Aku Soku Zan(za)

Aku Soku Zan(za)

Section 1

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.



2>>

Section 2

The brightest of lights shone through the throbbing nerves at the back of his eyes — closed though they were — directly into his brain, which seemed to be pulsing in time with a noisy pounding that reverberated from somewhere nearby — against his skull, perhaps, if the pain therein was any indication, though what the weapon in use was he couldn’t guess.

With seeming suddenness and all at the same time came the realizations that the light was the normal illumination of the sun through shouji, the pounding a knocking at his door that had at least started out at a normal level of firmness and volume, and his overall state one of very normal hungover discomfort and incoherence. Zanza dragged his hands up to his face to shut out the light and try to clutch the throbbing into manageable stillness.

In the next instant, with the same abruptness, came the memory of Katsu and their unexpected reunion, of their hours of ambivalent reliving of old times and subsequent visit to the nearest bar. Under the cover of his big hands, Zanza’s mouth curled into a slight smile. He wasn’t exactly happy at having met Katsu again, at having suffered a stirring of dregs in the cup of his life he’d spent so many years and so much effort trying to get to lie still; but proper happiness was nothing he’d felt for some time, and he wasn’t sure he even knew how anymore. In any case, there was an intense feeling of rightness about the meeting — perhaps abetted by the type of language Katsu himself had used in reference to it — as if they’d been specifically destined to run into each other again just now. So obviously the only thing to do had been to get flaming drunk. Well, for Zanza, anyway — he wasn’t sure he’d seen Katsu take anything more than the occasional sip.

The reoccurrence of that pounding against his head — no, it really was at the door — reminded him why he’d awakened in the first place. It was astonishingly early, in this context, for visitors, and he planned to do nothing more than dismiss this one in a most peremptory manner when he raised his voice to inquire who it was. He didn’t even manage that inquiry, however, as he found his croaking throat and nasty, swollen tongue far less manageable than he’d anticipated. Whatever noise he made, aside from being muffled by the hands he’d neglected to remove from his face, didn’t qualify as speech, and the knocking at the door was not so much repeated as stubbornly continued.

Finally, on his third attempt, he managed something that, though completely inarticulate yet, was at least loud enough to be heard without — or so he judged when the pounding gave way to a listening, ringing silence. Then he was rather pleased with himself when his next try sounded at least a little like, “Go the fuck away,” at a tolerably loud volume.

“You know, Zanza, some people, by the time noon rolls around…” This voice was somewhat familiar, but the kenkaya had used up all his finer skills on emitting words more or less distinctly, and couldn’t quite place it. When he made no reply, however, the voice called out, “I am authorized to force entry if you don’t comply,” and he realized all at once who this must be.

Much as he would rather remain still except for whatever motion was required to pad his unwilling ears with blanket, he feared for the state of his door should the cheeky woman make good on her threat. Not that anything around here was of high quality or in any kind of good repair, and not that he owned much that was both worth stealing and portable to the average thief, but he would prefer his lock remain intact. So with a monumental effort, he hauled himself across the floor, trailing the blanket behind him, and reached up, without standing, to unlock the door. The light in the room increased even as he buried his face again in cloth that smelled of sake and sweat and other things, and the voice, now clearer, said, “I’m not, actually. They’d never give that kind of authorization to a woman.”

Zanza’s only reply was an inarticulate grumble.

She closed the door behind her, and then he could almost feel her assessing and increasingly disdainful gaze on him as he wallowed in a straggling blanket in the genkan trying to combat nausea. Finally she said, “You’re one for extremes, I see. Drinking yourself into a stupor, then sleeping all the next day…”

“Extremes are the only thing that work,” he replied, though whether the words were at all comprehensible to her he neither knew nor cared. What could it possibly matter to her how much alcohol it took him to forget, or how much sleep he needed thereafter?

She stepped out of her shoes and up onto the floor, evidently taking a look around the small apartment. This got Zanza’s fuller attention, as he had a vague idea that her first impression of his quarters might play later into his chances with her, so he finally, painstakingly dragged himself into a sitting position so as to see what she saw. And he had to admit, it wasn’t pretty. Dust that in some places had turned to grime coated many a surface, the cabinet in which he kept his few small possessions was missing a door, his tiny tea stove was propped up on a brick where one leg had been knocked off ages ago, and the futon he’d just vacated to crawl over to the door was covered in stains.

“Don’t go complaining about the mess in here–” His voice was a rather stupid-sounding mixture of defiance and embarrassment– “since you’re the one who insisted on coming in.”

“Oh, I saw it all last night,” she replied somewhat absently, her eyes seemingly fixed on the broken zanbatou that now half stood and half lay in one corner. “Just getting a better look in the light.”

“What?!” Halted in the act of struggling to his feet in order to leave the entry and return to his futon (in some part to hide its stains with blanket or body or both), Zanza ran rapidly again through the catalogue of yesterday’s events. Talking to this woman, seeing the print, finding Katsu, astonishment, talking to Katsu, talking to Katsu, heading for the bar, drinking, drinking, drinking, and then… blankness. Yes, he’d envisioned getting this attractive and unusual woman in here some night, probably with sake involved, but, even given her flirtatious manner during their conversation, he’d considered the prospect distant at best and ridiculously optimistic at worst. Surely it hadn’t happened the first night after they’d been introduced??

“Extremism in your housekeeping too, I see,” the officer said at last with a wry smile.

Finishing his project of returning to the bed, though at first he only plopped into a sitting position on top of the blanket rather than lying down again, Zanza mumbled something about how he would have cleaned up a bit if he’d known beforehand that he would have a lady’s company.

The policewoman chuckled. “I’ll look forward to seeing that sometime. Last night you were far too drunk to do much more than collapse there–” she pointed at where he currently sat– “and pass out again.”

