite pastimes. It’s yet another moment of Sano seeming like Sano, and my own engrossment in learning the rules is definitely enhanced by my pleasure at seeing this.

So here I am again hanging out with vampires — one my lover from a previous life, one the most beautiful woman in the world and yet so off-putting that my chair is decidedly closer to Sano’s side of the table — casually discussing the drinking of blood and other horror-movie concepts, this time without nearly so much discomfort as I experienced in the previous instance: I’m getting used to this. Exactly how used to it I can become remains a matter of question, along with a host of other things, but at the moment I’m relatively content just to play cards with a couple of friends without worrying about the fact that they are physically programmed — magically programmed? — to require the death of people like me for their own survival. Without worrying about how startlingly much I enjoy the presence of one of them when I’m not sure how I feel about him personally and he’s literally here to offer me a fate worse even than that aforementioned death.

Part 22

“You haven’t eaten anything in three days.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano sprawled on my living room floor in a pose that would normally have seemed easy, unconcerned. “I’m still not hungry.”

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Takani had mentioned that Sano’s bodily functions seemed to have shut down; conceivably this lack of appetite was the new normal. However… “You may not feel any hunger, and it’s possible you don’t actually need food, but we don’t know that. To be on the safe side and make sure you don’t starve, you should come over and eat something.” My gesture at the table I’d just finished ladening with dishes was lost on his now-stubbornly-closed eyes. Would he even have entered the room if he’d known I was preparing a meal for two rather than one?

“I think the, uh…” He denied the sight of the ready table even more decisively by turning his back to it — and me — and propping himself up on his side facing the fireplace. His volume dropped a dreary step as he finished, “…the blood was enough. I don’t think I need anything else for a while.” And he let out a faint, unhappy sigh. It hadn’t been long, but he already hated mentioning ‘the blood’ more than I’d ever seen him hate anything during our entire acquaintance — my decisive ability to defeat him in combat, the Meiji government, and Shishio Makoto included.

In an effort to strike a balance between distressing him by belaboring the issue and yet, by necessity, insisting, I tried to approach the subject as matter-of-factly as possible. “We still can’t know that.” As I reiterated this idea, I dropped to my knees beside him and placed a hand on the shoulder that stood like the top of a bastion wall before me. I was more or less accustomed by now to the coldness immediately apparent through his upper garment, and left the hand in place, thumb sliding back and forth in a subtly caressing movement, as I continued. “We do know that something as simple as sunlight could kill you, and avoiding that is as easy as keeping you out of it. I won’t let you die of something as simple as starvation when avoiding that is as easy as having you eat occasionally, even if you don’t feel like it. So you need to at least try.”

“It’s you who needs to be resting,” Sano returned, trying a different tack still with his back to me, “instead of wearing yourself out making dinner for people who don’t want it.”

“Making dinner does not ‘wear me out,'” I told him with a roll of eyes. “I’m not the one whose recovery the doctor was worried about when we left.”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Sano in a tone even more sarcastic than mine, “Megumi wasn’t worried about you at all. You’re doing just fine. Obviously it’s way more important to harass me about food than take care of your own injuries.”

I wanted to say, “To me it certainly is,” but it seemed a mawkish sentiment (however true), so I avoided expressing it. I also didn’t comment on his apparent prioritization of my state over his own. Anyway I believed he was only using that as an excuse not to do something he didn’t feel like doing, and therefore preferred not to admit how much it touched me. Why he was so averse to eating I couldn’t be sure, but I also couldn’t simply let the matter go. Prepared to close the sub-topic with this statement, I said, “My injuries have healed exactly as much as they should have five days after being inflicted.”

“Oh, have they?” Sano sounded irritated, as if the claim were particularly childish and aggravating despite his being far more prone to such behavior. I was about to answer snappishly, but he pre-empted the intended remark. The flash of a glowing brown eye turning toward me provided scant warning before, undoubtedly to prove in a somewhat backward fashion a point about my level of infirmity, he had risen, twisting around to throw me none too gently to the floor and himself on top of me.

Like a convalescent gradually regaining full use of a damaged body — such as I was, in fact — Sano had been moving faster and faster since the incident in the shed. The difference was that he’d never slowed in the first place, never been an invalid working at a diminished level; so his increase in speed had put him above average from the very beginning of the process. By now his normal actions (when he wasn’t concentrating on maintaining a more standard rate of motion) were so rapid as to be startling, uncanny, inhuman. It provided further evidence that the enemy I’d fought a few days earlier — an enemy that, despite his lack of combat prowess, had demonstrated such lightning quickness that I’d been forced to try to anticipate where he might be next rather than tracking his movements as he made them — shared Sano’s non-dead state of inexplicably increased physical abilities.

And it was a good thing Sano, with his far greater natural talents and level of training, intended me no harm. For not only had he pressed me to the floor, pinned my arms, and straddled my hips in half a breath’s unexpected action, then when I immediately made an instinctive attempt at pushing back against his hold, the straining of my body beneath him had almost no effect on the arrangement of his above.

He had been, I believed, about to comment something to the purpose of, “See? You’re still in really bad shape; you should lie down and get some sleep instead of trying to force me to eat dinner” — but as he observed the difficulty, the near futility of my struggles against him (almost instantly discontinued though they were), his demeanor abruptly completely changed.

He didn’t seem to have felt much in the way of happiness since, to Takani’s distress, we had abandoned the Oguni clinic and come here for a more private and leisurely recovery, so his apparent glee as he crouched there on top of me was as refreshing to observe as it was surprising. He stared into my face with an almost disbelieving grin on his pale lips, shifting somewhat on top of me as if settling in, and finally murmured, “I really am stronger than you now, aren’t I?” And you would think he’d never received good news in his life prior to this; it was idiotic and nonsensical how happy the realization had made him… but also, perhaps, stupidly endearing.

“We’ll have to spar some time and find out for sure.” I said it with a wince that might have had a touch of the theatrical about it; I was distinctly uncomfortable, but probably wouldn’t have displayed it quite so openly had I not wanted to point out to him the foolishness of exacerbating my injuries in order to insist I take better care of them — especially if his new condition had indeed rendered him physically more powerful than I was.

Sano swore at my subdued indication of pain, and the wrestling hold ended as abruptly as he’d initiated it. As I sat up, sore, and rubbed at my right shoulder, I was interested to observe the mixture of emotions in his demeanor: sheepishness that he’d hurt me blended with a kind of grim satisfaction that he’d been right about my state of debilitation, and underneath it all the exhilaration that he’d somehow been granted one of his dearest and most pointless wishes: to be stronger than his longtime rival Saitou Hajime.

“Now will you come eat something?” I asked.

He gave a startled laugh at my persistence, and I knew I had him; the better temper he’d achieved thanks to the revelation of his superior strength seemed relatively tolerant of food he didn’t want. “All right, fine.” And he jumped to his feet almost quicker than sight, stretching a hand to help me up after him. “Now that I know I can force you to stay here until you really are healed.” Evidently there was more to his attitude than solely the desire to get out of an undesirable task.

We moved to the table and took our seats, and I told him, “I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.”

Across the bowl into which I was dishing him a generous helping of rice, he eyed me suspiciously. “Really? ‘Cause when that messenger was here yesterday, it sounded like you were pretty anxious to go question that Nori woman again.”

Finished patting down the rice heap, I turned my attention to the vegetables and corrected his misapprehension. “I just wanted to know exactly how much she knew when Hironaku took her into custody. I don’t feel the need to talk to her again myself.” In reality, any number of things did have me pretty anxious to get out of the house, but not only was talking to Tomizawa Nori not one of them, what concerned me even more was keeping Sano inside, safe and quiet, for as long as possible. If he believed his continued presence here represented the sole barrier between me and the work currently being handled by my only questionably competent assistant… well, he was at least partially correct, and so much the better. We could be a check on each other, and both feel more secure because of it.

As I’d seen him do many times in the past, Sanosuke gathered up as big a bite as chopsticks would allow; he stuffed it into his mouth without any of the reluctance I’d feared he would continue to exhibit about eating. Satisfied, I started piecing together my own bite, only to be interrupted by a startlingly disgusted sound from across the table that caused me to look over again at my companion. An intense grimace, so puckered it would have been funny under other circumstances, had overtaken Sano’s face, and the chewing movement of his jaw as he struggled to finish what he had in there seemed almost tortured. At my inquisitive raising of brows, he shook his head minutely as if he had no strength to answer, and continued his apparently very difficult mastication.

Admittedly I hadn’t taste-tested the components of this meal as regularly as I usually did while cooking, anxious as I’d been to finish and get on to convincing Sano to join me (though little had I suspected how troublesome that process would prove), but Sano was the least picky eater I’d ever met in my entire life; it would take more than a slight carelessness in the kitchen to wring this type of reaction from him. I assumed, therefore, this had something to do with his new condition rather than my culinary skills. To test the theory, I took my own bite and chewed it thoughtfully; when its flavor and texture proved no better or worse than my usual efforts in this area, I swallowed and remarked with easy dryness, trying to keep the atmosphere light, “It’s not Himura’s cooking, I’ll admit, but it’s not that bad.” Not that I’d ever actually tasted Himura’s cooking, but I’d heard the rumors.

Sano finally managed to swallow his oversized mouthful, though his distorted expression barely untwisted in its wake and his tone had a pained groaning quality as he said, “Yeah… sorry… that was fucking awful.” He worked his lips and jaw as if trying to rid himself of the taste, emitting faint gagging noises, and swung his head rapidly back and forth. “I thought I could eat some of this just to make you happy, but there’s no way… I can’t take another bite… No wonder I wasn’t feeling hungry; that was like eating brick dust or some shit.” And he resumed his apparently futile movements aimed at ridding himself of an unbearable flavor.

This time I had to give in. He’d made the attempt; that was all I could ask. But the implication that he could no longer eat food intended for the living distressed me for more than one reason. Of course there was the obvious, looming question of what he would be required to subsist on if normal food was no longer an option — a question whose answer was likely to cause Sano disgust and dismay along the same lines as before. But there was also the fact that something Sano had always adored with a winning avidity and simplicity seemed now to have been taken from him, perhaps forever. And one of the few ways in which I was able to care for him — providing him with meals and ensuring he maintained a healthy diet — had now been taken from me.

But as I had been doing fairly regularly over the last few days, I tried to remain calm and rational about this and not show how deeply disturbing I truly found it. All I said was, “Do you want to try some tea to wash it down?”

He gave the kettle I had lifted a dubious look, but eventually said, “Yeah, might as well… It can’t taste any worse than this.” And after an almost clawing gesture toward his throat, he accepted the tea I poured for him, took a large gulp, swished noisily, and swallowed again. He rolled his eyes thoughtfully upward, working his mouth once more, and finally let out a relieved-sounding sigh.

“Better?” I asked with some curiosity. I hated to let slip that I found his condition interesting in spite of how much it upset us both, but that was the truth of the matter. Takani probably would have been even worse had she been here.

He nodded and lifted his cup again. “Still pretty disgusting, but nowhere near as bad.” And he took another drink.

The logistics of his nutritional situation as revealed by this event would, sooner or later, require discussion. Would he have to drink more blood? How soon was that need likely to arise, and how was it to be fulfilled? These issues were going to devastate Sano, and few of the facts that might come to light were likely to be any more pleasant in and of themselves than his inevitable reaction to them. As such, I preferred to put off the conversation as long as I could — at the very least until this scene with the disgusting food had become less of an immediate disagreeable presence in his head. Given the extreme reluctance he’d demonstrated over the past few days to touch on the blood-drinking at all, I believed he must agree with this unspoken decision.

Unfortunately I, not being dead, could not so easily do without this human-style food, needed to finish the meal on the table, and feared that might remind him of what we were postponing and render postponing it a meaningless exercise. If he decided to leave the room to avoid watching me eat, he was likely to brood pointlessly in another part of the house and keep the unwanted topic firmly before him. So, since I saw in this a service I could render him that yet remained to me, I considered how best to assist his frame of mind until the dark time when we would be forced to face the miserable topic.

Finally I decided to strike up a discussion of police work, beginning with (as most relevant to our current situation and most on my mind) what Hironaku’s messengers had told me he’d discovered so far about Tomizawa Daitarou’s movements, but fully intending after not too long to segue into other cases I’d dealt with in the past that wouldn’t be quite such a blatant reminder of what had happened to Sano during the course of this one.

To whatever degree aware this was a deliberate tactic, Sano accepted the distraction, and seemed… not exactly happy… but at least content with the subject I’d raised. His un-life had become an unpredictable fluctuation of mood that I didn’t know how to deal with in the long term, but at least in the short term we were staying on top of things. Barely. At least he remained here with me and didn’t go torment himself somewhere alone, as he’d shown a pathetic inclination to do occasionally over the last few days.

A worrisome aspect of the conversation, however, unrelated to his mental state in the aftermath of the attack, was that as we spoke, casually and mostly about business long concluded, he yet gave subtle indications of still wanting to be involved in my professional affairs. This elicited in me the same reaction as it always had: a mixture of poignant pleasure at the closeness or sought-after closeness the desire exhibited, and exasperation, even frustration, at his impractical stubbornness. But these feelings seemed shallow in comparison to the underlying, overwhelming consternation now accompanying the idea. Sano in his current state would be physically unstoppable should he decide to insist on taking part in the current case, and I doubted my ability to reason him out of it — especially after all the effort it had taken merely to convince him to try something to eat.

And how could I bare to him the extent of my horror at the thought of his being hurt further? How could I tell him that I feared it might break me to see it, to come so close to losing him again? That I knew it would break me if I did lose him after all this strangeness and pain?

I couldn’t. I simply didn’t have the words. So I merely continued with what I could say, doing my best to keep him occupied and relatively optimistic, until long after I’d finished eating, and dishes, leftovers, table, and cushions had all gone to their proper places. Dawn would break after a short while, which meant bedtime was nearing; it might not have been too bad a moment to bring up the hateful subject that must eventually be broached, to get it over with and then allow Sano to cleanse his mental palate with sleep perhaps more effective than tea had been at a similar task — though not positively unwakable, Sano had already shown a propensity in this new form to sleep particularly hard during our new daylight downtime… but my efforts at keeping him contented seemed to have been so successful, I couldn’t stand to sabotage them. There would be time for the conversation tomorrow, our moods perhaps strengthened by some rest.

The latter was not the only bedroom activity I could think of that might improve our outlooks and brace us for what was to come. In fact a physical demonstration of our feelings for each other, which I believed had only intensified during this disaster, seemed an extremely desirable step. But no sexual activity whatsoever had taken place between us since we’d come to my house; I’d barely even kissed him. In some dismay I considered again the shutdown of bodily functions Takani had mentioned that had already been so discouragingly manifest this very night, and wondered whether Sano was capable anymore of feeling sexual urges or acting upon them if they arose… and whether he ever would be again.

Considering the matter dourly as we undressed for bed, he baring an expanse of grayish pale skin that showed only the slightest hint of the golden tan it had once worn, I reflected sadly that there might be an emotional element to it as well. Satisfied as he seemed to go to sleep for the day pressed up against or even embracing me, perhaps he wasn’t prepared to resume the greater intimacy we’d had before his disaster. And I wondered, as with the physical element, whether he ever would be. He’d seemed ready enough earlier to throw me on my back in a different type of interaction; would that other sort of freedom with me ever return?

And if the answer was no, that meant yet another thing Sano sincerely enjoyed that had been taken from him by that man we were trying to track down. It meant yet another way my relationship with him and our mutual happiness had been damaged, possibly beyond repair. It meant, I reflected as I gathered him into arms clutching with a fierceness that no longer threatened to harm him but that I still tried to conceal, a distressing tendency in my thoughts — not hitherto unknown but never approved of — toward a desire for revenge rather than justice.

Part 23

The game I’m setting out to play with Sano and Megumi seemed complicated at first description, but turns out to be relatively fast-paced and simple enough that I’m not likely to need constant reminders of most of its procedures. And after a few rounds to get the hang of it, conversation unrelated to the game starts up again in and around our turns, and I’m able to resume the interesting topic where it was left off. “What do you hope to learn about vampires by drinking their blood?”

“I have a number of specific questions I’d like to find answers to,” Megumi answers, “but I’d settle for ‘everything.’ Sano, I’ll trade you two tens for that eight.”

Sano agrees, and as the trade takes place I ask, “What questions?”

“About special vampire powers, for example.” Takani studies her cards. “Why do we develop these special abilities as we get older? And why does the lineup of available powers seem to be changing? Does either of you want a five or a king?” Once she’s traded away her five and been forced to put up with the king since neither of us wants it, she goes on without prompting. “Sano has the ability to restore people’s memories from their past lives, and that’s an ability specifically useful to him. But did his need for a power like that have anything to do with gaining that power? And is that why certain other powers seem to have been phased out over the years — because vampires simply don’t find them useful anymore?”

“I dunno… being able to turn into a bat would be pretty badass.” Tone almost completely unaltered, Sano immediately goes on, “Saitou, I’ll take both of those off your hands, but all I got’s a jack.”

Suddenly I have multiple ideas to deal with at once. I find, for one thing, that I wish he wouldn’t call me ‘Saitou.’ I don’t say so right now, however, since I’m too much arrested by his tone in mentioning the concept of turning into a bat (which is a pretty cool idea, I have to admit) — the same tone he used to discuss an aspect of the game, which I’ve already noticed is something he seems to be specifically relishing. Obviously there are multiple sides of reality besides just me that interest him, things he can enjoy if he allows himself to… although perhaps only in my presence.

I also have the game to think about, and accept the proposed trade somewhat distractedly. Then I have to figure out what to do with the jack, and don’t end up asking anything about bats until halfway through Megumi’s turn and some further exchange. “Badass, yes,” she says, “but how useful, exactly?”

“It’d always be useful to be able to turn into some small flying thing to get into places. And if you could spend the day as a bat, that could solve all sorts of problems with the sun and worrying about people finding you and shit.” At a mutter Sano adds, “Think I’ll take both of these… and… your turn.”

“It might be a useful power, but do people think of it that way? In modern times, when you think, ‘I need a safe place to spend the day where people won’t find me,’ is your next thought, ‘If only I could turn into a bat?'”

I chuckle at the suggestion as I watch her somewhat elaborate turn, and finally ask, “So some vampires have been able to turn into bats?”

“Some of ’em still can,” Sano confirms when Megumi proves a little too distracted at the moment by her layout of cards to answer immediately. “Just older ones, though.”

“And what about wolves?” I ask after making an offer — eventually rejected — for Megumi’s two aces. Probably more appropriate for her to keep them anyway. “Can any of you turn into wolves?”

“You would think of that,” Sano says with a dark grin. For a second time I don’t remind him that I’m not exclusively Saitou, only acknowledge his point as he goes on to remind me of a rule I’d forgotten as I attempt to cash out some of my cards.

It’s Megumi who actually answers my question: “That’s another old power, and I have a theory about that one. Society has so separated the concepts of vampire and werewolf that vampires have lost the ability to turn into wolves because it’s perceived as belonging to a different species entirely.”

Somewhat drowned out by Sano’s sound of triumph as he trades in a ten-card stack for points, I ask, “Do werewolves exist, then? Separate from vampires, I mean?”

“They do. And how they’re connected to vampires, if at all, is another one of the things I’d like to figure out. Did modern vampires and werewolves evolve out of the same monster, and separate gradually into two categories over the years because of people’s perception, or were we two separate things from the start and just happened to have some similarities for a while?”

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, then.” It’s really just a polite remark; though this is all very interesting, I don’t know what else to say.

“Your turn,” Sano tells her.

Megumi stares at her cards with a pensive frown, and eventually, laying down only sluggishly the ones she intends to play, remarks, “I know a lot of this seems frivolous…” Perhaps, though I didn’t intend it, my comment came across as somewhat critical. “But answering some of these seemingly less important questions may help me understand the bigger ones: why are we like this? What power causes us to become undead, and allows us to survive apparently against all the laws of nature? And is there any way for us to continue surviving without committing murder?” She looks up at me with serious glowing eyes from the cards she’s just turned over. “You’re working on fives; do you want this?”

Once again I make what may or may not be an advantageous trade without giving it much thought, dwelling as I am on the simultaneous conversation. What my mind is caught up with now is a comparison between the lives (if that word applies anymore) and purposes of Sano and Megumi. For each of them has a purpose, a goal or set of goals that drives them, but while Megumi’s has to do with truth and understanding and potentially helping others, Sano’s is and has always been small-scale and essentially selfish. I wonder what kind of strength it takes to keep hanging on decade after decade with only a personal desire and no prospect of doing any good in the world; I don’t wonder at Sano’s bitterness, nor at the apparent honing of his selfishness to the far sharper point I’ve felt from it lately than I was ever aware of in Japan.

And of course very little has changed besides that since I knew them before. Megumi was always determinedly humanitarian and purposeful, whereas Sano, though he performed the good of which he was capable when opportunities arose, was always fairly aimless. In fact I think it was in part his lazy approach to morality that drew me to him: it was nice to take a break, without actually letting go of any fundamental rightness, from the driving need to be changing the world, and Sano certainly represented that.

These days, it seems, the two of them have taken their natural propensities one step further: instead of merely saving and bettering the individual lives she comes into contact with through her medical practice, Megumi is bent on saving humanity from vampires and saving vampires from themselves through her research; and Sano, instead of merely freeloading alongside those he loves and enjoying their company (sometimes at the expense of their comfort and convenience), is continually seeking out the one person he loves most in an effort at promoting that old way of life he so misses at the expense of that person’s peace of mind or even happiness.

I can’t help thinking that perhaps Sano would be better adjusted now, abler to deal with the inevitable, if he had ever developed a sense of purpose beyond seeking me throughout endless lifetimes. His lack of large-scale drive seems another aspect of his original character, along with his inability to let go, that has made the situation particularly harrowing for him. I also can’t help admiring Megumi for her continued desire to work hard for humanity’s sake as best she can even under these difficult circumstances. And this time when I remark, “Those do seem like questions worth answering,” I’m careful to offer the comment in as sincere a tone as I can manage.

“She probably wouldn’t be a cannibal for anything less,” is Sano’s remark.

“Well, it is nice being the strongest vampire around most of the time.”

Sano grumbles, “You just mean it’s nice being stronger than me.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” she says complacently.

“Do either of you want these?” I ask. “And what’s wrong with being a cannibal?”

I make a trade with each of them, and Megumi explains. “You’ve heard of prion disease in human cannibals? Well, being a vampire cannibal has had strange effects on me that I don’t understand any better than a lot of these other aspects of vampirism. You can see, for one thing, how much less human I look than Sano even though we’re the same age. For another, though I am stronger and faster than most other vampires–”

“Vampire squared!” Sano puts in as he shuffles the discard pile into what I believe is our final draw pile of the game. He sounds almost annoyed, evidently seeking the reaction he didn’t get with the first instance of this joke.

Megumi allows a smile, at least, as she continues. “I have less and less specific control over standard vampire abilities such as the allure Sano mentioned that gets used for hunting, and I’ve never developed any extra special abilities at all.”

“That’s why she doesn’t think being able to turn into a bat would be a useful skill,” Sano says to me, and even in his conspiratorial tone there’s still some of the usual darkness. “It’s just sour grapes because she doesn’t even have the option.”

“At least I look like someone who might be able to turn into a bat,” she replies. “Are you going to use that four or just sit there staring at it?”

Sano grumbles something about ‘fucking Hollywood vampires,’ and throws the four at her without asking for anything in exchange. And as I watch her casually pluck the spinning card from the air and add it to one of her piles, then commence her own turn, I reflect that perhaps Sano is actually jealous to some extent of Megumi’s incredible beauty. Maybe he feels a supernatural boost in attractiveness would be enough to carry his point with me, to get me to give him the answer he wants, make him just desirable enough to provide the final convincing factor. It’s horrible to be thinking of him so exclusively in terms of how he relates to me, but this is the only explanation that comes to mind for his attitude in referring to ‘Hollywood vampires.’

Certainly having no desire to ask this outright, and therefore deciding to change the subject, as I take the next turn I ask, “Is cannibalism the reason other vampires don’t like you?”

Megumi glances and Sano, acknowledging that he was probably the one to give me at least the beginnings of that idea, and nods. “Vampires hate cannibals almost as much as Sano hates Twilight.”

My mouth quirks upward at the comparison, but it’s in a serious and somewhat reluctant tone I reply, “A stigma against cannibalism is understandable even among murderers.”

“I’ll trade you two fours for that queen,” Sano offers. This time, not nearly as distracted as in previous instances, I take a look at his piles and make a tactical decision to decline the exchange. Evidently still unable to be rude to me in reply, however facetiously, Sano resorts to saying something startlingly profane about Twilight under his breath to express his annoyance.

In response to Sano’s behavior, Megumi grins. They remind me of a close brother and sister, and I especially appreciate the way Megumi knows just how to draw out aspects of the old Sano that are clearly still in there despite the overlay of a century’s worth of bitterness. Her words are not exactly cheerful, though. “It doesn’t help that I’m also a vagabond-hunter. I track down and kill vampires who aren’t being careful enough, who are threatening to expose our existence to the world.”

This is something that, without any input from Sano, I had already guessed about her, and it’s pleasant to be confirmed in my theory even if I made it simply to distract myself on a bad day.

“That makes me the sort of garbageman of the vampire world,” she goes on: “it’s an absolutely essential job that nobody respects or is willing to pay much for. Vampires hate vagabond-hunters, especially successful ones like me, so it goes with being a cannibal extremely well: I’m largely hated for both of the things I do, but tracking down vagabonds provides me with vampires I can cannibalize for my research, which I consider just as important as executing the worst of the murderers.”

I nod my understanding, though the gesture doesn’t convey my admiration. I can see the need for better understanding of what these people are in order to improve their conditions. I can see the need for a vagabond-hunter, and the convenience of how she’s set up her situation. It seems she’s taking a dreadful risk on a regular basis when her continued cannibalism has effects she doesn’t yet understand, but if she believes the research she can accomplish this way and the potential good it may be able to do for humans and vampires alike is worth taking that chance, that’s a choice — a courageous, terrible choice — only she can make.

I understand, at least to some small degree, for I too have a subject of research whose pursuit may well involve a direct personal risk. As in the comparison I drew earlier between Megumi’s sense of purpose and Sano’s, my research probably seems much more selfish and limited in scope than hers, but I find I’m no less serious about it. Because I want to understand Sano: the way he is and why, how deep the changes run in him that have been taking place since our deaths in Japan, and most of all whether there’s the possibility of his being happy — remaining a relatively good person who can be satisfied with himself — in this impossible situation he’s created and with the answer I’m inevitably going to give him. I’m determined to find this information even if my continued proximity to him in seeking it is tempting fate — tempting him, rather, to forget about consent and take what he wants as he’s well capable of doing.

And why am I so determined?

Is it because I love him?

I still have no answer to this question, but I don’t shy away from the question itself quite so hard as I’ve done on previous days. In fact, as I watch him finish up the last turn of the game and cash in his remaining piles to add to his final score with a simple glee apparently born of a surety of having won that I can’t be certain is overconfidence — a glee that reminds me more than ever of those wonderful old emotions he used to display so readily — I concede to myself that the idea of being in love with him isn’t nearly so monumentally intimidating as it was the first time I asked myself about it.

“Twenty-six,” he announces, having counted his score pile and slammed a triumphant pale hand down onto it.

“Twenty-two,” is Megumi’s defeated acknowledgment.

“Twelve,” I admit.

“Damn, Saitou! I’d have thought you’d be better at this!” At this openly teasing expression of surprise — the first time Sano has broken the barrier and spoken to me in such an easy manner during this lifetime — even Megumi chuckles a little.

I’m not entirely without competitive instinct; I’m almost tempted to protest that, for my first time playing this particular game and as distracted as I was by various circumstances, it’s really not such a bad score. But I prefer not to make excuses — they only make you look pathetic — and therefore remain silent.

Sano has been gathering the cards, and now holds up the deck a second time with a glint in his eye beyond the actual literal glow. “You want to try again?”

I glance around, then briefly down at my watch. I do have chores to finish, and haven’t eaten dinner yet, and there’s work in the morning. But somehow none of that seems to matter. And it isn’t merely because Megumi has interesting information and Sano is a newly embarked-upon project; it’s because I enjoy their company. Whether I love him or not, I’m glad to have Sano around, and I’d rather he didn’t leave just yet.

“If you two are ready to lose this time,” I say.

Megumi grins. Sano grins — which was what I hoped for. The night progresses.

Part 24

The note read, I don’t know exactly where you live, but this concerned young policeman does. Don’t think I’m unwilling to track down my patients at their own homes or anywhere else if they won’t come to me for their follow-up exams. And I had to admit, it was nice to have something to laugh about, not to mention very desirable to have something to share with Sano that might cheer him up a bit too.

“Guess we better go see her,” was his response to her message. And though he sighed after he said it, undoubtedly not looking forward to hearing more about his condition and having prying questions asked, the tone of his words, at least, was amused.

In the small handful of days since the question had arisen in my mind about what Sano must subsist on now, I hadn’t worked up the fortitude to ask it aloud. Since he had reported no sensations of hunger (or, as it might turn out, thirst), I’d concentrated instead on my continual efforts to improve his attitude and on the news my subordinates regularly brought me. As I returned to fighting trim, my impatience to get back onto the case personally increased alongside my fitness, but I found my priorities divided. Sano’s physical safety concerned me less than it previously had, but his mental state had become far more precarious, and anything I could do to help him struck me as the most desirable course to take.

