Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on October 28, 2019

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The paper itself was of such high quality that, even when Zanza’s decisive hands had crumpled it into a tight, lopsided little ball, it still felt hefty and undefeated as he tossed it away, and clattered noisily into a dusty corner to crouch, bright in the shadows, under an empty jug that he should really take back to the bar he’d gotten it from one of these days.

Grumbling incoherent profanity, he whirled, putting his back to the offending object, and started moving away from it so precipitously he almost tripped over the long sword that nearly bisected his small room. In growing irritation he hopped over the zanbatou and stalked from the apartment. An unsuspecting neighbor immediately outside, attention procured by the slamming of the door and accompanying swearing, took one look at Zanza’s glower and made a quick, judicious retreat back into his own home.

He had no particular destination in mind other than away from that damned letter, and as such he turned more or less randomly at each intersection of narrow, dirty streets; and every time he did so, something in his head urged him to go back, to pull the thing from the dust, smooth it out, and give it another try. He needed money, after all, and it was stupid to get so angry at an apparent job offer that he couldn’t even finish reading it… but for the writer to have employed what seemed like such extravagantly excessive kanji…

In order to get his message to its destination, the guy must have dug Zanza’s address up from somewhere; couldn’t he guess, based on that, at its recipient’s level of education? Nobody in this neighborhood could read that many or that kind of kanji, and that Zanza perhaps knew a few more than his neighbors was due only to his actual origins lying elsewhere — if any of the people around him here could read at all, it was some kind of miracle. Did the letter’s sender want to rub this in, or was he really just that ignorant of what life was like outside his insular world of fancy paper and cultured handwriting?

“Ohayou, Zanza!” Technically it was afternoon, but Yoita, like most of Zanza’s friends, knew that this time of day approximately counted as morning for him.

Without turning, Zanza snarled out something that might have been a return greeting.

Accustomed to the kenkaya’s moods, Yoita didn’t even flinch at the unpleasant sound as he fell into step beside him. Nevertheless, he insured his own safety before he said another word by extracting from the pocket in which he’d been digging a piece of candy wrapped in brown paper and offering it to the kenkaya. “You look pissed,” he remarked as Zanza accepted the premium with a rough gesture. “Landlord been on your case again?”

The sweetness of the candy and the friendliness of the inquiry were already working, and Zanza merely shook his head instead of exploding.

After watching Zanza brood and suck hard on the candy for half a street, Yoita finally remarked, “I guess you’ll tell us all tonight. You are coming to Sochi’s place, right?”

“Maybe,” was Zanza’s surly answer as he considered grumpily that if the engagement proposed in the letter was for tonight, he might never know it.

“Those same girls from last time said they’d be there,” Yoita cajoled.

Suddenly Zanza turned a thoughtful look on his friend. It seemed like a long shot, but not completely impossible. “Hey, do you own a dictionary?”

“What?” Yoita gave a surprised laugh. “Why would I need a dictionary?”

“You suppose any of the other guys have one?”

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

With an irritated sigh that marked the transition from raging to trying to be productive, Zanza explained. “Some guy sent me this long fucking letter, I think wanting me to fight someone, but I can’t read all his damn kanji. I just spent an hour giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out, but I’m obviously going to need a dictionary.”

Yoita made a noise of understanding. “Well, I doubt you’re going to find one anywhere in our group, but you know there’s a charity school just up the street, right? That guy who runs it’s really nice; he could probably help you.”

“Oh, shit, you’re right.” Zanza stopped abruptly, looking around, orienting himself and considering where the school in question was located. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were mad as hell?” Yoita grinned.

Cheered enough all of a sudden that he was able to return the expression, Zanza gave Yoita’s shoulder a little shake and said, “Thanks, man,” before spinning and setting off at a run back toward his apartment to retrieve the letter.

That it took longer than he’d expected to locate his destination might have been a good thing, because it gave him time to smooth out the abused paper and render it (relatively) legible again. He was even, in his anticipation, considerably less annoyed by the time he reached the big old house with its modest, venerable sign proclaiming its secondary function as an educational establishment, despite the embarrassing circumstance of having gotten lost in what was essentially his own neighborhood.

Thanks to the lack of any formal schooling in his childhood, he entered the place without much thought for time of day, and as a result found himself stared at by at least ten young pairs of eyes bearing expressions ranging from startled and almost frightened to curious to admiring, a few even a bit disdainful. It was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, perhaps creepy, and Zanza was immediately conscious, for some reason, of the state of his clothing and how long it had been since he’d bathed.

“Can I help you?” The voice came from the head of the room, and pulled Zanza’s embarrassed gaze to the man that had evidently paused at the mercenary’s entrance in the dissertation he’d been conducting. He was as Zanza had seen him a few other times in the past: middle-aged, stocky, with an apparent strength subdued by his contemplative calmness.

“Uhh…” Suddenly tongue-tied, Zanza scratched his head. “I need a hand with a… thing… if you’ve got some time when your… class is done?”

Though the instructor raised his brows, there was more friendly inquiry than skepticism in his gaze. “We finish at three, if you want to wait or come back.”

Unexpectedly glad to have a non-living object to transfer his eyes to, Zanza looked at the clock on the wall. “Yeah,” he said. It was just over an hour to the specified time. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He owned no watch, after all, and had no place else in mind to go for the interim.

Though the kenkaya, eyes still fixed on the minute hand, didn’t see the man’s expression, he could hear the irony in the reply, “Make yourself at home.”

In the warm sun and calm air outside, Zanza’s discomfort quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the seated position into which he’d immediately sunk on the front porch transitioned into a reclining one and then a dozing flatness. He didn’t necessarily mean to fall asleep, but he’d expended so much energy on anger that it was the inevitable result of having an hour to wait doing essentially nothing else in nice weather.

It put him in a dangerous position, however. He was rudely, almost terrifyingly awakened, when the countdown ended, by schoolkids pouring out around and even over him, many of them shrieking in delight for no apparent reason other than the glee of a school day’s end. He could do nothing against this unexpected onslaught other than roll onto his side and shield his head and neck from the enthusiastic young feet until the shouting and pattering had proceeded far enough down the street to make him believe they weren’t coming back.

He sat up to find the instructor standing before the closed front door looking down at him with an expression of repressed merriment. When the older man observed Zanza’s gaze, he moved forward to take a seat against the pillar beside the steps, patting the adjacent space with a strong hand. “You’re a mercenary, I believe,” was how he began the conversation. “I’ve seen you a few times around; I think you don’t live too far from here.”

“That’s right.” Zanza picked himself up and took the few paces necessary to drop down again beside the other pillar opposite the instructor. Outside the formality of the classroom setting, it was much easier to face and talk to the guy. “I got a problem…” He fished the folded letter, by now very victimized, from a pocket. “I’m pretty sure this guy wants me to fight someone, but I can’t read the damn thing.” He finished at a bit of a mumble, not happy to admit either his deficiency or the fact that it embarrassed him a little. “I was hoping you could help.”

Wordlessly the instructor accepted what Zanza held out, and unfolded it. Above the eyes he immediately turned on the letter, his brows rose to form once again the expression of amused skepticism he’d worn inside the building an hour before. “I can see why,” he murmured.

Feeling vindicated, Zanza made an annoyed noise as the instructor apparently began to read in earnest, and then several silent moments passed while the kenkaya leaned over to watch in anticipation and the eyebrows of the other man did not descend.

Both the amusement and the skepticism seemed to increase as the man made his way through the entire length of the thing; until finally, shaking his head, he laid it on his lap and turned a sort of I-don’t-know-what-to-say expression toward the eager Zanza. What he did eventually say was, “Well.”

“Yeah?” The man’s demeanor had done nothing to lessen Zanza’s eagerness and curiosity.

The instructor opened his mouth, then closed it again as if commentary absolutely defied him. Finally he seemed to give up, and just said, “I’ll read it aloud.” And with a preparatory stiffening, as if for some conflict much more difficult than the oration of a letter, he began.