So she’d helped him home. Not as glorious as his momentary daydream, but not as bad as it could have been, either, unless… “Did you get called out to that bar?” Perhaps now she was here to effect an arrest or reprimand for which she’d been too compassionate (or he too incoherent) last night.

Her wry smile twisted into a smirk. “Not at all, though that probably might have been a good idea. I met you by coincidence in the street on my patrol, just like earlier, and noticed your friend was having a hard time lugging you home all by himself, so…”

Zanza looked her up and down, this time concentrating not on the figure so nicely delineated by the police uniform, but on the uniform itself. “And he let you help?” Cooperating with a representative of a government agency didn’t sound much like the Katsu he’d met last night.

“He said you’d mentioned me.”

“I… oh.” Now Zanza turned his face quickly away in the hopes that his sudden abashment wouldn’t be observed, totally unwilling to admit that he’d vocalized the ridiculously optimistic to Katsu in terms he vaguely remembered to the tune of, ‘I might score with this hot police chick.’ Better change the subject. “What’s your name, again?”

“Tokio.”

“Yeah…” Zanza scratched his face. “Where have I heard that before?”

“Besides yesterday, when I introduced myself?”

“Yeah…”

“If you were looking into any of Hajime’s business…”

“Oh, yeah, of course.” Saitou’s name (even his given name) was like a pinprick at the moment. Despite having been awakened earlier than he’d intended, despite his hangover, Zanza had been creeping toward a fairly good mood in the presence of this attractive woman… and the reminder of her loathsome partner brought him right back down into the headache and muscle aches and disgusting mouth. Saitou, yes. He’d tracked down some information about the man in order to get a better idea of what he would be up against, and in doing so was pretty sure he had heard Tokio’s name mentioned. He also seemed to recall having dismissed it as unimportant, though he couldn’t quite remember why; a partner that lived with his target seemed worth taking into some consideration.

She interrupted his attempts at recollection. “I arranged your fight with him.”

Suddenly the thought of Saitou wasn’t nearly as loathsome as it had been, and Zanza eagerly made a proper sitting position out of the sprawl he’d sunken into. “Yousha! For when?”

“Whenever you want to drop by like you did the other night. I’d really rather you didn’t show up at the house again, but you already know where it is, and there is that convenient clearing, so…”

“Any time?” wondered Zanza eagerly.

“Make it evening. You must have noticed when we arrived home before, though I can’t guarantee when he’ll be there any given night.”

“Bastard’s a workaholic, is he?”

“He is a workaholic, but he isn’t a bastard.” She was strolling around the small room now, around Zanza, and had put herself between him and the patched paper windows, so her head seemed surrounded by a painful, glowing halo of sunlight if he looked in her direction. “Just because he defeated you…”

“It’s not that!” Zanza protested angrily. And when she gave him a brow raised, still brightly backlit, he turned away in pained annoyance and explained. “I figure you know who he really is, since you call him ‘Hajime,’ so how the fuck can you work with him? This government — this whole fucking system, everything the country’s turned into these days — is such a load of bullshit, and–” He stuttered for a moment, remembering that this was the government she worked for he was trash-talking. Of course he meant every word of it, but perhaps he should dwell on a slightly different aspect of the truth. “And he was against that until suddenly he switched sides! Everyone says he was so strong and dedicated when he was with the Shinsengumi; how could he just abandon that?”

When he turned his head back toward Tokio, he found her movement stilled and that she was looking at him with a kind of faintly amused skepticism, as if he were a silly child. As annoying as he found this, there was also something… perhaps a little titillating about it at the same time. But all she said was, “Maybe if you ask him…”

Zanza frowned as he felt, unexpectedly, of all things, a faint touch of jealousy. “You like him.”

Her expression did not change. “Yes.”

And you live with him. Are you guys… y’know…?”

“Consummating our relationship?” she replied somewhat sarcastically.

Zanza thought this an odd way to put it, but figured Tokio probably encountered a lot of assumptions that her position on the police force was based entirely on a sexual relationship with a man. He scratched his head. “I was just going to say ‘fucking,’ but, yeah?”

She laughed. “No, we’re not. He’s a good friend, but he’s a hard man to love.”

Perhaps a little startled by the honesty in the statement, Zanza wasn’t sure which of his thoughts to voice next. How could anyone be friends with what he’d met the other evening? ‘Hard to love’ sounded like the understatement of the century. And if Saitou was such a good friend to her, was Tokio too a treacherous snake? He couldn’t quite believe it of her. But if she was so fond of the man, why had she so readily agreed to arrange a second fight between him and Zanza? Finally he asked this last question, deeming it least offensive and most related to what he cared about.

“First of all,” she said bluntly, “you don’t stand a chance against him, so…” She ignored his protesting sound and went on with a grin. “Second, I like you.”

So evidently Zanza had, somehow, not insulted her enough to drive her away. He obviously hadn’t given her much of an impression of his strength and skill as a warrior, either, but at least she did, apparently, retain the beginnings of interest in him. That was something worth building on, he thought. “Well,” he said, trying to return her grin (which didn’t work very well with his hangover), “guy you like’s kinda sitting here in bed kinda naked — kinda–” he glanced around vaguely, wondering where his gi had got to– “in this nice private room…”

“And I’m kinda on duty. I need to get back to my patrol. Besides, you haven’t had a chance to clean up yet.” Tokio threw another wry look around the dirty apartment. “I’ll drop by some time after your fight with Hajime, and we can arrange something. If,” she added as she stepped to the door and slid it open, “you’re still alive.”

“If I’m still alive,” he grumbled once she was gone, collapsing back into the blanket and muffling his face again as all the symptoms of hangover that Tokio’s presence had caused to dim slightly returned in a miserable wave. “If your bastard partner’s still alive after I get through with him…” But he had no way to finish the statement, so he trailed off and slowly relaxed onto the futon.