At the moment, though, the only course to take led to the Oguni clinic. We certainly didn’t want the doctor getting herself in trouble by demonstrating further how involved she was in our affairs, and I absolutely believed what she said about coming to find us; so we would have to go see her. Therefore, the moment the sun had set sufficiently to render walking abroad safe for Sano, we headed that direction. About halfway there I gave in and hailed a late-prowling cab, satisfied at least that I could make it half the distance on foot; and Sano was kind enough not to complain, though his claustrophobia regarding carriages did not seem to have diminished with his transformation.

“Good evening, officer-san, Sanosuke-kun,” Oguni himself greeted us when we arrived at the quiet clinic. “Megumi mentioned you might be dropping by this evening.”

“Did she,” I wondered with flat amusement.

“Yes, and she asked me to send you in when you got here. We’ve both been busy writing up notes on all these influenza cases lately, but she’ll be happy to see you in her room.”

Observing that we did seem to have interrupted him in his work despite the hour, I assured him of our familiarity with Takani’s room and that he need not trouble himself. Then, as we headed down the hall in the direction we unfortunately knew all too well, I requested elucidation on the cause of the wry, almost wistful grin on Sano’s face.

“You gave me that polite act exactly once,” he explained, “and then never again.”

“You never do much to merit politeness.”

“Least it means I’m in your inner circle by now… the people you don’t bother faking with.”

“You’re in an exclusive circle.” I would have gone on, but at that moment, having reached the door to Takani’s room, I paused for Sano’s knock.

“All right, kitsune, here we are!” His tone was put-upon, but his grin from a minute ago had only grown more solid, and lent some joviality to his assumed annoyance.

And at about that moment I began to feel uneasy. Did I sense something amiss through the door? Or was it merely that everything had been so uncertain lately? In any case, I gave the doctor less time to respond than I normally would have before calling a second greeting. “Takani-sensei, are you in there?”

Either Sano sensed something too, or he picked up on my worry, for his face was dead serious and, not even giving her as long as I had, he pulled the door open.

At first the signs of invasion were minimal, as was to be expected: if too much furniture had been tossed around, the noise would have alerted others in the building. But following a small trail of scattered objects around the corner from Takani’s sitting area into what might be thought of as her office and bedroom beyond disclosed a despoiled desk and set of shelves, a chaos of fallen or disarrayed items — among them an unsheathed tanto — and the woman herself on her back in the midst of it.

As quickly as I moved, Sano was kneeling at her side literally faster than I could see, sweeping books and papers carelessly away to make room for himself and disentangling a towel or other cloth that had wrapped around one of Takani’s legs apparently as she’d fallen. I knelt opposite him and fixed my gaze on the doctor’s white face, but not with much hope.

“Is that you two?” Her eyelids dragged open, but the slow, rolling motion of her eyeballs didn’t indicate much clarity of vision.

“Yeah, it’s us,” said Sano hoarsely. “What the fuck happened here?”

With the shallowest of breaths, even that obviously painful, she answered without strength or volume. “He knew I sent a note. He was afraid you would be staying at the clinic again. Then he’d never get the information he needed. He had to get to me first.”

“He must have been just here.” Sano looked around wildly. “If we’d been five minutes faster– Gensai doesn’t even know anything happened!”

Takani’s eyes closed again, but her lavender-tinted lips still seemed capable of some speech. “Didn’t want to scream. Nobody here could have fought him. They would have died with me.”

This was why I wanted people — especially people I cared about — out of the way in such dirty business. Doctors were often forced to get involved, but it had been foolish of me to start considering this one a friend, to allow anyone to see we’d become close enough that she might be expected to have information. She’d known the risks — of her profession in general, of treating patients like me and Sanosuke, of responding to me lately with apparent similar feelings of friendship — and she understood every bit as well as I did the desire to keep innocent others from becoming entangled in a mess she felt she couldn’t turn her back on… but that didn’t make this any less tragic a sacrifice.

And it was a sacrifice Sano evidently wasn’t ready for. So agitated I could see him trembling, he demanded in a fainting tone, “What did he do? Where are you hurt? How can we help?”

Takani let out the lightest pained sigh. “He wanted to know where Tomizawa Nori is. I don’t know, but he wouldn’t believe me. Kept hitting me. Broken ribs… moderate to severe internal hemorrhage… nothing to be done.”

Eyes wide as dinner plates and fists clenched, Sano jumped to his feet. “But Gensai…!”

I said his name softly. I wished I had some comfort to offer my lover, who would suffer a greater loss than I would in this scenario, but death took everything — even words from the mouths of the living. All I could advise was, “Do her the credit of believing what she says.”

At some point I’d taken Takani’s hand, but I only became properly conscious of its cold clamminess now when she exerted the slightest pressure to recover my attention. “Listen, Saitou… 165cm… 80kg… wide, thick eyebrows… early receding hairline… kuroboku-stained clothes…”

“It’s impressive you managed to take in so many details of the man beating you to death.” I clasped her hand, which had gone limp again after that one tiny squeeze, in both of mine. “Otsukaresama.”

Recognizing this for the farewell it was, Sano dropped to his knees again and pounded on the floor with a fist that sent shockwaves through the boards and my body. “No,” he half roared. “I won’t fucking accept that! You can’t– just because it’s bad doesn’t mean–”

Takani let out a faint huff that might have been something like a laugh. Again with what effort I could not guess, she opened her eyes, perhaps for the last time. “I was… looking forward… to studying your condition… further…” Though clearly unable to smile, the tone of her ever-fainter voice was halfway there.

Again Sanosuke stood with lightning quickness, but now his expression had entirely altered. His eyes had gone wide again, and his brows down, and he shook his head as if in denial… but watching him, I felt a chill. This wasn’t horror at Takani’s fate, nor denial of what lay in front of him. He was contemplating something desperate that appalled, perhaps even sickened him, and it took the briefest moment to realize what it must be.

I can save you,” he whispered. “I know how.”

Uncertain, uneasy, I asked, “Would it work?”

“I don’t–” He looked at me desperately, as if begging for answers. “My neck was broken, and… but then she’d be like this… but if she’s dying…”

I could do nothing but shake my head. I had absolutely no answers for him.

He dropped yet again to his knees and gave Takani’s shoulder a little shake. “Megumi, I can– I can save you.” His voice choked as if with tears, but his face remained dry, tormented, dead in color but alive with sentiment. “I can make you like me, and that should heal your wounds — least that’s how it worked for me — and then you can study yourself all you want, but you’ll… you’ll probably have to…”

Her head had rocked slightly with the shake, but her eyes did not open again. She breathed out a lifeless, delirious “Yes, please” that might after all only have been a sigh, then stilled again.

Sano’s face was even more haunted than before as he looked back up at me, and by now he was beyond words, though I recognized what he wanted to know. My own voice came out rough and quiet as I answered, “She’s too far gone to understand what you’re asking her. You’ll have to do it without her consent, or let her die.”

At the last three words, his face twisted into a nearly unbearable mask of pain and uncertainty. Letting go of someone he cared about, giving up on a cause, not taking every last measure of which he was capable in an effort he supported, was a trial too great for my Sanosuke… and yet he didn’t want to force upon her the inhuman condition with which he was afflicted. He’d probably never been so torn, and it broke my heart in turn to see it and be able to do nothing. It was a decision he had to make.

And once he made a decision, he acted upon it without further hesitation. Sitting up straight, his face smoothing into a less convoluted expression of determination, he took a deep breath. Meeting my eyes he said, “Go outside. I don’t want you to have to see this.”

Aching for him and the disgust he felt at his own intentions, I replied, “Only if you really don’t want me here. If you do, I’ll stay.”

His lips writhed around his attempted answer, but he couldn’t speak. He merely nodded, his expression conveying a desperate gratitude I would have done just about anything in the world to excite. Then, looking quickly away, he bent forward, reached down, and took Takani into his arms. Her head fell limply to one side as he cradled her upper back and settled her, reclining, onto his lap. His eyes taking on an even brighter glow than I’d yet seen and a startling flash coming from bared teeth that appeared longer and more pointed than before, he bent and fastened his mouth on her pale neck.

Only for Sano would I have watched such a display. It was monstrous, the way he sucked at her, the way her body had stiffened as he began to drink, and it sounded obscene. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach twisted, and intermittent shudders would not be repressed… but I sat firm, observing all remaining color ebb from the doctor’s exposed skin. She seemed likely to become a desiccated husk in no time at all, drained just as all those corpses had been. It had affected me before, but now it almost hurt to consider this type of end for a vibrant, brave, efficient human being, friend or otherwise.

“Sano,” I urged at last, my voice husky and low. “The next step?” I feared he was taking too much of her blood, and there would be no life left to revive with his own if he didn’t get on with it.

He made no answer, however, nor any shift of body, only continued his repugnant sucking. In this, I believed with sinking heart, our unspoken fears were confirmed: blood was life to him now, sustenance of which he’d been entirely deprived since his transformation, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop while it still flowed.

As close as I knelt to him, it was no difficulty to wind up and punch him in the shoulder, where once I’d stabbed him, with all my strength.

He toppled and slid, the figure of Takani falling bonelessly on top of him, and a snarling noise told me he’d disengaged from her neck even before I could see it when he sat up again. He shifted backward into a more active kneel, pulling the woman’s body halfway behind him with one possessive hand as if she weighed nothing at all, and raised the other hand as if to return my blow. His lips, running with blood, twisted into a snarl, and his eyes were feral for one long, breathless moment before he seemed to shake himself, breathing hard, and recognize me. And then the abrupt agony in those eyes was equaled only by the agony in my heart in response.

He looked as if he wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say, or perhaps lacked the power to say it. And in any case, I didn’t want him to bury himself in shame; once he gave in to that emotion, it would be a long uphill battle compelling it to release him. So I spoke instead, urging, “You have to finish it. Do you want my sword?”

Sano let out a faint, desperate laugh, and whispered harshly, “So damn practical,” even as he shook his head. Glad I’d diverted him at least somewhat from a detrimental frame of mind, I watched as he lifted his right wrist and raked his teeth across it with careless violence. Blood welled and ran down his arm, spattering across him and the objects on the floor as he moved once more toward Takani. He easily adjusted her position, smearing her with red as he did so, and soon the oozing liquid was flowing into her mouth.

I found the sight easily as distressing as the previous — perverted and inhuman and disgusting — and as I forced myself to sit still and calm and be a strength for Sano if I possibly could, a chill like icy water began to spread through my own body, as if my own veins were running cold.

Sano had undertaken this hideous task to try to save a friend. Whether or not he’d made the right choice in so doing, he was motivated by determination, mercy, and love. Yet Shibue — for I no longer had any doubt, after Takani’s description, about the murderer’s identity — appeared not to have acted on sentiments so noble. And he and Sano were now, after all, the same kind — the same kind Takani would become very soon if this process worked the way Sano believed it would. All three of them would be blood-drinkers; all three of them, presumably, would require something essential to the lives of others in order to maintain their own, regardless of what morals they took into their state of life or death.

Had Sano become a monster? Was he turning Takani into one before my eyes? Was I allowing evil to be born right in front of me because of my attachment to Sano?

The mere need for something combined with the capacity to take it did not make someone evil. But I’d seen how rapt Sano had been a minute before… I had no doubt that if I hadn’t been here to stop him, he would simply have killed her. Was it possible for someone to exist like that without committing murder, or was Sano destined to tread Shibue’s path?

And if he was, did I have the strength to do what was necessary? If it came to a choice, could I make the correct selection between Sanosuke’s life and Aku Soku Zan?

I rather doubted it.

In the near silence of the scene, the very disquieting noises from within Takani’s body were easily audible. And it wasn’t merely the occasional gut sound that made being in the presence of the dead so disturbing to some: there was a creaking, as of something all through her tensing, tightening; and a sound like boiling water, as if the blood Sano returned to her were indeed changing into a different state. And after several minutes, there came from her chest a startling cracking — ribs repairing themselves? — and her entire form straightened almost imperceptibly as if she were unconsciously correcting her posture in this prone position.

Her emaciation had faded; though her skin remained white as chalk, her lips a pale purple where they weren’t covered in blood, she now appeared more like a corpse awaiting cremation than a recent murder victim. In a way, she looked very much like Sano. She certainly looked like Sano had when I’d found him in the shed, and, for all I wanted her to live, that thought could give me no pleasure.

How Sano knew or thought he knew he’d done enough I couldn’t tell, but eventually he lifted his hand from near her face and drew it back, dripping blood down her chin and neck and chest. He started picking at the red wrap he always wore around his left wrist, and when I realized what he intended I spoke.

“Ahou…” I had to clear my throat. “We’re in a doctor’s office. There are plenty of actual bandages around.”

“So damn practical,” he whispered again, and distractedly began searching. I lifted a hand to stop him and then carried out the task myself, quickly sorting through the items that littered the floor nearby until I located a roll of bandages. I reeled out what I deemed a sufficient length and tore it free, then handed it to him. And as I did so, he continued speaking in a voice hardly louder than the previous whisper:

“I don’t think it’s going to bleed long. My heart… it got my heart going again to drink… It was pretty strong for a minute there… but I can feel it slowing down again. Thanks.” And he began to wrap his wrist.

If drinking some blood restarted his heart beating (implying that the rest of the time, whatever blood his body possessed was, what? resting motionless in his veins?), would a large enough quantity of blood restore all his bodily functions? Essentially restore him to life? Was that what Shibue sought, secondary to whatever Tomizawa Daitarou had assigned him? Evidently it hadn’t worked even after quite a few victims. I wondered if this had crossed Sano’s mind as it had mine.

In any case, the information Megumi had provided might help me pin the murderer down at last, and that she’d made the effort to convey it as she died was worthy of deepest respect. It wasn’t every murder victim that had the opportunity to avenge themselves. I only hoped she wouldn’t wake up now in her righter mind and resent what Sano had done. I didn’t know if he could handle that.

Perhaps it was time to find out, for Megumi stirred slightly where Sano had laid her. Her chest did not rise — evidently it was normal for people in this condition not to breathe spontaneously — but her fingers twitched, and before her eyes even opened, one hand had risen to brush hair from her face and blood from her chin.

I stood, and Sano’s gaze snapped over to me in startled dismay. I told him, “I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“You don’t have to.”

I regretted the necessity, and regretted the secret relief I felt at the idea of taking a break from this situation, but meant it when I said, “You’ll need to discuss things only you two can understand. I’ll wait outside the room.”

He stared for a moment, then seemingly required some effort of will to nod. “Thanks for staying this long,” he mumbled as he turned his face away. Then, even more softly, “Thanks for stopping me.”

“Of course.”

And as I moved quickly toward the door, I heard Megumi’s voice asking in quiet confusion, “Sanosuke? What just happened?”

Part 25

Sitting beside Sano on the sofa has become, by now, routine. I may still shy away from what he represents, what he wants in the long-term, but at his mere physical presence I no longer balk. I’m confident at least that he won’t attack and turn me right this moment; and his personality and character, and the changes therein, still fascinate me. Whether or not he’s truly beyond hope, whether he might retain some chance at happiness and (relative) morality, and what role I and Megumi have in the process of his reclamation, I long to discover.

Originally we were playing some old copy of Trivial Pursuit that Megumi dug up somewhere, with the finicky plastic pie pieces and everything, but, after she and Sano tied twice in a row, it devolved into their flashing trivia questions at each other in such quick succession it’s almost too fast to hear. Only now does it occur to me how many books you have time to read, movies and TV shows you have time to watch, and museums you have time to visit when you’re immortal — on top of whatever you’ve experienced firsthand. And I’m so comfortable at this point sitting around playing family games with a couple of vampires that I actually find myself complaining.

“You know this is less fun for the odd-man-out who hasn’t lived a hundred and fifty years?”

Meg laughs. “Sorry. We got carried away.” And she reloads the game components into the box with white-flashing hands in about two seconds.

“I’ll beat you next time, though,” Sano says with a competitive grin.

“I’ll beat you both at that card game,” I assure him. “It would be nice to know what it’s called.”

“I don’t actually know.” Sano joins me standing and heading toward the kitchen table. “I learned it from a werewolf in Frobisher Bay, like, thirty years ago. Then I tweaked the rules some, and I always just call it ‘that game.’ Not like I have a lot of people to play it with.”

Deciding not to dwell on his terminal loneliness and the effect it’s had on him, I state lightly instead, “You’re going to have to tell me about werewolves.”

But as he sets up the new game as quickly as Meg dismantled the old, and both of them start in on a description of werewolves and what is and isn’t known about them, I’m distracted by my phone lighting up yet again. This is the fourth time Renee has called today, and, though I turned off both sound and vibration much earlier, the alert that still appears on the screen causes guilt to weigh more and more heavily on my heart.

As Hajime, I wouldn’t have had a hard time coming up with what to say, and wouldn’t have been afraid to say it. I managed my relationships with the wives I had in that life reasonably well, after all. But I’m not entirely Hajime, and my former samurai straightforwardness blended with the cunning of a spy is of less use here and now. I don’t want to hurt her, but I can’t formulate an explanation for the circumstances rational enough to convince her of its truth and render our remaining interactions as smooth as possible. And every minute I put it off makes it less likely I’ll be able to do anything of the sort.

Self-castigation and a feeling of confounded helplessness notwithstanding, I manage to start the game and drag my mind back to it for a while. Sano and Meg resume their discussion of werewolves, and the night moves on with a certain amount of interest and entertainment. And as the hours pass, the chances of Renee calling again diminish, which is one benefit of having nocturnal friends. I’ve been up late far too often in recent days, and it has to start taking its toll sooner or later, but, even in her desperation to talk to me, Renee won’t risk waking me up.

But then my phone glows again. With a deep breath I look down, and note that it’s a voicemail. This is the first time she’s left me a message, and I reach for the device as I let the air out of my lungs as silently as possible. I glance back up at Meg’s neutral expression and the faint crease between Sano’s brows, and tell them, “I’d better listen to this.”

Swiftly Meg rises. “I’ll get out of earshot, then.” I wonder how far away that is for her.

“No, don’t–” Sano begins, and Megumi jerks to a standstill. “Sorry, sorry. I mean, why don’t we make sure Saitou doesn’t want us around before just running off?”

I frown. The truth is that I would prefer neither of them listen to this, but I fear what it might do to Sano to push him away — especially when the matter touches him so closely, even if it’s really none of his business. But I don’t like to evict one and permit the other.

“I’ll go,” she says with a reassuring smile — or as reassuring as that gesture can ever be on her too-perfect lips. Unexpectedly, she bends down and gives me an ice-cold kiss on the cheek. Then she punches Sano hard in the arm as she walks past him, and she’s gone.

Rubbing at the injured spot, Sano turns to face me again. “It’s OK if I stay, right?” His modern coldness gives the impression less of a request than of a command.

I nod. And since he’s going to hear it all anyway, I set the phone on speaker as I dial in to voicemail.

Joe, I know something’s wrong. It isn’t like you to ignore me. I didn’t think it would happen like this, because I know you’re better than this, but I’ve been worried about our relationship for a long time. You’ve never seemed ready to take things to the next level with me, and lately — even before you started ignoring me — I’ve gotten the feeling your heart’s not in it anymore. But I love you, Joe, and I want to make this work. If you’d just tell me what’s going on, we can still try. Or if you really do want to break up, I’d still like to be your friend and support you. But you have to talk to me.

After pressing 9 to save, I hang up and stare at the phone on the table without taking in any of its details. That Sano is doing the same I can tell from the corner of my eye, but I don’t look at him, and he makes no sound. That was… such an unusual message. Not one drop of sarcasm, barely any disdain, open emotional talk… not at all like Renee, who’s never seemed inclined to discuss our relationship. The cues she gives have always been subtle and usually unspoken. If she has worried for some time, did it take this crisis to force the confession out of her? Otherwise, why is she suddenly willing to bare her heart like this?

And I still don’t know what to say to her.

At a loss, I dial in again and replay the message. Her language is direct, personal but not overly sentimental — which is like Renee — and I notice she’s used the least affection form of ‘love’ when she declares her feelings for me… and that’s the answer.

“It’s in Japanese,” I say aloud in some surprise.

“Yyyeah,” Sano confirms, bemused.

Now I can’t help but smile as I hang up on voicemail once more. “She assumed I wouldn’t understand this.”

“Why would she say all that shit if you wouldn’t understand it?”

“One mystery for another. I haven’t been talking to her, so she left me a message in Japanese trying to get me to call back. It’s pretty clever.” I was underestimating her. That’s the Renee I know and… love? In the least affectionate form of the verb? I swallow hard and close my eyes as I leave the table, and my phone, behind.

“So what are you gonna do?” Sano wonders, somewhat demandingly, from behind me.

“I don’t know.” I sit down hard on the sofa, and find him beside me before I’ve completely settled. But all I can say, again, is, “I don’t know.” Uncomfortable as I feel dating someone I know is my own descendant, the more I consider cutting her out of my life, the more reluctant I find myself.

“You–” He reaches out a pale hand to touch my arm, hesitates, and then, when I don’t pull away, places it there with a restraint I didn’t expect. It’s trembling slightly, and colder than ever through my sleeve. And in his face there’s torment, less skillfully repressed than the strength of his hand.

“I know what you’d prefer me to say to her,” I tell him, cautious.

“I wasn’t gonna say it,” is his fierce, bitter response. Jealousy seems to darken his face, though in reality it’s as bloodless as ever. His fingers clench a bit more tightly on my arm, and he holds the pose for a moment, seeming to struggle within himself. Silently I’m doing my best to encourage him, because this emotion — which can only worsen with time — must certainly be one of the obstacles he needs to overcome if he wants to remain a decent person, or at least a decent vampire. And something inside me seems to untwist in relief when he relaxes a trifle and says in a tone less harsh, “I’m not qualified to give love advice. I’ve only ever had one boyfriend — that I remember — and you saw how that went.”

I breathe out a weak chuckle, and am surprised to find it followed by another, stronger, and then another. Soon Sano and I are both laughing ridiculously at what was, after all, a fairly morbid statement. As unexpectedly as Megumi’s earlier kiss — to both of us, I think — I lean into him for a hug and laugh on his cold, stiff shoulder for a moment. At first he goes motionless, and his laughter dies abruptly, but then he draws in a gasp and clutches me with bruising tightness. When I move to pull away, he clings only for an instant before letting go, and the darkness is gone from his face.

Memories of physical contact with Sano in another life bombard me, and my heart stutters into a higher gear. Am I tempted? I won’t deny it. The idea of being with him like that again prompts far less awkwardness and discomfort in me than it did before. But do I love him? I still don’t know.

Clearing my throat, I look away from the hope and desire and underlying acquisitiveness in his expression, and shift the subject. “So you said I’ve been in love with people in past lives?”

He lets out his gasp of a moment before somewhat raggedly, and at first appears to struggle once more, this time for an evenly delivered answer. “You… yeah, you were. You carried around a love note from some girl you left behind in Spain, and showed it to me every time you thought I was getting pushy… and then you had a wife in South Africa, who I didn’t really meet… and a husband in the States…”

An image returns to me of an airport terminal, a lingering kiss goodbye, and jealous eyes on me like those of a bird of prey, and I snatch at the memory and his last words. “I dreamed about him. My – husband.” The word tastes unfamiliar in this context, but not necessarily unpleasant. “After you showed up, but before you gave me my memories. I had a very confused dream where I saw…” Thinking back to it, its events become clearer and clearer, but only up to a certain point. “I saw past lives. I saw my husband, and our goodbye at the airport before I went to Iraq.”

“You– what!?” Sano leaps to his feet, for a moment every bit his old impetuous self. “You dreamed about previous lives before I gave you any memories back?!” The look on his face is divided between astonishment and excited delight. “That means you’re — you’re getting better! You’re figuring it out!”

“I didn’t enjoy it,” I tell him quietly — though I am, merely for these few seconds, enjoying his happiness. “It took place mostly in Shishio’s fortress. It was very chaotic. Not knowing what any of it meant made it into a nightmare.”

“I’m sorry, but, but, but this is great!” He shakes exuberant fists in the air and spins around on one heel. “It means you’re kindof… assimilating…” And he trails off at the serious expression on my face. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “Just…”

“Tell me about my husband,” I request. I know the subject must bother him, but I suspect getting him to talk about it is a step in the right direction. Wrapping past pain in an ever-thickening layer of jealousy and anger isn’t the way to deal with it. And I don’t want him dwelling more than he needs to on the idea that our souls are becoming more tightly linked with every passing lifetime, no matter how it pleases me to see him so simply happy again.

“Do you just want the memories?” he asks, a little sourly.

And again, I’m tempted. The condition I considered earlier — having more experiences than the average person to draw on for knowledge and wisdom — comes before me again with tantalizing promises. But even after so many days, I’m still fighting to deal with one previous lifetime’s worth of experiences and the little memories that pop up out of nowhere at inopportune moments and have to be worked through. Besides, the point is getting him to talk. “I think you just want to bite me again.”

The look he gives me is slightly suspicious, but perhaps my statement — which, despite its deadpan delivery, might be considered the tiniest bit flirtatious — strikes him pleasantly, for he resumes his seat at my side and takes a deep enough breath for extended speech. And a story unfolds of a college football coaching assistant, injured during his own time on the defensive line and unable to join the armed forces as he’d long wished, who won the heart of one Peggy McClendon with his fun-loving ways and infinite devotion. And Sano, in describing him, sounds not so much jealous or bitter as forlorn, maybe even nostalgic. He respected that man. He respected my love for him, because he saw why I felt the way I did. It hurts to watch him, but this is a remarkably good sign. I’m starting to feel the first hints of hope.

I’m also curious. Once he’s finished his description, I prompt, “So I’ve been attracted to men in more than one lifetime.”

The hunger springing up in his eyes tells me this may be a dangerous topic. “You were bi as Peggy, though you guys were monogamous, so…” He shrugs, and the gesture isn’t as casual as he’d probably like it to be. “When you were Yaro, you never showed any signs that I saw, but you were pretty damn busy speaking out against apartheid everywhere it wouldn’t get you killed… I mean, it eventually did, but… Anyway, as Aliásar, just from the way you looked at the other guys in camp, I thought you could’ve probably been into them, and you reacted way better than I expected when I told you my story — you just didn’t buy the vampire part — but then you died.” He shrugs again, and it’s more helpless this time.

“And the life that came after Japan? In South America?”

“Yeah, as Fernando…” He reaches a hand up to scratch the back of his head, and I wonder if he actually itches or if this is merely an echo of a long-ago gesture of the living Sano. “You were really young? And really gung-ho about getting yourself killed. I think you just weren’t really into it that time around.”

I chuckle faintly. “And I’ve been Japanese, Brazilian, Spanish, South African… What was Peggy?”

“White,” Sano replies, more easily now. “Probably had some Irish or Scottish in her, with a name like that, but I never found out for sure.” He looks me up and down, and, though there’s the customary expression of longing in the gaze, it’s more assessing than anything. “And now you’re… Puerto Rican?”

Impressed at his discernment, I nod. “I seem to have gravitated toward Latino.”

Sano shrugs. “I got no explanation for that.”

As so often happens these days, I find myself emotionally drained. Having my curiosity satisfied is bittersweet, and trying to navigate Sano’s convoluted frame of mind at the same time is nerve-wracking. But I can’t bear to abandon this conversation with Sano relaxing and enjoying it again. “It’s very interesting, though,” I say, then fight to come up with another question or remark to keep the discussion going.

I’m not fast enough. Sano’s face darkens again. “…but none of this is helping you figure out what to do about your girlfriend.”

With a sigh aimed more at my inability to manage his mood than at the purport of his statement, I admit the truth of this.

Very seriously he begins, “Look, Saitou–”

“Call me Joe,” I interrupt, ironically in a more Saitou-like tone than anything else I’ve said this evening.

For an instant he appears purely surprised and hurt. Then his lips and brows tighten into darker lines, and his words come out like ice. “It’s harder every time I see you with someone. But she’s safe for now.” He rises from the sofa, stiff as rigor mortis. “Do what you want with her.”

Quiet but firm, I tell him, “That may just mean taking her up on her offer of friendship.” Since I’ve blown my chance at continued conversation on a more pleasant level, the truth is the next best option. And his form seems to soften just perceptibly at my statements. “You’re friends with Megumi; I can be friends with Renee.”

“Megumi is literally a blood relation.” Sano still has his back to me, but his tone also has softened a trifle.

“But I’m her friend too. It would be unfair of you to be jealous of Renee but not of Megumi — and every other friend I have.”

He takes a deep breath, very deliberate as all his deep breaths must be, then lets it out gustily. “You’re right,” he says, turning. “I have to try to be reasonable.”

“Never an outstanding skill of yours,” I reply in Saitou’s tones with a grin, “but it’s good that you’re willing to try.” And I mean that very deeply. Perhaps to emphasize the fact, I get to my own feet, step forward, and put my arms around Sano again. “Thank you,” I murmur. And I’m not entirely sure what I’m thanking him for. Probably for the optimism I’m truly beginning to feel.

He may not be sure either, but the embrace melts him. Once more he clutches at me as if letting go means ceasing to exist, though he says nothing. I can only hope this will serve to give him strength — strength to do what I’m sure he still knows is right, strength to resist becoming something neither of us wants.

This time when I pull back, there’s more than a moment of tenacity on his side. But he does let me go, and looks at me with a mixture of emotions on his cold face. “I’ll… let you decide what you’re gonna do,” he almost whispers, and suddenly he’s at the door.

“Good night,” I reply at about the same volume. Then, in a preternaturally abruptly empty apartment, I mimic my movements of several days ago and sink back onto the sofa to put my head in my hands.

So we’ve definitely progressed to hugging now.