To you, esteemed Zanza-san, I extend the salutations of the salubriously mild-aired spring day on which I write, a day I believe to be full of auspice in a spring that can only be an amplification of that excellent promise in a year that has already seen so many momentous changes to our collective way of life that, though not every alteration wrought since January can be viewed as propitious for the advancement of our civilization, the year itself nevertheless must be recognized as an adumbration of no idleness of hand! This communication stands in apologue of such an idea, and therefore of the season and year and era in which we live, since in hailing both from and to hands that have never been idle it seeks to effect change just such as the auspicious 1878 has already observed.

At this point, as the instructor took a deep breath to continue, Zanza raised a trembling hand and solicited weakly, “Could you possibly just summarize the rest? Actually, could you possibly summarize all that shit you just read too?”

The man’s mouth twitched into a smile he obviously couldn’t repress. “Well, as for all that shit I just read, he says hello, misrepresents the weather, and that things have happened this year. He goes on to say…” His eyes became more mobile, more searching, as he turned them back to the letter. “He heard about your fight with a swordsmith in Komatsugawa, and the exceptional strength you demonstrated in that fight… there’s a reference to anvils that I don’t quite…”

Zanza chuckled, recalling clearly and fondly the fight and the anvils in question.

Smile widening at this reaction, the instructor went on. “He says he would have dismissed the story as an entertaining exaggeration if the person telling it… here’s some unnecessary detail about the person telling the story and where they were at the time… ah, yes, if the person telling the story hadn’t gone on to mention your reputation as an outspoken critic of the government.”

Interest somewhat aroused, Zanza waited more or less patiently as the other man reread the next section of the letter in silence. “He has a lot to say about the government,” he said at last, “but what it seems to boil down to is that he puts up with it without liking it much.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Zanza grumbled, reflecting at the same time that someone rich enough to be naive enough to write and send a letter like this to a street fighter might also be in a position to do something more than unhappily put up with, but he didn’t bother saying it.

“Don’t we all,” echoed the teacher at a murmur, still evidently amused. “Anyway, he reiterates that he heard about your feelings regarding the government, and this got him interested, so he started asking around about you… and apparently you’re always looking for challenging fights..? That seemed perfect to him, because he’s had a plan in mind for a while without seeing any way he could carry it out, and you might be exactly what he needs…”

“All right,” Zanza broke in, losing patience, “what exactly does he need? And why the hell does he think I want his life story on the way?”

Now the instructor laughed out loud. “I can’t possibly answer that second question, but the answer to the first is that he wants to hire you to fight Saitou Hajime.”

Despite having asked for it, the point of the message so neatly encapsulated in so few words took Zanza a bit by surprise, and it was a moment before its meaning really sank in. Then he sat up straight in an almost convulsive movement. “What, Shinsengumi Saitou Hajime?”

“That’s the one. He makes it–” the teacher glanced at the letter again with a wry smile– “very clear.”

Now Zanza jumped to his feet. “Well, why didn’t he just fucking say so in the first place?” Despite this complaint, a wide grin had spread across his face. “If he’s heard so much about me, he’s gotta know of course I’d wanna fight Saitou Hajime — that guy was supposedly super strong, right? And he’s still around? What’s he doing these days? How old is he? I mean, is he even stronger than before, or has he gotten all old and weakened up?”

Again the teacher laughed. “Well, let’s see… as to why he didn’t just fucking say so in the first place, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do anything of the sort. And he does seem to be aware that of course you’d want to fight Saitou Hajime — that’s the gist of about half the letter, really. And what is Saitou Hajime doing these days? Working for the police, it appears.”

Excitement suspended for a moment, Zanza wondered if he’d heard that right. “For the police? The police, who’re part of the government? The Meiji government? The same people he was fighting against in the war?”

“That police,” the teacher nodded. “Those same people.”

Snatching the letter back in a rough movement that seemed to startle the other man a little, Zanza snapped it taut in front of his own face and searched, incredulous and angry, for written confirmation of what had just been spoken. Unfortunately, the half-familiar kanji blended together into a headache-inducing mass just as they’d done every other time, and he had no idea what section he and his assistant had progressed into. Resisting with some difficulty the urge to crumple the thing again, he instead let his hand fall angrily to his side, taking the paper fluttering down with it, and stared out into the street.

“Before I… before I actually got involved with shit,” he muttered, reminiscing bitterly, “me and the other kids would play that we were going to Kyoto to fight the Shinsengumi, and we had to take turns playing Kondou. They were fucking legends to us. They represented the old times, and shit staying the way it was… they were the champions of everything the country was that people were fighting about.”

He turned to find the teacher regarding him impassively; this time when Zanza, with an abrupt gesture, threw the letter back down toward his feet, the man didn’t even flinch.

“Not like I started liking the idea of the Shinsengumi any better once I realized what a bunch of backstabbing assholes the Ishin Shishi were… the old days weren’t any better than this bullshit we have today, so I never thought they were heroes or anything… but they were still the champions of the other side! They fought harder against those fuckers than practically anyone, and we all sure as hell saw them as representations of the Bakufu…”

Still offering no attempt at interpretation or judgment, the teacher nodded his comprehension.

“So how could he switch sides like that? Someone who practically was the other side — how could he join up with the fucking Meiji like that??” Zanza’s hands were clenched now into hard fists. He’d never even met this Saitou guy, but a number of unexpected fragments had converged into a very unpleasant picture, and he was angry.

After reaching for the fallen letter, the teacher held it again in his lap without a word, looking down pensively at it and smoothing it out somewhat absently, evidently still listening to Zanza rant. And all the time he maintained a neutrality of expression and bearing that was half encouraging and half irritating. Not that Zanza could possibly be irritated much by anything besides his current fixation.

When his tirade had devolved into little more than apostrophic name-calling that neither helped his mood improve nor advanced the conversation, and his fingers were clenching so tightly in his fists that the knuckles creaked and ached, he forced himself to shut up and calm down. Well, he didn’t calm much, but he did start to focus a little better on his surroundings and situation. He needed more information — a lot more information — and he wouldn’t get it if he didn’t finish the letter. Frankly, he was damned lucky this guy had put up with him for as long as he had; he probably shouldn’t push that luck any further.

So he turned back toward the instructor — he hadn’t even realized he’d been facing the street as if in dramatic soliloquy — took a deep breath, loosened his fists, and said in a sort of enforcedly placid summary (though his teeth were clenched), “So, yeah, I’d really fucking like to fight Saitou Hajime. What do I have to do?”

***

Saitou rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, trying to alleviate the headache that had developed over the course of the day. Massaging his face seemed unlikely to help when the headache had been idiot-induced, but he did it anyway — as if somehow the motion would get rid of every frustrating police underling in the station, every petty drug dealer on the streets, and every stupid thug in every bar and slum in Tokyo. He longed for some proper sleep, something he hadn’t had much of in the last couple of days and something that would probably be a great deal more effective toward the diminution of his headache than was his gloved hand.

The notes he’d been reading hit the desk with a rustling slap as his eyes slid gratefully off the final line of the final page. He’d predicted he would come to the end of this perusal this evening, and might have read the last few entries a little more quickly than he otherwise would have, but it didn’t matter: it was clear now, if it hadn’t already been, that the entirety of the documented evidence they had on their current subject of investigation was sufficient neither to condemn him in court nor to make Saitou feel justified in assassinating him privately quite yet. That he couldn’t pick out a paper trail here neither surprised him nor made him less suspicious of the man in question; the tips they’d received, though in no way constituting proof, had been too definitive and, to his mind, too reliable not to investigate thoroughly.

He might even end up doing some of said investigating personally this time, depending on what kind of information Tokio brought back. That would be a nice change from the tiresomely lengthy paperwork at the end of the previous job and the beginning of this one that he’d skipped sleep lately trying to get finished. If he must be deprived of sleep, he would much rather it be due to a stakeout or a lengthy chase than because he was writing out the details of whatever he’d just finished doing in the driest language he could command and triplicate.

After reorganizing the notes and fastening a descriptive paper obi around the stack, he locked it away in a drawer, whence he would eventually retrieve it as material supplemental to whatever further facts he obtained during the course of the ensuing inquiry. Then he stood, stubbing out the remaining third or so of his latest cigarette in an ash tray overly full from an overly long stint at the office, put out the lamp, and headed for the door.