He didn’t really know that he could beat Saitou. It had been almost unreal, the way that man fought — speed, strength, endurance; Zanza had never seen anything like it. Despite the air of sarcasm, his words about Zanza’s level of strength relative to his own had seemed painfully accurate; Zanza, little as he liked to admit it even in his own head, had been outmatched. A hand crept to his still-bandaged injury, and he recalled what the doctor had said about it — how marvelous was its accuracy, how little damage it had done despite its depth. Which meant Saitou had been toying with Zanza even when he’d delivered the blow that had nearly felled him. And someone that could so carelessly and disinterestedly act with such strength and precision was not someone Zanza was sure he could ever win against. He shivered slightly as he remembered the gleam of those freaky eyes in the darkness. But it was a shiver of pure excitement.

He’d never met someone so unequivocably stronger than he was, and hadn’t he been actively searching for such a person for years? There wasn’t much meticulousness to his thoughts and plans about his manner of living, but that had been more or less the reason he’d gotten into the fighting-for-hire business: to find the battles — or, rather, someone capable of providing the battles — that would allow him to forget, that would blast away for a while all the feelings he carried with him every moment of every day. And in Saitou surely, surely he must have found what he’d been seeking for so long. He looked forward to their rematch with throbbing, aching impatience.

He tried to tell himself he was still angry at someone that had joined the Meiji after having opposed its formation, but he knew that wasn’t true. Well, he was still angry, but that wasn’t the reason he wanted to fight Saitou again. Hadn’t Saitou, after all, already addressed that question? At the time, of course, Zanza had been lying on the ground with a fresh stab-wound in his shoulder, and the statements hadn’t quite registered in his conscious awareness, but afterward he’d remembered the claims Saitou had made — that he was ‘fighting corruption within the system as one of the government’s own agents,’ or something like that.

Despite the tone in which the officer had spoken and the peculiar look on his face, which mannerisms somehow seemed to affirm his words, Zanza wasn’t entirely sure he believed any of it. But dutifully he had relayed the message when he’d gone to collect his payment, and Yonai, a handsome if rather pretentious-looking dandy of an older man, had frowned and said nothing for a moment upon hearing the report. Already having the money in hand, Zanza had taken advantage of the uncharacteristic silence to make his escape, but now he almost wished (only almost) that he’d stayed a little longer to see what Yonai might have to say about his former comrade’s assertions. His perspective on the matter might have been useful, but it was too late now.

The point was that, whatever the kenkaya or the man that had hired him did or didn’t believe, Zanza couldn’t go back to fight Saitou again with the same emotional motivation as before, since Saitou had already explained himself on that front. And it would be ridiculous to state that he wanted to fight him simply because Saitou was stronger than he was. So at this point, what justification did he have for initiating further combat? Not that he needed any at all — he didn’t owe Saitou a damn thing — but he was already worried about the seriousness with which Saitou might or might not be willing to fight him, and he considered a real rematch much more likely if his reasons for approaching it didn’t seem totally spurious.

Well, hopefully he would have come up with something by tonight when he went to fight him again. Because he was going to fight him again tonight, and nothing insignificant like the lack of a rational-sounding excuse was going to stop him.

***

Unexpectedly forced to put her woodland tracking skills to the test and finding them rusty enough that she couldn’t be certain of any satisfaction from this venture, it was with some annoyance that Tokio made her way through the trees as quietly as possible while still quickly following what little trail she could detect. She was pretty sure they’d gone this way.

Hajime had dogmatically assumed Tokio would wait out tonight’s fight inside the house just as she had the previous; and, rather than eliciting his skepticism or disapproval, or even starting an argument they didn’t have time for by expressing her greatly increased level of interest, Tokio had deemed it easier simply to follow quietly behind after a few minutes. Knowing Hajime had a thing or two to say to Zanza in pursuit of their new goals, she doubted she would miss much if any actual fighting — and, having been on the receiving end of plenty of Hajime’s lectures in the past, she might even be better off giving them a head start, though she wasn’t entirely disinterested in how her husband might choose to word his message.

But none of that would matter if she couldn’t locate them.

She supposed it wasn’t impossible they’d moved deeper into the wood than the usual clearing in order to placate the sensibilities of neighbors (such as Tokio herself) that might not be terribly happy at having the neighborhood peace broken by noisy violence, but honestly there wasn’t much deeper into the wood to go. It was really little more than a thick belt of trees between this neighborhood and another, richer one Tokio and her husband had deemed too ostentatious for their needs when shopping for a Tokyo home a couple of years back. The clearing made a nice venue for picnics or small battles, but it was the only such place nearby… unless perhaps Hajime knew of some better location somewhere among the bigger houses to the north?

From curious why they’d chosen to relocate and annoyed that she might already be missing something interesting, she transitioned to alert and ready when, as if specifically to answer her irritated questions, the clash of metal came from somewhere ahead. The sound told her plenty; even had she not seen the ruined remains of Zanza’s great sword in his apartment this morning, she wouldn’t have supposed it capable of the quick, ringing noises, such as she now heard, that marked a contest of more normally sized weapons. She abandoned stealth (as far as she ever did) and broke into a run.

Having found what she sought just beyond the trees, she nevertheless did not leave their shelter, but stopped in the shadows to observe — no reason to make her presence known when her assistance wasn’t yet needed.

That Hajime’s opponent had managed to survive long enough for the sound of their swords to draw Tokio all the way to them indicated Hajime was fighting to capture. This might explain the grimness of his expression and movements; she knew he much preferred a quick kill to this more finicky process, but oftentimes some purpose other than immediate justice made it necessary to refrain from damaging even some hateful little worm of an enemy too badly. Zanza, however, not far off, probably did not have this end in mind. Tokio rather doubted any fight ever seemed so complicated to him, and couldn’t help watching in admiration as he faced off against a swordsman with nothing more than clenched hands and angry vigor.