Part 26

My mind jumped back to the time when I’d taken a carriage, along with a suspicious Himura and a rebellious Sanosuke, south from Kyoto in a desperate hurry. Grim at what we’d already learned, intensely concerned about what we might find (or fail to find) in Osaka Harbor, uncertain about Battousai’s likely level of cooperativeness, and trying not to think too much about the young man on the roof, I’d been as uncomfortable then as I’d believed I ever could be. Yet I hadn’t considered Himura a friend. I hadn’t considered Sanosuke a lover. I hadn’t considered either of them a monster. Tonight’s carriage ride was far worse.

Megumi hadn’t said a word to me, nor shown any readable expression beyond profound pensiveness. When I’d suggested she relocate to my house for safety and convenience, she’d merely nodded as if her thoughts were elsewhere — as well they might be. What she and Sano had discussed behind closed doors I couldn’t guess any more than what excuse she’d made in the note she’d left for the other doctor. Now nobody spoke, and the silence crowded against me like a host of invisible foes. I found the horses’ hoofbeats, the creak of the carriage, the low and occasional sounds from the midnight city, even my own soft breathing unusually agitating.

Sano looked at our friend, when he believed she couldn’t see it, with haggard glowing eyes in which guilt, despair, and supplication appeared equally evident. His clenching hand gradually tore the marks of his fingers into the leather seat. I didn’t dare ask what either one of them was thinking and feeling after what had happened. I had stood by Sano during a soul-rending moment, and would have thought we’d be more emotionally intimate thereafter, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wasn’t close enough to Megumi — and perhaps never would be — to intrude where she didn’t choose to volunteer.

When we alighted in my neighborhood after a painful eternity in the cab, Megumi still said nothing, nor did she look around to take in details of the unfamiliar place. I paid the driver, then pushed past the others toward my door. I felt stiff and worn out, my physical condition only contributing to my underlying unhappiness. As I ushered them inside, I resisted a pressing and uncharacteristic urge to speak.

Finally, though, someone else did. The doctor glanced at my entranceway where she removed her shoes, and the living room into which she continued, and said quietly, “I need to be alone.”

Again I walked past her, swallowing what I would rather say as I reached for one of the doors off the main chamber. “The bedroom is yours as long as you need it.” My voice emerged like an alien being.

After gathering up a random armful of clothing and a spare blanket, I bowed slightly over my burdens and left her with her thoughts. The door slid to behind me, and seemed to close me out not only from the woman but from my mental turbulence concerning her. Both were still present, but it felt as if a weight on my mind had been eased slightly.

The other, interconnected and far heavier weight had seated himself in what had become his usual spot near the cold fireplace. When my eyes fell on him, having laid what I carried across a chair, my heart gave a dizzying throb of sorrow and pity. That he’d put his back to me indicated no readiness for discussion, but this silence couldn’t continue. I just didn’t know where to start.

Finally, “Did you remind her about the sunlight?” I asked, in a far harsher tone than I’d intended.

His reply was equally rough. “Shit, how stupid do you think I am?” His volume dropped, though, as he added, “Course I reminder her about the fucking sunlight.”

“Did you tell her…” And even after so long, I still lacked the strength to finish the question, “Did you tell her she’ll have to drink human blood to survive?”

“I told her everything I needed to,” he whispered, and fell silent again.

“Sano…”

He drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them.

I went to him and dropped down, putting my arms around his cold body and clutching at him. He uncurled a little, and let his head fall back onto my shoulder, but said nothing.

“Sano, please…” Was I begging? I might have been. He and the circumstances had brought me this low. I felt as if a door lay between us just as it did between me and Megumi, though in this case doing nothing to mute my consternation and sympathy and desire to be of use. I would never understand what he was going through, neither in his half-dead state nor in having made the decision he had regarding the doctor. But if he would open up on these topics, I might be able to help him work his own way through. He’d always been so open…

Abruptly he twisted in my embrace, returning it and knocking me down. He held my waist and back and buried his face in my chest, a cold presence near my quivering heart, and stilled again. He said nothing yet, did not even breathe, but at least I could tell he wanted me there.

I struggled against thinking I was losing him again, that my relief at finding him alive though dead had been premature and eventually unjustified; but I began to feel trapped in that perspective as in a cell against whose walls I raged like a madman. That this growing system of helplessness and anxiety and sadness would sooner or later seep into every other aspect of my life, most particularly affecting my work performance, I could not deny, and the awareness only tied my hands more tightly. It was one of the dangers I’d once tried to warn Himura against, and in neither case had the foreknowledge made any difference. At the time he’d done a poor job disinvolving his friends from the hazardous fight against Shishio, but I thought I could forgive him now for countenancing them when they’d followed anyway.

Hours must have passed in the uncomfortable position Sano had forced on us, and maybe I dozed despite the angle of my body atop his right arm, for eventually, when he pulled away and sat up, allowing me to do the same, the shouji informed us the sky outside was lightening. Sano looked around discontentedly, then down at himself. I’d cleaned the blood from his face and neck before leaving the clinic, but a great deal had dried on the borrowed garments he’d been wearing all night (which had caused our cab driver to look at us askance). Now he frowned at it, and, instantly on his feet, had shed both kimono and hakama quicker than my eyes could follow.

I rose more slowly and painfully, and returned to where I’d set the extra clothing. I would move it all into the office later; for now I dug through the pile to find Sano a yukata, which I tossed to him without a word. Then I searched deeper for a replacement kimono for myself, since I hadn’t escaped the disaster without bloodstains either.

When my lover, looking a little easier in the clean cloth, saw what I was doing, he demanded in the most Sano-like tone I’d heard from him in a while, “Where do you think you’re going?”

As I changed, I explained. “Now I do need to talk to Tomizawa Nori. I’m convinced Shibue is our enemy, but I need confirmation — and any information she can give me about where he might be hiding during the day.”

“You promised you’d stay here,” Sano said flatly, “and let Hiro-what’s-his-name handle things.”

“The situation has changed.”

With a mirthless laugh at this understatement, Sano reminded me, “Earlier tonight you couldn’t even walk all the way to the clinic. You’re still in bad shape.”

“I’ll take a cab.”

“Of course you will… but…” His wrathful tone came close to breaking; it seemed he too had been pushed almost to the point of begging. He wouldn’t give in, though, and was falling back on anger to hide his distress.

It touched me deeply, and it hurt. So, instead of pointing out that Shibue couldn’t move against me while the sun was up, I said, “I’ll stay here until you fall asleep.”

Sano’s glowing eyes seemed to request a greater concession than he would ask for aloud — greater than I could make, and he knew it. He turned away from me, and busied himself with moving the room’s single screen in front of the eastern shouji, pushing all the remaining clothing off the chair onto the floor and arranging it into a longish heap like a bunker, then digging out the spare blanket. Though he could tolerate the indirect sunlight filtering into the house, he liked to have that last extra layer of protection; he said it helped him sleep better. Now he threw himself down again, and patted the tatami beside him with a stubborn expression.

I felt the ghost of a smile on my lips at that look, and sat down against him. Immediately pulled recumbent, I found myself under the blanket on my side facing him. He didn’t put his arms around me this time, but raised one to prop his head and huddled the other against my chest. I brought one of my own up to hold his hand, at which he breathed and sighed, and then lay still staring into the two glowing brown circles just before me.

It didn’t take long for his grip to slacken, the circles to disappear, and that slumber like a second death to slip over him — but long enough for me to retread the same harrowing thoughts as before again and again with an actual physical pain in my heart. When I found myself threatening to join him, I released his hand and rolled away out from under the blanket. He made no move, no sound, which gave me more than a slight additional pang as I stood and headed for the door.

For the use of several types of people related to our business, including those in protective custody, the police maintained what appeared to be a square of small apartments intended for single workers or couples without children. I’d stayed there myself when I’d first transferred to Tokyo, before Kawaji had decided he wanted me in the new capital on a more permanent basis, and I knew the place well. Now I used the discreet back entrance on an adjoining street, and found in the courtyard, as expected, an unassuming gardener-handyman doing some sort of leisurely and probably unnecessary maintenance on his rake in the absence of anything else to keep him looking busy.

He didn’t recognize me at first — semi-retired elderly operatives with assignments like this could hardly be expected to know every face in the precinct — but when I quietly identified myself, he gave a nod of confirmation. “You must be here for Tomizawa-san, then,” he murmured.

“Only for a conversation.”

He nodded again, and withdrew from a deep pocket a set of keys. “She’s in number four,” he told me as he removed the one I needed.

Early though it was, I let myself into Nori’s temporary home. The tenements with neighbors on both sides had almost no windows, but before I could even produce a match, I heard one strike in the next room. No wonder, I thought, if she’d become a bit jumpy and easily awakened. The light through the shouji increased.

After very little shuffling, the door slid open, and Tomizawa Nori’s yukata-clad figure appeared in the opening. Her eyes wide and cautious, the sunkenness of her cheeks emphasized by the dimness, her long brown hair in two braids that fell across her shoulders and made her appear very young, she stared at me for a protracted moment before seeming to realize who I was.

“Fujita-san!” She moved quickly to place the lamp she held on the table, and came up to me beseechingly. “How much longer do I have to stay here? Nobody can tell me, but you ordered this, didn’t you?”

“You must remain under police protection until we’ve dealt with your stalker. I need to discuss that with you, and you should prepare yourself for some unpleasant news.”

She took another step toward me, hands clenched. “Is it Daitarou? Is he all right? Is he in danger?”

“Please have a seat.” I gestured at the table. “What I have to say may be worse than that.”

She obeyed, shifting the lamp to a better position and almost tipping it in her agitated haste. I took the place opposite her, and watched her twisting her hands so they turned white before forcing herself to lay them flat on the table. I’d considered on the way here how to present this, but it was with some heaviness that I began.

“I’ve been tracking a serial murderer, Nori-san. This man has an unusual physical condition, an illness of sorts, that requires him to drink human blood to survive, and he has already transmitted this condition somehow to two of my assistants. A doctor I work with has been studying it, but we don’t fully understand it yet.”

She had shuddered at ‘drink human blood,’ and now stared at me, mouth slightly open but evidently incapable of speech. Undoubtedly every possible application of this information to herself, her stalker, and her brother was running through her head.

“I believe,” I went on quietly, “that this murderer is your missing fiance, and that your brother is hiding him.”

She gave a sobbing gasp, her hands flying to her face so only her black eyes remained visible. She’d impressed me, when I’d met her before, with her practicality and strong will, and she convinced me completely now by not growing faint or beginning to wail. Incoherent noises like attempts at speech mingled with effusions of horror came from behind her hands, but she remained straight where she sat. I let her take her own time overcoming the initial shock, and eventually she managed, “But… but Shibue-san couldn’t have… killed anyone! He wouldn’t, but… but he really couldn’t! He’s never been in any physical shape to…”

“His new condition grants him additional strength and speed, probably transferred somehow from the blood he steals. And in fact the desperate need for blood may push him to greater exertion than anything else.”

She shuddered again, but her hands sank slowly from her face. “So if he… if he does…” She swallowed hard. “…need blood to survive, he might not have wanted to kill anyone. If he’s been doing it to survive… he can’t be held entirely responsible, can he?”

By refraining from answering this question, I allowed her to hope. “The man in question is 165cm tall, weighs approximately 80kg — overweight — has wide, thick eyebrows, and an early receding hairline. When he attacked me, I observed he was unskilled in combat, but still presented a threat because of the unusual strength and speed I mentioned. When he attacked my assistant, he had kuroboku stains on his clothing.”

“That’s Shibue-san,” she whispered. “He always hated the idea of learning to fight… He…” Distractedly she began connecting ideas, slowly working her way aloud (if still in a very subdued tone) through what she knew. The only somewhat useful or confirming facts she produced were that her brother was very controlling, and might want to assist and protect Shibue as much out of a desire to keep the situation under his eye as for his sister’s sake; and that Shibue, a modest, diffident man, always did everything Daitarou told him to.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found this conversation a relief. Despite the crimes’ bizarre features, discussing them with Nori was proceeding like any other questioning of a witness. My harried mind took refuge in the routine, and it soothed me so much that the tediousness of her putting her thoughts in order hardly aggravated me. I wouldn’t have attempted to hurry her in any case, since I wanted her to believe there might be a chance at saving Shibue’s life if he could be found. Pressing her would probably tip her off to the likelihood of my seeking him for a very different reason, and prevent her from sharing any ideas she might have on how to locate him.

Finally she looked up at me again with an expression of deep concern and sorrow. Earnestly she asked, “Do you think he can be cured?”

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully, and allowed her to see a fraction of my own worry on the subject when I added, “and the same goes for my two assistants.”

“How did he… where did this ‘illness’ come from?”

“I don’t know,” I repeated.

But with a chill I realized that I did. I hadn’t considered it until this very moment… The circumstance I’d been dreading had come upon me without my even realizing it: my personal preoccupations had interfered with my ability to do my job. I should have thought of this at least seven days ago. I should have realized that, unless there was some improbable accidental method of contracting the non-dead condition Shibue suffered, there must have been someone else in Tokyo to drink his blood and feed him theirs. Someone perhaps still in Tokyo. Carefully regulating my tone, “What,” I asked, “was the date of Shibue’s disappearance?”

“Between May 14th and 17th,” she replied promptly.

Long before the first murders had come to light. I would need to compare exact dates, but this might mean that the unknown someone, if they existed and had remained in the capital, covered their tracks much better than Shibue had been able to. My chill persisted. This previously unconceived-of enemy might prove far more dangerous than Nori’s fat fiance, and someone against whom we should have been preparing (if any preparation were possible) earlier than this.

But finding the murderer I knew existed must be my priority at the moment. So I said, “In any case, he can’t be allowed to continue killing people.”

“No,” she whispered, and fell silent.

I felt I had her on my side now, and that her pensiveness pertained not to whether she should confide in me, but rather to everything she knew that might contribute. This guess was confirmed when she suddenly lifted her head and met my eyes again as if she’d just remembered something. “Daitarou purchased a tea farm in Nerima in December, and I think the soil there is kuroboku.”

“I don’t recall any tea farm among his businesses.”

“I think…” She frowned; obviously this had only ever been discussed in passing between them. “I think he was planning to experiment with modern methods of producing tea that will save money. He would have kept it quiet, and not attached his name to it, to prevent theft of his ideas.” I nodded, and we stared at each other. Eventually she added, “I hope he won’t be in trouble for hiding Shibue-san…” And at an even quieter murmur, “I suppose I see why he didn’t tell me…”

On this point I deemed it best to hold my peace. The outlook was dismal for both men; but whereas Shibue might be considered not in his right mind, Tomizawa Daitarou had evidently been selecting targets for his would-be brother-in-law to serve his own selfish ends.

Observing my unwillingness to answer, her voice small and restrained, she tried, “What will you do if you find Shibue-san?”

“That depends on how Shibue-san reacts to being found.”

And all in an instant, she broke down. Tears began to pour from her eyes, her lips and jaw trembled and seemed hardly capable of their natural functions, and her posture fell apart as her breaths came in heaves. “F-Fujita-san, please… you can’t know what it’s like to love a man and–and lose him j-just when you thought… and then discover you h-haven’t really lost him, but now you have to–to live in fear of losing him again! Please don’t take him away from me again!”

…to live in fear of losing him again…

So stunned, so overwhelmed was I by her words, I couldn’t have told her even if I’d wanted to how acutely, how precisely, I did know what that was like. I couldn’t even offer her a handkerchief as a good sympathetic interrogator would have done. I simply sat there, dumbstruck, while she wept in front of me.
I believed I had everything I’d come for, and more. New paths of investigation had opened: new work, new worries, new action to set in motion at the police station, where I must go from here. If this final blow, delivered in all innocence by a woman that shared my peculiar situation far more than she realized, was blinding me now to other questions I should ask her, I couldn’t possibly recognize that until later, after the shock had receded; and for the moment, I only wanted to get away.

With a great effort, I stood. She looked up at me, face blotchy and pathetic. “Nori-san,” I said, in a voice as hard as stone, “I will do everything in my power to ensure no one else is lost.”



<<25

When I originally started writing this story approximately forever ago, what are now odd- and even-numbered parts formed the halves of chapters. Eventually I decided I liked it better this way, since previously there was some implied connection between the specific events in the halves of each chapter, and I didn’t like giving that impression.

The idea to have the modern parts in present tense was also a later decision. I think it’s an interesting way to differentiate the timelines and the narrating voices.

A problem that started early and that I struggled with throughout this story was to keep both halves interesting without either one getting ahead of where I wanted it and revealing information I wanted very specifically timed. Hence scenes like Part 7 that are basically filler, though I tried at least to make sure they entertained and provided some food for thought.

For some author’s notes on part 11, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 12, this one for part 13, this and this one for part 14, and this one for part 15. For part 17, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 18, this one for part 19, and this one for part 20 and the title illustration. For part 21, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 22’s notes, and this one for part 24. Where are the notes on part 23? I don’t know. Evidently I didn’t make any. How will you cope??

Haute Coauteur

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis… and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

Clark can’t figure out why Lois, not usually given to writing gossip articles, has just come up with this fluff piece about a couple of villains at a nightclub.


Since Clark was driving, Lois answered the call and put it on speaker. This particular ‘Unknown Number’ they always answered, in preference to the ‘Unknown number’ that occasionally got past their spam blockers, and the voice that immediately sounded over the line was terse and offered no greeting.

“Poison Ivy’s at the house.”

Clark and Lois threw each other raised-eyebrow looks.

With a smile and a shake of head Clark said, “Haven’t I asked you to keep your villains out of my city?”

“I’d be happy just to keep them out of your home,” Batman grumbled.

I’d be interested in knowing how you know Poison Ivy’s in our home,” Lois put in.

An explosion sounded in the background just then, and Batman used this extremely plausible excuse to evade the question. “I’m in the middle of something. Clark, can you deal with her?”

“Ivy, or me?” Lois wondered.

“Ha ha.” On this sarcastic note, Batman disconnected.

Clark chuckled and pulled the car over into a maintenance side-tunnel, ill-lit and soon blocked off but sufficient for their purposes, off the main tunnel they were traversing. “We’re going to have to have a talk with him about what kind of secret security measures we’ve been living with all this time,” he remarked as he undid his seat belt and opened his door.

“After he promised it was a normal house,” said Lois with a lop-sided smile, emerging as well.

Clark, buttons already completely undone, met her with a quick kiss as she came over to the driver’s side. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t let her kiss you,” she advised, throwing his tie into the car behind her to join the rest of his civilian clothing his much quicker hands had sent ahead of it. Then she watched him fly off, hugging the tunnel’s ceiling so as not to be seen, before getting back into the car and resuming her progress toward the job she would now be doing alone.

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis. Of course she worried about Batman and his explosions… and there was always the off chance Poison Ivy might have some devious plot that would temporarily get the better of Superman… and the fact that such a villain had shown up at their house at all was a little worrisome… but mostly Lois was able to concentrate on the story she and Clark had been sent to follow up on, and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

***

They not infrequently teased Bruce that he did have a superpower: convincingly pretending he wasn’t exhausted when every other indicator said he was. This morning, however, Lois, who’d had the same hour and a half of sleep and had only risen now to see him and Clark off, was drooping too hazily toward her omelet to come up with anything facetious to say.

In fact she was so near sleeping in a sitting position that she hadn’t even noticed Clark with his tablet out, something he only did when breakfast conversation lagged. She perked up just a little, though, when he presently remarked, “Now I see where you two went last night.”

Lois, relieved she’d made the deadline for the morning edition — it helped she’d written much of her story before the fact — remarked with a yawn, “I didn’t know you read the society page.”

He grinned at her. “I read pretty fast.”

“We both read all your articles no matter which section they appear in,” Bruce murmured into his coffee.

Lois smiled and turned a little more attention toward her breakfast.

“There’s some of this I don’t understand, though…” Clark’s grin slowly turned upside-down as he scrolled back to what was apparently a difficult part. “Dr. Isley wore Elie Saab…” His frown grew. “…a clingy knit frock spliced with lace…” His brows lowered. “…ruffles in turquoise broderie anglaise…” He lifted a bewildered face toward Lois. “Is this part in English?”

Bruce chuckled quietly.

***

Lois’s inurement notwithstanding, when both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn intercepted her on her way back to the Planet after an interview, she remembered all too well that one of them had been spooked off her property by Superman earlier this week.

There’s my star reporter!” Quinn, though dressed like a normal person and in fact looking fashionable and bubbly-cute, still managed to stand out like a beacon as she took Lois’s left arm.

Ivy, conversely, had a more restrained, elegant beauty to her appearance that fit her better to an everyday big city street; Lois wondered what she wore under that tasteful dark green coat, and whether she’d worn the same or something flashier when she’d been prowling the house.

“Good afternoon, Miss Lane,” she said, taking the other arm, and what Lois wondered next in some surprise was whether her voice was always this smooth and sultry. “Let us walk you back to work, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Lois threw each of them a suspicious look. “I love taking a stroll with supervillains.”

“D’you hear that, Red?” Quinn was grinning widely. “I’ve been upgraded!”

Lois was a little surprised at the fond smile that crossed Ivy’s painted lips before the woman spoke again. “We’re not in town for any supervillainism, Miss Lane, I promise. We just happen to need a reporter’s services, and Harley tells me you’re reliable.”

Lois raised her brows at the aforementioned Harley, who had, when they’d last met, tied her up in a giant bow and suspended her from factory equipment on a Lexcorp lab ceiling as bait for Superman. Quinn giggled sheepishly, obviously clear on the meaning of the look. “I meant it,” she said. “You’re a good kid.” And she gave Lois a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Am I,” Lois said dryly, slowing her pace a touch. The high-rising globe of the Planet building ahead was easily visible; she had no worries for her personal safety, but was overwhelmed not only with skepticism but also curiosity at this conversation.

“Harley and I are planning a day of fun and a night of drinks and dancing tomorrow,” Ivy explained, businesslike, “and we want to make sure it makes the papers.”

Now Lois’s raised brows were directed at her. “Legal fun? Legal drinks? Legal dancing?”

Ivy nodded.

“And you want me to report on it.”

Ivy nodded.

Lois tried to decide which of the numerous problems she perceived in this setup to mention first. Her desire to be in possession of all the facts before throwing out ideas eventually prompted a simple, “Why?”

“We want to make it clear as an engagement diamond that we’re together.” Quinn raised her free hand and crossed her fingers significantly. “A big, public day out as a couple, ya know?”

Lois blinked. That explained Ivy’s fond smile, she supposed, at the idea of Quinn’s having been promoted from ‘villain’ to ‘supervillain.’ It also clicked together some gears that began to spin, one turning the other and the next and the next, until the machinery in her head provided an unexpected output. “So you want to send a message to the Joker that he’s good and truly out of the picture, without actually telling him directly.”

“See?” Quinn wondered gleefully. “Didn’t I tell you she was sharp as a pencil?”

“The Joker doesn’t take bad news well,” Ivy said regretfully. “Indirectly seemed the best way to break it to him.”

“Normally I’d say dumping someone by newspaper in another city is about the tackiest way I can think of to end a relationship, but in this case I approve.” Lois stopped walking entirely. “And you want me, specifically, because I’m Superman’s friend and you think the Joker won’t try to retaliate against me for writing the story.”

“Superman’s ‘friend‘?” Quinn let go of her arm and made an exaggerated gesture of disbelief. “Come on, toots, you don’t have to pretend with us.”

Ivy smirked. She truly had an exquisitely beautiful face, that one.

With a sigh, Lois disengaged from their arms and moved toward a nearby bench. She balled up the old newspaper caught between its slats and tossed it into the trash can next door, then sat down on the cold metal. “I’m forever having to clear this up.” Forever perfecting this particular dramatic role was more like it. “I’m not dating Superman; we really are just friends. I’m in a closed relationship with two non-superheroes.”

The other women took the places to either side of her, both showing an almost professional interest. “You shouldn’t let supervillains know you’re not actually with Superman, you know,” Ivy chided, amusement in her tone. “It’ll make us all think you’re an easier target.”

“I couldn’t be targeted much more than I already am,” replied Lois flatly. “You must have noticed I have a supervillain alert at my house.”

“Was that what it was? I wondered how Superman showed up so quickly… I just assumed, as everyone else does, that you two are dating.”

“I mean,” Quinn put in, “there’s nothing wrong with letting people think that! It could just as easily be an open relationship you’re in, right? That’s me and Red here.”

“Just not with the Joker as an option anymore,” Lois mused.

“Exactly! He and I’re like pickles and strawberry jam.” Quinn kicked her legs out from under the bench, then held them perpendicular and reached to touch her toes. Lois noticed that Ivy watched her with barely concealed concern, as if she feared Quinn wasn’t yet entirely convinced of what she said and needed constant care to prevent a relapse. And just this made Lois determined to do what she could for them, off-duty supervillains though they might be. She’d spent far more time with the Joker than she’d ever wanted to, and if this was what it took to get someone out of his clutches, she was ready to play her part.

***

“Read us the description of Quinn’s outfit,” Bruce prompted at a deadpan.

Squinting at the screen in a very human gesture, Clark said helplessly, “I think some of that was Quinn’s outfit…”

Lois grinned. “None of my cell phone pictures do justice to those dresses.”

“They also don’t help me understand a word of this.”

“It’s only a few paragraphs.”

“A few paragraphs,” Clark declared, “more opaque than one of Luthor’s lead-lined walls.”

Lois and Bruce both laughed at him.

“But moving on…” He scrolled away from the highly confusing section. “I don’t quite understand whether this club is indoors or outdoors. People were using the pool in these temperatures?”

“I made it purposely obscure,” Lois replied, yawning again, “so it wouldn’t sound like it was my first time there. It’d be a rookie mistake to gush about the force field.”

“Even in the privacy of your own home?”

“It is an interesting technology.” Bruce had risen to pour himself another cup of coffee, and raised the pot to question whether his boyfriend needed a refill as well. Clark quickly blew the interior of his mug dry, then tossed it across the kitchen into Bruce’s waiting hand. “It allows for an open terrace all around the building, but keeps the winter out. The owner greeted me personally — one rich playboy to another — so I was able to make a rookie mistake and ask him all sorts of questions…” And as he returned to the table with two full cups, he began talking technical details about the low-power, light-bending force field.

At the first available pause, “I don’t like seeing technology like that used purely for the petty entertainment of the rich,” Clark said with a shake of his head.

Bruce shrugged. “Wayne Enterprises might be interested…”

“And the fake fireworks show was pretty cool,” Lois put in. “But that’s all the gushing you’ll get out of me.”

***

“Right,” Lois said in as businesslike a tone as Ivy had used a minute before. “What are your exact plans for tomorrow?”

“We’ll start with lunch at Bienvenue.”

The reporter winced. “That’s great for visibility, but is it going to get more or less expensive after that? Because it’ll be hard to convince people you’re not up to supervillainism when you start that high.”

Ivy’s smile was secretive. “Don’t worry about where the money comes from. Just be ready to write the story.” Obviously she’d caught on to Lois’s interest and willingness.

“All right,” Lois replied dubiously.

Quinn took up the elaboration on their plan with a gleeful glint in her eye. “Next we’re going to the zoo!”

“Less extravagant,” Lois allowed, “but isn’t it a little cold for that?”

“Metropolis Zoo has one of the best savanna animal habitats in the country! We’d be baboons to miss it just ’cause of some nippy weather!”

Again Ivy was giving Quinn that unexpectedly soft smile. “Besides,” she said, “the Metropolis Botanical Gardens are next door, so we can warm up in the greenhouses after that.”

“And you’re sure you’re not planning something illegal.”

“Absolutely.” Ivy’s gaze was very serious as it slid from Lois’s face to Quinn’s as if to say, “Can’t you tell I’m doing this all for her?” and Lois determined not to ask again.

“Then we’ll have dinner at the Calico Club, and–”

“The Calico Club?!” Lois could feel her eyes bugging out of her head at Ivy’s mention of this extremely exclusive restaurant and nightclub belonging to one of Metropolis’ richest, classiest socialites. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she added in a jealous whisper.

Smugly Ivy said, “Well, now’s your chance.”

“But… but… it’s not just money you need to get in… you have to be on a list…”

“Well, you’re ‘friends’ with Superman, aren’t you?” Quinn winked at her. “It should be easy as pie for you!”

“Hmm…” It occurred to Lois that she probably did know someone that could get her into the Calico Club… but it wasn’t Superman. Finally she nodded. “OK, so you start the afternoon expensive, and you finish the night astronomical. Drinks and dancing after dinner, and then you sparkle off in the same car to the same hotel. Do I have that right?”

“You got it, LoLa! Think you can handle all that?”

Not sure how she rated in having been granted a nickname by Harley Quinn, Lois said restrainingly, “Now, the next thing we have to think about is this: I can’t follow you around to so many different places. I’m not paparazzi, and with you two busy with perfectly innocent activities all day, it’ll make me look more and more desperate for a story the longer I tail you.”

“It’s a good point,” Ivy conceded. “And I suppose a story about our entire day might feel a little contrived in any case.”

Lois nodded. “So I suggest you choose just one of the places you’ll be at tomorrow, and I’ll find you there.”

“The zoo!” Quinn said, while at the same moment Ivy declared, as Lois had feared she would, “The nightclub.”

“Harl,” Ivy said gently, “if she writes about us at the club, she can mention that we were seen at the zoo earlier.”

“And mention the savanna animals habitat?”

“I… might be able to work that in…” said Lois tactfully, extracting her cell phone from her pants pocket.

“The Calico Club it is, then,” Ivy nodded as Lois composed a text message. “We’ll be there for dinner at around 6:30, and should be out to wander the rest of the club and do some dancing after about an hour and a half.”