The station proper, busy even nearing what might for the rest of the city be considered the end of the day, seemed shockingly hot thanks to multiple bodies often under stress or in vigorous movement, despite the open windows and especially to anyone wearing a police uniform with a heavy jacket (which nearly everyone in the room was), so Saitou hastened through to the main entrance and beyond. There was always at least one idle carriage hanging around outside the police station, Tokyo drivers being well aware of how loath many officers were to walk more than a short distance unless, as on patrol, the walking rather than the arrival was the purpose of the trip. And Saitou supposed hiring a cab to and from work might be considered a lazy habit, but there were some days (possibly most days) when he just couldn’t stand to stick around any longer and had to get away as quickly as possible. So today, as not infrequently, he paid the driver and was whisked away toward home.

As he felt he’d had more than enough of this Rokumeikan business over the last little while, he tried not to think about it on the way, tried to relax and look forward to a quiet evening; this was difficult, however, in that no other compelling subject was jumping to replace Rokumeikan in his mind. There just wasn’t a lot going on for him right now besides work… and there, he supposed, was another subject for thought.

Weeding corruption from the government was not only his primary occupation but his primary source of fulfillment. He required and actively sought nothing more from existence than this. But that didn’t mean he objected to more when it was presented, nor failed to feel its absence when it wasn’t. When the standard policework that occupied his time between more meaningful cases consisted of small-time busts and big-time paperwork, minor investigation after unstimulating minor investigation, the almighty pen far oftener than the much more interesting sword… when sleep was wearily dreamless and solitary, night after similar night, and therefore a luxury frequently dispensed with… If it weren’t for the one friendship he maintained, his one source of enrichment, then that core of his existence, meaningful as it was, would be the barest of bones anyone had ever attempted to called a life.

He turned these reflections over like something interesting but largely irrelevant. There might have been a touch of amused self-denigration to them, but no sense of importance. He was, after all, fulfilled even if he wasn’t terribly enriched. This was merely a mild method of entertainment to get him through his carriage ride.

And the carriage was slowing, drawing to a stop. At the hasteless speed they’d been maintaining, Saitou knew they hadn’t yet reached his house, but at the sound of the voice speaking to the driver outside he knew the reason for their halt. A moment later there was a weight on the steps, and the door opened to admit the figure of his wife, who sank onto the seat opposite him with a sigh of relief and weariness.

“Going home so early!” she remarked. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

She made a darkly understanding sound, but answered in an easy tone. “It’s so early, I couldn’t even be sure I had the right cab. I’d have been nicely embarrassed if I didn’t!”

He felt no surprise that she’d deduced his presence in the carriage, but did perhaps feel some that the driver had stopped for her. Tokio sometimes faced difficulties getting people to do as she asked when she was in uniform, and at the moment she wore the relatively unobtrusive kimono-hakama combination she favored when spying; it was some surprise the driver had even noticed her. She didn’t appear entirely respectable, either, and Saitou commented as the carriage got underway again, “I can’t say I like the new style.” He drew a couple of gloved fingers through his own hair to indicate his meaning.

The hand she then ran up to her frazzled bun dislodged the two leaves he’d been specifically referring to, and she laughed faintly. “I’m pretty sure I know the privet shrub on the east side of Rokumeikan’s house much better than his gardener does by now.”

“What did you find out?”

“I was going to wait until tomorrow to file my report.”

“I’m not asking you to file anything, just for a general overview.”

“Oh, fine.” She rolled her black eyes at him. “I was thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home, but I know perfectly well you never notice what you’re eating anyway.” When her husband, rather than rising to the bait, just lifted an impatient brow, she went on in a more businesslike tone, “He has some kind of influence with the Karashigumi. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he is to them, but I think he has some real power there.”

The surprised Saitou, unable quite to recall, asked, “Who’s their leader?”

“A guy named Eisatsu. But it looks like he answers to Rokumeikan on the sly, so…”

“No wonder those accounts weren’t leading anywhere,” Saitou murmured.

Tokio nodded. “If they’re doing all his dirty work…”

“We’ll want to deal with them all at once.”

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

He understood her sarcasm; going up against yakuza was complicated and frustrating, and something they didn’t deliberately undertake unless it specifically related to a pre-existing case. Here, if a politician was using organized crime to raise money and influence, it was wisest to take out both his manpower and the criminal society’s leadership all in one sweep.

This time when the carriage drew to a creaking stop, it had been plenty long enough to get home, so Saitou and Tokio each slid sideways toward the door that presently opened at the hand of the courteous driver. But as Saitou paid the latter, he frowned slowly. Something nearby, the sense of which grew as he focused on it, was angry, aggressive, and directed toward him.

“Must they come to the house?” Tokio murmured, sounding tired and annoyed.

As the cab driver moved to resume his place on the box and depart, Saitou replied, “Better than the station.” And he turned to see who it was, following both Tokio’s gaze and the sense he had of angry ki to where a young man stood in the shadow of the property wall with the air of one waiting with waning patience for the occupants to come home. Or undoubtedly, in this case, just one of the occupants.

Tokio was giving the stranger a calculating look. “Ten minutes, you think?”

Watching with similar calculation the young man beginning to emerge from the shadows, Saitou thought it best to say, “Better make it fifteen.”

“Don’t push it.” Tokio turned toward the house. “I want to go to bed.”

He knew she meant by this, “You probably won’t bother with supper if I don’t force you to, so I won’t go to bed until I’ve seen you eat.” It was a common enough contention between them, so Saitou merely nodded. Then he turned from where she’d begun making her way inside and faced the approaching mercenary.

Zanza, that was the name. Of course the police kept tabs, more or less, as they had time and resources, on the prominent mercenaries in town, but Saitou wouldn’t have remembered what this one called himself if it hadn’t pretty clearly been taken from the sword he reputedly only used when he believed the battle would be worth getting it out for. Evidently he thought this one would be, so at least Saitou Hajime still had some reputation among mercenaries and those that hired them.

The light of the nearest streetlamp brought out details of face and figure as the young man neared, and Saitou’s interest was caught even as he reflected that Tokio might have found it worthwhile to put off starting supper and remain out here, tired though she was. He might not recall everything he’d heard about this kenkaya, but he believed with some surety he would have remembered if anyone had ever given an adequate description of how very attractive he was.

Zanza’s right arm curled up behind his head holding the long, cloth-wrapped sword that lay across his shoulders, and thus his gi was pulled wide away from his smoothly muscled chest. Under the yellowness of the lamp, his skin looked golden-tan and of a superb texture, though even in this imperfect lighting there was some scarring visible; really, that just added piquancy to the view. And the young man’s face was of excellent shape, its features masculine yet beautiful, bearing an active, eager, angry expression that promised something diverting at the very least.

Overall, it was quite a pleasing picture, and Saitou could think of several things he’d rather do with this person than fight. But thugs didn’t hang around Saitou Hajime’s house waiting for him to get home for nearly so satisfying a purpose, so Saitou would have to deal with him as he always did those sent by his enemies (or old comrades that now had the wrong idea).

Ceasing his advance, which was evidently meant to be threatening, at a decent combat distance, Zanza fixed Saitou with a glare the officer could not remember having done anything to earn but which he didn’t particularly mind. The kenkaya’s fighting ki was raw and rough, straightforward and strong, and Saitou found he rather liked this too.

“Former captain of the Shinsengumi’s third unit Saitou Hajime,” Zanza announced clearly, “I’ve come to pick a fight!”

“So I see,” Saitou replied, withdrawing his cigarette case from the breast pocket of his jacket without removing his eyes from Zanza. It was indulgent, yes, but he had to smile as he looked him over again.

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

“You. What makes you think I want to fight you?”

“You will when you hear my message!”

“And what,” Saitou inquired in a bored tone, lighting the cigarette he’d extracted, “does Yonai Fumihiro have to say?” Though not exactly a shot in the dark, this was no more than an educated guess based on the awareness of Yonai’s recent move to Tokyo… but when Zanza’s scowl deepened, Saitou knew he’d been right. He went on before the mercenary could answer. “That I’ve betrayed the principles of the Shinsengumi and the long history of the Bakufu, and I’m not going to get away with it? Probably in not so few words?”