What had united the two opponents against this pair of thugs Tokio did not immediately observe, but when she was able to drag her eyes away from the young man’s body she shouldn’t have found nearly so engrossing at the moment, she saw it: the motionless form, face-down on the ground, of a woman from beneath whom blood slowly spread in a growing pool. Whether the poor thing had been fleeing pursuers through the trees and Hajime and Zanza had seen her, or whether she had screamed as she was attacked and drawn them away from their conversation before it could turn into a fight, she’d somehow obviously seized the attention of the combatants in the wood… but perhaps not early enough in her dilemma to do much good. As always when observing a woman victimized by men with a clear advantage of strength and power, Tokio felt all at once tense, nauseated, and vengeful.

To the head of his opponent, Zanza’s big fist delivered a blow that sounded no less painful than decisive, and the man’s weapon slipped from his hand as he dropped with a grunt. An instant later Hajime’s sword slid along that of the second enemy to within his guard and a position where it could slice across his neck as well; and with a spurt of blood and a distressing choking and gurgling sound that filled the air in place of the previous noises of combat, the second stranger too hit the ground. Tokio, not eager to watch a gruesome death even if she couldn’t help listening to it, let her eyes follow her husband instead. His movement was quick and practiced as he applied a handkerchief to the edge of his sword so it could be resheathed, and Tokio couldn’t help wincing a bit, even in the midst of this more serious action, at seeing the bloody cloth go back into his pocket without regard to its effect on the material of his pants. He would absolutely be laundering those himself.

Hajime was stripping off a glove even as he crouched swiftly beside the fallen woman, but his haste was insufficient. As his bare hand sought out the artery in her neck, his tightening of lips was enough to tell Tokio what she needed to know, and the nausea in her gut increased. And when Hajime looked up at Zanza and shook his head, it became clear that Tokio wasn’t the only person upset by the situation.

“Fucking monsters,” the kenkaya snarled, turning aside. “If you can’t have her, you just kill her; is that fucking it?” And he began viciously kicking at the figure he’d just felled.

“Stop.” Hajime, rising, hurried toward him with an outstretched hand. “I want him alive.”

Zanza glanced at him, then quickly away. “You killed the other one!” he protested. But his next kick was about half as hard as the previous had been.

“I saw you were going to knock this one out,” explained Hajime tightly, “so I was free to dispose of that one.”

“So you’re the only one who gets to–” Zanza’s accusing words died when his eyes met Hajime’s, and yet again his head turned abruptly, this time with a frustrated growl. It was obvious that, in addition to his rage at this situation, he was overcome by a mess of other emotions difficult for a bystander — even Tokio — to make sense of: confusion, sorrow, embarrassment, guilt? He didn’t want to meet Hajime’s gaze, and his agitation seemed to increase every time he tried. Tokio couldn’t imagine this was caused by merely the same irritation with her husband as before, and thus assumed Hajime had already spoken his piece — and effectively, at that! She’d clearly waited too long to follow them.

“We’ll have to have our own fight another time.” Hajime made this statement a little louder than the previous, Tokio thought for the benefit of the neighbors that had emerged from their houses to see what the commotion at the end of their street might be. “I need to get that guy to the police station and make sure you haven’t killed him.”

“I fucking wanted to kill him!” Zanza raged, though still not looking at the other man. “Bastards chase an unarmed woman through the streets to do fuck-knows-what to her, and then fucking kill her as soon as help shows up? He fucking deserves to die!”

“Of course he does.” Hajime had crouched again and was examining the man in question, whose state of continued life was evident in his visible breathing. “But not until I get some answers out of him. Tokio, we’re going to need a carriage.”

His addressing her — being aware of her presence and involving her so casually in the conversation — caused no surprise whatsoever in Tokio; but Zanza started and jerked around, scanning the area with widened eyes. They were all just beyond the circle of the nearest streetlamp, so in the growing darkness it took a moment for him to spot her — and then, she thought, he only did so because she stepped out from the trees in preparation for compliance with Hajime’s order.

And as Zanza looked directly at her, her tentative assessment was confirmed: anger, confusion, sorrow, embarrassment, and guilt warred across his face as much as in his bearing. Hajime must really have gotten through to him; whether that would help at all with his plan for recruiting the young man she couldn’t guess. Right now Zanza seemed ready to run away and be glad never to lay eyes on either of them again, any previously apparent romantic interest in Tokio notwithstanding.

Moving to pass him, she lifted a hand to offer a would-be comforting squeeze to his arm. He flinched slightly, though he didn’t shy away, as if unable to decide whether he could bear any contact with her at the moment. Pushing aside the totally ill-timed desire to keep squeezing once she felt his lovely muscle, she made her touch brief and headed over to where her husband had resumed a standing position and was watching her.

There were two reasons she then bent and repeated Hajime’s examination of the dead woman on the ground. First, regardless of how much interest she had in the kenkaya’s state of mind and what might be going on here, the involvement of a victimized woman in any scene always constituted an automatic shift in focus and often priorities for Tokio. And it wasn’t that she didn’t trust her husband’s assessment; she simply had to know for herself, with her own hand, that it was too late to help her fellow.

Second, regardless of how much interest she had in the figure whose limpness, growing coldness, and lack of pulse or breath were beyond dispute, she was also hugely curious about Zanza’s state of mind; she didn’t want to walk away from the scene looking for a cab and let the young man and his expressive face out of her sight. Though admittedly checking the poor woman on the ground didn’t put off her moment of departure very far.

“We’ll need something for her too,” Hajime remarked, quiet and grim.