Quinn laid her hands each on the opposite knee and said proudly, “I’ve been practicing the Charleston.”

Ivy’s fond smile was wide enough to be called a grin this time.

“OK,” Lois nodded. “Next point. I’m not a society reporter. I’m going to frame this story like I was there with–” she glanced down at her phone, pleased with the immediate response– “my own date, and just happened to–”

“What date?” Quinn had been crossing her hands back and forth on her flapping knees, but now jumped up onto those knees on the bench and peered eagerly at the reporter.

“Bruce Wayne,” Lois laughed, pushing away Quinn’s too-close face.

“I thought you dumped him like a load of rubble! It was all over the tabloids in Gotham!”

“We got back together. He and my other boyfriend too. Hasn’t that been all over the tabloids?”

Quinn shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you’re in Arkham and don’t hear the gossip.”

“Wayne’s a decent guy,” Ivy nodded reminiscently. “I once planned to make him into a tree when his company was part of a deforestation project, but it turned out he hadn’t authorized the project and called it off immediately.”

Lois gave a pained grin. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that.”

“He was nice to me too, that one time when I stole his car,” Quinn mused.

“And that,” groaned Lois.

“Our point is that your taste isn’t terrible,” Ivy soothed, “for someone who fancies men. What were you saying about being there with him?”

“Bruce and I will be there doing our own drinking and dancing, so it will look like pure coincidence that you two are there at the same time. Of course a good reporter wouldn’t pass up the chance to write about seeing a couple like you at a place like that, so it’ll look completely natural when I hand in a story about you to my editor as soon as I can.”

The supervillains nodded their understanding.

“The problem is, like I said, I’m not a society reporter. For a story like this, I’ll need to describe what you’re wearing and all that jazz, and I’m hopeless at things like that. I grew up wearing hand-me-down combat boots, and Bruce literally buys all my evening wear for me.”

Quinn collapsed in giggles against the back of the bench. Even Ivy, when Lois turned a glance on her, had one gloved hand in front of her face as if to hide a chuckle. Lois screwed up her mouth in an expression of sardonic and only a quarter serious resentment.

“Maybe you should have Brucie take notes for you, then,” Ivy remarked innocently.

Quinn’s advice, still laughing, was, “You just look at our killer outfits at the club, and it won’t matter what kind of boots you wore growing up! The words’ll just flowwww.” And she made a flowing gesture with her arms as if dancing the hula. “Fashion appreciation is buried deep inside all of us… it’s a girl thing!”

Lois wasn’t so sure about that. But what she was sure of as a girl thing was helping another girl away from an abusive relationship. So she braced herself, at the same time opening the recording app on her phone. “Call me a tomboy, then.” And she tapped the red button. “I assume you already have these killer outfits. Describe them to me in detail — and use all the fashion terms you girls can come up with.”

***

Clark could drink freshly brewed coffee (or any beverage, throat-scorching or otherwise) faster than Lois believed the laws of physics should allow. And in between nearly invisible sips he read out the final paragraph of the article. “As they finished the last dance Dr. Quinzel insisted they stay for — an energetic Charleston bringing a blast from the past to the ultra-modern setting — they also finished their night in the public eye with a passionate kiss. Rumors throughout the building suggest they held hands all the way down to where a Lamborghini the exact color of Dr. Isley’s rose-red hair waited to whisk them off to their hotel a very happy couple.

“The biggest thing I don’t understand–” Clark’s dash to put his newly empty mug in the sink and his tablet on its charger formed barely a break in his statement– “is why you did this at all. You’re not a society reporter, and I’m willing to bet those lead-lined paragraphs earlier didn’t actually come from you. And let’s not forget that you — and you–” throwing Bruce a somewhat accusatory look– “spent the evening spying on supervillains.”

“You say that as if it’s unusual.” Bruce was enjoying his own coffee, and Clark’s confusion, at a more leisurely pace.

“It is when she writes a gossipy society article about it.” Clark looked at Lois pensively. “What could possibly have convinced you to do something like that?”

“Does it bother you?” wondered Lois. By now she’d eaten half the omelet he’d made for her, but yawned widely before her next bite.

“Not at all! ‘Dr. Isley’ and ‘Dr. Quinzel?’ You know I love to see villains reform, and you writing about them so kindly and respectfully can only promote that. But I can’t help feeling like something strange is going on here. Were you under duress?”

Bruce threw a piece of toast at him. “Use your superhuman brain, Clark,” he admonished. “If she were under duress, would I have gone along with it? They are, as you reminded me a few days ago, my villains anyway, not yours.”

Clark caught the toast jelly-side-up and ate what remained of it in two bites.

“They’re my villains now,” Lois contended, “so hands off. I don’t know if they’re really reforming, but they promised they wouldn’t break any laws yesterday.”

“So why did you follow them around the Calico Club and write that vapid story about them?”

“It was vapid, wasn’t it,” Lois chuckled.

Clark just looked at her expectantly.

She hesitated. She didn’t want to say, “You wouldn’t understand,” because he absolutely would, with that heart of his, when she told him… but she didn’t plan to explain until after she’d spent half her day off sleeping and he’d returned from work. So finally she merely smiled and offered somewhat wistfully, “It’s a girl thing.”


This is set in the same world as A Lois Date, but since I haven’t come up with a name for the series yet, it isn’t labeled as such.

The brief descriptive phrases of dresses in this story are bastardized versions of lines from an article written by Amy Verner on the official Elie Saab website. I didn’t wear combat boots growing up, but close enough.

For a few more notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Rise Unseen

“Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

An acquaintance from school, who happens to be a Death Eater now, highlights everything wrong with all of Peter Pettigrew’s relationships.


“I have to say I’m not surprised to run into you here; you always were good at skulking.”

Peter, who had whirled at the first syllable, let out his sharply indrawn breath with a bit of a squeak when he identified the woman that had stepped from the shadows of a doorway and addressed him so unexpectedly. “Lila!” he more gasped than properly greeted. “I- I haven’t seen you since Hogwarts!” He should have stopped there, but, too nervous at this sudden encounter so close to Headquarters, he allowed the next question, and the subsequent attempt at repairing it, to slip out uncautiously: “What are you doing in this part of London? I mean, in London at all? Don’t you live in Kent?”

The witch leaned against the wall beside the smelly bins Peter had been in the process of circumnavigating when she’d appeared, and gave him the bright smile he remembered so well from school. “Is it really so strange for someone to come to London? Visitors from Kent aren’t allowed; is that it?”

“No, of course not.” Peter tried to return her smile, but his could never sunburn the way hers did. “Just a little strange to meet you in this alley. It’s a bit–” he glanced around, in part to indicate what he meant and the rest to break eye contact– “rubbishy back here.”

“Like I said, then, no surprise to find you here.” She flashed her teeth in a chuckle, in which Peter weakly joined. “But it wouldn’t have been a surprise in any case, because I suspected you’d come this way soon. I was waiting for you.”

His blood ran colder than the October chill could account for. Did she know? How much did she know? How did she know? And what was she in a position to do with that knowledge? Her intentions as a Hogwarts seventh-year had been clear, but he couldn’t be completely sure what direction she’d taken once school had ended. He certainly couldn’t blurt out his suspicions here and now, and all he ended up managing to say, faintly, was, “Back here?”

“Damp corridors do seem like the best places to find you.”

*

“What are you doing down here, Pettigrew?” The tone was cheerful and vaguely familiar, and, though Peter could sense the underlying bite to the words, even just the hint of a pleasant sound made the dungeon hallway feel slightly less clammy and chilly.

The face, too, seemed somewhat recognizable as its owner stopped in the doorway of the classroom she’d just been exiting. Yeah, that was right: she was in his year; he saw her in one of his double classes. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, but he had to speak sooner than he could remember, so he merely addressed her by house. “None of your business where I go, Slytherin.” It came out sounding a little less confident than he’d planned, and she noticed.

Her musical laugh echoed off the stone walls around them. “Not so brave without your swaggering friends along, are you, Gryffindor?”

Obviously she knew him better than he knew her, and Peter struggled to recall her name so as to put them on a better footing. Finally he managed it, as well as to come up with something to say other than, ‘Well, I was supposed to meet them down here for something, but they’ve never shown up.’ “No need to be brave when there’s nothing to be scared of.” He tried to make his shrug nonchalant, the way James would have done. “You don’t think I should be scared of you, do you, Sutton?”

“Of course you should.” Again she laughed, and again the sound carried two layers — ‘I’m totally kidding,’ and, ‘I’m totally serious and you’d better watch your back’ — and which he should attend to was as yet a mystery. “I’ve had a glimpse at our marks in Care Of Magical Creatures, and I know how much better I’m doing than you.”

“So?” In reality, though, Peter’s heart fell. He was only taking Care of Magical Creatures because his friends were, but by this late autumn of their third year at Hogwarts, Remus had less and less time to tutor Peter in difficult subjects.

“So,” Lila explained patiently, smile widening but eyes narrowing proportionally, “I’m a lot better than you at that subject. But even I’m having a hard time with fairy management. Since you’re down here, why don’t we go practice together? It might help us both.”

Peter hoped she couldn’t see the mixture of emotions that arose in him at the suggestion. He was surprised, he was suspicious, he was skeptical, but most of all he was interested. He’d had to worm his way into every study group he’d ever taken part in; he’d never had someone suggest to him that they might practice together. And with Remus, his usual recourse, more and more caught up in his own private struggles and with Sirius, Peter could use all the help he could get. But was she serious, or baiting him? There were other objections the idea besides.

“Don’t you have your own friends you’d rather revise with?” he asked cautiously. Most people did, after all; just because his own didn’t seem to care much whether he passed or failed didn’t mean hers didn’t.

She laughed. “I exploit my friends in other ways.” And she sounded so pleasant as she said it. “I think you have latent talents that will be useful in helping me get good marks if I can just help you bring them out a bit first.”

He simply couldn’t help smiling at her tone, even as she blatantly discussed the idea of using him. At least she was very straightforward about her selfish motives. “Do you really want to be seen with a Gryffindor, though?”

She shrugged. “I think you’re more than half Slytherin, but of course we’ll be quiet about it.”

That clinched it. He couldn’t imagine why she’d been watching closely enough to recognize the Slytherin in him, but she’d hit close to his heart. Even after two years at Hogwarts, he’d never been completely convinced the Sorting Hat had made the right choice… and if other people could see it, that meant he wasn’t imagining things. Interhouse rivalries were all very well, but if he’d gone to the wrong place, he needed to get in touch with his Slytherin side… and wouldn’t this be the best, the safest way to do it?

“All right,” he said. “But I don’t make any promises for what my mates will do if they find out.” It was more false bravado, and she knew it.

She twirled her wand dangerously, smiling brightly all the while. “Same here! Let’s go look into fairies, shall we?”

“I actually think I’m starting to get them,” Peter admitted.

“Good! I thought you might be.”

*

She’d taken his arm and was leading him the way he’d come with no slow steps. Now as ever it was difficult to deny her, and his mind was a blank in every attempt at coming up with an excuse for why he didn’t want to return this direction, what he was doing that he needed to get back to. He had to admit, though, it was nice to leave the alley and the smells of rubbish.

Lila had begun chatting about her shopping in London, the outlet they didn’t have in Ashford, and how she’d found just about everything she’d come up here for. She’d always been interested in fashion design, he recalled as she discussed the latest in robes and hats. It wasn’t interesting, and didn’t serve to conceal the minuteness with which she peered at their surroundings, and into the face of every passerby, and watched him for reactions to any of it.

“You must be meeting some friend around here,” she said with an ease belied by the closeness of her examination of the area. “Some of your friends did always seem the London types. You certainly did, so it’s lucky for you you’ve got friends in town.”

She couldn’t trick him that easily into mentioning where everyone was living these days and that most of them apparated over for meetings — nor how formal and deserving of the term those meetings were. But her very use of the word and her assumptive declaration that it must be nice for him to have friends in London left him a little tongue-tied. All he could manage was yet another weak laugh and a mumbled something about Sirius — who did, in fact, live here, as anyone might know.

She tossed her head. “Sirius Black,” she scoffed. “I’m surprised you still keep up with him when I haven’t heard from you more than two or three times since school.”

“Sirius has always been a good friend,” Peter protested, and forced himself not to add, “If you call treating me like an obnoxious little brother when he even notices I’m around ‘being a good friend.'”

Full well she knew, though, what he wanted to follow up with, and she shot him a bright smile. “Oh, yes,” she said airily. “Always.” She gave him a dig in the ribs; he couldn’t tell if it was with her fingers or her wand, it was so quick. “Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

*

From where she lay stretched on the sun-warmed stone of the disused Astronomy Tower, having rolled onto her back and away from the book she’d previously had her nose in, Lila asked lazily, “You’ve been spending more time with your blood traitor friends again lately. Have they ever cottoned on to us?”

Not about to admit that the process of becoming animagi he and his friends had of late illicitly embarked upon required a lot more time and attention from him than he’d expected, Peter chose to respond to a different part of her question. “I’m half-blood. You think I’m a blood traitor too?”

Her tone was still languid, and so was the little laugh she gave. “Being a half-blood’s bad enough.”

Peter let out a soft breath that was like the prototype to a laugh in return. Stretching out his legs beneath the relatively giant book on his lap so his toes pointed in Lila’s direction, and noting as always how stubby and unattractive they seemed, he let his eyes fall from the Slytherin girl and his own appendages down to the book’s pages. He turned surreptitiously to the later spot where he’d tucked the Marauders’ Map, and checked the immediate area again for anyone that might come interrupt them and, more importantly, spread rumors.

He tried to be the one carrying the map whenever he was to meet Lila, but lately he felt as if he didn’t really need to be: he doubted his friends would notice his absence, his location, or his company in any case. He was still around them much of the time, but didn’t know if they noticed that either unless they were busy with the animagus process together; they were probably just relieved he didn’t need nearly as much help as in earlier years with his schoolwork. That was largely thanks to Lila, whether she believed him a blood traitor or not, and Peter wasn’t inclined to deny it. It turned out he wasn’t half bad at most school stuff; he merely needed it presented in a different manner, a lot of the time, than conventional teaching methods offered.

Finally, though, he answered her original question. “No, I think they still have no idea.”

“Gryffindors have no subtlety,” she yawned. “They’d pay a lot more attention to you if they knew how useful you can be.”

“You mean,” Peter replied a little dryly, “you help me with what I’m having a hard time with, and that helps you understand it better, so then you get better marks.”

She laughed like golden bells ringing. “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing. Aren’t friend supposed to help each other out? And Slytherins? And better-blooded families?”

Not at all sure what to say in response to this, Peter changed the subject. “So are you getting this stuff about the Arithmantic Renaissance?”

*

He simply couldn’t help admitting, in a quiet, reluctant tone, “You were.”

She threw him her dazzling smile and pulled him closer, squeezing his arm. “I knew it; and I knew you couldn’t deny it.” She’d never ceased her intense scrutiny of the area, and now gestured to a muggle café that stood not far off — undoubtedly a spot where she could watch through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and note from which direction they came. “So let’s have tea like the old friends we are, and try to figure out why you haven’t contacted me in so long.”

He didn’t want her there, watching through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and noting from which direction they came, but it was so hard to say no. He fixed on the best excuse he could come up with. “Do you have any muggle money?”

She waved his concern away. “We’ll just obliviate them. Come on; you look a little peaky, and I’m dying for something chocolate.”

Uneasily Peter went where he was steered, a mixture of emotions and memories not allowing him to be as assertive with her as he wished. He relaxed a little, though, when, on entering the café, they really did embark on a simple and relatively innocuous process of ordering and obliviating, and even then settled at a table not immediately adjacent to the windows. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he’d been fabricating her significant statements and pointed looks. Maybe they could have an innocent tea together as old friends that truly had met by pure coincidence.

In an alley full bins. In a rundown area of a city where neither of them lived.

Lila dipped a spoon into her tea and cast a patronizing smile of dismissal at the waitress that had brought it out. The young woman had not been obliviated, but obviously took instructions from someone that had, and now appeared a little confused. “Muggles,” the witch said with mild disdain. “They’re not so bad as servants, but it’s a shame they’re not magically enslaved like house-elves; they’d be so much easier to control.”

Peter drew breath to contradict her, but found he didn’t have the energy to voice an opinion he’d never more than half embraced anyway.

*

The seventh-year ball, Peter had heard, was dropping out of favor and might soon be discontinued, but that happy event had not yet taken place, so to celebrate the end of his stint at Hogwarts he was still forced to endure an entire awkward evening of being ignored and overlooked. James and Lily were sickeningly caught up in each other, Remus and Sirius were hiding somewhere together to prevent the latter being mobbed by girls (and a few boys), and all of Peter’s remaining friends were only such through the others.

Except Lila.

“You want to dance?” he wondered in an incredulous hiss. He threw a covert look at the group Lila had left in order to come seek him out — a rough set of Slytherins if ever there’d been one, including Rabastan Lastrange, Calliope Wheatley, Evan Rosier, Sirius’ annoying little brother taking advantage of the fact that sixth-years were allowed to this gathering, and, of course, perennial favorite Severus Snape. “What happened to keeping quiet?”

“We’re leaving school soon,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it much matters anymore.”

He sucked in a reluctant breath through his teeth, but after another moment’s thought decided, why not? He hadn’t anticipated being noticed by the other Marauders or Lily at all this evening anyway; he might as well dance with a Slytherin. And Lila was looking especially pretty tonight in a gown that went from black to blood-red, and smooth shining red stones (Peter didn’t know what they were called) in settings just a few shades lighter than her golden-brown skin.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Of course his skill at this was negligible, and he thought he caught more than one giggle from people around them as Lila clearly took the lead. But it wasn’t too bad. At least he would be able to say he hadn’t lacked a dance partner throughout the entire ball.

“I wanted to talk to you tonight,” Lila said as he struggled to keep up with her steps without stumbling or treading on her feet, “and this seemed like a better way to do it privately than dragging you off behind a curtain or something.”

Peter felt his face go red at the idea. “Yeah,” he said a little shakily. “Thanks.”

“You saw my friends?” She gestured with her head.

“Yeah?”

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and we all have similar interests.” Her tone was low, effecting the privacy she’d mentioned, but she emphasized certain words to indicate a meaning beyond their surface level. “We’re planning on sticking together after school, and doing some great things.”

He wished he could say the same for his set. But, although there was a lot of murmuring about taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good, if anyone had made any concrete plans, those hadn’t yet been shared with Peter Pettigrew the permanent afterthought. So eventually he said nothing at all.

“We’re going to be important and respected,” she pursued, “and we’re going to be winners. We’re going to be on top. Everyone else…” She gave her usual bright smile, but there was a touch of wry regret to it as well, and her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “I can’t say how successful — or safe — everyone else is going to be.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Peter wondered, the voice he found at last yet hoarse and quiet.

All wryness, regret, and indifference burned right out of Lila’s smile, which now shone like the sun. “Because I want you to join us, stupid. You’re not too bad a wizard, but no matter what you decide to do, if you don’t join us, you’ll be in danger. Who knows what could happen? You might die!” Her light, tripping tone as she made such a morbid prediction was utterly typical of her, suggesting jest while assuring him of her deadly earnest.

He shuddered, having no doubt in his mind of exactly what she meant by all this. And her final point had preyed on him, in the shadows of his awareness, for a few years now. Taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good made for a gorgeous castle in the clouds, but here in this actual castle, in reality, he had to wonder just how suicidal such a course might prove. Wouldn’t he be much safer, indeed, as Lila promised, offering no resistance to the way things were going? Not provoking the wrath of the important, the respected, the winners?

And wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be important, respected, a winner?

What chance did he possibly have, though, at being any of that? If he abandoned his friends and joined Lila’s in their quest for great things — even assuming they would accept him as readily as she did, which seemed doubtful — wouldn’t he simply be trading one group that ignored and undervalued him for another? Her promises should be made to someone less invisible than he was; in reference to himself, he couldn’t believe them.

So he couldn’t accept her invitation. Simultaneously, he’d never been able to give her a direct negative, and now found himself torn in two, wordless and awkward. He stomped on one of her feet three times in a row, tried to move the wrong way, and felt his face getting hotter and hotter.

She laughed openly at him, but as always there was a sense of friendliness to her mockery that kept him from feeling the sting as much as he otherwise would have. “You don’t have to answer right now,” she said a little condescendingly. “As long as you don’t do anything dangerous–” and she flicked a look toward the end of the Great Hall where most of the Gryffindors not busy dancing were amassed– “you should be OK for a while.” None of his immediate circle stood over there, but he caught her drift.

The song ended, and Lila released him and stepped back into a mock curtsey. “Send me an owl,” was her goodbye, and then she headed back toward her cohorts.

*

“So what have you been busy with these last couple of years?” Lila’s eyes sparkled at him across the rim of her teacup.

Peter swallowed, and accidentally poured significantly more sugar into his own drink than he wanted. “This and that,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Lila chuckled. “And some of the other thing?” She’d seen through him, as always, and they both knew what ‘other thing’ she referred to. She bit into her chocolate tart, which silenced her briefly. It might have been the perfect chance for Peter to attempt heading her off, but, as usual, he couldn’t think of anything to say to that purpose. He feared the moment of reckoning was at hand, the moment when ‘OK for a while’ drew to its grisly close, and a cold knot of fear began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

He was right. When she’d finished her bite, Lila asked in the same easy tone as before, “And your friends? What have they all been up to?”

Peter couldn’t speak.

She leaned forward a trifle, forking another gooey piece of tart but pausing with it near her mouth. “You remember the last time we talked in person?”

He nodded. He couldn’t stop remembering it, in desperate detail.

“I have all the same friends — and more — and they’re just dying to hear the gossip about yours.”

Trying to buy time, clutching at the wand in his pocket with his free hand just in case this went suddenly from coaxing to Imperius, he gulped his tea, then choked at its hyper-sweetness. Coughing into a serviette until his eyes watered did give him several seconds, but when he’d finished the artificially extended process he found her gaze still fixed on him.

Like the tea, she was all sugary sludge as she murmured intensely, “So spill.”

And that was when realization hit.

At the Hogwarts seventh-year ball, she’d offered him a place among her proto-Death-Eater friends merely because he was ‘not too bad a wizard’ and she had a passing fondness for the boy she’d used to improve her school marks. She’d never seen any real value in him, and if she hadn’t noticed he was doing better with fairy management than she was, back in third year, her eyes would have passed right over him just like everyone else’s did. And today she’d been sent to sound him out not because she’d developed a sense of his worth, but because he was viewed, when viewed at all, as the weakest link in the Order of the Phoenix, and she’d been more or less his friend for several years.

But now, in addition to whatever value he’d had all along (something he believed in but whose quantity he’d never been sure of), he also had exactly what she wanted. What her same friends — and more — wanted.

Sirius, Remus, James, Lily, his supposed nearest and dearest, those to whom it should have been a priority to encourage and support him… they’d never seen his potential. They’d never seen him as anything but a tag-along, a vague nuisance tolerated mostly out of habit and because he never did anything memorable enough to force them to pay better attention.

Even now, when he risked his life on a daily basis to fight against the rising tide of Death Eaters and for goals he didn’t particularly care about, his sacrifice of personal safety was never recognized the way that of the others was. Oh, Sirius was a disinherited pureblood… Remus was a suffering werewolf… James and Lily had a son, and He Who Must Not Be Named was after them personally… so of course that made them and their work more meaningful than little Pettigrew, who remained in the background toiling away like a house-elf… like a muggle… and likely to get killed just like one because his so-called friends neither noticed nor cared. He probably wouldn’t even get a Dark Mark above his flat, because he just wasn’t that important.

But now he had an opportunity to be important. To be respected, a winner… and safe. The moment of reckoning was at hand, and Peter Pettigrew would be reckoned up at a much greater sum than anyone had expected.

He stood abruptly, rattling the teacups on the table, and looked down at Lila with more confidence than he’d ever used to face her in the past. Of course he had to swallow his fear at the idea of facing someone worse than merely Lila Sutton, his sunny, conniving, manipulative pseudo-friend — yet he believed, in this suddenly assertive mood, he might actually be able to say no to her for once. But for once he didn’t want to. He was taking the step at last that would make him somebody, and somebody that wouldn’t be ignored.

And Peter thought he would always remember triumphantly the startled look on her face as he finally managed to surprise her with the blunt statement, “I talk to the Dark Lord personally, or I don’t talk at all.”


Co-worker Julia gave me the following Monthly Story Prompt:

Peter Pettigrew is obviously weak minded and betrayed his “friends” and gave them up to Voldemort, then suprizingly uses powerful magic to fake his death and make it look like Sirius Black did it all. I want the moments in his life that lead up to this. Did it start at a young age? Was he jealous of his friends?

I had several immediate ideas, but how to make them somewhat interesting was the tricky part. Add to that the health issues just when I got the prompt, and this took approximately forever to write XD

For some later notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Voice of Experience

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.”

Sofia has a dilemma concerning her sister, and there’s only one princess that can give her exactly the advice she needs.


From the great ballroom doors into the shadowed corridor, the spilling light appeared golden and hypnotic, the spilling sound as sweet an invitation as a delicious scent to the hungry. Nevertheless, Sofia waved a negative at the herald waiting to announce her, and ducked into a side hallway under the pretense of adjusting her scarf with its huge emerald broach and the string of pearls winding through her upswept hair. Perhaps being fashionably late to your own brother’s engagement ball was not quite the thing, but she simply had to take a moment to calm her nerves and make a final desperate bid at overcoming her indecisiveness.

She smoothed her gloved hands down the rustling taffeta beneath her waist. The wide hooped skirts she’d run around in for much of her childhood were a thing of the past, and long, sleek, slender lines such as she’d often admired on classmates the Enchancia fashion now; but — aside from frequently having difficulties, even with Amber’s help, finding a design in that style that flattered her full figure — tonight the royal ladies, in honor of James’s fiancé, were all clad in voluminous-skirted ball gowns with a dozen petticoats inspired by current Avalor fashion — still designed by Amber, of course.

Amber. Sofia clenched her hands into nervous fists. There was a reason she’d requested a gown in green, Amber’s favorite color.

She checked her fan, checked her bracelets, checked her dance card, realized she was stalling, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the doors into the ballroom… and ran into déjà vu as into a brick wall. She’d mostly forgotten, but this wasn’t the first time she’d been through this precise struggle, was it? Back then she’d always worn purple, but the indecision had been the same… even if it might not have meant quite as much, to a child, as it did tonight to a grown woman. In fact it had been in this very corridor…

And as she recalled those events in greater detail, going right through them in her head perhaps as one last excuse to postpone her entry into the ballroom, she suddenly caught her breath, and heat rose to her cheeks. Because she did remember completely now, and she understood.

*

The music flowing from the great doors into the shadowed corridor enticed her, and the scents of the thousands of flowers Baileywick had ordered and painstakingly hung as decorations throughout the ballroom enchanted her, all calling out in hypnotic voices to come in and join the dance. Sofia, however, already late though she was, couldn’t quite bring herself to enter yet. Under the pretense of making sure she hadn’t lost her fan and that the pearls hadn’t somehow detached and fallen from her shoes, she sneaked off into a side corridor to calm her nerves and ponder one last time a question she hadn’t been able to discuss even with her mother or Clover for all she craved advice on the matter.

The fan was there, and the pearls were there, and pondering the question wasn’t any easier in this dimly lit hallway than it had been all week in various other places. With a deep and frustrated breath, she prepared to turn back and make her entrance, though she hadn’t made her decision, when a familiar warmth and light caught her attention and stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her eyes from the glowing, slightly hovering pendant around her neck, her brows lifting as well.

The woman whose figure resolved out of the shimmer before Sofia also wore a ball gown, and appeared as ready to dance as Sofia would be if she could get this question resolved. She smiled at the little princess, and had already begun swaying to the music almost before she finished materializing.

“Princess Anna!” Sofia couldn’t help smiling herself at seeing how eager her visitor was for the evening’s activity. “I didn’t think this was a problem I needed a princess’ help for, but I’m still really glad to see you.”

“I’ll help however I can!” Anna replied. “Oh, and Olaf says hi.”

“Oh… great! Hi to him too! I wish he could have come with you… I could use a warm hug right about now.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Sofia sighed. “I want to ask Amber to dance with me tonight, but I don’t know if she’ll like that.”

Anna’s smile did not alter, but her eyes seemed to take on a serious depth that had previously been nothing more than a sparkle of excitement on hearing the music from the ballroom. “Seems like all you need to do is ask,” she offered, “and then you’ll know!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll even like me asking,” Sofia said awkwardly. “Most princesses don’t dance with their sisters at balls… Most princesses don’t even dance with other princesses at balls! It’s just not what princesses do.”

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.” And she dropped unceremoniously to her knees, billowing skirt and all, and reached out to take both of Sofia’s hands. She wore gloves that matched one of the lighter greens on her dress, which clashed with the purple of Sofia’s… and looking at the colors combined to such ill effect made the younger princess more uneasy than ever.

“Why do you want to ask Amber to dance so much?” Anna queried earnestly.

This was easier to explain. “I love dancing with Amber! She taught me how to dance in the first place, and it’s so much fun! I don’t mind dancing with dad or any of the princes, but Amber’s my favorite person to dance with in the whole world. She’s so graceful and beautiful, and we can talk about anything while we’re dancing!”