Zanza looked even more annoyed than before, which was saying something. “Well… all right… but that’s just half the message!”

Flicking away the first ash of his fresh cigarette, “If you insist,” Saitou said, “I’ll have the rest of it too. But before you unveil your precious partner, let’s find a better place than the middle of my neighborhood street.”

Now Zanza looked a bit taken aback, perhaps at how much was known about him personally in addition to his errand, and this seemed to make him even angrier; but he followed willingly enough, and gave no indication of being about to attempt a surprise attack, as Saitou turned his back and began leading the way down the road. This neighborhood opened out onto a pleasant wooded area not far off, and a clearing in the beeches was wide and yet private enough for their purposes. As a matter of fact, it was where Saitou had fought the last two mercenaries sent against him. This particular mercenary should consider himself lucky Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion; Zanza’s attractiveness and ready tailing of a complete stranger to a secluded place combined into quite a temptation.

For obvious dramatic purposes, Zanza waited until Saitou had reached the far end of the clearing and turned before grasping at the wrap on his sword and pulling it away in a practiced gesture. Laughable as the blade was — an oversized club disguised as a sword, really — it did seem appropriate to its bearer: strong, conspicuous, and sadly in need of honing. Saitou liked the way Zanza’s muscles bulged and his body shifted as he took its long, thick haft in his hands and swung it off his shoulders into what he probably thought was a stance.

Finishing a last once-over of the beautiful young man, visible now in the light of a rising moon, Saitou placed a languid hand on the hilt of his own sword. He was promising nothing, but Zanza seemed to twitch forward in anticipation; that was interesting. In a level tone, neither mocking nor threatening, Saitou said, “If you come at me, I’m not going to go easy on you.” He always wondered at these arrogant young men that came to attack him for money and generally didn’t depart with their dignity or combat abilities intact even when Saitou left them their lives. He might have been a tad more curious than usual about what drove this one — if he remembered correctly, Zanza had a passion for good fights — but still it seemed so suicidal.

Very much to the confirmation of both of these last thoughts, Zanza now hefted the zanbatou above his head and tensed for action, growling out as he did so, “You’d better fucking not!”

***

Now that Zanza had actually met the guy, what he felt was more than merely anger at a defector that had run to the heartless government for a high-paying position under a false name. He didn’t like the indication given by the house he’d seen in the neighborhood he’d been waiting in as to just how high-paying was the position Saitou had attained. He didn’t like the way this Meiji bastard looked at him, those freaky golden eyes glinting even in the growing darkness, somehow calculating and dismissive at the same time. He didn’t like the jerk’s careless manner of holding that cigarette as if he weren’t about to get his head bashed in by an eighty-pound horse-and-rider-slaying weapon. He didn’t like the casualness with which Saitou had suggested they step into the trees as if for a quiet conversation rather than a battle.

But most of all (and it probably shouldn’t have been most of all, since it had nothing to do with how seriously Saitou was or wasn’t taking him, but he really couldn’t help it), he didn’t like those weird bangs. What was going on at that hairline? Was is deliberate? What was Saitou trying to say with a look like that? Zanza would definitely enjoy kicking this guy’s ass.

No definitive sign indicated the beginning of the battle, but Saitou, in his evident complete lack of concern for what was coming, obviously wasn’t about to make the first move, and Zanza had never been the least concerned with dueling etiquette. He gritted his teeth and charged, putting all his strength into the first swing not because he thought he might be able to end things before they really got started but because he wanted to effect an abrupt and startling change in Saitou’s attitude toward him.

It felt amazing to have his weapon out again. There were so few opponents around these days (or at least so few opponents around these days against whom people wanted to pit him for money) of the caliber to stand up to a zanbatou, and the poor thing had been collecting dust for far too long. The shift of it in his hands with unexpected speed as the blade raced downward; the air rushing by with a hollow-sounding, metallic whistle; the weight and balance that challenged both muscle and stance; the techniques he looked forward to using again after what seemed like forever — these all delighted and invigorated him despite his anger.

It was obvious his blow had missed even before the great sword’s contact with the ground sent a mess of dislodged earth, twigs, and leaves exploding out in all directions from the point of impact. What had been far less obvious was the movement by which Saitou had dodged; he’d been there one instant, absent the next. Zanza wrenched the sword back up, looking for his enemy, his shouldered weapon giving a sound of rushing metal as it spun with him. And there behind him was Saitou, standing still and smoking as before.

“Draw your sword!” Zanza demanded, irate that, even after such a decisive first strike as he’d just made (whether it had connected or not), Saitou could still be so casual about this. He charged the man again, making the swing of his own sword part of his approach in a fluid horizontal attack.

He thought he’d been pretty quick, but as the zanbatou swept at the officer, the latter crouched with surprising speed (though Zanza at least saw the movement this time) beneath the trajectory that, sadly, could not be altered mid-swing, then stood calmly again — still smoking and not even appearing to notice the rain of twigs and small branches that had been occasioned around him.

The sound of Zanza’s teeth grinding as he again shouldered his weapon seemed loud in the quiet clearing. This bastard was just like the damn government he represented: untouchable and annoying as hell. “Draw your fucking sword!” Zanza growled.

“Why?” Saitou replied, blowing smoke in the kenkaya’s direction. “It’s more entertaining watching you.”

What the hell did he mean by that? “I’m not here for your entertainment!” To drive his words home, Zanza struck — horizontally again, just in case Saitou might think he would always alternate — but found once more that Saitou had thwarted him, this time moving swiftly back out of the zanbatou’s reach.

“That doesn’t lessen your entertainment value,” the cop said, finally flicking away his current cigarette and — yes! — laying the now-vacant hand on the hilt of his sword. Yet again, however, he made no move to draw the weapon.

Zanza had to get this guy to fight. First of all, he was going exactly nowhere with the one-sided attacks, and might have better luck if his enemy’s attention was split between defense and reciprocation. Secondly, he’d been hired to fight Saitou Hajime, not charge endlessly at Saitou Hajime and marvel at how adeptly he got out of the way. Thirdly, by now he really wanted to see how strong this smug bastard was; he was beginning to long to see the grip of a sword in that gloved hand and observe some of the techniques he’d been hearing about lately during his inquiries about this man. And lastly, he wouldn’t have any idea how much payment to ask for this if it remained the aforementioned charge-and-miss routine.

So he said the most calculated thing he could in this state of annoyance: “Are all Meiji cops too chickenshit to actually fight, or just the ones who betrayed the Shinsengumi?”

Based on a slight shift in Saitou’s stance, Zanza thought he’d scored the first hit of the evening, and the man’s response seemed even more promising: “Strong words from a teenager.”

The implication was clear: Zanza had no room to speak, having been nothing more than a child back when Saitou had done his betraying (as far, of course, as that betraying could be considered a single-instance action and not an ongoing process that had continued this entire past decade). In any case, Saitou’s words meant he didn’t know quite everything about Zanza, even if he knew who had sent him, what that guy had to say, and even how verbose he’d been about saying it… but this was small comfort to the kenkaya when it was all too painfully common for no one to know the truth about the Sekihoutai.

Not only that, but, despite his apparently being a bit stung by Zanza’s remark, Saitou still didn’t draw, and the next swing of the zanbatou (vertical this time) was as ineffectual as all the previous had been. Zanza wasn’t entirely sure what to say next.

Finally he stood back, scowling, as if in recognition of an impasse, and tried, “I’m going to have to tell Yonai it’s worse than he even thinks: you didn’t just betray the Shinsengumi; you turned into a complete coward.” And he struck out again, a quick, hard surprise blow. At least he’d thought it was.

“You can tell him whatever bullshit you want and he’s sure to believe it,” Saitou replied from behind him. “Yonai always had more money than sense.” At least now he sounded distinctly annoyed; Zanza was, perhaps, finally getting somewhere.

“I wouldn’t wanna go by your idea of sense,” the kenkaya persisted, whirling, “since you obviously just join up with whoever’s stronger at the time to keep your own ass safe!”