Tokio nodded as she stood straight, then looked toward where Zanza had let out a sad, frustrated breath. Meeting the brown eyes she thought were once again avoiding Hajime’s by fixing on Tokio and the fallen, she could see how deeply Zanza regretted this circumstance. He’d really wanted to save this stranger in need, even in the midst of his personal turmoil. His strong feeling thus displayed raised him in her esteem, and gave her some hope that Hajime’s plan to recruit him might work out. This, naturally, only made her more curious and desirous to remain on the scene, but that she couldn’t do.

Here Zanza himself helped her out. His eyes strayed from Tokio to the dead woman at her feet, then to Hajime — whence they almost immediately jerked away. He made another unhappy sound, clenched his fists once more, and, whirling abruptly, stalked off into the trees.

In response to Tokio’s slight twitch in the direction he’d gone, Hajime said softly, “Give him time to calm down.” And reluctantly she nodded agreement. Her husband was removing his jacket to drape over the head of the victim on the ground — this one Tokio wouldn’t mind washing for him — and it was about time to go fetch some conveyances for the five people, living and dead, that needed to get to the police station.

As long as it felt it took her to accomplish this and as much as she wanted elucidation, she did not immediately demand, once the bodies had been loaded onto a wagon and she and her husband and the prisoner into a carriage, what she was increasingly impatient to know: what on Earth Hajime had said to Zanza to get him so worked up even before they’d encountered these thugs. One of the latter, lying on the seat across from them in the cab, showed signs of returning consciousness, and not only did that mean they would have to keep an eye on him — he wasn’t tied — but his presence rendered gossip unpalatable and perhaps even dangerous. Beyond that, she couldn’t quite get past the memory of Zanza’s heart-wrenchingly angry, horrified face and Hajime’s current glower.

The station at night was not half the chaos it was in daylight, but never emptied entirely; it was easy enough to arrange everyone to their satisfaction quickly, and to dispatch a messenger to fetch a police doctor to examine the corpses and help ensure the prisoner did not join them. The thug did seem rather in need of medical attention after Zanza’s rough treatment of him — he had, in fact, awakened during the carriage ride, but not very coherently — and, while the doctor performed his task, Hajime was sucking down a cigarette in his own office on the other side of the station with Tokio looking on in some annoyance.

Just as something besides the failure to save that woman from those men had been bothering Zanza, something other than the conversation with Zanza seemed now to be bothering Hajime, and Tokio couldn’t guess what it might be. She hated it when he didn’t open up to her. This was such an old lament these days, though — the extent to which she couldn’t read her own husband — that it was hardly worth wasting any energy thinking about. She merely needed to find a way to ask that would get an actual answer out of a partner that often thought he could handle everything — physical and emotional — on his own.

What she eventually chose was, “Aren’t you going to get the interrogation started? You were as angry at him as Zanza was, so I assumed…”

Hajime tapped ash into the tray on the desk, and a certain distance receded from his eyes as he answered. “I’m going to wait until someone can identify the dead woman.” He paused, and for a moment the irritated Tokio believed she would have to drag answers out of him. But then he added, “Something was strange about that whole situation. It didn’t feel like a standard attempted robbery or rape. Zanza’s assessment was too simplistic; they didn’t kill her just because they couldn’t take what they wanted from her. That much was obvious, but what they were actually after I don’t know. And I’d rather approach that man with more information than I have now.”

Surprisingly satisfied with this, Tokio now felt torn between discussing it in greater detail and asking what had happened just beforehand. Her husband solved this dilemma for her by adding, “I want you to go find Zanza.”

“And see how badly you damaged him?”

His lips twitched, even as his cigarette made contact with them again, into a faint smile as he answered, “I was relatively gentle.”

“Oh, yes, so much that he was in a murderous rage when I found you two.”

“He’ll have had time to work through that by now.”

“Hopefully not by actually murdering anyone. What exactly did you say to him?”

“I only pointed out the fact that he could be doing much better things with his resources than pointless fighting.”

“And I take it style did more than substance in this case.”

Hajime’s smile curled into a smirk, and he didn’t directly answer. “I want you to go observe him. See how he’s dealing with this and what he decides to do next. Try to gage whether he’s likely to be willing to work for us after this.”

Remembering the look on the mercenary’s face just before he’d left them behind earlier, Tokio had her doubts. “Do you want me to talk to him?”

“If you think that will help.”

She nodded. “And you will…”

“Make sure everything’s in order here and go home.”

For a moment she hesitated, pondering whether to ask or discuss anything else, whether he was likely to engage with her in any useful way. After not too long she decided to skip the attempt; another problem with having a partner that thought he could handle everything on his own was that, whether he realized it or not, he often expected his partner to be able to do the same. And it wasn’t that she couldn’t; it was just that some assistance now and then would be welcome. None would be offered tonight, though. “Good evening, then,” she bade him, and departed.

With thoughts and emotions mixed, though not quite as turbulently as Zanza’s evidently had been earlier (and quite possibly still were), she left the police station, her mind caught up in a surprisingly and rather unpleasantly sexual metaphor. She’d had described to her, on a couple of occasions in her life (neither of which, unhappy to recall, she had solicited), the sensation a man got in his testicles when aroused and denied release for a certain period of time. She wasn’t terribly happy that this image had popped into her head all of a sudden, but she believed it fit.

The usual reactions had arisen within her in response to that dead woman — the anger and deep, painful sympathy; the ill feeling of helplessness; the desire to enact change for people that found themselves in situations just like this every day of the year — and then nothing had come of it: no rescue, no revenge, not even an interrogation yet for any information that might begin to satisfy her. The most she’d been able to do for that woman whose name she didn’t even know was to summon a wagon to carry her corpse to the police station.