Anna gave the same nod as before, the one simultaneously impressed and pensive. She squeezed Sofia’s hands. “All right, your little highness, here’s what I think.” And Sofia focused hard on whatever advice she would give, knowing it must be especially pertinent if Anna believed she knew why she in particular had been brought here tonight. “I can’t tell you whether Amber will like you asking her to dance, or whether she’ll say yes or no. That’s all on her end. But for you–”

She suddenly jumped to her feet — no mean accomplishment without tripping over her gown! — and whirled Sofia around like a partner in a particularly vigorous Avaloran salsa. Sofia giggled as she spun, but still caught the rest of Anna’s statement: “If dancing with Amber is what will make you happy tonight, don’t miss out on it because you were afraid to ask! She might say no, but she definitely won’t say yes if you don’t ask!” And Anna spun Sofia back toward her and into the warm hug she’d just recently been wishing for.

After a few moments’ thought, the Enchancian princess accepted the advice she’d just recently been wishing for as well. “You’re right,” she said as she stepped away from Anna and nodded decisively. “I have to try. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“Right!” Anna pumped a fist in encouragement. Then she sobered, and her expression turned somewhat distant. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.”

Sofia focused in again, which made Anna smile.

“This is actually advice for when you’re a lot older; you won’t really understand it now, and you may not even need it then. But if you do need it someday, think back to what I’m about to say, and maybe it’ll help.”

A little puzzled, Sofia said, “What is it?”

“It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in that ballroom. It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in the world. It’s all right to love her more than anyone else around you expects you to.”

“But why would anyone expect me not to love Amber?”

Anna’s expression was both kind and mysterious. “I told you you wouldn’t understand until you’re older. Maybe not even then. Just don’t forget what I said, in case you need it later!”

Again Sofia nodded decisively. The counsel seemed strange, and perhaps a little unnecessary or even redundant, but she thought she could keep hold of it until she understood.

“Now! Ready for some dancing?” Anna gestured toward the ballroom doors with a grin.

“Thanks to you I am!”

“Should I come in with you and show everyone how it’s done?”

Sofia giggled. “I know my family would love to have you as a guest, but I think it would be kinda hard to explain when the amulet sends you back.” And in fact, when she turned from the light spilling out of the ballroom to face Anna once again, that had already happened.

*

The great domed space shimmered from every wall, while the spinning forms of the dance about to end created a blur of gorgeous color. Sofia hardly marked her name and titles from the herald’s lips as the orchestra, now so much closer to her ears, called her again, this time inexorably, with stirring voices. Guests that stood still, like a garden seen from afar, lacked detail just as much as those dancing; the only clearly visible figure at the ball to Sofia at that moment was Princess Amber, resplendent and graceful seemingly at the end of a rainbow tunnel of light and sound.

“There you are!” Amber’s eyes swept her sister from toe to head, in the end meeting her gaze with an approving set to her chin at Sofia’s dress and accessories. “You could have made a flashier entrance, you know, if you’d waited until the end of the opening waltz.”

Even through her lingering nervousness, Sofia couldn’t help grinning at this very typical remark. “I didn’t want to make a flashy entrance. I just wanted to get to you before all the princes started crowding around asking you to dance.”

“Oh, they already did that.” Amber smiled smugly, but her wave was dismissive. “My card is completely full.”

Sofia’s heart sank. “Then why aren’t you out there now?”

“Because Prince Zandar claimed the first two dances and then disappeared,” Amber sniffed. “He probably wandered off to look at the Hall of Armor and lost track of time.”

This was it, then. The second dance would soon begin, and, with Amber fully engaged, now was Sofia’s only chance. Thanking Zandar from the bottom of her heart for his absentmindedness, trying not to show how deep was the breath she took, she screwed up her courage. She’d faced worse trials than this.

“Then…” She dropped into a deep curtsey, fanning out her skirt with one hand and holding the other up toward the gold-clad princess before her. “I would be honored if you would give me this dance.”

“Oh!” Amber seemed unusually tongue-tied after that one surprised syllable, and as Sofia lifted her eyes she found an expression of some confusion on her sister’s face. And even in the midst of the flowers and glittering lights and luxurious ballroom attire and happy visages all around them, the blush that then spread across Amber’s royal cheeks and the hesitant smile that grew on her perfect lips as she reached for the offered hand had to be the loveliest sight Sofia had ever seen.


For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Sketch: To Suggest

She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

On seeing a new set of Nathaniel’s drawings with a new subject, Chloé’s at it again.



Though truth and documentation would always be her primary concern, there was a distinct flavor of sensation to Alya’s journalism. And though she strove to be fair and as kind as reasonably possible, she liked gossip as much as the next high-schooler. She wouldn’t bother to deny it. So when, descending the stairs after class (by herself, as Marinette had pulled a vanishing act the way she so frequently did), she caught sight from that high vantage point of what promised to be a kerfluffle at the bottom, she paused and watched for two reasons: first, in case she might learn something of interest; second, in case she might need to step in and tell off Chloé Bourgeois.

Nathaniel had a marvelous talent for carrying a stack of loose papers while not looking where he went. The sound of their rustling flutter to the ground and under the feet of startled passersby had barely even settled before Chloé had begun the statement that had really attracted Alya’s attention: “Look, Sabrina–” snatching up a sheet covered in headshots and holding it between finger and thumb– “Nathaniel’s finally moved on from his first bad choice.”

Sabrina, under the guise of being helpful but the wicked gleam in her eyes seeming to reflect off the floor and make itself visible even with her head turned downward, had immediately begun reaching for the spilled papers. In so doing she bumped heads with Rose, who had knelt to do the same (though undoubtedly with much kinder intentions). The rest of the flow of students had formed a hasty circle around them so as both to stop stepping on the sketch pages and to observe what transpired.

“Let’s see who his new gross crush is,” Chloé declared, flipping her confiscated set of drawings upward and examining it critically. Her brows went down, and her expression gradually changed from eager disdain to frustrated confusion. “Ugh. I can’t even tell who this is supposed to be. Usually Nathaniel’s chicken scratches are more recognizable than this.” She tossed the paper down in a sort of Get this away from me gesture. “Or do you like someone so boring we can’t even figure out who she is?”

Alya, pressed against the staircase railing in an attempt at letting others pass, grimaced. She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again on the dozen sheets that had gone flying when he’d tripped or bumped into someone. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

I think they’re fine,” Rose protested, grabbing after three attempts the page Chloé had dropped as it switchbacked through the air toward the floor.

But Nathaniel sighed, bending to retrieve the last of the fallen papers. “No, she’s right, Rose. For some reason, not one single one of them came out any good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

“What’s wrong,” Chloé said, never one to miss such an opening, “is obviously that you have a crush on someone who’s not even interesting enough for me to recognize.”

“He does not!” Rose, now on her feet, hugged the pages she’d gathered to her chest like a precious treasure.

At the same moment, Nathaniel said in frustration, “It’s not that! She’s very interesting to look at! It’s just that something seems to go wrong with every picture…”

“Chloé!” Sabrina gasped all of a sudden from where she too had risen and was staring intently at the only couple of sketches she’d managed to get her hands on. “I think it’s Juleka!”

Alya shook her head with a sigh of her own. She’d hoped neither Sabrina nor Chloé would pick up on that. Admittedly the sketches didn’t seem quite right somehow, so there had been basis for optimism…

“Juleka?!” Snatching one of the drawings from her minion, Chloé peered again. “No. Way.” And when she raised her eyes, she was clearly convinced. “I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as the bread-flour girl, but, really, Nathaniel? Juleka, with her corpse makeup and that awful dye job and those tacky gloves?”

More to the point, Juleka, with her preference for other girls? That Chloé didn’t bring that up meant she must not know. Alya let out a breath of relief that Nathaniel’s hopes and dreams wouldn’t be destroyed (yet again) by such a cruel messenger. Someone would have to tell him, though.

“I think we’re going to have to warn Juleka,” Sabrina said in a serious, almost pious tone. “I mean, Nathaniel already turned into a supervillain over one girl he liked…”

Chloé put a finger to her chin. “You’re right, Sabrina. Even if it means I have to talk to Juleka and try to stand her fashion sense for a few minutes, it’s for her own good!” She laughed affectedly. “I’m such a good friend.”

“You’re making a–” Nathaniel began, appearing awkward but not at all disturbed by Chloé’s barely veiled threat. But he went no farther.

“Nathaniel does not have a crush on Juleka!” When Rose raised her voice, it was more squeak than shout, but sufficient to draw the attention of anyone in the vicinity not listening. “And Juleka has adorable fashion sense, and I love her makeup, and I love her hair, and I love her gloves!” She stalked toward Chloé, waving papers in her face, free hand clenched into a little fist at her side. “I asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for me, because for some reason nobody can get a good photo of her and I wanted some pictures!” The tears that came so easily to Rose’s eyes sounded in her voice, but that same tone was unexpectedly assertive enough to have driven Chloé back a few steps with hands raised.

“Calm down!” Chloé protested, obviously unsure, just at first, how to respond to such a confident Rose. “Geez!”

Ever the loyal assistant, Sabrina dashed in here to help Chloé save face. “So you’re saying you’re the one with a crush on Juleka, Rose?”

“Yes!” Rose replied at top volume, retrieving the last of the drawings from the tormentors.

Silence fell around the circle, and now at last Alya began again making her way down the stairs, tensed for conflict. There were certain levels of jerkish behavior everyone had learned to tolerate in Chloé, but if she started throwing homophobia around, Alya wanted to be on the spot ready to smack her down. She’d never heard Chloé’s opinion on the subject, but couldn’t trust it to be a reasonable one.

As the inevitable muttering and giggling began all around them, Nathaniel murmured, “Sorry, Rose; I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s OK, Nathaniel,” Rose broke in, and as she briefly faced him Alya could easily see the tears. But then she returned her gaze to throw what appeared to be a very pointed look from Sabrina to Chloé and back. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit I like another girl.” And with her head held high, she marched from the open circle into the crowd and away.

Frozen in place, jaw slightly slack, Alya lost sight of Rose as a new sound from the crowd filled her ears: much louder mutters and giggles, this time with some shrieking and the occasional Ohhhhhh of triumph and pleased surprise thrown in. Had Rose, little innocent flappable airheaded Rose, just made a snarky implication about Sabrina and Chloé and silenced them both thereby? For they certainly were standing stock-still with scarlet faces trying not to look at each other.

It was a good five seconds longer than her standard before Chloé got hold of herself. The color of her cheeks altering not one whit, she demanded with less outraged certainty than her norm, “What did she just say about me? The very idea! It’s ridiculous — utterly ridiculous!” She stomped her foot and, still without meeting Sabrina’s eyes, called her to heel.

As they stalked away in a huff, pushing between students at the edge of the circle, jeers began to float in from miscellaneous spots around them, only rendering Chloé’s walk all the more exaggeratedly angry. Since some of the taunts were, unfortunately, as homophobic as the sentiment Alya had half feared from Chloé herself, she made a point of shouting them down with, “Aren’t you going to warn Juleka about Rose’s crush, Chloé?”

“No!” Chloé called back, and her words faded with distance despite her annoyed volume. “Rose hasn’t ever been akumatized, so Juleka can take care of herself!”

The interested students began to disperse (not least because M. Damocles had emerged from his office and come to the railing, wondering what was going on below), and the tenor of the surrounding conversation was curiosity as to how much truth there might be to Rose’s implication. Alya herself found it interesting that Chloé had so automatically assumed Rose to be addressing her when it could just as easily have been Sabrina accused of hiding an interest in her best friend.

Glancing around, regaining her bearings and trying to remember where she’d been on her way to when this had started, Alya found herself meeting Nathaniel’s eyes. Unexpectedly he gripped one of her shoulders and gave it a little shake, saying intensely as he did so, “Thanks, Alya.” Then he ran off, probably to collide with someone else and spill a second set of sketches all over the floor.

Since the only thing Alya had actually done just now had been to try to drown out the homophobia in the courtyard, she could only imagine Nathaniel had been thanking her for that. And the implication of that thanks, therefore, was clear. Alya smiled and shook her head, resuming her walk toward the cafeteria and mulling over everything she’d learned in the last several minutes. At some times it was harder than others to keep from turning the school blog into a pure gossip rag.



Rewatching Reflekta (prior to which this is set) gave me this idea. Though it’s understated in the story, I thought it would be incredibly sweet if Rose asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for her so she could have pictures when none of the attempted photos ever came out right. And of course the curse is still in effect at this point, so even Nathaniel’s drawings don’t come out right!

Oh, and did I mention how pansexual everyone is?



A Lois Date

A Lois Date

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much.

Lois is too sick to join her boyfriends on the date she had planned. And though they, of course, enjoy each other’s company in any context, can they enjoy the type of evening she had in mind without her?

A Lois Date

A Clark Date usually took place in some exotic locale that his power of high-speed flight made easily accessible: a picnic on the Serengeti with no worries about their safety in the presence of all kinds of wildlife; a swim in a secluded cove at some tiny tropical island followed by Lois and Bruce making love on their beach towel while Clark fondly looked on (or, rarely, joined in); a hike up a Tibetan mountainside with a gorgeous misty expanse beneath them and no concern about how much trouble it might take them to get back… In fact there was often a lot of nature involved in a Clark Date: aspects of a planet he was proud to call home.

A Bruce Date, on the other hand, tended to involve a lot of money: Bruce’s secondary weapon of choice. Galas, premiers, openings, exclusive red carpet events, and ridiculously fashionable private cruise ship parties off foreign shores where a third of the guests were royalty and the swimming pool was filled with champagne or something — Lois and Clark hadn’t even owned formal attire snazzy enough to hang out in the kitchen at such gatherings prior to Bruce’s buying it for them just so he could show them off at every rich venue he could think of and enjoy removing it in their private, unnecessarily opulent suite later.

(It was either this or downright stakeouts, waiting for some villain or other to show their face so it could be punched through a wall, with Lois almost frantically noting down details of the encounter for her write-up of it after the fact.)

But tonight… tonight was a good, old-fashioned Lois Date: rambling and casual. She very much enjoyed the other styles of romantic outing, but, unable to come close to matching either of her boyfriends in their chosen areas, had instead made her specialty the paying of homage to the long American traditional of cheap middle-class relaxation.

Of course it was difficult to get either of them to relax. Bruce’s definition of ‘casual’ was ‘going places as Bruce instead of Batman,’ and since Bruce Wayne was a high-society fellow, just convincing him to wear a polo instead of a button-up with a tie (and probably a suit coat) was an ordeal. And Clark’s idea of dressing down was a colored long-sleeved shirt instead of one of the improbably opaque white ones he usually favored — a style of garment he couldn’t abandon in public under any circumstances.

And both of them, no matter the context, spent their time subtly watching for signs of trouble. While in Metropolis, Bruce checked his phone for notifications from Dick or Barbara every five minutes or so; and Clark’s hearing spanned most of whatever area they happened to occupy, listening for someone to rescue or punch through a wall.

In fact Lois was certain they were doing exactly that right now.

*

“Stephanie didn’t react very naturally to the legal proceedings.” Bruce stepped aside after passing through the theater’s exit, pausing by the outside wall and a glowing movie poster advertising some nauseatingly bright computer-animated gimmick-flick, and pulled out his phone. “I’ve known plenty of spouses of accused criminals; they never act like that.”

Clark joined him with a smile, though it did turn a bit wry as he glanced at the poster against which Bruce was now silhouetted. “Not everyone is like…” His smile widened. “…some of the people we know.”

Bruce was not smiling. A frown was his typical reaction to updates from home.

“Besides, she knew all along he was innocent,” Clark persisted.

“Not all along. She had moments of doubt.”

“I don’t think so. I think she was just confused because she was so attracted to Roger in the middle of everything.”

Finally one corner of Bruce’s mouth curled up. “You always have to put a positive spin on things.”

“I believe the best of people,” Clark replied righteously, though his eyes twinkled.

Now that he’d turned the sound back on, Bruce’s phone chimed.

Familiar with Bruce’s various subdued text-tones, Clark said with some disapproval, “I thought she said she was going to take a nap.”

“She set it to send on a timer,” Bruce observed. “It’s instructions on how to proceed.” Again one corner of his mouth pulled up — the opposite corner, the Lois corner — as he added, “Looks like she’s not letting us off the hook for the rest of the evening either.”

“I’m game,” Clark declared. “Where to next?”

“Frederick’s,” relayed Bruce, “to discuss the movie.”

“It was a good movie.” Clark glanced across the parking lot, locating the restaurant in question without bothering to hone his vision for a closer examination of its distant sign. Lois had sent them with a gift certificate for the place, and it expired tomorrow — which (along with movie tickets purchased in advance) was the reason she’d insisted they go on this date without her.

Bruce raised a warning hand. “Don’t discuss the movie any more until we start dinner. Just talking about Stephanie’s attraction to Roger a second ago already put us off schedule.”

Clark laughed, and they started the relatively long walk from the theater through half a million parked cars over to Frederick’s.

There, they stood on the sidewalk and more or less gaped upward. Lois hadn’t mentioned this was a game-filled, child-filled arcade-style pizza restaurant with disquieting animatronic characters peeking around every corner.

“Bruce,” Clark said, watching colors race in a dizzying pattern around the neon letters of the sign, “isn’t there a heinous stigma that associates gay men with pedophilia?”

“I’m surprised you even acknowledge there are people so ignorant and cruel in this world,” Bruce replied dryly as three screaming children raced past them toward the doors they two adults hesitated to approach. “But, yes. I’m afraid it applies to bisexual men and panromantic asexual Kryptonians too.” Here Bruce’s phone chimed again. Not yet having returned it to his pocket, he was able to read out the message immediately. “Now that you’ve rejected Frederick’s, cross the street to Wild Burgers. Make sure one of you gets the Piggyback, because that’s my favorite.

Both brows raised, Clark laughed incredulously, and Bruce even joined him for a moment. “She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much, then began scanning the even more distant shopping center across the street to find the new and hopefully much more appropriate restaurant. This time he was careful to study it in detail.

Bruce nodded, and with a half-reluctant gesture finally pocketed his phone.

A few minutes later, though, he was giving the menu at Wild Burgers a very flat look indeed.

Clark, probably examining the same item Bruce was, broke the silence with, “You know, I think she meant–”

“Yes,” Bruce said in as flat a tone as his gaze. “I know what she meant.”

“We have to do it for her,” Clark insisted, a grin growing, despite his best efforts, on his face. “If she were here–”

“But she’s not here.” It was impossible to best Superman in a contest of pointed gazes, but this wasn’t the first time Batman had tried. “Just doing her best to torment us from a distance.”

“It won’t be torment,” Clark assured him, getting to his feet. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Bruce snorted. “The more attention we draw to ourselves, the more likely we are to end up in the tabloids again.” But he followed his own advice and gave in without making a scene that would only render the entire ordeal even more eye-catching, standing also and dropping the menu that read, among other things, Give your dining companion a piggyback along Piggyback Lane and win a free Piggyback Burger!*

Naturally ‘Piggyback Lane’ snaked around and among tables throughout the entire restaurant. The latter, though not exactly packed, was full enough that a cheer and much applause and laughter broke out the moment Clark and Bruce stopped at its head, which was marked with a checkered flag pattern on the floor. Sighing, trying not to look too sour and give these people even more of a show, Bruce obediently jumped onto Clark’s back as soon as it was turned. All employees present began clapping rhythmically with a somewhat spooky spontaneity and unison, in the which they were joined by most of the diners, and the race for a free burger was on.

Oh, well. At least Clark’s hands were on his butt.

Of course Bruce’s weight was nothing at all to Superman, and hanging on for the duration of the ride was no trouble whatsoever for Batman, but Clark did pretend to lose his balance a couple of times and come close to failing the challenge like the superdork he was. And the moment they’d looped back around and touched the checkered spot on the carpet again, the entire room erupted into cheers. Bruce saw with resigned dismay that many of the other restaurant patrons were lowering cell phones; he wondered, as he hopped down and allowed Clark to lift his hand into the air in a signal of victory, if any of them had any idea how valuable their photos and footage might prove.

Next they had to suffer through congratulations from the staff and questioning on whether the documentation of their jaunt could be added to the Wall of Fame (which request Bruce managed to deny before Clark could good-naturedly agree), and their drink orders were taken and at last they were allowed to sit down again in relative peace. Then it was merely a question of who would be eating the Piggyback Burger and who got to order something of his own choosing.

“Lois doesn’t even like Canadian bacon,” Bruce complained as he examined the components of the sandwich they’d won.

“But you do,” Clark reminded him. Bruce pointed an accusatory finger at him, found he had nothing to say, and subsided.

Once Clark had ordered his meal, and some extra fries for Bruce that came to just about as much (which was how the place could afford to give away free Piggybacks), he sat back and remarked, still trying to restrain the same grin from earlier, “It was a good movie, though.”

Bruce pursed his lips and then admitted, “Yes. Lois would have liked it.”

“We’ll have to take her to it later on.”

Bruce nodded, and pulled out his phone. Honestly at the moment he rather hoped the Scarecrow had just broken out of Arkham again. No such luck. In reality, though, had he found an alert to that or similar purpose, he would have been incredibly bitter that it hadn’t come five minutes earlier.

“You know Lois might have made us do that anyway if she’d been here.”

The Lois corner of his mouth quirking again, Bruce acknowledged the point. “But it wouldn’t have looked quite so ridiculous if it had been clear she was prodding us into it.”

“You care about public opinion too much.”

“You only have the luxury of saying that because you’re everyone’s darling. Nothing spoils your reputation.”

Clark lowered his voice. “Am I your darling?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Does it feel nice to be able to win arguments that way?”

Clark grinned. “Back to the movie we’ve been instructed to discuss.”

“Yes, it was a good movie,” Bruce harrumphed, sounding, despite being glad to change the subject, as if Clark had dragged the concession from him with red-hot pincers. “I enjoy watching normal people deal with fairly normal problems every now and then.”

“And I like to see happy endings: good people getting what they deserve and living happily ever after.”

“You say that as if you don’t still believe in happy endings in real life.”

With a raised brow Clark replied, “It’s dangerous to imply that you don’t when you’re talking to your boyfriend.”

Bruce hmph‘d again. “I believe in happy middles; that’s all I’ll give you.”

“If Lois were here, she wouldn’t let you get away with saying that.” And Clark’s eyes had that sad slant to them that appeared there whenever Bruce’s fatalism reared its head.

Whatever each believed about the outcome of the endeavors and the course of the emotional fulfillment of sentient beings, they both liked Diet Coke, and once it had appeared at their table they turned their conversation back to specific events and character behaviors in the film.

Eventually, around the time their food came out, Bruce received another text from Lois: I hope the movie was good. And by now you better have scored a free Piggyback Burger. The next step is for Bruce to throw French fries and Clark to catch them in his mouth.

Appearing much more willing to throw food at his boyfriend than to be carried through a crowded restaurant to general acclamation and the clicking of cell phone cameras, Bruce nodded after he read this aloud.

“I should have seen that coming,” Clark said with some regret. “She always picks bits of pickle out of the relish and flicks them at me when we grab hot dogs on the way out of the Planet. I have to catch them, or else they’ll stain my shirt.”

“Sounds like ketchup is in order this evening, then,” Bruce murmured, pouring a generous helping into the basket next to his fries.

“But my shirt today is red,” Clark announced in triumph.

“Better catch anyway to protect innocent bystanders.” And Bruce lobbed the first missile.

It came as no surprise whatsoever that, as longsuffering as he’d sounded describing the recurring hot dog debacle, Superman was ridiculously, effortlessly good at catching food in his mouth no matter how clumsily or with what attempt at a curve it was thrown. Beginning to see why Lois enjoyed this so much, Bruce continually widened the radius of his attacks and the spin he put on each fry, until finally Clark had to jump to his feet to snag one that had flown upward at a dangerously acute angle. At this point he noticed more definitively how many eyes were on them and his uncanny skills, and he cleared his throat and leaned forward as he resumed his seat.

“Stop,” he admonished quietly, perhaps regretting showing off his preternatural fry-catching abilities to the uninitiated masses. “Too many people are watching.”

“You do care about public opinion,” was Bruce’s wry reply.

“Only because…” Clark let out a defeated breath and smiled. “All right, point taken.”

The Clark corner twisted upward in minor triumph, though Bruce reflected that Lois had really been the one to make the point.

*

How she had timed these messages so precisely neither detective Bruce nor superhuman Clark had any idea. The message that came in just as they left the restaurant said, Now if you head south on that same street, there’s a park you can walk through. Don’t forget to stop by the car for gift cards. And Clark was once again shaking his head in admiration.

“Lois thinks you’ve cleaned up these streets a lot better than you have,” Bruce muttered, “if she’s walking through parks in this part of town at night.”

“Lois goes wherever she wants to go,” Clark said ruefully. Bruce nodded with an expression matching the tone.

As they moved down the line of shops in the little strip mall approaching where they would cross the street back toward the movie theater parking lot, Clark paused. “Isn’t Lois a fan of that series?”

Bruce looked where he pointed. “Yes. I often question her taste.”

“Dangerous territory again there, babe.” Clark approached the crane game that stood in the entry of the store they’d been passing, and examined the stuffed characters within. Bruce, who loathed being called ‘babe’ or any other twee little term of endearment (as Clark well knew), followed.

“Yeah, I think that’s from that awful Netflix superhero show,” Bruce said with distaste. He glanced at his phone again and added, “And she wants us to hold hands.”

“Not yet.” Clark was digging through his pockets. “She’s sick; I want to bring her back something.”

“We’ll stop on the way home and pick her up something better than that,” Bruce insisted. “These games are mostly unwinnable anyway.”

Clark gave him a stubborn look. “For me? You really think so?”

It was in situations like this that Bruce outright grinned. Clark always wished it could happen at less sardonic moments and be a more straightforward, happy expression, but in any case liked to see his boyfriend smiling. “Go ahead. It’s your…” Bruce studied the machine. “…dollar-fifty a try.”

It turned out to be Bruce’s dollar-fifty a try, since Clark had no cash but the machine did take cards. Displaying a clear lack of confidence in Clark’s crane game skills despite his ability to catch ketchup’d French fries flawlessly no matter how they spun, Bruce loaded the machine with $30 — which Clark was certain was $28.50 more than he needed to get Lois a tacky little present as a memento of the date she’d been too sick to accompany them on except in uncannily accurate spirit. Oh, well; at least it would be a nice surprise for the next kid that came along and wanted to play.

Yet he found it took three tries simply to get a feel for the jerky, irregular controls, and thereafter another couple to sense the heft of the stuffed toy, which was lighter than he’d expected. Then, despite his minutely fine muscular regulation capable of far more crucial tasks than this, he just couldn’t manage to put together the three process components of aiming the crane correctly at the desired target, grabbing the stupid thing without it slithering free, and keeping it in the crane’s grasp while the arm stuttered its way back to the drop point. And he didn’t think it was his reflexes that were suffering in this instance.

“This is a very Lois Date activity,” Bruce commented after while, that sarcastic grin still on his face.

“It’s not responding right,” Clark groused. “It doesn’t react the same way every time.”

“I told you these games are mostly unwinnable.” Bruce shifted to peer down through the glass, trying to get a glimpse of the machine’s internal workings. “Would you like me to hack it for you?”

That was Bruce’s version of sweetness, but, while Clark appreciated the offer, he had to refuse. “I don’t like cheating.”

“I know you don’t,” Bruce replied with a shrug and then a clap on Clark’s back that turned into a brief warm rub of hand down his boyfriend’s spine. “Even when the game is cheating you. I hope you like giving up better, though, since I’m not putting more than thirty bucks into this thing.”

“As if you’d ever notice it was gone,” Clark murmured.

“No, I wouldn’t. But according to Lois’s plan, we should be holding hands by now, and instead you’re holding that stupid joystick.”

Clark threw him a smile, but kept trying at the game. And eleven attempts later, his patience paid off: the rigged device relented long enough for him to deliver the prize into the plastic shaft that led to the collection trough. There was a breathless moment wherein they feared it might rebound off the shaft’s wall and fall back into the sea of stuffed animals, but a jolt to the machine that definitely wasn’t caused by Bruce leaning hard against it at exactly the right place at exactly the right instant forced it the correct direction, and Clark was able to extract it at last.

And then…

“Actually I think that’s not from the show we were thinking of.” Bruce was peering critically at the outfit the super-deformed character wore. “That’s… from something different… I don’t know what.”

“I think you’re right,” Clark replied. And they both started to laugh.

“Now you have a story to go with the gift,” said Bruce, and, after a quick glance around, pecked Clark on the cheek. “Speaking of which, let’s go get those gift cards.” He was obviously tired of hanging out beside a gerrymandered game he wasn’t allowed to render more winnable.

Not long after, Clark sent his gaze through the thick layer of spray paint across a tall wooden sign to determine the name of the park they intended to enter. Apart from this graffiti, the place didn’t look too bad; a second sign, also unreadable to those that didn’t have x-ray vision, mentioned the name of the organization that had most recently volunteered to help keep the place clean, and it appeared the group was doing its job. A third sign, half of its letters peeled off and others painted in to change its meaning entirely, had originally begged park-goers to clean up after themselves and their dogs.

“Looks promising,” Bruce remarked.

“I’m not sure if I should ask ‘for what?'”

Bruce gave one of his sardonic grins and took Clark’s hand. They’d forgotten as they walked this direction that they were supposed to be doing this, and now needed to make up for lost time.

Like so many Metropolis parks in the evening, this one was dotted with homeless people settling down for the night or already resting on or under benches and trees. Some had ragged sleeping bags, some rickety shopping carts filled with all their worldly goods, and some slept curled up as tightly as possible with no particular means of warmth. The weather was mild, but that didn’t make it comfortable at such late hours not to have a wrapper of some sort.