Though it was absolutely the truth, he’d really only said it to anger the man, and at an impatient movement given by the cop he thought he’d succeeded. He leaped forward with another great heave of his sword, hoping this time for a better response. And it was with a darkly gleeful sense of anticipation that he heard at last the rasp of Saitou’s weapon leaving its sheath. It was a purely aural indication that he might finally get what he wanted, as not only did the swinging zanbatou obscure his vision somewhat, Saitou still moved startlingly fast.

Unexpectedly, Zanza felt the clash and slide of sword against sword as his blow was diverted with a screech down an oblique path formed by a diagonally-held blade. Not many people were willing to go head-to-head with a zanbatou using a mere katana, and of those that were, even fewer could actually do it instead of failing miserably at the attempt, so Zanza was already impressed.

He was even more surprised at the next blow, which, despite the strength with which he aimed it, was not only pushed aside but actually entirely thrown off. Losing his balance, he staggered away and nearly tripped, but had regained his footing almost immediately. His heart, he found, was pounding harder than the mere exertion of battle could explain, and the blood throbbing in his ears was all he could hear. Because nobody had ever done that before; nobody had ever met a zanbatou attack so skillfully, so forcefully.

The sight of the treacherous, motionless officer, blurring with the shadows in his dark blue uniform but for the brighter line of his casually-held nihontou, angered Zanza but excited him too. He’d wanted to know what Saitou’s combat abilities might be, and now that he’d had a taste of what seemed to be a fairly remarkable answer to that question, he wanted more. This might prove to be one hell of an awesome fight. Zanza charged again.

Blow after blow fell and was repelled, the air grew thick with earth tossed up from the churning ground and the noise of ringing collisions, and Zanza drew closer and closer to what he sought, what he always sought from battle — beyond making money, a point, or a reputation, beyond even surviving. It looked as if he’d finally found the opponent he needed: someone strong enough to engage every aspect of his skill and activity so as to drag him forcefully away from everything else in his life. He hadn’t entirely anticipated this, but with the prospect of any battle against an apparently skilled opponent, he hoped.

It was like taking in the heavy scent of some exquisitely delicious dish: there was an unmistakable promise of the meal he could almost taste that, even while it teased nearly unbearably, was yet intrinsically enjoyable. Coming close to losing himself completely in battle, though not as fulfilling as that completion, was yet a marvelous experience. Zanza’s hands on the haft of his weapon tingled like the rest of his energized body, and for a few glorious moments, he felt as if he could do anything, could rise above pain and uncertainty and reclaim what he’d lost.

Proof of how much conscious thought had already slipped from Zanza’s movements was that he went for an apparent opening in Saitou’s guard without even considering how little he wanted this battle to end. The huge sword descended, certain to connect this time, and battles had been ended by far less decisive blows of a zanbatou. Well, it was a shame, but he’d still enjoyed himself here more than he had in a very long time; Yonai would be getting a huge discount on this fight.

But for some reason, as a wrenching, steel-shearing sound filled the air, Zanza found himself staggering forward instead of being stopped by the shock of impact or the alternate option of his zanbatou driving into the dirt. He stumbled, and for some reason was unable to right himself as he would normally have done by pressing his weapon into the ground. In the disorientation of falling and seeming to lack a resource he usually counted on, he could not for a moment determine exactly what had just happened.

His eyes widened in shock and he drew in a sudden gasping breath of surprise as the answer embedded itself deeply into the earth before him with a thud. His startled gaze ran down the haft of his weapon to where the blade had been severed near its point of origin so that only about six inches of metal remained at the end of the wooden grip. For a moment, he could do nothing but stand and gape, his body still pulsing with excited energy as if it hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

“And your idea of sense, it seems,” Saitou remarked, resuming the conversation as if it had never been interrupted, “is to engage in meaningless battles for nothing more than the childish pleasure of fighting.”

At the sound of this statement from behind him, whose calm tone almost belied its disdainful purport, Zanza felt that excited energy, which had been buoying him up so delightfully thus far, curdle into a sick sort of rage. He rounded on Saitou with a roar. “My sword! My fucking sword!”

Saitou gave his own weapon a slight swish and no indication that he’d exerted himself at all in the previous skirmish. “You were the one who insisted I draw mine.”

In contrast with the coolness of this sarcasm, the entire world went hot and red in Zanza’s perception. Tossing aside the haft of his beloved and now useless zanbatou, he clenched his fists. “Do you know how hard it is to get ahold of one of those fucking things?”

“Yes, they are rather rare these days, aren’t they?” Saitou replied conversationally. “But it’s an idiot’s weapon to begin with, so I don’t know why anyone would take the trouble.”

Not only had Saitou destroyed a precious possession, he was now mocking it — and through it, mocking its wielder in that easy, disdainful tone of his. It was about the best example of ‘adding insult to injury’ Zanza could think of. He charged.

Even through his anger he was conscious of astonishment and subsequent suspicion as Saitou remained motionless, sword still pointing toward the discomposed earth, and barely even seemed to brace himself before deliberately receiving the punch to his high cheekbone. Even as Zanza sprang back immediately after connecting, anticipating some trick, he noted the officer’s nod that seemed to suggest he’d just had some theory confirmed. And at the total lack of concern in Saitou’s demeanor after a considerably strong blow to the face, Zanza couldn’t help glancing briefly down at his own fist, wondering if something was wrong with him.

In the past he’d defeated enemies with a single hit. He was one of the few people he knew of that could even carry a zanbatou with any degree of ease, let alone use it in battle. But this guy… this Saitou Hajime… first he threw off full-strength blows from the biggest sword in the world, and now he completely ignored an enraged punch from Zanza’s not inconsiderable fist? How could anyone be that strong? Was Zanza in way over his head here?

If that was the case, however, didn’t it mean he could retrieve that glorious battle intensity he’d been so achingly close to just a few minutes ago? He could take it back, pick up where he’d left off, and feel that elusive oblivion at least briefly before this fight ended. With this thought, far from being discouraged by Saitou’s evidently superior strength, he pounded his fists together with a grimace and attacked again.

Saitou, however, after testing Zanza’s punch or whatever he’d been doing, had evidently decided to go back to the constantly-dodging style of responding to the kenkaya’s blows. How did a man about the same size manage to move so much faster than Zanza could? How could he read seemingly all of his opponent’s intended moves?? The strongest blow from the hardest fist imaginable wouldn’t do much good if it never landed!

Eventually, burning with frustration that threatened to build into rage at the promise of the fight he wanted that never came to fulfillment, Zanza fell back a pace and stared at Saitou with angry, unblinking eyes.

“You’re as strong as the rumors say,” the officer remarked. The faint smirk on his face widened as he continued, “But I hope you understand that that’s Meiji-era strength. In Bakumatsu’s Kyoto, these little punches you’re throwing would have been completely meaningless.”

He’d been so close… so close to what he really wanted… How had he gotten Saitou to fight him properly before? Through his rising anger Zanza sought for the right words. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from those days.” He clenched his fists again, preparing for another attack. “Yonai’ll be glad to hear it.”

“There is one thing you can tell him,” replied Saitou as he deftly caught the flying right hand in his own left, knocking away Zanza’s other fist with his opposite elbow, and abruptly driving his sword into the kenkaya’s shoulder. With a quick half roar of pain and a flailing of limbs, Zanza was borne to the ground. There, he was held down by the foot Saitou placed on his chest as he yanked his weapon free. “You can tell Yonai Fumihiro,” he went on, again almost conversationally as he stepped back and sought out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his sword, “that a wolf is always a wolf, Shinsengumi or otherwise, and that in this Meiji era I continue to act as I always have by hunting down evil wherever it is found. There is no better way to do so than as one of the government’s own agents, fighting corruption within the system itself. You’re welcome to tell him all of this,” he reiterated, sheathing his nihontou and turning, “if you can get up.”

The actual words — whether they were surprising or enraging or puzzling or merely incredible — Zanza would have to think about later. His body was full of pain and his head was full of the awareness that he’d been toyed with. This incredibly strong man, who could have given him exactly what he wanted where few others could, had instead refused to take him or his errand seriously, mocked and belittled him, destroyed the object he prized most, and then badly wounded him (just how badly was yet to be seen) without seeming to think anything at all of it. In fact he was now daring to walk away from a fight as if the entire thing didn’t fucking matter.