Those emotions were left to swirl and stew inside her to no avail, leaving her frustrated and sorrowful and hurting in her own sense of ineffectiveness in the world at large. And she didn’t even have time to devote right now to quiet thoughts of respect and regret, resolutions of harder work in the future to try to keep this from happening again. She had to concentrate on something entirely different at the moment, and just deal with the denial of release as best she could. And she would, because she knew well the benefits to society of the job she had, even if it didn’t accomplish everything she wanted.

Before the station was completely out of sight, therefore, as she hastened down the street in her subdued agitation, she was running through the places she should look for Zanza. Would he go home when he was angry? Or to a bar? And if so, one near his home or just the first he came across on his way from the disastrous meeting with Hajime? Or would he go somewhere he could take out his rage through violence? That might be the most difficult to find, since she wasn’t sure where (or what) such a place might be.

In better news, Zanza stood out even when he wasn’t extremely emotional and likely to leave a trail of destruction or at least fear in his wake. Also she knew where he lived. She planned on beginning there, then working her way through the other options, and had faith in her ability to locate him. What would happen then she had no idea, but she could at least get off to a good start.

***

Pale stars had appeared throughout the patchily clouded sky by the time Zanza stopped moving and threw himself onto the wooden planks of an unoccupied pier beside the ruffled water of the bay. The air smelled of fish and sea-salt, especially in the breeze that had stiffened throughout the evening, but he was accustomed to the scent as his own neighborhood wasn’t far off. He’d tried going there, going home, but his apartment felt dirty and claustrophobic and accusatory, so he’d left it after not too long and come here instead.

Hardly anyone was around, since it was late enough for little real labor to be going on nearby, and the distant sounds of the closest drinking establishment where many of the sailors and dock-workers had taken themselves were mostly drowned out by rush of the sea, so in relative peace — externally — he gazed down into the blackness lapping against the pilings. Caught in a stare that seemed unshakable, he didn’t blink until his eyes started to sting and water and he finally, briefly closed them, only to repeat the uncomfortable, drawn-out process again and again. He might just stay all night in this relatively tranquil atmosphere where he was free to sit quietly and think. He had a lot to think about.

Saitou.

It wasn’t actually about Saitou, though, was it? The way Saitou lived his own life didn’t really enter into it, except as a point of contrast. Though the officer had given more details, in general he hadn’t provided any information beyond what he had at their first meeting, hadn’t mentioned anything new. And Zanza had already believed that stuff.

Well, no, he hadn’t, necessarily. He hadn’t known whether he believed it or not, and he hadn’t cared; he’d merely wanted an excuse to fight the guy again. Beyond its usefulness as a motivator toward a second battle, none of what Saitou had said during their initial encounter had truly mattered to him — not until Saitou had somehow managed to turn it around, like a weapon twisted out of Zanza’s hands and driven right into his gut. Saitou had stabbed him with the truth just as bitingly as — and far more painfully than — he’d stabbed him with his sword that other time. This might not actually be about Saitou, but Zanza was pretty sure nobody else in the world could have instigated it in quite the same way.

He couldn’t help retreading the whole scene in his head…

Cigarette in hand, Saitou not only appeared completely unsurprised to find Zanza knocking at his door, but also immediately gave him that enraging once-over with those freaky yellow eyes that seemed simultaneously to contain objectifying assessment and cursory dismissal. “Good evening,” he said.

“Don’t ‘good evening’ me!” Zanza, annoyed by the glance, was in no mood for pleasantries, real or feigned. “Just get out here and fight.”

Saitou made a noise half disdainful and half amused, but didn’t protest; he simply stepped from the house and closed the door behind him, sucking on his cigarette all the while. Without a word he set off up the street, doubtless toward the same clearing they’d used before. Zanza noticed he’d already been wearing his sword, hadn’t needed to retreat into the house to get it; had he been expecting the mercenary this evening? Tokio had said ‘whenever…’ maybe she’d anticipated the ‘as soon as possible’ interpretation Zanza would assign to that nonspecific instruction.

Once they had reached the clearing in the trees past the end of the pavement, amid the rustling spring leaves that seemed to have a portentous sound to them after what had happened here last time, Zanza fell immediately into an aggressive stance, fists at the ready. It was more than merely his fists, though; he was ready deep down into his soul not only to pay this guy back for destroying his zanbatou, but to force him to demonstrate again his ability to drive away twisted old pain with straightforward combat.

It appeared, however, that Saitou was going to behave just as infuriatingly as last time, as he didn’t seem to be preparing to attack or defend, only stood there finishing up his cigarette and staring thoughtfully at Zanza. The latter, anger increasing, made an impatient movement that would have transitioned into an all-out charge, but paused when Saitou raised a casual gloved hand to halt him.

“Before I knock you out again, I’d like to know why it is you’re here when no one’s paying you. I did beat you pretty decisively last time, and I assume you took my message to Yonai.”

Zanza ground his teeth, as much at the query as at the attitude so assumptive of definite victory. He should have known Saitou would ask. He should have thought through his reasoning further; he’d specifically considered this, but obviously not thoroughly enough. Without coming across as more than a short distance out of his mind he couldn’t really say, “I’m here because you beat me last time.” He couldn’t admit, “I’m here to forget. I’m here to make you make me forget.”

So he called upon the only other rational — and still partly true! — explanation for his actions: “Because I can’t stand you. You who everyone says couldn’t be beaten by anyone else in the Shinsengumi… you who supposedly had all these high ideals and never gave in… How could you be like that — someone who everyone who knew you back then praises even now — and then turn around and join this shit-ass government? ‘Fighting corruption within the system,’ you said.” He spat the words in bitter, skeptical imitation, determined to get a reaction this time. “That’s some nice bullshit coming from someone who can afford that house over there.”

One of Saitou’s brows rose, and he obviously felt it was his turn to sound skeptical. “Do you have any idea of the market value of a two-bedroom house?”