Which was where the gift cards came in. If Clark remembered correctly, they were up to $150 each by now, their value having elevated significantly when Bruce had found out about this little hobby of Lois’s and insisted on joining in. That could buy someone a decent blanket, some new shoes, some non-perishable food… or several twelve-packs, if they so preferred. Bruce always anticipated the latter, Clark the former, while Lois maintained a position in between and added it wasn’t their business anyway what someone did with a freely given gift.

Stealth was one area in which Batman consistently bested Superman. They took turns trying to sneak the gift cards onto the persons or into the personal effects of the homeless occupants of the park as they passed them, but, though Clark could fly noiselessly, especially sans cape, he often couldn’t render his steps nearly so devoid of sound, and he certainly wasn’t a trained pickpocket. It didn’t help that Bruce could not, at times, entirely restrain his snorts of laughter at the startled reactions of the recipients Clark disturbed with his overly straightforward attempts. Meanwhile he slipped in and out without the rustle of a hair, leaving a little prize that would hopefully be surprising and gratifying when its beneficiary eventually awoke without his assistance. And every time they regrouped on the path, they joined their hands again before moving on.

They’d nearly used up the stock of gift cards they’d retrieved from the glove box of Clark’s car (in which Lois had insisted they come because Bruce’s was too nice for this kind of date) when footsteps that had been moving quietly behind them ever since they’d passed a dark set of bathrooms abruptly took to a run. There was the snicking sound of a switchblade opening, the faint prick of its point against Clark’s back, and a foul-breath’d voice mumbling, “Give me whatever you got.”

Clark started to look around in preparation for reaching around and defusing the situation, but Bruce, with a tired expression, lifted a hand. “I got this one.”

This was Bruce being sweet again: he knew how much it pained Clark to have to be harsh with misguided youth. And the undercover Batman had the guy on the grass beside the path in a move so quick and smooth it was nearly invisible, pinning him in an easy wrestling hold with one arm and a knee and pressing the would-be mugger’s own knife to his neck.

“Kid, this is stupid,” he said quietly in his Bruce voice but with the tiniest hint of Batman laid over the top. “Say you successfully robbed us — say we each had a couple hundred dollars. What then? A few grams of whatever you’re on and a pizza, and then you’re right back out here trying this again. And I don’t think I need to tell you that I could kill you right now.” This completely false threat undoubtedly rang entirely true with that blade pressing into his skin.

“So you’re out here running the risk that you’ll pick the wrong target every night for what? A couple of highs, a little bit of food? If you’re going to put your life on the line, do something big. Rob a bank; make a hundred thousand. Steal a really nice car and sell it. Genetically engineer your face onto all the fish in the harbor and trademark it.

Or–” here Bruce produced a gift card out of nowhere and tucked it into the back pocket of the young man’s ragged jeans– “go to Wal-Mart, get yourself some clean clothes, and some deodorant, and a toothbrush, and then head over to the rehab center on Patriot Avenue. Tell them Bruce Wayne sent you.” In a light motion he was off the kid and standing straight again. “It’s up to you,” he finished, and tossed the assailant’s knife straight down so it stuck, quivering, into the turf just in front of the kid’s wide, terrified eyes.

Bruce’s own eyes were dark as the night as he turned away and rejoined Clark on the sidewalk. Clark took his hand and held it tighter than ever, but said nothing. Sometimes there was nothing to say.

After they’d walked on for a minute or two, Bruce reached across his body to extract his cell phone without giving up Clark’s grip. It had chimed around the time when he’d first jumped the kid, and now he finally checked what Lois’s next instructions were. “By now you’ve probably had an attempted mugging,” he read out, “so you should call it a night.

*

The timed text messages had allowed Lois to nap with a clear conscience, knowing her men would dutifully follow her orders; but the laptop on her nightstand had continually awakened her again, knowing her story for tomorrow wasn’t getting done. What she needed was a stronger cold medicine that would knock her out reliably.

At about the time she expected Bruce and Clark to be done with their date, she gave in. She wanted to see them when they got back anyway, so she might as well work on her story until then. Seeking a comfortable angle at which to use the computer from bed for more than a minute or two proved futile, so she carried it into the office and sat down at her desk. The room was a little chilly, despite her fleece pajamas, but she shouldn’t have to wait too long.

“Why am I not surprised to find you in here?”

She looked up from her typing, a little startled that she’d lost track of time, to find Clark and Bruce in the doorway appearing handsome and (at least Clark) not too disgruntled after the outing she’d sent them on. “Because you–” But she was unable to finish her suggestion as she turned to her sleeve for a fit of coughing.

“You’re shivering,” Bruce added, coming around the desk to shake his head at her. When, trachea clear for the moment, she looked up at him, he bent down to steal a kiss.

“Yes, I’m shivering!” she said in a tone of protest, pushing his face away. “I’m undoubtedly contagious too!”

“Lois,” he chided. “I’m Batman. I’m not going to catch cold.”

“That’s not true and you know it.”

“It is for me,” said Clark from her other side, and leaned over for a kiss of his own.

Lois laughed, which turned into another cough, which pushed Clark’s face away in turn. “It is not,” she insisted when she could, “because you’re not Batman.”

“Semantics.” Clark waved a hand, then swept Lois up out of the chair into his arms.

“My story–” she said, reaching futilely for the computer.

“I’ll finish it for you,” Clark assured her. “You weren’t thinking of going in tomorrow, were you?”

She sighed and laid her head against his chest. “Well, I was, but now I think I see how this is going.”

“We followed your instructions all night,” Bruce pointed out, “so now it’s your turn.”

“I guess that’s only fair,” Lois mumbled into Clark’s red shirt. “As long as your instructions are for us all to cuddle up together tonight.”

“I was–”

She lifted her head and fixed him with a glare. “Bruce, if you say you’re planning to go back to Gotham and leave us here with me sick, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Bruce gave a defeated sigh, but smiled as he did so. “I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he said, instead of arguing, “and you can take some of the cough syrup we brought you.”

She returned his smile.

Soon Lois was sipping honey ginger tea that Bruce always made surprisingly well, while her boyfriends changed into pajamas in preparation for the cuddling she had more or less demanded in exchange for her calling in sick to work in the morning. She was pleased to see them putting on the matching sets she’d bought them when (after her initial exploration of each) she’d realized they were just about the same size; it was so cute to have them both in the striped pants and tops with the monogrammed pockets.

“We brought you a few things besides the cold medicine,” Clark told her, setting a shopping bag down near where she sat in bed. He began lifting items out of it. “A book if you’re up for reading tomorrow… this stuffed thing… a warm pack for your throat if you need it… and some animal crackers.”

Lois’s eyes widened covetously when she saw this last offering, and she grabbed the package without yet paying much attention to the other gifts. She hesitated before opening it, though, and finally said with a sigh, “I don’t want to eat these in bed and then roll in the crumbs all night.”

“I’ll catch them for you,” promised Clark. “Go ahead.”

Before she could do anything else, Lois had to cough and clear her throat several times, and decided to deal with the tea and the cold medicine — the really good stuff; these guys knew what she needed — prior to opening the cookies. Then, with Clark and Bruce right up against her and encircling her back with their near arms, she dug in. “I love these,” she mumbled as she began shoving pink- and white-coated animal crackers into her mouth, always selecting the ones with the most sprinkles first.

“I know,” Clark said, darting out a hand to catch the first of the crumbs (so small she couldn’t even see them) and a few dislodged sprinkles that fell. “Bruce wanted to get you some kind of expensive cherry cordials with rum in them, but I thought these were more appropriate for the kind of date we were on.”

Lois groaned. “Cherry cordials with rum in them sound amazing,” she said through a full mouth. And when Bruce made a triumphant sound and kissed her on the cheek she added, “But I think you were right, Clark. Besides, that cough syrup already has alcohol in it.”

Bruce sounded a little grumbly as he said, “He did let me choose the book.” And he too bit into a cookie, with perhaps just a little more force than necessary, sending a spray of crumbs out into the air for Clark to catch in a movement quicker than sight.

Turning her attention to the rest of her gifts, Lois picked up the book. Then she gave Bruce a skeptical smile and a raised brow. “And you chose a romance novel?”

“The guy on the cover looks like Clark,” Bruce defended his choice, his deadpan marred somewhat by his own full mouth.

Lois peered closer. “He does.” She looked over for comparison and found Clark blushing a little. She poked at his chest and yawned, “All right, I’ll read it tomorrow and see if he acts like Clark too. What the hell is this, though?” She’d dropped the book and picked up the stuffed character that appeared to have come right off a carnival barker’s wall.

The men glanced at each other behind her head; of course she couldn’t see their expressions, but she got the feeling there was a tale to be told here. “You’d better hear all about the evening,” Bruce said.

“Yes, tell me.” Lois leaned back, settling more comfortably into their arms, and ate another animal cracker. “Did I time my texts right?”

“All but the last one. That was a little early.”

“Oh?” she wondered sleepily, and rolled her head back and forth to look at first Clark and then Bruce. “Did he get the ‘What would your grandmother think?’ lecture or the ‘I can kill you fifty ways with my pinkie’ lecture?”

“The second one.” Clark, in the midst of extracting some animal crackers of his own, tried not to laugh. But he added loyally, “And Bruce delivered it very well.”

“We’re starting at the end,” Bruce complained. “That wasn’t exactly my favorite part of the date.”

This is my favorite part.” Lois’s head was beginning to feel very fuzzy indeed, and, despite the continual sore throat and pressure in her sinuses, it was in general satisfaction that she closed her eyes.

The other two made noises of agreement. “But the movie was good too,” Clark said, and began to tell her his impressions as best he could without spoiling it. Bruce joined in with his more cynical take, arguing against Clark’s opinion in places, and their voices started to blur together into a pleasant, incomprehensible lullaby. Lois wondered in drowsy contentment how long it would take them, after a few minutes, to notice that she’d fallen asleep.

My first posted DCAU fic! Congratulate me! These three are so damn cute that you can definitely expect more from me about thems in (possibly distant) future.

I’ve rated this story even if it is mostly fluff :D

Blind Repair


“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place. This is literally a beach house.”

Zuko, Sokka, and Toph attempt to fix the swimming pool at the old Ember Island estate.

“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place.” Sokka rotated the blueprints ninety degrees and compared them at the new angle to the view in front of him with a critical squint. “This is literally a beach house.”

“That’s because you don’t understand rich people,” Toph provided, feeling her way slowly around the empty basin to get a good impression of the workings under the stone beneath her feet. She went from dry to drippingly sarcastic as she added, “Of course they’d need a swimming pool even though the ocean’s right out there. What if they want to swim in fresh water?”

“And ‘us guys’ didn’t put it here,” Zuko put in, perhaps attempting to evade the truth of Toph’s words. “This house is 75 years old.”

“Oh, so a generation into the war.” Sokka turned the plans again and scowled. “The Fire Nation sure sucked at blueprints back then.”

“I’m not responsible for either of those things,” said Zuko.

“I don’t know…” Toph suddenly fell into a soldierly rigidity, then transitioned stiffly to a firebending pose. No one imitated postures as well as Toph, because she wasn’t deceived as to the exact arrangement of body by clothing or gear. “You’re pretty naturally warlike.”

“Or unnaturally,” Sokka laughed, slapping his knee. “Toph, you’ve got that down! Do me next!”

Toph immediately went boneless, wobbling back in Sokka’s direction for a few steps before miming the throwing of a boomerang with a completely limp arm. At least she had the decency to do a catching movement next, though, implying a less than total lack of competence.

Zuko chuckled, then straightened his face back out again when he saw Sokka’s resultant outrage and heard his protest, “I do not do that!”

Having prompted the reaction she wanted, Toph doubled over laughing. “You asked for it!”

Emboldened, Zuko put in, “And sometimes you do kinda… flail…”

“You know,” Sokka huffed, “I was just about to say we know you’re doing your best to help end the war, but now? I don’t think you deserve it.” He buried his face in the blueprints again. “Let’s just figure out how this outdated pump system worked.”

“I don’t get why we want to.” Toph raised her arms, put her hands behind her head, and continued ambling along. She’d probably assessed everything beneath the surface by now and was merely confirming details. “Why not just have Katara waterbend the pool full?” She gestured vaguely toward the house, then resumed her casual pose.

“It won’t be a surprise if we ask her to help,” Zuko replied somewhat impatiently.

“Ooooh,” Toph hooted. “Prince Zuuuko wants to impress Kataaaaraaaa.”

“It’s for Aang and Suki too!” Zuko blustered.

“Ooooh,” Toph echoed herself. “Prince Zuko wants to impress Aang and Suki!”

“I do not!” Zuko replied even more loudly, blushing (though in response to which name was impossible to tell). “I just wanted… I thought it might be nice…”

“Chill out, hotman.” Toph’s tone was light but still mocking. “We all know you want to do things for the team because you feel guilty about everything you did before, but you should know by now you don’t need to.”

“I think it’s this way.” Sokka, who didn’t seem to be paying attention, said this uncertainty as he yet again rotated the plans he held. “Why did they have to make this plan square when the swimming pool is rectangular??”

Toph patted the ground with one foot. “Because the mechanisms underneath are laid out in a square, oh wise technician.”

“Aren’t there labels on the blueprint that indicate which side is up?” Zuko wondered.

“You’d think so,” grumbled Sokka, “but the instructions are all on this other sheet, and they just assume you know where everything is!”

“That seems like… really poor design.” Zuko scratched his head. “Sorry about that.”

“Not your fault. Like you said, 75 years old.”

Impatiently Toph suggested, “Why don’t we walk around the pool together, and I’ll tell you what I’m sensing down there, and you can match it up with your ancient diagram?”

“Good idea,” said Sokka, and they set off.

Zuko watched them make the circuit, undoubtedly aware he could contribute nothing and thus standing still. By the time they came back, Sokka was certain which direction was up, and beginning to think he knew where to go to get the whole thing working again.

He moved to a spot where the mossy flagstones were divided into smaller segments than in most other places, and started trying to pry one up. Zuko came to stand beside him, waiting to see what would be disclosed. But after nearly a minute and a half of groaning and straining and scraped fingers and really funny facial expressions on Sokka’s part, Zuko had to ask, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Hey, don’t ask me for help and then question my help!” the breathless Sokka protested. In some annoyance he added, in a different direction, “Earthbender! A little help?”

Toph gave a mocking laugh and shifted a toe. The stone panel swung upward.

Grumbling something unflattering about benders — though there must have been some other way to open the thing for those without the ability to manipulate earth — Sokka leaned over the cavity and began comparing its contents to his blueprints. “Yeah, these are the controls, all right,” he muttered.

Zuko peered in over his shoulder, eyeing the unfamiliar gears with a total lack of understanding. He sat back on his heels and looked around: first at the quiet house — checking to see if the other half of their party had heard them and might appear at any time — then, satisfied, at the empty pool. His eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment.

“When I was a kid and we used to come here as a family,” he murmured, “how the pool worked was a big mystery to us. To me and Azula, I mean. It would be empty when we arrived, and the next morning it would be full. It seemed like magic to us back then. I wish that were the only thing my father never explained…”

Toph, standing at the edge, rubbed a foot contemplatively at the corner where it plunged down into what would be the deep end if they ever managed to fill the thing. “Yeah… We had a pool at home too. I was never allowed in it, because my parents were convinced being blind meant I couldn’t learn to swim. And it did, of course, since they wouldn’t let me try…”

Perhaps in response to the doleful mood that settled after these statements, Sokka put in a little awkwardly, “Well I have great parents. Or… had… in my mother’s case.” Then he evidently felt his companions’ none-too-appreciative eyes on the back of his neck, and added, “But, uh, the water’s literally almost freezing all the time where I come from, so… we never did much recreational swimming?”

Toph changed the subject. “The pipe is warped and has a crack in it about three yards that direction.” And she did that thing where she pointed directly where she meant without actually looking over.

“Can you fix it?” Sokka wondered.

“‘Can I fix it,'” she scoffed, cracking her knuckles and moving toward the spot.

“And then I’ll need you to help me with these gears!” he called after her.

As Toph started what seemed an unusually finicky earth- or metalbending process, Zuko gazed past Sokka’s shoulder again. With a deep breath he said quietly, “You know, I said it to Katara, but I never got a chance to tell you: I’m sorry about your mother. I’d bring her back for you if I could.”

Sokka turned to face him sharply, but his expression immediately softened. “Zuko, that wasn’t you. I mean, thanks, but… don’t feel guilty about it, all right?”

“It’s… not exactly guilt…” Zuko lowered his tone ever further. “It’s just that, if I’m ever going to be Fire Lord — and I’m not sure anymore that I am — I have to take responsibility for the Fire Nation’s deeds. My father’s deeds. It’s probably best if I start with my…”

“Friends?” Sokka supplied the word for him when Zuko trailed awkwardly off.

“Yeah.”

“Then… I accept… whatever that was. Apology? Was it an apology? Or more a sort of… official statement?” Sokka put a hand briefly on Zuko’s shoulder. “Anyway, it’s really big of you. The Fire Nation’s going to have a good ruler when this is all over.”

Zuko smiled faintly, seeming more relieved than flattered. “Thanks.”

“Ooooooh,” came Toph’s voice from nearby, “Zuko wants to impress Sokka!”

“Shut up, Toph,” said Sokka good-naturedly, “and help me with these gears.”

Zuko’s smile did not fade for a good minute while they worked.

Eventually, several crooked gears and a sort of lantern-thing and a few more pipe repairs later, the mechanic and the metalbender declared the business finished — or at least that they could give it a try and see if the aged pumping devices could still bring water up from the spring at Ember Island’s center and fill the pool so everyone could have a relaxing day of swimming without setting foot outside the anonymity of the royal family’s walls.

“Now we need you, Zuko, to heat the interior of the activation chamber to…” Sokka checked the instructions again. “230 susuros?” He looked at the written line askance. “What the heck is a susuro?”

“You’re not familiar with susuros?” Zuko wondered.

Toph agreed in the same skeptical tone, “Yeah, Sokka, you’re not familiar with susuros?” Then to Zuko in a loud whisper she asked, “What the heck is a susuro?”

“I know it’s an older unit of heat, but I didn’t think–” Zuko did a double take at Toph and scowled. “You too? But you’re a well educated Earth Kingdom girl!”

“Eh, I forget stuff that’s not important,” Toph shrugged.

At the same moment Sokka said, “Fine, fine, it’s some snooty elite Fire Nation term that only snooty elite firebenders will understand. Can you heat the thing to 230 of them?”

“No,” Zuko admitted, visibly uncomfortable. “I know what they are, but I have no sense for how hot that is.”

Again Toph doubled over laughing. Sokka seemed torn between a grin and a glare. “Well, according to these instructions, it has to be that hot to activate the pump process, but if it gets much hotter it’ll warp the disc and you’ll have to replace it. So can you make it kinda hot but not too hot?”

“How am I supposed to know how hot is too hot?” Zuko demanded.

“I don’t know! Use your firebending senses!”

Zuko threw his arms up. “I don’t have ‘firebending senses’ that tell me how to fill swimming pools!”

“This was all your idea in the first place, you know!”

“Yeah, and I asked you to help because I thought you could figure out this old–”

Why,” Toph said loudly enough to override Zuko, “don’t you just heat it gradually until the pump starts working, and then stop?”

Both young men stared at her. “Yeah, that’s…” said Sokka.

“Or that, yeah,” Zuko agreed. “Where is the… active… disc… thing?”

Sokka hustled him to the correct spot and pointed. Zuko subsequently went through more of the breathing exercises he and Aang both tended to use before firebending than the other two expected, if their similar dubious expressions were any indication. With a frown at their obvious bemusement, Zuko murmured, “Stop shifting around back there. This is going to take some subtlety, so I have to prepare.”

Both Sokka and Toph nearly collapsed with giggles, and practically tripped over each other to get their comments out:

“Subtlety? You?”

“You’d better breathe for another couple of days, then!”

Fire sprang up to either side of them in mock warning, and perhaps the very safe distance it kept was prompted by the memory of a burned pair of feet once upon a time. Then Zuko turned his real attention to the job at hand.

For a long time nothing happened in response to the thin, concentrated stream of flame, and both Sokka and Toph had begun to shift again in a muttering sort of motion when the younger of them paused. Pensively she bit her lip, and slid one foot slowly in front of her every bit as if peering through deep shadows. Then she announced excitedly, “It’s working!”

Zuko pulled back, and he and Sokka dashed to the pool’s edge and peered eagerly down. And there was a distant rumbling and sloshing sound drawing nearer. There wasn’t, however, any actual water, and this state persisted for so long that both young men stood straight and looked at each other.

“What’s going on, Toph?” Sokka scratched the shaved area just above his ear.

“I’m not sure… It’s definitely pumping, and there’s water somewhere…” She tapped a foot impatiently, clearly annoyed not to be able to sense exactly what was happening beneath them. “The pipes may be broken farther out than I can feel…”

“The water probably has to come a pretty long way from the spring,” Zuko said doubtfully.

Sokka started some remark about flushing the system and how many leaves were probably collected down where they couldn’t see, when they all jumped, cringing, at the explosive sound of water gushing forth. Because the sound and the rush came not from the pool but from the house behind them. Zuko and Sokka whirled.

The rice-paper windows at this end of the building had all burst outward in an initial violent spray, which now settled into a calmer but no less prolific waterfall from every orifice. A full-blown river began to fill the courtyard, and raced toward them carrying various household items and — as Sokka had predicted — leaves in all states of decay.

“What diverted it inside?” Sokka squawked.

Toph was laughing at this unexpected outcome, but it sounded a little hysterical as water splashed over her feet.

Zuko cried in horror, “My house!” at least partially disproving the claim that he didn’t care about the place.

As the earthbender scrambled up a surprised Sokka for an enforced piggyback ride, there emerged from one window, along with the water, a bedraggled Suki, slipping on the sill, clad still in her nightclothes, coughing and irritated. A moment later Aang appeared in a similar state of dishabille but a far more cheerful mood. “The bathroom just went crazy!” he called as he slid neatly down one particular flume, curled up and spun blithely on his back in a small whirlpool, and finally jumped to his feet with a splash.

The water had found its way into the activation chamber, and at an abrupt hiss and jet of steam Sokka leaped backward, almost losing his balance as he forgot to compensate for Toph’s weight on his back. She demanded to know how far the water had risen, and with Zuko in the background trying to reassure her that it couldn’t get high enough to touch her as long as Sokka didn’t klutz up and Suki (in annoyance transforming to grudging amusement) wondering what was going on and the continued gurgling and gushing all around, no question or answer could be heard.

Then, miraculously the driest of any of them, Katara came barefoot-surfing out another window with raised arms, bringing with her all the remaining water from the house. No more replaced it, as the cooling of the activation chamber (and undoubtedly the warping of the mysterious disc) had probably halted the pumping process. Katara slid expertly to a halt in the midst of them, directing the sloshing contents of the courtyard effortlessly into the nearby receptacle. As she came to a gentle rest on the sodden moss of the flagstones and lowered her arms, everyone else seemed to ease into less tense poses and take stock.

Zuko gazed at the pool as the water in it gradually settled and bits of window, wooden dishes, miscellaneous articles of clothing, the blueprints and instructions for the pump mechanism, and a cushion or two bobbed to the surface or spun in calming eddies. He turned back to the others with a helpless expression and lifted his hands a little before dropping them again. “Anyone up for a swim?”

scifikimmi gave me a November Quick Fics 2018 prompt that said, “One of my fave dynamics between characters was Zuko and Sokka and also Toph in season 3. Could you write about them all having an awkward (but but not fight-y just funnily awkward) conversation? Maybe they are all forced work together for some reason without the rest of the crew?” I don’t know if I really captured their dynamic properly, but I think it’s a pretty fun story nonetheless. I’ve rated it


Her Own Words

Her Own Words

With some surprise Seiya took the paper Yaten held out, and skimmed it. Yaten didn’t write lyrics often, so it always came as something of a surprise. She supposed she could have handed the sheet over more gracefully, too, than with nothing beyond the grumbled name of a currently popular song with a similar meter.

Seiya started to hum as she neared the bottom of the page, and Yaten, observing she’d caught the working melody, turned away and moved to the widow seat, where she drew her knees up to her chin and stared somewhat sullenly out the dark glass. In these male bodies, Seiya alone of the three of them had a soloist’s voice, which Yaten blatantly resented since she’d loved to sing back on Kinmoku. Now it was backup or embarrassment, and though Yaten often chose the latter, Seiya was really the only one that could do a dry run of a new lyric.

Taiki, who’d arrived in time to hear the name of the song Yaten had mentioned and then taken her customary place at the keyboard, now played a few introductory chords.

“Two notes lower,” Seiya requested.

Taiki frowned as she did a quick and somewhat difficult mental transition, played a few more chords to get the feel of the new key, and paused.

“And there’s a bridge I’m going to have to improvise,” Seiya added. “Maybe just drop out when I get there.”

Taiki nodded, fingers poised on the keys, and Seiya started the run-through.

Once this gentle heart of mine gave birth to so much love,
But with the ending of my world I had to lock it up,
Wrapped in starry scarlet like the glitter of your hair,
Surround myself in marble as I struggled not to care.
But can you blame me?
Can you blame me?

I feel it every time.

Of course they each had an image, a specific niche they filled in the band: Seiya the bad boy, the show-off; Taiki the scholar, the aloof and dignified; and Yaten the hard-hearted, the cold-hearted, the bitch. She knew she had a following, a specific set of fans of this persona that went starry-eyed every time she rudely refused to take a picture with the groupies or made some overly harsh comment in an interview.

And this song would be a calculated risk, representing as it did a shift in that persona, but Yaten thought it would pay out by solidifying that part of the fanbase without a lot of interaction with them on her part. She was pretty sure most of them already believed her to be so seemingly unfeeling because of some great tragedy in her past. They were right, of course, but their vapid imaginations went no farther than ‘loss of girlfriend…’ which was exactly what these lyrics would be taken as confirmation of, sending most of the hiding-his-broken-heart-Yaten contingent into paroxysms of pity and passionate love. And those that legitimately liked her because of her perceived unkindness were the type of people she didn’t want as her fans anyway.

Not that she wanted any fans.

And it’s not your fault for leaving,
But if you came back you’d fix everything.
Please return to me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

It had been different once. On Kinmoku or on the moon that had been her particular domain under Kakyuu’s rule, Yaten had been happy to share her music, when she had time, with everyone around her. She’d been pleased to have admirers that appreciated her talents. She never would have refused anyone a picture or made overly harsh comments back then. But that had been before every single one of them had died.

Here on Earth she looked out over a sea of humanity and tried to pretend she neither liked nor cared about them. It didn’t quite work — and every time one of them had a Star Seed taken, she literally ached — but she was able to present this frigid front to save herself, and part of that was denying her fans. Fans that might well be multiplied by this song when they realized it was only unbearable pain that had made her so cold. Oh, joy.

Though I’ve tried to block it out, I always feel their pain,
But these angry, fisted hands may never heal again.
Somewhere past my cruelty I’m longing to be kind,
But when everything is gone, what’s left to do but hide behind
The walls I’m building?
These walls I’m building…

I feel it every time.

When she did write lyrics, she tended to put her heart and soul into them; none of her songs were fictional as so many tended to be. As such, when performed or even recorded, they always included the psychic message the trio desperately hoped would bring Kakyuu back to them. Of course the band came up with a decent number of more mundane pieces — they had to fill up their concerts and albums somehow, and it took a lot out of them if every song sent the broadcast — and Yaten dutifully orchestrated them and played bass and sang harmony as needed… but, though she put plenty of artistic energy into them, those songs didn’t mean a thing to her. The trio had one mission, one goal, one purpose that swallowed up everything else; she couldn’t afford — and had no desire! — to get caught up in other nonsense.

And the rest of the band business? The signings and the sponsoring events and the advertising contracts and the interviews? That was even purer nonsense than the casual music required of them by circumstance. She considered it nothing very worthy of censure to give very little effort to that.

It wasn’t as if she needed anyone around here to respect her work ethic anyway. Though perhaps, deep down, in the part of her that lived in the past on a now-barren world, she might have liked them to.

And it’s not your fault I’m alone now,
But if you found me I know I’d know how
To say I’m sorry,
And return me to the me I used to be.

All this drama with the local Sailor Senshi had made her feel worse than ever. That Sailor Moon, like their own princess, had the power to restore phage to human form, to restore stolen Star Seeds, cut like a knife into the breast of one that had sensed so many of her own people disappear forever at the hands of Shadow Galactica. Of course Kakyuu would have saved them if she could, but, wounded and defeated, hadn’t been given that choice. That someone else out there had the power to prevent all that death and suffering, but hadn’t been present to do so, hurt so badly it was almost a catalyst to draw out all the emotions Yaten was so industriously repressing.

And that Sailor Moon clearly wanted to help, had been the one to insist in the first place they heal the phage instead of simply destroying them… that was so close to unbearable Yaten simply refused to think about it. Not only because it represented a missed opportunity, however remote the chances, but because healing…

No, she would never consent to join forces with Sailor Moon and her handmaidens. Never. Let them heal their own world, since they oh-so-fortunately still had the power to do so. Or fall to Galaxia, for all Yaten cared.

I feel it every time:
Every sorrow and hurt.
They reach out to me, and I turn away without a word.
Are you reaching out too?
I swear I feel you near.
I know the type of me you’d prefer…

Kakyuu was out there somewhere. And ‘out’ perhaps wasn’t even the right term; Yaten could absolutely sense her somewhere on this planet, somewhere in this country. The others couldn’t — at least not nearly so strongly — which was why Yaten herself had led them here, and at first she’d looked down on them for that. In her newly forged emotional withdrawal and harshness, she’d disdained her fellow soldiers for lacking her adeptness in one particular area.