Zanza wasn’t defeated yet. He would never lose like that, to someone like this. With a grunt, streaming blood, he jumped to his feet, clapped a hand over his wounded shoulder, and faced his enemy’s calm back with fire in his eyes. “Wait one goddamn second, you fucking bastard!” he roared. “I’m not finished with you yet!”

The expression on the face that glanced back over a blue-clad shoulder suited the words, “I’m getting bored with this. You’ve delivered your message, and I’ve given my reply. We have no further business together.”

Clenching his left hand even more tightly over his injured right shoulder so he saw little shining points at the edge of his vision, Zanza threw himself after the retreating figure.

The same indifference with which he’d made many a move this evening marked Saitou’s reaction: he turned easily, blocked Zanza’s punch, and replied with one of his own straight into the wounded shoulder just as the extension of Zanza’s arm caused his left hand to slip from it. A moment later he followed up with a gloved palm to the kenkaya’s brow, hurling him once again to the ground in a violent motion.

Zanza bellowed out his pain and anger as his opponent thus took advantage of the wound already inflicted, but the noise fell to a whimper as he hit the dirt hard — so hard, in fact, that the next moment he found everything fading to black around him. And he swore into the growing darkness that he’d get the bastard for this if it was the last thing he ever did.

***

Tokio glanced at the clock as her husband entered the room. Thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Given the forty-five or so seconds that had passed between his pronouncement of how long would be required and her first instance of looking at the timepiece, that made for around fourteen minutes total.

“Looks like your estimate was about a minute off,” she said.

“I got tired of humoring him,” Hajime replied shortly. He seemed annoyed, and stood in the doorway almost indecisively for a moment as if considering just going straight to bed from here.

To prevent this, Tokio said hastily, “Set the table.”

Hajime’s lips tightened a fraction and his frame stiffened infinitesimally, which was a typical reaction to any direct order from his wife, even after all these years; but it was only a moment before he complied. After placing his sword on the rack and his jacket on the peg, he removed his gloves — Tokio, still watching to make sure he did as he was told, noted that one of them was red across the entirety of what might be called its punching surface — and washed his hands before reaching for dishes. His motions were all fairly quick, and seemed to bear out the impression of annoyance she’d already formed.

Curious about a fight that could have left Hajime in this sort of mood, she asked as she turned back to her cooking, “So who hired this one?”

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

She had to ponder a moment. A good memory for personal details was essential in her line of work, but she didn’t think Hajime had mentioned this name more than a few times before. “Wasn’t he in your division?”

“Yes,” said Hajime, even more shortly than before.

“I suppose it was the usual story, then? Somehow he heard who Fujita Gorou really was, and assumed…”

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

A moment of silence passed during which Hajime was undoubtedly giving her a sarcastic look of some sort — probably, if she knew him, glancing down at his unharmed body as if to say, “How do you think the fight went?” Tokio, however, was familiar with his ways and could often defeat the sarcastic looks by the simple tactic of anticipating them and turning away in time to avoid seeing them. So Hajime was more or less forced to answer aloud if he wanted to convey his scorn: “How do they ever go?”

“Well, I can see you’re unharmed.” With food in her hands ready to set on the table, she turned and gave her husband a pointed look that he was not quite in time to avoid. “And annoyed. What happened, exactly?”

“I destroyed his sword,” Hajime replied succinctly as Tokio set her burdens in their places and took her seat opposite him. “I stabbed him and knocked him out.”

That did sound like the usual story for such a battle. But normally mercenaries sent to fight Hajime didn’t leave him in so grouchy and pensive a mood. And since she got the feeling he wasn’t likely to say any more unless she worked to drag it from him, she set about, as they ate, that very work. Either she would get more information, or she would punish him for being so laconic.

“He must have brought you some message from Yonai that annoyed you,” was her first suggestion.

“It was the same message as always.” Hajime was not, Tokio believed, eating quickly in an attempt to get away from her questions, but that didn’t mean much, since he always ate quickly.

“Then you must have cared for Yonai’s opinion more than I thought.”

Hajime snorted derisively.

“The mercenary can’t have managed to actually insult you somehow?”

Now the sound from Hajime’s nose sounded like a faint laugh. Unfortunately, Tokio had never been able to read him very well, and how to interpret this noise she wasn’t sure.

“Maybe he knows some secret from your past,” she persisted, “that he brought up at just the wrong moment.” When Hajime made no reply she went on, “And you’re trying not to admit how much it bothered you, but…”

“Don’t be stupid,” he finally said, and she knew she’d succeeded in annoying him.

She went on with a grin. “And it was so bad, you really would rather have killed him. You bloodthirsty thing. But the kanji on his silly outfit was an outright lie — a promise he couldn’t keep.”

Hajime set bowl and chopsticks down with a clink and said shortly, “It ought to say ‘souzen’ on his back.”

Perhaps, then, the young man had merely annoyed Hajime with an unusually forcefully presented personality. A lot of people’s personalities annoyed Hajime, and, though it might take some doing to make him show it like this, it didn’t seem impossible.

“So since your enemy wasn’t properly Evil, the great gods of Aku Soku Zan–” she drew out the syllables with portentous drama– “could not justify a killing, and you just had to put up with him for as long as it took to destroy his sword, stab him, and knock him out.”

Hajime, taking a last long drink of his tea, made no answer.

“No wonder you came in here so distracted and annoyed! Having to put up with someone you couldn’t kill for that long…”

The very fact he was ignoring her now, she thought, was a sign that she’d achieved her goal — if not the goal of goading him into speech, at least of getting her revenge. He disliked being prodded about Aku Soku Zan, as if she didn’t know and respect how much it meant to him, every bit as much as she disliked having emotional details kept from her by one of the few people she’d ever met whose feelings she couldn’t pretty easily read most of the time.

Now he rose coolly, setting down his teacup, and made his way to where a folded newspaper waited for him on the kitchen counter. Normally, if he intended to read the paper at all before bed, he would do so where he could discuss interesting news items with her; it seemed she’d punished herself along with him by her nonsense, and as he left the room without a word she reflected in some annoyance of her own that perhaps she should have tried a little harder to ask straightforwardly before resorting to obnoxious conversational tactics. She sometimes made things a little too much of a contest between herself and her husband. She sometimes did that with most men.

She fully expected this to be the end of it. Hajime would not bring it up, so she would never solve the mystery of his mood after that fight; and she was unlikely ever to catch sight of that mercenary ever again. It was irritating, but she resigned herself to disappointment — and also strove to remind herself that it wasn’t really that important.

In fact she’d completely stopped thinking about it by the time she realized it hadn’t ended there, which subsequently came as a bit of a surprise. Several days after the mysterious fight — enough that she didn’t even consider exactly how long it had been — she was on patrol when the matter arose again. This was perhaps her least favorite police duty, and felt like a waste of her talents, but she was doomed to it whenever not actively occupied by some task relevant to their current case. And since Hajime was making use of what agents the police had in place that could obtain any information about the Karashigumi, in order to determine better that group’s connection with Rokumeikan, she would walk a beat today. At least she’d been allowed to choose an area of town that was generally acknowledged to be Karashigumi territory, little as she was likely to pick up about them while wandering the streets in uniform.

The other benefit to this mostly uninteresting pursuit, at least today, was that the leisurely but watchful progression of her patrol took her, without any deliberate detour, right past (or, rather, right to) the stand of an art vendor whose wares she was very happy to have an excuse to look over. She’d been here several times before, and always appreciated this particular vendor’s taste in stock, though she rarely actually purchased anything. Today she tried to make her perusal brief, but almost immediately realized how difficult that was going to be.

New to the shelves since the last time she’d been here were a number of prints by some truly excellent artist she wasn’t familiar with. All his subjects seemed to be war heroes rendered with the accuracy either of personal experience or excellent research, and there was a feeling of intensity or investment to the work that seemed, at least to Tokio, to indicate a personal interest in these subjects beyond merely how best to put them to paper. She wondered if this artist had as great a fascination as she did with war heroes, or with anyone that had fought with all their heart during any of the conflicts that had marked Japan’s recent history.