Not being taken seriously couldn’t be ranked among Zanza’s pet peeves, because at his level of strength and notoriety it was something that simply didn’t happen very often. But he found now that it rankled more than just about anything else he could think of. “My fucking point,” he snarled, “is that you’re a fucking sellout. The Meiji government bought you, no matter how you dress it up or what you claim you’re doing.”

And now, he thought, he was getting somewhere — quicker than last time, too — when a flicker of irritation seemed to cross Saitou’s face and the man shifted slightly, tossing away his cigarette at last. Darkly pleased with his progress, Zanza ranted on. “You fought so fucking hard against them before — I know you did; I talked to all sorts of people, and even your fucking enemies say that about you — and then all of a sudden — for some reason, and what could that possibly be? I fucking wonder! — you just decided to join up with these people who’d do anything to get what they wanted, who take advantage of the weak and walk all over people who’ve helped them without giving a single shit, and throw their power around to make themselves rich and comfortable, the same goddamn people who–“

Abruptly he choked his own words with a growling, gasping sound, aghast at what he’d been about to reveal. When had he lost control of what he was saying? He’d been trying to provoke Saitou into fighting him, not to bring up his own pain — the pain he was specifically aiming to forget and was, in fact, trying to provoke Saitou into fighting him in order to forget.

But then Saitou finished for him, “–who betrayed your mentor and your comrades?”

Now the choking sound that issued from Zanza’s throat was one of stunned astonishment.

“Don’t think I don’t know who you are, Sagara Sanosuke.” The manner in which Saitou withdrew a new cigarette from the case he’d extracted from his jacket pocket, then pulled out matches to light it, seemed to indicate he wasn’t particularly focused on the young man he’d just addressed by a name very few people knew these days… and yet his words had a purposeful edge to them. “I know your history. I know how your past has shaped you, and what motivates you.” As he stowed his matches and his fresh cigarette glowed red in his mouth, he added in a tone of curiosity almost idle-sounding, “Can you say the same for me?”

Though his anger had only grown at having the memories he’d come here to repress instead brought before his mind’s eye in all their bloody glory, Zanza was also taken aback and uncertain how to answer. Truly he shouldn’t have been surprised that Saitou, an investigator working for the government, did, after all, know the truth about the Sekihoutai and his involvement with it, even when nobody knew about that, but to hear Sagara-taichou mentioned — to hear his own name — from anyone that hadn’t been there, hadn’t lived that tragedy… it threw him off balance. He also didn’t entirely understand what Saitou was so languidly wondering, and he found his throat dry and his voice somewhat hoarse as he asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Just answer the question.” That Saitou, though calm, was so unmistakably commanding naturally rendered Zanza all the more angry; but at the same time the mercenary was beginning to be overtaken by the creeping feeling that the conversation had shifted, somehow, into territory he hadn’t expected and wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

Rallying, however, he declared, “I know enough! I know you’re a fucking sellout!”

“All right,” Saitou replied with a patronizing smile, his tone a mixture of amusement and exasperation. “I’ll give you that. I’m a sellout. I’m a government spy working directly with certain officials, such as Ookubo Toshimichi, whom I would probably have killed without a second thought during the Bakumatsu. And in what I like to call my off-time I am also a mid-ranking police investigator in whatever precinct happens to surround my current place of residence. A sellout.”

Ookubo? Damn! Zanza was impressed in spite of himself; when Saitou Hajime sold out, it seemed, he didn’t bother with low bidders!

“And let me elaborate on the finer points of that arrangement,” the cop went on as if he’d at least partially read the mercenary’s mind, “since your thick wits don’t seem to have gotten around that name yet: in my position, it is my duty and my pride to monitor closely the activities of said Ookubo, as well as those of his political colleagues. If any one of them were to, as you put it, take advantage of the weak, walk all over people who’ve helped them, or throw their power around to make themselves rich and comfortable…” He paused for a moment, holding Zanza’s gaze, and the kenkaya found himself unexpectedly anticipatory for the resolution of the statement. At last Saitou finished simply, “I would kill him.”

The words rang overwhelmingly of truth. Zanza could not disbelieve. And suddenly he wasn’t angry anymore; he couldn’t be. In fact he was beginning to feel slightly ashamed at having been so antagonistic toward this man and his supposed betrayal of justice.

And Saitou didn’t stop there. “My specific field is the discovery and exposure of corruption among those of high rank, those in a position to do the most damage to the weak you claim to care about. If names like Asakura, Iwasaki, and Taro mean anything to you — which I doubt — you may be familiar with some of my recent work. And, yes, in exchange for these services, I receive a regular sum of money from the government. My superiors typically refer to this as a ‘paycheck’ — if you’re familiar with the term — but if ‘blood money’ sounds better to you, by all means call it that.”

This was too much. “Asakura… Iwasaki… and Taro…?” The names did mean something to him, whatever Saitou might derisively imply about his awareness of what went on that far above his head. In the time he’d spent in Tokyo, two of these prominent politicians had been assassinated by parties unknown, following which had come to light their extensive involvement with weapons smuggling and exploitation of small-town workers, respectively; the third had been charged with and formally executed for treason — something involving selling information to someone in Macau. Zanza had celebrated with his friends each time (though it was likely none of them had cared anywhere near as much as he did about what he perceived as blows to a government he loathed). And that had all been Saitou’s work?

“And, yes,” Saitou went on, “I am aware of the injustices that government, or at least the groups that formed it, have perpetrated. I do not agree with all of its policies and decisions, and I can’t say for certain it’s the best option for the people of Japan. But it is what we have to work with, and to do what I can to right wrongs within the existing system is what I have always done and what I will always do. That’s how I’ve spent my Meiji era.” With a piercing, unwavering, unblinking glance, Saitou delivered the killing blow: “And you?”