But she was past that now. They had their own skills, as she’d known all along and had eventually come to accept even through the walls and the bitterness. It was impolitic in any case to demand more of them, or to blame them for working in their own ways alongside her when that work was more important than any individual’s strengths or weaknesses.

Would she ever see her princess again, though? Every time she thought about it, a dull ache she simply couldn’t push down throbbed through her. Where, exactly, was Kakyuu? What was she doing? Dying of her wounds, or biding her time? Working toward some goal, or just slowly healing?

And did she fail to respond to their desperate songs because she didn’t feel it safe to do so, or because she didn’t hear… or because they had changed so much she no longer wanted or needed them?

Yaten refused to think about it. Just finding her… that would be enough.

And it’s not your fault I’m broken,
But if I saw you I’d be whole again.
Please don’t forget me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

She didn’t like what she was. That was one truth of the song: she wished she could be other. In reality she didn’t think she could go back to her former self, because she couldn’t unsee the horrors she’d witnessed on Kinmoku and on her moon, and she couldn’t unfeel the pain of her princess’ flight to this unknown world. And it would take some doing even just to unwrap the layers of unkindness she’d used to hide from everyone she might have loved.

But if she could grow from the experience into a better, gentler, stronger version of her old self… couldn’t she better serve her princess that way? Perhaps someday she could even heal again… if only she could find her…

And until then, the walls. The marble. The near-complete insensitivity.

We’ll be together. I’ll find you.
I won’t stop searching past the stars and the moon,
Through the galaxy,
For my princess and the me I used to be.

That last chorus… Yaten wasn’t quite sure about it, and would probably cut it. Too many of their songs already used the word ‘princess,’ and eventually even the most thick-headed fan had to wonder why the Three Lights all seemed to be obsessed with someone they called by that name. The imagery of stars and moon was also repetitive of similar wordings in other pieces, and, though it was difficult to avoid, it did get old after a while.

Beyond that, the attitude seemed a little… optimistic. After all, perhaps, as Yaten had reflected before, Kakyuu didn’t want to be found. Perhaps she was on a mission of such importance she’d considered it expedient to shed everything that might hold her back, including her own soldiers. Or perhaps she didn’t even recognize them in their young men’s bodies.

Yaten stared down at her boy’s hands as Seiya finished singing. This was another thing she hated. The others often seemed fairly comfortable in their bodies, but Yaten never was. The only time she felt physically right was when she transformed. Just another thing to hate about herself and the contingencies of the mission they were on.

Seiya went over the bridge again, experimenting with a different melody without accompaniment. Then she tried one of the verses a little slower than before, making it sound even more soulful in her smooth voice. Yaten fought a prickle of tears behind her eyes as her own words, her own deepest thoughts and the pain that prompted them, poured out of her comrade’s mouth.

Finally Seiya ceased singing all together. Yaten’s gaze shifted to where she could see Seiya’s reflection in the window, and, observing her frowning slightly over the paper, Yaten frowned as well. And Seiya asked, “Don’t you think some of this is a little obscure for a boy band?”

“No more obscure than most of Taiki’s lyrics,” Yaten almost snapped back.

“That’s true,” Taiki admitted. Gently she added, “I think they’re excellent lyrics, Yaten.”

Seiya’s reflection nodded. “We’ll have to find a different melody, of course, but this’ll make a great song.”

Almost against her will, Yaten smiled faintly. Because she knew they’d suffered very much as she had, changed in their own ways as she had in hers. Because she knew that by ‘excellent lyrics’ and ‘great song’ they meant, “We understand every word; we’re with you in pain and in hope.”

Because where she’d previously had fellow servants of a higher authority from different moons, barely even acquaintances, she now had sisters — or perhaps brothers — with the same name, the same goals, the same trauma.

She swiveled in the window seat and stood. “Let’s practice something else,” she said airily, as if none of this mattered, and headed to pick up her own instrument.

And maybe she would keep that last chorus in after all.

An anonymous Guest gave me the following November Quick Fics 2018 thoughts:

I’m not sure if you would be interested, but I feel like the Starlights don’t really have enough fics about them? I’m particularly interested in Yaten and her apparent (psychic? emphatic?) abilities. None of the Solar Senshi were able to tell when a Star Seed was taken, yet she always did. How was she affected when her own planet was destroyed? I mean, could it be a reason for her to close herself off and become so resistant to getting attached again? I feel like one of the reasons she never lost faith in the Princess and knew she was somewhere out there was because she could sense that she was alive, but then seeing her die would have hit her twice as hard. It also seemed to me that while Taiki and Seiya could be a little harsh on each other, they were more tolerant of Yaten’s mood swings and when they did scold her (i.e. for throwing away fans’ letters) they were always gentle. Lastly, her name’s Healer but she doesn’t seem to have the ability to actually heal – or could that be that by cutting herself away from her emotions she also cut away her healing powers? (we do know some other characters have these.) I feel like there is much to explore here (not necessarily in the way I see it). Or maybe not, and I’m terribly wrong…

I think I hit most of the points. I’ve rated this story

Escape From Reality

Escape From Reality

“Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain.”

Ladybug and Chat Noir face off against an enemy that shows them a variety of unpleasant possibilities… and one that may be a little more pleasant.

Escape From Reality

“They said I play too many video games and don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality…” The akumatized villain, calling herself Dimension, shouted her manifesto as so many of them did. “But I’ll show everyone that any reality can be real enough to change your life… or to end it! Starting with you, Ladybug and Chat Noir!”

She waved an akumatized parody of a motion controller at them in a rapid succession of movements like repeatedly cracking a whip, and in the air around them at each invisible point where the fictional whip’s end would have snapped, a translucent oval of color — red, yellow, black, blue — appeared and began wheeling around and above the two superheroes in unpredictable patterns. Inside the whirling set of hazy-edged shapes, Ladybug and Chat Noir threw each other a glance of bemusement.

“Is your idea of reality to make us look at pretty colors?” Chat Noir scratched his head, then, with a lop-sided grin, threw out an elbow as if to prod Ladybug with it as he added, “I think she really doesn’t know the difference.”

Ladybug had to smile a little, but… “Let’s just make finding her akuma a reality, OK?”

“Of course, milady!” And Chat Noir moved to duck under one of the floating colors and dash toward their enemy. The black, hazy-edged oval caught him in the shoulder, however, and with a loud popping sound like a cork from a bottle, he disappeared.

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug yelped, and jumped backward to avoid the black oval that swerved in her direction. This put her right in the path of the red one, and with both a popping sound and a popping sensation — as if she were the cork — she suddenly found herself somewhere else.

Well, it was still the streets of Paris. But something — everything, in fact — was different about them. The walls and buildings and even the parked cars around her were a confusion of varied hues she couldn’t take in quite yet, and the people had gathered in far different groups than those carefully collected at corners and behind cover to peek around and see what Dimension would do. These onlookers had clustered up at different points seemingly at random, and stood casually chatting. Confused, Ladybug drew closer.

A list of startling items became gradually evident: first, the surrounding chaotic colors were spray-painted onto every available upright surface in an epidemic of graffiti; second, the only thing those that viewed it had to say was a litany of repetitive praise for its artistry and the talent of someone they called ‘Tagger;’ third, they’d been engaged in this activity for a dreadfully long time, if their near-emaciated frames and the human waste on their lower bodies was any indication; fourth, the graffiti — or ‘street art,’ to give it the name used by the enthusiastic, starving audience — had some sort of hypnotic power over those that looked directly at it. Even from the corner of her eye, Ladybug felt the pull: a dizzy, euphoric impression and the creeping alien thought that it really did look nice and the artist really was talented.

She shook her head violently, eyes closed, and when she opened them again she focused steadfastly on the cobblestones beneath her feet. Lucky this ‘Tagger’ hadn’t painted the ground as well! She sidled up to the nearest group of art critics.

“Look at the colors!” one of them was saying rapturously.

Ladybug had, in the short time she’d been here, heard him say this once already, and now, careful to concentrate only on him, she grasped his shoulders and shook. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

When he didn’t reply, nor even turn his head in her direction, she attempted to drag him away or pull him off balance, but he seemed stuck in place and would not budge. She tried putting her hands over his eyes from behind as if playing the ‘Guess who!’ game, but he pushed her arms away and said, “Just look at the way the red melts into the orange!”

“Tagger is so talented,” agreed the elderly woman beside him in a tone of extreme weakness, and even as she made the comment she fell to her knees. Almost in a panic, Ladybug tried to catch her under the arms and ease her away from the soiled spot where she collapsed, but she too proved impossible to move. She just kept staring at the graffiti out of an unhealthily pale face.

These people needed food and water and to be cleaned up and gotten away from here, but obviously Ladybug lacked the power to effect that on her own. Glancing around at everyone clustered all up and down the street, she felt her heart sink slowly but surely into her spotted shoes. She also noticed the swirling colors not far off still doing their unpredictable dance in the air around where she’d originally appeared. The red was missing now, and in its place whirled a white oval whose movements seemed the most darting and random of all. If she understood correctly, those were portals to — as Dimension had hinted — other realities. The red one must lead here, so now it had been replaced by white, which led… where? Back to her own reality? Could she catch it and then come back here with help? She had to try.

The white portal proved far too capricious to catch, however, and she found herself popping through the black one before she even realized what was happening. Well, at least she followed Chat Noir; if she could find him, they could regroup and consider what to do.

A mere moment in the new reality was enough to make her shudder, for the structures of this Paris were covered in cobwebs. It was like the street leading up to the Arc de Triomphe under Anansi’s influence, only far worse. The wispy pale substance stretched from the ledge of one window the next, across doorways, and from wall to street as far as the eye could see. Despite the blue sky, the entire world looked dusty and grey, and in the corners of her eyes she thought she saw skittering movement. What was going on here??

Even as she directed her gaze upward in the immediate vicinity, something like a teardrop made of web detached from a street lamp and fell to the ground. Its outer covering seemed to melt away, and a cluster of huge spiders uncurled, detangled themselves from each other’s legs, and turned their many eyes upon her.

In great agitation, Ladybug looked for something she could fling her yo-yo at in order to swing away… but everything was far too spidery, and she didn’t feel confident connecting with any of it. She did a panicked little dance in place as she watched the spiders approaching, and a squeal escaped her lips as she searched for cover. And then, with a thud that made her shriek out loud, Chat Noir landed in front of her. He wore thigh-high wading boots, for some reason, instead of his usual footwear, but to her relief his staff was extended; he held it like a hockey player ready to bat away a puck and then get into a knock-down-drag-out with some member of the opposing team. Except the puck — and the opposing team! — was a group of spiders.

“Since I ran into myself here just a few minutes ago,” he said over his shoulder, “I assume you’re that other reality’s Marinette!”

“M-M-Marinette?!” was all she could reply, frozen in place more completely than fear of the spiders could hope to leave her.

“Oh!” Chat Noir replied, a bit startled. “Do you not know each other’s identities in your world yet?” The first of the spiders had reached him, and he knocked it away with his staff. It flew twelve feet into the air and disappeared into a swirl of purple and black. They weren’t real spiders, then, but the product of some akuma.

“No!” Ladybug’s head spun, and not merely from the thought of an akumatized villain covering Paris in spiders. “You didn’t tell the other Chat Noir, did you??”

“It didn’t come up,” this Chat Noir assured her, fighting off a thickening wave of arachnids. “I was too busy rescuing him just like this! When the egg sacs open, the spiders inside go for the first person they see. They don’t bite, just swarm all over them — but that’s bad enough! Araña wants to convince everyone that spiders are awesome, but it’s backfired — nobody comes out of the buildings anymore.”

Ladybug was a little easier at the news that this undertaking hadn’t shattered the secrecy between her and her world’s Chat Noir, but horrified at the nature of this dimension’s dilemma. She would have asked why the local Ladybug and Chat Noir hadn’t captured the akuma yet, but believed she already saw the answer: Chat Noir’s movements, even as he defended her against the last of the spiders as if he did this all the time, were stiff, awkward, borderline clumsy. “You’re injured!”

“No.” He grimaced over his shoulder at her. “Just scared to death of spiders.”

“Me too,” she admitted. That would hamper anyone’s ability to deal with a city full of them.

“I know.” He gave her a smart-aleck grin. “And I need to get back to my Ladybug. You should get through your portal before another egg sac hatches!”

Ladybug glanced where he was looking, and indeed saw the whirling set of colorful portals waiting for her. Here, the black portal was missing and had been replaced with the red. “Which one did Chat Noir take?”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“I’ll aim for white, then. Thank you!” she shouted as she darted to try.

But again the chaotic movements of the portals betrayed her; blue filled her vision, and with another popping sound and sensation she was carried to yet another version of Paris. Her running momentum did not slacken at the transition, and she stumbled several more steps forward and smack into Chat Noir. They both tumbled to the ground, she on top of him, and his eyes widened as he recognized her.

“Please tell me you’re my Chat Noir,” she gasped.

“Always and forever, milady,” he said just as breathlessly, probably because she’d knocked the wind out of him. He added, “But if you mean the Chat Noir from the reality where Dimension sent us off to various miserable places covered in spiders, I’m that Chat Noir too.”

“Thank goodness,” Ladybug said, climbing off him and scanning the area. Her brows lowered as she took in the scene, and she asked, “What’s going on in this Paris?” with a sense of great uneasiness.

Chat Noir jumped to his feet and stood beside her, looking grim — or at least as grim as he was capable of. “They’ve got everything they need in there…” He gestured to the pedestrians that resembled walking showers, their bodies circled from head to ankle in opaque curtains. “Food, water, something that keeps them clean, and they can even sleep standing up. They can see out, but nobody can see in. I saw the supervillain putting the things on some construction workers, and they just went back to work without talking to each other. Nobody interacts wearing these things; I think the villain hates all kinds of human interaction, but he didn’t say a word when I saw him!”

“Then us standing here talking is probably going to draw his attention,” Ladybug speculated. “Where are the Ladybug and Chat Noir of this reality?”

“I haven’t seen them. Maybe they got curtained like these people?”

“It would be hard to fight in those things… Should we try to defeat the villain ourselves?”

Chat Noir did a pensive handstand. “I don’t think we have time to go defeating all the villains in these realities… who knows what Dimension is up to back in our reality?”

With a reluctant final look around, Ladybug protested, “I don’t like to leave them like this, though.”

“Always so kind,” said Chat Noir admiringly. “But it’s not as bad as some we’ve seen…”

“You’re right.” She clenched a fist in unhappy determination. “Let’s see if we can get back through the white portal!”

They turned to face the crazy ovals. Ladybug thought she was getting better at predicting their patterns, but the white one remained the fastest and the least calculable among the other available options of yellow, red, and black. As she and Chat Noir dove for it, he got swept up by the red one, while she popped through the black again.

Spider-Paris’ Chat Noir was nowhere in sight, and neither, thank goodness, was any egg sac ready to burst — but that didn’t mean Ladybug wanted to linger. She spun and dashed for the portals again, and this time actually managed to hit the one she wanted. With a pop, the graffiti-covered Paris came back into view, and Ladybug quickly dropped her eyes to the ground.

“Chat Noir!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

His voice came from nearby, but unfortunately its tone was all hypnosis in remarking, “What a cool design! What genius painted this?”

Ladybug looked up just far enough to see the black-clad figure slowly making his way toward a nearby car where bright colors already tugged at the corner of her eye. With a sound of frustration she followed, and, getting around in front of him, put both hands over his eyes and tried to hold him back. And perhaps because he hadn’t yet reached the spot where he would be rooted to the ground immovably, it worked; though he raised his hands to try to remove hers, his grip was lackluster and his steps slowed. He came to a halt, stood still a long moment simply holding her wrists, and finally wondered, “What’s going on?”

“Chat Noir, I’m going to remove my hands,” she told him, “and you can’t look at the graffiti. Look at the sky, or the ground, or — or at me, but not at the graffiti. OK?”

As she did as she’d said, his face wore the grin she’d expected when she’d suggested he look at her. “OK, milady,” he replied, pleased. “I’m always happy to look at you! But what’s with this place?”

“It seems like nobody appreciated the villain’s art. Now everyone who looks at it is hypnotized and can’t leave or talk about anything else. They’re all starving because they’re not allowed to do anything but admire his graffiti nonstop!”

Chat Noir swept a careful low glance around, undoubtedly taking in enough of the people nearby to confirm what she’d told him. “Do you think we’re hypnotized somewhere too?”

“If we are,” Ladybug replied in dismay, “the villain could easily have taken our Miraculous while we just stood there praising his art.”

“Or maybe there is no Ladybug and Chat Noir in this reality. Le Papillon showed up and started stirring up trouble, but somehow we never got our Miraculous and aren’t around to help. Maybe in curtain-Paris too.”

“I can’t decide which idea is worse,” Ladybug grumbled.

He met her eyes again, but this time with a thoughtful, almost sneaky smile that didn’t seem to fit the situation. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“We may not have time and energy to defeat all these villains or even check whether there’s anyone around who can, but maybe we can do something to help. These people need to be fed and cleaned and to get some rest, right?”

“Yeah…?” She stared into his strangely green eyes for a moment, and then suddenly realized what he meant. “Yeah! That’s genius!”

He bowed. “I’m like that sometimes!” And he turned back toward the portals again.

“Wait!” Her cry halted him mid-step. “We keep getting separated; hold my hand!”

Coming back toward her, he took her extended hand and kissed it. “I thought you’d never ask!” Then together they tried to intercept the blue portal.

Yet again they weren’t able to pinpoint the one they wanted. Yellow swallowed them up with a pop, and, hands still tightly clasped, they found themselves elsewhere: not the streets of Paris this time, but an annoyingly familiar suite in an obnoxiously familiar hotel. After a brief glance around, each met the other’s gaze, and they both sighed.

“Chloé?” they queried in unison.

“In here!” came the immediate reply from the next room. The same voice — Chloé’s voice — then went on in frustration, obviously addressing someone else, “Don’t you dare put that on me! That thing is absolutely hideous!” Then there was a loud rustling of paper and a muffled cry, followed by another yell in their direction: “Whoever’s out there, get in here and help me before I puke from this horrible color!”

The scene in the next room was not all together surprising: a clearly akumatized woman whose left hand had been replaced by a pair of scissors was busily cutting outfits from pieces of paper she pulled from a kind of quiver at her back. They grew to life-size as she cut, bore tabs like those used to attach such clothing to paper dolls, and were obviously intended to be worn by Chloé Bourgeois. The latter hung in the air, tied up at wrists and ankles by long strings of simpler, chain-style paper dolls, currently dressed in a fluffy sequined orange dress of which she evidently didn’t approve.

Both the villain and the victim looked over as Ladybug and Chat Noir entered, and mimicked the unison of a moment before in demanding, “Who on Earth are you?”

“And what are you wearing?” Chloé added.

So that basically proved Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t exist in this reality. Of course there was no reason they couldn’t eventually, but it was still a depressing thought.

“Well, I don’t care who you are,” was Chloé’s next, dismissive comment. “This servant I fired because she brought me ugly clothing turned into a monster and is making me wear hideous rags like this–” the clause ended on a disgusted shriek– “and you need to take care of it! You know who I am, I assume?”

The villain had paused with the next outfit mostly cut out, staring at Ladybug and Chat Noir warily, but as Chloé went on about how the daughter of the mayor of Paris should never be forced to wear such monstrosities and the villain’s taste was even worse as a monster than it had been as a personal assistant, she returned to her snipping without a word.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered. “Let’s find the blue portal.”

Ladybug barely resisted as he pulled her back into the other room. “But Chloé…”

“If the worst that supervillain’s doing to her is making her wear clothing she doesn’t like, she’ll be OK for now.”

With a shrug Ladybug admitted, “At least this one isn’t trying to kill her.” She did feel a little bad about leaving even Chloé at the mercy of an akuma in a Ladybugless Paris, though.

This time they made it through the blue oval and back to the curtain dimension. It looked as it had before: with numerous shrouded white figures moving about in a fairly normal fashion, just completely invisible behind their yards of cloth and never acknowledging the presence of others.

“You said the villain was near here a little earlier, right?” Ladybug asked.

“Yeah. I figure if we keep talking, he’ll show up.”

“It probably helps that we’re holding hands.” She thought she saw a faint blush seep out from beneath Chat Noir’s mask as she said this, and that made her own face heat.

Chat Noir cleared his throat. “This is going to be tough once he does show up.”

“I know. It’s hard enough on our own!”

“We’ll probably want to grab him from both sides so we’re all touching, and then jump. If we miss, don’t think about it — just jump again.”

“Right.” She nodded firmly. “We can do this.”

“Hey! Isn’t this great?” Chat Noir startled her with his sudden yell. “Look how well we’re interacting! We always get along so well! We always want to talk to each other and hold each other’s hands!”

“Uh, yeah!” Ladybug took her turn at the ridiculous taunt. “We hang out all the time! And we get other people involved too!”

Do we?” Chat Noir’s eyes twinkled as he asked this in a low tone.

Ladybug blushed more deeply than before at his implication. “I mean we have a lot of friends!” she cried. “Friends who interact with each other all the time, just like we do!”

“Sometimes we get into arguments!” Chat Noir agreed. “With people we interact with!”

“Oh, yes! There’s all sorts of drama! Sometimes people even get their feelings hurt!”

“Misunderstandings! And deceitful behavior! And insults! And–”

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug freed one hand from where they’d somehow come to be clasping both, and pointed. A ripple in the crowd seemed to be making its way in their direction, and as the pedestrian traffic shifted she thought she could see a different color than the omnipresent white.

“That’s him, all right.” Together they began backing up, her left hand still in his right, until they were about as close to the portals as they could get without risking being hit by one on its forward swing. And before them, a figure wearing a black curtain emerged and plodded slowly toward them. It stopped not far off and, though it said nothing, seemed to be examining them. Several moments passed in silence.

Undoubtedly to speed things along, Chat Noir bent toward Ladybug and asked, “Well, what do you think, milady?”

“I think Chloé wouldn’t approve of the outfit,” Ladybug replied.

The villain struck in a sudden, startling movement. His curtain fluttered upward with the missile that flew from each of his outflung hands, granting them just a brief view of the sad-looking man beneath. But they were too busy dodging the white cloth that had shot toward them, threatening to make them into solitary curtain-wearers probably every bit as lonely as this guy. Their hands had broken apart with their leap, but it didn’t matter; if they couldn’t get hold of him quickly and drag him back in this direction, being separated would be the least of their worries.

More curtains raced toward their new positions; Ladybug jumped while Chat Noir ducked. Then a yo-yo flicked out at the enemy in the hopes of immobilizing him at least briefly. The villain essayed a dodge of his own, but came immediately up against Chat Noir’s extended staff and was caught neatly in the yo-yo’s string. The two superheroes dashed forward, each catching hold of one side of the floating bar above the guy’s head from which his curtains hung. They pulled his stumbling form toward the portals, and Ladybug could feel him straining against the tie in which he was wrapped; it wouldn’t hold him long.

The colors swirled before them, and by now they were definitely parsing the patterns somewhat. The curtain-villain struggled even harder as Chat Noir said, “3…”

“2…” said Ladybug.

“1…”

“Jump!”

With a red pop, they’d succeeded — all three of them landed in graffiti-Paris. Hastily they shoved the curtain-villain forward, Ladybug disengaging her yo-yo, and stepped back themselves. Now to get the all-important answer: could one akumatized villain resist the hypnosis created by another?

The man caught his balance after a step or two, then stood still as he’d done in curtain-Paris just a minute before, seeming to look around without a word at the admirers of Tagger’s street art. He took another step forward as he and the superheroes heard someone nearby make a remark to a neighbor and get a reply: clear interaction. Then white cloth began to fly. Bystanders disappeared one by one, and Ladybug was pleased to see the old woman she’d been so concerned about before rising easily to her feet as soon as she was under the protection of a curtain.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered, and drew her backward again. The villain was moving away from them, up the street, curtaining everyone he could see, but if they spoke too loudly he would undoubtedly turn once more. They needed to get through a portal, and right now it didn’t much matter which.

The color turned out to be black, proving it did actually matter which since Ladybug hadn’t really wanted to come back to this version of Paris. She and Chat Noir shuddered in tandem as they realized where they were, and huddled almost unconsciously closer together.

“It worked,” Chat Noir said, still in a whisper though they’d left curtain-villain behind. Doubtless he, like Ladybug, thought attracting the attention of the spiders around here would be every bit as bad.

“At least they’re better off now than they were before,” Ladybug replied in as quiet a tone. And looking around she added, “Now I’m getting an idea…”

“I love your ideas,” Chat Noir told her with a grin obviously tempered somewhat by their surroundings.

But before she could speak again, another voice — this one not bothering to whisper — called out to them. “I thought you might come back, since the portals are still here!” And the other Chat Noir vaulted into view. This time the spider-Paris Ladybug swung in beside him, and Ladybug noticed she too wore tall wading boots. That only made sense, given what this Paris was like, but it did rather spoil the outfit.

“Do you two need some pointers,” alternate Chat Noir went on, “from a more in-tune superhero team?” And he threw an arm around alternate Ladybug’s waist and laid his head on her shoulder.

The gesture and the question combined were so easily understood that Chat Noir’s jaw dropped and Ladybug’s face went burning hot — far worse than earlier. With a squeak she dropped his hand and stepped awkwardly away, stammering as she did so, “No, no, no, of course we don’t need any pointings — pointers — like that! No pointers at all! We’re just fine in-tune the way we are, thanks!”

But, “I think we could use some pointers!” Chat Noir told his double with eager haste. “How did this happen?”

Alternate Chat Noir moved to kiss alternate Ladybug, who pushed his face away with a roll of eyes. “This really isn’t the time for it, kitty-cat.” Then, turning to the others, she added, “Do you need our real help?”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” alternate Chat Noir whispered loudly behind his hand to his twin.

“Oh, like you did?” wondered alternate Ladybug with affectionate sarcasm.

Alternate Chat Noir allowed, “You’re right, milady.” And to Ladybug and Chat Noir he admitted, “She figured everything out. She’s even more of a genius than I am.”

“Right!” Chat Noir agreed. “I’m always in awe of her powers!”

“What did I do to deserve two of them,” Ladybug muttered. Then, loudly, overriding the two amorous cats, she said, “Actually, Ladybug, you might be able to help us.”

Her Chat Noir’s attention snapped right back from the small distance it had wandered. “You said you had an idea.”

“Yes! I think we can use the same trick twice, and help Chloé!”

The alternate pair echoed, “Chloé?” and, meeting each other’s eyes, sighed.

On the other hand, Chat Noir’s face lit up. “Good thinking!” And he started looking around at the walls and lamp posts.

“So what do you need?” alternate Ladybug wondered. “I suppose Chloé’s gotten herself targeted again?”

“We need to push one of those egg sacs through the yellow portal,” Ladybug explained, “to scare off her villain at least temporarily. But Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain. If we can find an egg sac–”

“There!” Chat Noir’s searching gaze had located one three storeys up a wall above them.

Ladybug gave him a nod of acknowledgment. “–can you two help us get it down and through the portal?”

They all looked at the egg sac, and they all shuddered in unison. Then, eyes falling again, the four of them laughed nervously.

“Yes, of course,” alternate Ladybug assured her, though her voice very naturally wavered a little at the prospect of messing it up and spilling spiders all over them.

“That one doesn’t look ready to hatch yet,” alternate Chat Noir assured her. “Which is a problem we’ll have to deal with once we get it down.”

“But how do we get it down?” Chat Noir wondered.

Alternate Ladybug, frowning upward, took her yo-yo in hand, and Ladybug was intimately familiar with the motion, as well as with the sound of a voice just like hers crying out, “Lucky Charm!” Some things had gone differently in this reality, and the superheroes were wearing wellies, but many things were identical.

A small folding chair without legs — just plastic cushion and back and a couple of hooks on the bottom for attaching it to something — appeared in the air above alternate Ladybug and dropped into her hands. “What is this?” she wondered, sounding as baffled as Ladybug felt.

“It’s a stadium chair,” both Chat Noirs informed her at the same moment. One of them went on, “You bring it to a game to make the seats more comfortable.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’ll make things any more comfortable for us with all these spiders around,” alternate Ladybug muttered, her eyes darting from point to point in another motion Ladybug was eminently familiar with. She decided to join her.

“Um, milady…” Alternate Chat Noir was looking uneasily up the street. “I think I hear the skitter-scatter of a lot of little feet coming our way…”

“One more second,” said alternate Ladybug with a touch of desperation, and then she and Ladybug lighted on the same solution at the same moment. “There!” they both cried, startling the Chats. Then they got busy, each taking her Chat Noir by the arms and arranging him as needed: shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the wall to which the egg sac adhered. Alternate Ladybug stood in front of them, holding the stadium chair so its back was to them, and instructed, “Now, if you each extend your staff to the same length, so they catch the hooks under here…”

“The chair becomes a giant spatula!” gloated one Chat Noir.

“For a super nasty omelette,” the other added.

In perfect synchronization they did as they were told, and alternate Ladybug ducked as the seat was lifted out of her hands by the two extending staffs. It rose smoothly at an oblique angle, and where it hit the wall slid neatly underneath the sac, separating the latter from the stone so it settled down against the seat back and descended gently toward the pavement again as the staffs retracted. They didn’t bring it within arm’s reach, though, seeming to agree tacitly that just beyond was close enough.

“Now…” said alternate Chat Noir, looking up the street again to where the sound of tapping spider claws definitely sounded, “you said the yellow portal, right?”

“Right,” said Ladybug.