She was actually holding in her hand a particularly tempting piece depicting Hachirou Iba in battle, marveling at how well the artist had managed to confer beauty on so brutal a scene, when she realized that somebody — someone other than the solicitous and indulgent vendor — was watching her. Being a spy herself, she could generally tell when this was the case, but in this instance he made no attempt at concealing his presence or his attention, so as she turned to look she easily spotted him. That would have been easy anyway: with his predominantly white garments and unruly hair, he did rather stand out. And as he, noting her attention, began to approach, she caught sight of another attention-grabbing feature: the bandages across his chest and shoulder that were visible as his apparently just-washed gi flapped open. They seemed more extensive than a single stab-wound could account for, and she wondered if Hajime had understated the amount of harm he’d done this young man the other night. Though the mercenary did at least appear to be moving without much trouble or discomfort at this point, which in itself was impressive so soon after any wound Hajime had dealt.

“Hey, police lady,” he said as he drew near. For all the currently near-growling tone, he had a pleasant voice that, though deep, sounded simultaneously young.

She looked up into his attractive face and responded with an interest almost too pert to be polite, “What can I do for you?”

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

Smoothly she cut him off before he could say the entire name. “Fujita’s, yes.” And musingly, with a smile, she finished the statement by listing its various possible endings. “Friend? Roommate? Personal chef? I suppose the aspect of our relationship you’re most interested in is ‘partner.'”

The mercenary appeared embarrassed — probably because she was being so personable; he hadn’t expected that, and perhaps regretted his somewhat rude greeting — and simultaneously interested in his turn. “Uh, yeah,” he said, seemingly thrown off course.

“I’m Takagi Tokio,” she told him, her smile broadening. “And you, I believe, are kenkaya Zanza.”

“You’ve heard of me?” he wondered, some pleasure creeping into his tone and onto his face.

“Probably nothing to crow about,” replied Tokio. “I am a member of the police force, however ineffectual.”

His brown eyes gave her a glance up and down that was clearly exaggerated. “Ineffectual? You look like you could knock the pants off of just about anyone.” And she didn’t think the potentially flirtatious nature of this wording was an accident.

“Well…” Her grin turned wry and reluctant without much trouble, since, however facetious their exchange, this comment was entirely straightforward. “I am a woman.”

“Oh, I noticed that,” he assured her. “Anyone’d have to be blind to– oh, wait, you mean people give you shit about that.” And the pleasantly flirtatious atmosphere was abruptly dispelled.

Since this was the case, Tokio moved back toward the point. “But you didn’t come to discuss my troubles…”

The young man’s face darkened right back to its previous morose irritation, and he reached up to scratch under a bandage on his chest as if one of the hurts Hajime had done him suddenly itched in reminder. “No, I didn’t.”

“So what,” she asked again, as bright as before despite the shift in mood, “can I do for you?”

“I want to fight him again,” was Zanza’s dark answer. He added in unnecessary clarification, “Your partner.”

“That’s hardly something you need to tell me. He’s the one in charge.” Though there was a touch of irony to her tone, she managed to restrain herself from making the lengthy sarcastic follow-up comment to which she was tempted about how a woman, after all, was only an acceptable police officer if carefully kept under close male supervision, and even then only because that close male happened to be highly independent and intimidating.

Whatever, if any, of this Zanza picked up on, he did give her another once-over that seemed more aimed at actual assessment this time. “Why the hell would a nice-looking girl like you be partner to an asshole like him, anyway?”

To the attitude willing to call a woman six or seven years his senior a ‘girl’ Tokio chose not to respond. Instead she said, with a decidedly flirtatious grin this time, “So you did come to discuss my troubles.”

There was a faint answering grin on his face even as he spoke again darkly. “I mean, you seem a lot nicer than him… I wanna fight him again, but I don’t wanna have to talk to him again. So I thought maybe you could arrange it for me.”

He was cute, and she decided she liked him: a little less urbane than men she was generally interested in, but funny and very good-looking. She set down at last the print she’d been holding all this time and turned fully to face him. “And what do I get out of this?”

“Um…”

“You really can’t think of anything you could do for me?”

“Well, nothing I’d really wanna say in front of… you know…” He gestured around, and briefly at the art vendor that had listened to this entire exchange with a bemused smile. “People.”

Yes, she reflected as she laughed aloud at this statement, definitely cute. “How about this,” she said: “I set up your fight in exchange for–” here she too glanced at the merchant with a grin– “a night out sometime that would be totally appropriate to mention in front of… people.”

He seemed a bit surprised — possibly that her flirtation had been serious and not merely an idle method of amusing herself somewhat at his expense — and also a bit taken aback as he replied, “You mean, like, I pay for dinner or something?”

“You must not be…” But here Tokio’s words faded and died as she saw the abrupt change in his expression. Something just past her had caught his attention, and his entire demeanor had altered all at once: his brows lowered over suddenly widened eyes and his body tensed. She glanced to the side to see what could possibly have had this effect on him even as he reached for it: one of the prints on display at the stand they were more or less monopolizing with their stationary conversation.

Trying to read him, very curious, she stared at him as he stared at the paper in his hand. Agitation, surprise — astonishment, even — and a growing something like anger but that she believed was really just a tendency toward intense activity were all very evident in his face and bearing. And after not too long that last burst out in the form of a growlingly intense demand directed at the vendor: “Where does he live?”

“I’m–” The merchant had been listening to the conversation with benign puzzlement this whole time, and was very startled to be all of a sudden addressed. “–sorry?”

The kenkaya stepped forward and seized the front of the vendor’s kimono, hauling him up to eye level and almost bellowing, “The artist!” He had released his grip and let the man fall into an unsteady standing position before Tokio could even put out a hand to try to detach him. “The guy who made this print!” He rattled the paper in the merchant’s face. “Where does he live?”

Even as he stammered out, “Th-the Dobu Ita rowhouses,” the vendor was shooting Tokio an appealing look. She could tell, however, that Zanza meant the man no harm — was desperate, not angry — and probably wouldn’t lay hands on him again. “But he never — he never sees anyone — he barely even talks to me — I don’t know if you can–“

“He’ll see me,” Zanza interrupted in a tone of finality, and, whirling, stalked away without another word.

More curious than ever, Tokio watched his swift, purposeful steps until he turned a corner and disappeared. “Well!” she said, and with a somewhat confused smile turned back to the vendor. He hadn’t resumed his seat, but was also looking after the mystifying kenkaya with a helpless expression and a slow but ongoing shaking of the head. “What on earth was that about?” Tokio wondered next as she began searching her pockets for something with which to pay for the print Zanza had just made off with — it was either that or arrest him for theft the next time she saw him, which might ruin their planned date.

Still shaking his head, the merchant set a hand down gently on the stack of remaining prints from which Zanza had taken the one that had gotten him so worked up. “That Bakumatsu group that claimed it was a government-sponsored volunteer army — this is a portrait of the leader.” And they both looked down pensively, as he removed his hand, at the top picture in the stack. “Though now I look closer,” the merchant murmured, “this boy next to him in the picture…”

“…could possibly be a much younger Zanza,” Tokio finished, equally quiet. She began counting out coins.

“Thank you very much,” said the vendor in relief as he accepted the payment and resumed his seat, looking a bit worn out. A small pipe, extracted from a pocket, might help to soothe him once he got it filled and lit, and he focused on that task as he added, “That’s literally the first I’ve ever sold of that one. I don’t know why that artist insists on making them.”

“My guess is I’m soon going to find out.”

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

“And I thought this patrol was going to be boring,” Tokio grinned. Then, with a friendly nod at the merchant, she turned and bent her steps in the same direction Zanza had gone.

***

It was one of those days when people had been in and out of Saitou’s office almost nonstop as long as he’d occupied it; and while some of them were his own agents with reports (though not always particularly productive reports), the rest had been unrelated to his current case. That didn’t mean they weren’t on important business, just that they dragged his thoughts constantly from what he actually wanted to think about. So with some irritation he glanced up when the door opened yet again in the afternoon, but when he saw that the latest visitor was his wife he calmed. She wouldn’t have left her patrol if she didn’t have some important or at least interesting news for him.

Tokio smiled when she saw his expression. “You look like you’re having a lovely day,” was her greeting.

He snorted faintly. “Information on the Karashigumi is coming in at a trickle. We may have to send someone to infiltrate.”

“Or we could just concentrate on Rokumeikan and forget about the yakuza.”.

Since there really wasn’t much to say in response to that bit of mutual wishful thinking, “Why are you here?” Saitou asked.

Her smile grew into a look he recognized as intrigued amusement. “I had a run-in with that bishounen you fought the other day.” Saitou raised his brows at her word choice, but waited silently for her to continue. “He’s dead-set on fighting you again, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of what I found out.”

Saitou wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but this tantalizing beginning had him hooked. What could she have discovered that wasn’t common knowledge? The level of interest he had in learning more about Zanza was unprecedented; though he hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the young man since their battle, the few times Zanza had crossed his mind over the last several days was far more than usual for some mercenary sent by an ex-comrade to fight him.

“You’ve heard of the Sekihoutai?” she went on when he remained silent. He nodded. “Zanza was a member. Well, he must have been nine or ten years old at that point, so ‘member’ is maybe… but he was obviously close to their leader, Sagara, a sort of assistant to him; and it seems like he looked up to him like family.”

Saitou frowned. “Sagara was executed, wasn’t he?”

With a nod she confirmed, “For false promises in the name of the Ishin Shishi to win the loyalty of his volunteers.”

“But would a nine- or ten-year-old have seen it that way?”

“Exactly.” Tokio’s demeanor was a funny mix of pitying and amusedly interested. She loved this kind of emotional drama. “It explains why he’s so determined to fight you again, doesn’t it?”

It at least started to. A child might not have understood what was going on at the time, nor recognized the crimes his captain was committing; to Zanza, it must merely have appeared that the Ishin Shishi, supposedly his allies, had murdered someone he loved and respected like family. And even in the young adult of later years, though he might in hindsight better understand what had happened, the bitterness and hatred born in him earlier in life could be far stronger than any logical recognition of justice. He would have every reason to hate the government the Ishin Shishi had become, and to despise especially someone that had originally fought against it and then joined its ranks.

“How did you discover this?” Saitou asked at length.

She told him about the incident with the print, and how she’d followed Zanza to the artist’s home. “The artist — he’s going by ‘Tsukioka Tsunan,’ but Zanza calls him ‘Katsu’ — he was in the same position as Zanza as a child with the Sekihoutai. He seems just as angry as Zanza, but more focused. They kept referring to ‘Sagara-taichou’s betrayal’ and ‘the betrayal of the Sekihoutai’ — so, as you said, a nine- or ten-year-old…” When Saitou nodded his understanding, she finished, “They were still talking about the past — half nostalgia and half bitterness — when I left. I got the feeling they’re going to be reminiscing all night.”

Saitou sat back in his chair and thoughtfully lit a new cigarette, staring at nothing in particular as he took the first few long, contemplative drags. It seemed a shame to let an undeniably strong young man like Zanza run around without any purpose to his life beyond reminiscing bitterly and picking meaningless fights to scrape out a living that couldn’t possibly be worth (or, sometimes, even pay for treatment of) the damage he occasionally took from opponents like Saitou Hajime. The latter had felt the potential in those blows; some signs of their effectiveness were even visible on his face and the arms hidden by his jacket. With proper training, the kenkaya could be formidable. He wasn’t entirely stupid, either; even through his obvious anger and battle-lust, he’d still managed to throw out attempted insults, in order to achieve his ends, that had been far more effective than Saitou would have expected from him.

“You’re planning something,” Tokio remarked with a curious grin, “and in this context I’m not sure…”

“We need,” replied Saitou slowly, “to determine how best to go up against the Karashigumi.”

Tokio’s brows rose as she picked up on the idea. “Zanza would be pretty well placed for that… Joining them might not work when he’s already so high-profile, but he’s in just the right walk of life to make the right friends and find out useful information…”

“But…?” Saitou caught this unspoken word in his wife’s musing tone.

“But he’s a loose cannon,” she said bluntly, “and he already hates you.”

Saitou smiled wryly. “So we give him the second fight he wants, and then a chance at working against a corrupt agent of the government he hates so much.”

She nodded slowly. “I think it could work. It’s worth a try, at least. Any particular time you’d like to fight him again?” When he shook his head, she straightened from where she’d been propped on one gloved hand against his desk. “All right, then, I’m back to patrol. I’ll see you tonight.”

In her absence, Saitou remained leaning back in his chair, puffing at his cigarette, pondering. What little useful information he’d received so far about the Karashigumi, and what he could make of it, suddenly held no interest for him, and he thought he might take a few minutes’ break to think about this new idea before forcing himself to return to that.

As Tokio had said, recruiting Zanza as a temporary agent was at least worth a try. The mercenary was well placed for the purpose, and strong enough to take care of himself should a certain amount of trouble arise. Just how willing he would be to enter into the project was another story, since, as Tokio had also pointed out, he already seemed to have a disproportionate amount of antipathy toward Saitou; but Saitou had a feeling Zanza’s situation and attitudes could be turned to their advantage.

And it was that feeling that had him a little worried, because he feared he might be allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment. Was he letting his desire to know more of Zanza, to make something of Zanza, and his undeniable sexual attraction to him, lead him to believe the kenkaya could be of more use to him professionally than was actually the case?

He hadn’t had a lover for years, and most of the time this didn’t bother him; or at least he believed it didn’t. But just the other evening he’d been thinking about how stripped-down his life was, how little enrichment he had… and then this incredibly attractive and intriguing young man had appeared as if on cue, as if to fill that void; it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Saitou’s subconscious had taken that timing as a sign and started looking for ways he could involve Zanza in that bare bones of a life of his.

Why, beyond the obvious physical attraction, he should be interested in an uneducated urchin that named himself after a stupid weapon, wore tacky clothing, and engaged in meaningless combat for a living, he couldn’t be sure. Having a history of being picky about his lovers made him listen to his instincts when he did feel an interest in someone… and perhaps those instincts were compromising the others, the ones that now said he could make professional use of the young man as well.

He would simply have to be careful. At the moment there didn’t seem to be any way to divine the truth — whether he honestly believed recruiting Zanza would benefit his case, or whether certain parts of him were finding reasons to do what they hoped would further an entirely different agenda — but he’d already made the suggestion, set the thing in motion. He would fight the stubborn young man again, and he would have a thing or two to say at that time to try to get Zanza’s attitudes into better alignment with his own needs. That was probably something that needed to happen in Zanza’s life in any case, and Saitou might as well be (in fact rather wanted to be) the one to do it.

But before that (and now he wished, just a little, that he had specified time and date for the encounter so as to give himself some working space), he would forewarn himself; he would go to that fight armed with all the information he could find so as to make the best decision he possibly could about what he wanted to happen afterward — personally and in regards to the Karashigumi. That seeking this information might well be yet another thing his unprofessional desire and interest was foisting on his professionalism under the guise of a job-related need he was well aware, and not terribly concerned.

The fact was, he’d been bored half to death today playing the role of coordinating spymaster waiting around for other people to bring him news and receive updated orders; some actual research on his own, even if it involved merely heading over to one of the government offices to dig up what files there might be on this Sekihoutai he only vaguely remembered hearing about in the past, would be a vastly welcome change.

This story is a rewrite of the one I began in 2002, whose first story arc was completely finished and second well underway before I realized it needed more than just touch-ups in all its older sections. For some author’s notes on the segments in this post, please see all these Productivity Log posts.


He Can Be Taught (1/3)




This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length:

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

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


Chapter 1 – Heretics

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” said Sano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” nodded Sano.

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

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

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

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

“Eleven!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

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

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

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

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

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

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

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

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

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

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

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

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have plenty of goals!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

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

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

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

>2 Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

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

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

“But you are from Ayundome?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone like you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man in the bed did not reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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