“Then take this.” Alternate Chat Noir gestured to his staff, and Ladybug was quick to obey. She and her Chat Noir pivoted, turning the chair with its disgusting burden toward where the portals whirled some distance away. Alternate Chat Noir was already headed in that direction. “Extend!” he called as he ran. Ladybug and Chat Noir did so, struggling to keep the wobbling seat steady as the staffs grew longer. “Cataclysm!” alternate Chat Noir shouted next, raising his hand.

They stopped the chair’s movement just in front of the portals, where alternate Chat Noir halted as well. He watched carefully, then darted his hand out to slap the egg sac off the stadium seat and forward just as the yellow portal swung by. His Cataclysm destroyed the sac’s outer coating of web, and they all barely saw a mass of spiders pushed forward into the portal, where they disappeared — hopefully to swarm over the scissor-handed villain tormenting Chloé and drive her away long enough for Chloé to escape.

Alternate Chat Noir seized the stadium chair and bounded back to his Ladybug, who threw it into the sky to return it to the magic (though it changed nothing, of course, as no akuma had been captured). Her earring spots were already in short supply.

“You two better get out of here,” alternate Chat Noir advised, “before that new group of spiders arrives!”

“You two too,” Chat Noir returned, “before you transform back and can’t do anything to fight them!”

“We have got to take care of Araña,” alternate Ladybug complained.

Ladybug said, “Let me guess… she’s a giant spider?”

“Got it in one,” said alternate Ladybug in a dark tone. In an impetuous movement, she stepped forward and gave Ladybug a kiss on both cheeks. “Good luck with your villain!”

“Yours too!” Ladybug replied, touched. “Everyone, go!” And they split, the local superheroes swinging and vaulting off to safety before they could regain their civilian forms and Ladybug and Chat Noir, finding each other’s hands again, sprinting toward the portals.

“Think we can manage the white one this time?” Chat Noir wondered as they ran.

“No doubt!” was Ladybug’s enthusiastic reply. “I’ve got the kiss of luck on me now!”

“Aww, don’t make me jealous,” Chat Noir pouted, and they came to a brief halt and waited only a few moments before jumping forward again. White enveloped the world, and they popped out right into Dimension’s face.

She appeared more than a little startled, but rallied quickly. “So you made it back, did you? How did it feel to witness your failures in those other realities?”

“We didn’t witness failures,” Ladybug declared, giving Chat Noir’s hand a squeeze before letting it go. “We only saw what’s made us stronger than ever — and you’re going to feel it!” And throwing her yo-yo into the air, she added, “Lucky Charm!”

MangoFox’s second November Quick Fics 2018 prompt was this: “By some shenanigans (time travel, parallel universes, whatever), Marinette and/or Adrien have to view or enter a series of alternate realities in which Ladybug and Chat Noir have been unable (or unwilling) to stop certain villains. In each reality, one akumatized villain, now unopposed, has been able to continue using their powers, taking their method/goal to its logical extreme. Now, Marinette/Adrien are forced to (briefly) deal with the creepy outcomes of each scenario.”

I feared this might be a little too complicated for a quick fic, but then I got an idea how to deal with it, so it happened. I’ve rated it

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Marinette would never even know… Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute.

Staying in her ‘cousin’ Marinette’s room, Cedulie from Pontrieux learns a tragic secret.

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Cedulie turned the ornate yet compact wooden box over and over and over in her hands, studying its shape and inlay for perhaps the sixth time before setting it back down and opening it yet again. She’d stumbled across its hiding place behind a loose baseboard by purest accident, and could only guess at the reason for its being so secretively tucked away… but surely ‘cousin’ Marinette wouldn’t mind her wearing these earrings while she was here?

Cedulie wasn’t actually supposed to know the real reason they were doing this temporary house and business swap, but by eavesdropping on her parents completely by accident, she’d heard about the nervous breakdown of the daughter of her père’s old friend from culinary school, and the Dupain-Chengs’ desire to get the girl out of Paris for a while. Though they were about the same age, Cedulie and Marinette had never met, so the reasons for the breakdown must be hazy… yet it had happened, Cedulie understood, almost six months ago, which would correspond with the disappearance in disgrace of the Parisian superhero Ladybug… and here was a hidden pair of earrings that looked, unless she was very much mistaken, just like the ones that came with Ladybug costumes (though how to get the spots to appear she couldn’t tell yet).

From what she’d heard, Marinette wouldn’t be the first to suffer some manner of PTSD in the wake of whatever disaster — Cedulie didn’t know the details — had driven the polka-dotted heroine from the esteem and environs of the capital. Five and a half months seemed perhaps excessive, but it did allow Cedulie to spend an as-yet-undetermined length of time in a pretty cool loft bedroom with a view of Notre Dame and a chance for her dads below to try their hands at more specialized baking than they did at their cafe back in Pontrieux.

And of course she hoped her own bedroom, with its flower-strewn window ledges and panels of colored glass, would help Marinette recover.

And for the moment…

Marinette would never even know…

Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute. She closed the box and headed to the mirror, only a little guiltily, to admire her ears.

That night, after a day busy with settling in and helping to get the bakery ready for reopening under guest management tomorrow, she dreamed in black and red.

Beyond the slashes and blotches of color, it was nothing more than a mess of terrifying emotions: shattered determination, terrible failure, horror, fear, guilt, shock, heartbreak, loss, self-blame, despair… She’d never had such vivid nightmare feelings without a scenario to go along with them, and she’d certainly never thought merely sleeping in an unfamiliar space could waken such trauma inside her. After bolting up in a panic and then walking the floor of Marinette’s room for a few minutes to calm her racing pulse, she got a drink of water and went back to bed. And then it happened again.

She’d never had such a miserable night. Horror, guilt, heartbreak; failure, loss, despair — could it only be that she’d left her home and school and friends possibly for months and come to a big city she hadn’t visited before? Because she personally had never felt these emotions so intensely, so how could any circumstance be prompting them like this?

Glad she was that they’d come at the beginning of a school holiday, because that meant she could mope around the bakery and the neighborhood yawning all the next day. Her dads assumed she’d stayed up all night excitedly talking to friends about her new surroundings, and they threw each other grins over the baked goods every time she slouched through with her tired eyes. The prospect of bed that night was a significant relief.

Unfortunately, bed that night was as bad as bed the previous night had been.

It was the same sequence over and over: failure, horror, guilt, shock, heartbreak, despair… When Cedulie woke again in a cold sweat, tears running down her face, her gradual return to coherent thought was also a growing awareness that what she dreamed did make some kind of sense. Not any kind she could puzzle through, and it didn’t change the fact that she needed sleep, but, yes, there seemed to be a train of logic to the alien emotions.

By the third night, beyond exhausted, she’d grown enough accustomed to the nightmare that it didn’t wake her up quite so frequently — and, beyond that, she was starting to be able to read it a little better. Determination toward a long-sought victory, failure in that endeavor, ongoing horror at the outcome, fear for further terrible consequences, guilt at the poor decision that had led to this disaster, shock at an unexpected revelation and the means by which it had been made, heartbreak at the loss of someone important, awareness that none of this would have happened with a different choice, utter despair at ever being able to make any of it right… But what did it all mean? Cedulie was reliving the emotions associated with someone’s experience of some sort, but getting no details of that experience to explain them.

And that someone pretty much had to be Marinette, didn’t it? Whatever had caused her breakdown was haunting her room, her bed, so that Cedulie picked up on it while sleeping in here. And the feelings were so strong and unpleasant, Cedulie no longer considered five and a half months a long time for Marinette not to be over this. Whatever it was.

On the fourth day, less worn out as she’d begun to master this but now with a burning desire for answers, Cedulie, helping out in the bakery, fielded a visit and set of questions from a group of Marinette’s classmates. Evidently Marinette hadn’t given them the address in Pontrieux where she would be spending time trying to recover, and had long since ceased answering texts and calls, and these girls were trying to winkle her location out of the exchange family so as to send letters and care packages and who knew what else. Cedulie, having felt what she presumed Marinette had felt to sour her home in the first place, hesitated to betray the ‘cousin’ she had never met, but her papa gave out the address before she even knew he’d heard the request, so that was that.

The positive side to the girls’ visit, besides the fact that they all wanted to try the unfamiliar baking of the Arseneault-Chagnon family and spent a decent amount of money for hopefully a decent amount of word-of-mouth, was that Cedulie was able to grille them on everything they knew about Marinette and her problems of late.

It seemed Marinette had completely dropped out of school fifty-some days ago after three and a half months of increasingly poor performance and obvious depression and anxiety following some disaster none of the classmates wanted to talk about. There was a sense of mutual standoffishness or wariness between Cedulie and the group, in fact, since neither wanted to reveal all the information available. Cedulie thought she might have worked on a pale, ditzy-seeming girl that cried actual tears when Marinette’s troubles came up, but another with purple-tipped hair seemed to act as her protector and perhaps even girlfriend, and undoubtedly wouldn’t allow it. Once they’d bought their pastries and learned all they could, they filed out, most of them throwing covert glances at Cedulie as they went.

The last girl in the procession, though, paused in the doorway, ostensibly to allow another customer to enter past her but clearly in reality to look back at Cedulie more pointedly than the others had done. Despite her lack of overt weeping, she somehow seemed more torn up than any of the others about Marinette’s uncertain condition; behind her glasses, her drooping eyes showed signs of as much insomnia as Cedulie had suffered lately, and her face had paled during the preceding conversation to a significantly lighter tan than that of her arms (already two or three shades lighter than Cedulie’s skin). Perhaps she too sensed she wasn’t being told everything, and thought she could get something out of Cedulie alone. The latter couldn’t imagine sharing the strange emotional nightmares she’d been having with a stranger, though.

The girl came back a few steps into the store to where Cedulie was finishing up her task of arranging macarons in a swirl of colors on a large elevated platter for one of the displays. She stared at Cedulie wearily for a moment, and finally raised her hands. One held a state-of-the-art cell phone, and the other hung poised above it. “What’s your number?” she asked flatly.

Cedulie hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason not to give it. The stranger entered it, then stared down at her phone for a moment with a frown. Finally she pocketed it, looked back up at Cedulie, and said, “I’ll send you something. It explains… some things.” And without waiting for an answer, she turned and left.

Wondering exactly what that had been about, Cedulie went pensively back to her macarons. A few minutes later, however, when a tone sounded from her own pocket, she hastily added the last of the cookies to the tray, pushed it into place, and spun. “Père! Papa! Can I take a break?”

Père was busy with the new customer, but papa came over and inspected Cedulie’s work. “Looks great, love. Go have fun for a while.”

She’d barely thanked him before she was through the back and up the stairs to Marinette’s loft. There, she threw herself onto the bed, drew her knees up, and pulled out her phone.

They repressed this footage, said the unfamiliar number, but this is what happened to two of our other classmates. It’s really disturbing.

The video file had already fully downloaded — cell signal seemed to be really good here — so with a deep breath and bracing herself for what she assumed she would see, Cedulie hit Play.

The view was that of a patio filled with stone tables outside a restaurant, and the recording, probably from a cell phone, held remarkably steady, as if whoever had captured this had a lot of experience getting disaster footage.

And the subject was Ladybug.

Agitated and curious though she was, Cedulie had to pause the video for a moment to hiss, “I knew it!” Marinette’s breakdown did have something to do with Ladybug.

But wait… the local news in Pontrieux hadn’t ever shown what had happened to the superhero in the end (not that their coverage of Ladybug had ever been more than patchy in the first place), and the message here said this footage was being repressed and that it was disturbing… Could this somehow be a video of Ladybug’s last stand? How would that girl have gotten hold of it?

Starting it again in even greater agitation, Cedulie watched on.

The akumatized victim appeared to have taken the shape of an enormous pair of spiked boots with only the faintest hint of a figure wearing them, and was busy chasing a blonde girl Cedulie vaguely recognized from past news reports as having been rescued by Ladybug and Chat Noir on at least a couple of other occasions. From the mostly transparent body above the boots came a tirade about how the blonde girl always walked all over everyone but now it was her turn to be trampled on.

Ladybug and Chat Noir struggled with the two ends of what appeared to be a black-spotted red rubber diving suit, stretching it out to tie to the umbrella poles of two adjacent tables. But whether the intention had been to call to the blonde girl to lead the pursuing villain toward the springy potential trap was unclear, for Ladybug suddenly gasped, “Papillon!” and pointed. “Here, help me with this!”

Cedulie thought she remembered, from months back, that the news had mentioned a greater incidence, there at the end, of the major villain appearing in person, evidently having become frustrated at the continual failure of his efforts conducted from afar. And, indeed, the camera swerved from its closeup on Ladybug and Chat Noir to show a tall, narrow figure in grey atop the wall bordering the patio on one side. Then the view returned with almost a sense of breathless haste to Ladybug, who was trying to wrestle a fallen table umbrella into a perpendicular position against the stretched diving suit so as to use the latter as a giant slingshot and the former as an oversized arrow aimed at Le Papillon.

“But Chloé…” Chat Noir protested.

Ladybug was firm in her purpose. “We have time! This may be our only chance!”

Though Chat Noir looked uncertain, he obeyed, and with four hands it did indeed only take a second longer to load up the umbrella, direct it, and let it fly. The camera followed the missile, whose aim was true: the surprised Papillon, with a cry, took the makeshift dart right in the chest and was knocked from his perch on the wall. There was a shout of triumph from Ladybug, but the second half of the enthusiastic syllable was overridden by a pandemonium from all sides, both from Ladybug’s direction as well as from near the camera: screams of dismay and horror, the triumphant laughter of the akumatized villain, and Chat Noir suddenly shouting desperately, “Chloé! Chloé!”

And when the camera returned quickly in that direction, it displayed the form of the blonde girl — Chloé — now visible where the enormous boots had just stamped, flattened into an unnatural position on the flagstones, oozing blood, and very, very still. Ladybug had been wrong; they hadn’t had time.

She had already run several steps in the direction of the fallen Papillon, but now stood stock-still staring at the lethal result of her poor decision. She faced away from the camera, which had begun to shake slightly in whatever hand held it, but Cedulie knew what she felt. She’d experienced herself the sudden sense of failure, the awful sick feeling at Chloé’s death that would suffuse the rest of the scene, the guilt and shock. And she knew another shock was coming. Though her heart seemed to be pounding in her throat, she also couldn’t quite bring herself to breathe as she watched on.

The screams had died down into an eerie quiet broken only by the chortling of the lesser enemy, while everyone stared in astonished dismay at the body on the ground. As the camera wandered away almost absently as if the hands holding it had forgotten their task, Cedulie was able to see that even Papillon, where he’d emerged around the wall off of which he’d tumbled, appeared startled, perhaps even shaken by the event.

“She’ll never step all over anyone again!” the villain was gloating. “And you, who defended her, are next!” And the view suddenly snapped back to the action, still a bit shaky but evidently determined to record everything that went on here today.

The giant boots rushed at Chat Noir, taking him by surprise in his continual surprise and horror despite the announced intention, and kicked him to the ground with a single hit. One shoe came to rest on his chest, the other on his right arm. The nearly invisible figure wearing the boots bent low with a triumphant laugh.

Ladybug, for one moment too long, could not tear her traumatized gaze from Chloé’s corpse. But the sound of bone snapping and her partner’s anguished cry dragged her attention in that direction — too late. For the villain stood straight again, bounding off the prostrate, broken-armed figure of the fallen hero, hefting his captured Miraculous high for all to see. “Papillon!” came the disembodied voice from above the boots. “I’ve done it!”

But everyone’s eyes were on Chat Noir. A gasp seemed to issue from every nearby throat as the black cat suit melted away and the true form of the mysterious superhero appeared. He couldn’t even drag an arm across his face to hide it, for one clutched convulsively at the other as he rolled in agony onto his side, visage in full view of the onlookers. And even Cedulie found it familiar, though the name didn’t come to mind until the group behind the camera — whatever crowd had gathered for this gruesome display — started whispering it in intense surprise: “Adrien Agreste!”

Ladybug fell to her knees, utterly powerless on the pavement.

Half a moment later, the general outcry changed and increased, and the unexpected form of Le Papillon dashed into view, scooped the fallen model off the ground, and sprinted away. The camera didn’t follow him; in fact it drooped from Ladybug’s defeated figure and lingered, unfocused, on the flagstones and a pair of shoes before the video abruptly ended.

The tears streaming down Cedulie’s cheeks were genuinely her own this time, and she bent over the phone with eyes squeezed tight shut for a moment. Chloé and Adrien must have been the other classmates the girl in the bakery had mentioned, and Marinette…

“Marinette was Ladybug,” she whispered, her voice choked and weak. Marinette had been Ladybug, and she’d not only gotten her classmate killed and her partner de-powered and injured, she’d lost him to her greatest enemy, whom she’d failed to defeat. And if the heartbreak Cedulie had sensed in her nightmares was any indication, there might even have been more to the emotional tangle of the scene than that.

“Now you know the truth,” came a tiny voice from nearby, and the sorrow and weariness it held was so in keeping with how Cedulie felt and what she’d just witnessed that it didn’t even startle her despite its total unfamiliarity.

She looked down, and found at her side, lying on the mattress and appearing to have used up all its energy getting only that far, a strange little red creature whose black spots left no doubt in Cedulie’s mind that it had something to do with Ladybug. Not daring to speak above a whisper, fearing too heavy a breath would blow the sad and worn-out thing away, Cedulie said, “But what happened after? Where is Chat Noir now? Does everyone blame Ladybug for that?”

“Ladybug escaped before she transformed back,” the tiny person replied listlessly, “but she was never the same again.”

Cedulie nodded.

“No one’s seen Adrien since. Marinette was in love with him, you know.” Minuscule tears slid down the creature’s face, and Cedulie, heart aching, impetuously scooped the thing up and cradled it in her hands. The tiny body expanded with a deep breath that came out as a miserable sigh, and then the high-pitched voice finished, “And nobody every blamed her as much as she blamed herself.”

For a minute or so Cedulie simply sat and cried along with the unknown being in her hands. She didn’t fully understand yet, but the creature seemed to need this. If it was a part of the Ladybug business, after all, everything had fallen apart for it five and a half months ago just as it had for Marinette.

Finally, though, Cedulie stirred and looked down again at the red and black stranger. Still in a whisper she ventured, “So what now?”

Soulful, exhausted eyes looked up at her, and the creature seemed to gather its strength to speak again. “You’re wearing the Ladybug Miraculous. That’s why I’m here.”

Cedulie’s right hand flew to her ear. She’d almost completely forgotten about the earrings she’d thoughtlessly borrowed. Surely that was the reason for the nightmares! She’d been connecting to Ladybug through Ladybug’s own conduit of power!

“But the experience was too much for her,” the creature went on, “and the earrings are tainted. She renounced me… she said it was only for a while, but…” It was evident from tone and expression that Marinette had been more than merely a superhero partner to this being. It let out another long sigh, and Cedulie thought for several moments it had finished speaking. But at last it continued, “But Ladybug is still needed… Adrien is still out there somewhere… and Le Papillon… and… and Marinette…” It shifted as if in pain. “I just… I can’t transform anyone until the earrings are purified. There’s someone who could help, if only Marinette had gone to him…” And then the creature really did fall silent, and closed its eyes as if too tired and unhappy to go on.

Failure, horror, shock, heartbreak… Ladybug was still needed and Adrien was still out there somewhere… and poor cousin Marinette, suffering under a weight of guilt and despair that had broken her spirit… not to mention this little thing in Cedulie’s hand…

Abruptly she stood, tears still running down her face but a new determination in her heart. “Tell me where to go.”

For November Quick Fics 2018, MangoFox prompted, “Ladybug and Chat Noir have been permanently defeated, and everyone knows it. Another girl finds the Ladybug earrings and takes it upon herself to become the new Ladybug. However, she has to face an unexpected problem: the earrings are still haunted by memories of the emotional issues that caused the Miraculous team to fail in the first place.” Why he wanted such a freaking sad story I have no idea XD But it worked out pretty well, and I give it a

A Legion of Hideous Minions

The castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen.

Angela finds the castle overrun by unexpected enemies.


Angela wouldn’t exactly call her ascent ‘panicked,’ since it was a more controlled haste and (she liked to think) a more controlled attitude than that, but she certainly clawed her way up the last few yards of the castle wall a little less carefully than usual.

It had been merely a leisurely sweep of the surrounding area upon awakening, a brief glide about this immediate part of a city she was only just getting to know, but it had at first startled and subsequently alarmed her. And now she finished her quick trip back home with a climb up over the crenelated walls to inform her clan that New York had gone completely mad.

Finding no one in sight in the courtyard where she landed and feeling a little too unnerved to shout, she made her way through the first door at hand and into a pleasant lounge that had probably once been a war room or something similar but that had been fitted up lately with more modern furnishings. Comfortable seats called sofas formed a square with open corners in the center, while a gleaming bar stood to one side, and the hangings that, now as a thousand years ago, worked to keep out the October drafts were machine-woven blankets from a Mexican street vendor rather than hand-crafted tapestries depicting battles long forgotten.

At first Angela believed herself alone in the room, and would have passed immediately onward looking for someone to tell about the chaos many storeys down… but as the heavy oak door closed behind her with an inevitable noise despite its well maintained hinges, a figure previously motionless at the bar whirled suddenly to face her. Angela took a step backward in shock, wings returning to a startled half-open position from where they’d been clasped around her shoulders.

He couldn’t be anything but a vampire, with that mottled skin as pale as death and those extra-long, protruding incisors startling even to one not remiss in the tooth department herself and from one of which dripped a viscous red substance. She hadn’t thought gargoyles capable of becoming vampires, but the stranger’s dolichocephalic face and the wings that sprang up behind him in as startled a movement as that of her own marked him as no human, even if the black and white suit and red cape he wore looked more like something designed by that race than the simpler garments gargoyles typically favored.

For one moment he stared at her, obviously surprised at her abrupt presence. Then his mouth opened into a smile, baring the expanse of the nearest overlong tooth and its gob of blood slowly sliding downward toward the direly pointed tip. When he spoke, it was in an accent she recognized from one of the ‘movies’ Broadway had recently taken her to — maybe the humans, ignorant though they were of so many things supernatural, had gotten at least that part correct.

“Ah, a beautiful gargoyle voman. Perhaps you vill be villing to donate your blood to my noble cause.”

Angela still didn’t panic, but at this point she was definitely a long step closer. Monsters rioting in the streets below, looting food from homes, and now one had found his way all the way up here to the castle above the clouds?

She considered her options. Vampires were said to be immensely strong, fast, and difficult to defeat. And though some gargoyle clans, in other areas of the world, reputedly hunted them — the night should stalk the night, after all — they were far from here and far from her range of experience. She didn’t know if she could take a gargoyle vampire one-on-one, especially unarmed as she was. Her eyes darted toward the opposite door, calculating her chances of escape. If she could just find some of the others, they could battle side-by-side and even the odds.

“You can run,” the vampire said, and for all the calm in his voice she thought him on the brink of laughter — at her relative weakness? “…but you can’t hide. I am Count Mordacula, lord of vampires, and my host of minions from the undervorld is loyal only to me! Your puny castle doesn’t stand a chance!”

Were the monsters ransacking the city his servants, then? Angela had to find the others, assess the situation and plan a counterattack, before the situation got any worse. Without answering the vampire lord — she wouldn’t be hypnotized by any spell of words! — she made what she hoped would be an unexpected dash for the exit. Feeling no gnash of sharp teeth or scrape of undead talons, she darted through the door and slammed it behind her, fumbling with the lock as if that would do any good. Then she raced down the corridor beyond.

What had once been the Great Hall and, she supposed, still was — though it had become more a museum dedicated to physical mementos of adventures past — seemed less defensible than other parts of the castle keep, having multiple entrances whose banded doors were more for show than anything these days, but it lay at the end of this hallway, so there she went. So fast did she tear inside, in fact, that she skidded to a halt on scraping claws, unfurling her wings again slightly to stop herself, as she entered the larger space and looked around.

This time she had no illusions about being alone, as the great figure before her would have been hard to miss. And lucky she considered herself that she hadn’t eaten anything yet tonight, for the abomination in front of her might have caused her to lose it if she had. She’d never seen anything like it — was it zombie or unholy construct or simply a walking nightmare? Its belly gaped open, showing rotting green intestines only held in place by what appeared to be metal bars grafted to the withering edges of the rent, and from behind its head stretched a third fleshy arm bearing a huge hook ready to impale an unwary enemy — assuming they hadn’t already passed out from sheer horror.

On catching sight of her, the creature opened its mouth, disclosing a mass of sticky brown as if its tongue had decayed into a stretchy mass, and let out a muffled groan as if trying to speak words long since lost to its cold, dead brain. Gagging, Angela took off running again so fast she left scores in the flagstones. She had to find the others. It seemed Count Mordacula hadn’t lied: he did command a legion of hideous minions, and — as long as she remained its only defender — the castle didn’t stand a chance. She needed her father’s strength, Hudson’s sword, and Elisa’s gun. She would even welcome some of Xanatos’ appalling mechanical suits right about now.

To the sound of the inarticulate monstrosity’s gurgling behind her, she made her way up a spiral staircase to the keep’s second floor and into a network of tighter hallways and chambers used as bedrooms by the various members of the small clan. The first with an unlocked door was the one Lexington used to tinker with his outlandish modern gadgets, and into this she ducked, hoping to find some sign of where everyone had gone. This time, though, panic was so close she could taste it, and she actually gave a little squeak at what the creaking hinges disclosed at their unfolding.

The place was overrun with spiders uniform in shape and size, that shape beyond unnerving and that size positively outlandish. She’d seen tarantulas; she’d seen funnel web spiders and camel spiders and a giant spider god, for goodness’ sake… but this many spiders the breadth of a small shield moving with clacking, whirring limbs in motions almost identical was enough to unnerve even the most seasoned world traveler. And that was before their dark master, hearing her cry, whirled toward her: three times the size of its brood, it moved more quickly and fluidly as well, and, seeing her, leaped forward with its many greenish legs, glowing webs criss-crossing between them, waving. Angela stumbled backward from the room, skin crawling, again slamming the door… but unfortunately, this one locked only from the inside.

Obviously in just the time she’d spend gliding around the neighborhood — an hour at most — the castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen. But who knew how many more of Count Mordacula’s minions had replaced her family? Though a skilled warrior and learning the ways of tactics and castle defense, Angela on her own was out of her depth and wrestling with fear. Best to get away from here as quickly as possible.

As she navigated the same smaller halls, now away from Lex’s spider-filled room, passing as quietly as she could Hudson’s partially open door from which an eerie glow and a menacing growl emanated, she thought fast. Where might the clan go at a time like this? Into the Xanatos building to seek aid from their uneasy allies? But the monsters she’d seen thus far didn’t seem capable of flight, and must have reached the castle somehow… how else but up through the building from the ground level? It seemed probable, therefore, that the building was also overrun.

Perhaps they’d gone over the side and all the way down underground to seek reinforcements among the Mutates? Not unlikely — and a practical regrouping option for Angela herself even if she didn’t find the others there. She hastened with steps as muffled as she could make them around the tight corners and outside.

On the battlement, she nearly ran smack into two figures that were surveying the courtyard below as if searching for something. The first, clearly a human or human-like magician of some sort in black robes, stood even taller than Angela if her wide-brimmed pointed hat counted for height, and turned to regard the gargoyle with a face as green as an apple. The other loomed over them both, hat notwithstanding: a great winged monkey, bulky and hairy and glowering of brow over deep-set eyes. It too turned immediately toward Angela as she emerged so close beside them on the stone terrace.

Succumbing for one brief moment to the panic that had been threatening all along, she leaped haphazardly to the wall, tore her way upward, and launched herself into space from the top before her wings were even fully unfurled.

***

Goliath lifted his monkey mask, which he wasn’t too sure about in the first place, the better to watch as his daughter scrambled unexpectedly up the great blocks and dove off the castle’s side after a single glance at him. At his side, Elisa likewise snatched off her obstructive witch’s hat, letting the hair she’d styled into a scraggly, unkempt imitation of is usual sleek shine shift slightly in the autumn breeze. Removing their eyes from the spot where Angela had disappeared, they shared a look involving the same grimace of sudden dismay. Before they could say anything, though, the door behind them opened again and Brooklyn, in complete makeup and evening wear, emerged from the keep.

“Hey, did you guys see Angela?” he wondered. “I tested my accent out on her, but she didn’t say anything, just ran off.”

Again before any answer could be made, Broadway appeared, and they all shifted along the battlement to make space for him; he seemed even bigger than usual with all the cosmetic putty and one wing done up like an extra arm. He was smacking his lips, and his voice still sounded gooey as he remarked, “Remind me never to put that much caramel in my mouth all at once ever again! I couldn’t say anything to Angela, and I think I grossed her out! Did she come out here?”

Lexington was the next to forestall an answer, creeping from the doorway on all fours due to difficulties walking upright in the extra-legs harness. He seemed to have caught the end of Broadway’s statement, for he put in regretfully, “I think I scared her with my remote-control spiders.” He brightened a touch, though, as he added, “At least I know they work!”

“But where is she?” Broadway wondered, now sounding a little concerned.

Both Goliath and Elisa looked again at the wall’s summit where the object of their conversation had disappeared. In some chagrin Elisa said, “I don’t think any of us told her about our costumes.”

Goliath shook his head, and his tone was even more regretful than his human mate’s. “I don’t think any of us told her about Halloween.”


This fic, which I’ve rated , is for iamkatsudone’s November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, “All the gargoyles and Elisa and halloween shenanigans?” It’s not quite all the gargoyles, but there are certainly Halloween shenanigans! (The WoW abomination costume is a total anachronism, though XD



I Like Your Face


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. So explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou nodded solemnly.

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

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

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

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

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

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

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