“I…” Zanza was staggered, physically as well as spiritually, taking a weak, faltering step backward in his shock. He couldn’t answer; he couldn’t defend himself; he couldn’t even speak. In fact he felt he could barely draw breath. Saitou seemed to tower over him, a sudden pillar of condemnation and icy cold disdain under which a core of untouchable admirability and excellence lay unexpectedly, unreachably hot. The kenkaya was fortunate, if only for the sake of what remained of his pride, that a sudden scream interrupted their strange interview — for he had been, for the first time in his life, about to back out of a fight.

Saitou’s meaning had been all too clear, and Zanza could not refuse to take it. How did he spend his time? How had he spent all of his time ever since the trauma of his childhood? In careless violence for sale to whoever could pay — and not even, as might have formed some excuse, for the sake of making a living, but solely in order to push aside his own discomfort. And had it really been only that same old desire driving him to go up against Saitou Hajime a second time, or had something in him recognized that with Saitou Hajime it was possible he would come at last to see the truth, to recognize his own pathetic reality? Had something deep inside him wanted to shrug off the lies under which he’d been living, no matter how painful it might be, and therefore sought out the light when it finally shone?

However he had come by the facts, or why he’d chosen to seek them, they must be faced: that he was the real sellout, the one that had turned his back on lofty principles and joined forces with an unforgivable enemy. By living such an abandoned life of mindless brutality… by accepting money and the decision of where and how he would spend his rage from strangers with independent and usually unvetted agendas… by wasting his strength exclusively on the pursuit of his own complacency, as if his suffering superseded that of anyone else in the country… he allowed the era to support him just like all those corrupt politicians, if in a slightly different manner, and preyed on the weak every bit as much as they did — directly victimizing many of those weaker than him at the behest of scheming strangers, and being too wrapped up in his own precious self to see where he might be doing some good for the rest. And by losing track of the ideals for which Sagara-taichou had worked, had fought, had died, by concentrating instead on his own insignificant emotions as if those were something worthy of replacing what he’d learned in childhood, he’d dishonored his captain perhaps more than the Ishin Shishi ever could have.

Taichou… what do I do now?

The answer was distressingly vague: work to make things better instead of sitting on his spiritual ass moaning continually about the situation and seeking a diluted, insufficient replacement for the real contentment that would come with a job well done or at least well attempted. But what work? That he was a selfish waste of space would never have occurred to him in the first place if he hadn’t had it demonstrated that there was an alternative, that there was good work to be done — but even knowing that, was there good work for Zanza to do, or was that work necessarily limited to someone with the personal strength and position of influence held by Saitou Hajime?

Zanza still blinked very little as he stared at the water, gaze unfaltering even when it burned, as if he believed that if he only looked hard enough he would find all the resolutions he sought and a coherent plan for untangling his future out there just beneath the black surface of the bay. He wasn’t accustomed to thinking long and hard, to concentrating on something unpleasant, and a large part of him wanted to get up from where he sat in a miserable huddle and walk away, go find the nearest bar and drink until he couldn’t see straight, then start all over again, whenever he awoke tomorrow afternoon, with the fighting and the struggle to forget. But he couldn’t. Not now he knew what someone could be doing to oppose the wrongs he felt so sorely — what someone was doing, day after day, not merely hypothetically but in this present reality.

It left a bitter taste in his mouth to consider, but in the last few hours he’d developed a completely unforeseen respect for Saitou Hajime. More than that, he’d caught from the man’s words, like an elusive scent noted for a brief moment on a shifting breeze, a sense of purpose, of progress, of real meaning in a world Zanza had believed to have lost all these things. And he had a sudden, overwhelming desire to be part of that, to feel that progress as his own and not merely something observed and admired in someone else. His own life had been so devoid of purpose for the last ten years… no blow he had struck that entire time had meant a thing, as heavy as they all had been. He wanted the next one — he wanted every blow he struck from now on — to have a meaning just as weighty as the weapon behind it.

And he was back to apostrophically asking Sagara-taichou what to do. Because it was simple enough to say he wanted a purpose, wanted his life and his actions to signify something, wanted to replace the selfishness that had been his very blood and breath with the real, effective, outward-looking effort he now knew was possible. It was a good deal more complicated to make those wishes a reality.

He’d been fighting for so long — fighting the pain in his heart, the memories in his head, and perhaps even the awareness, somewhere within, that he could be better if he ever stopped wallowing — he wasn’t sure he could fight any other way. This sudden burning desire to do something, something concrete and real for the good of the people, just as Sagara-taichou had always aspired to, only confused him. What could he do? How could he do it? Was he even capable of it, after so many years, with who and what he was? All he knew was battle and pain, and the blissful forgetfulness these things brought. Being a useful person, living a worthwhile life for the sake of others besides himself, reaching beyond and becoming more… it seemed an unscalable cliff of an ambition; it wasn’t just confusing: it was daunting, disheartening.

Taichou… help me out here…

And abruptly he recognized that he was asking the wrong person.

His gaze snapped up, off the water, rising into the sky as if buoyed by realization. The clouds had mostly withdrawn, so his view stretched unimpeded, and the starscape was surprisingly bright — far brighter than Zanza would have believed while focusing on the blackness beyond the pier. He found he could see unexpectedly clearly all of a sudden.

He didn’t know how to live the way he had in mind, how to make something more specific and practicable of the very general answer that was all he’d found so far. But he knew who did.

He sighed as he stared just as unblinkingly as before into the starry sky, and reflected forlornly, Too bad by now he probably totally hates me.

***

There were times when what Saitou called his emotional state was little more than a shallow basin sitting atop and acting as a stopper for the reservoir of his true feelings, which therefore, under cover, was never properly stirred.

No, ‘there were times’ wasn’t the best way to put that. It would be easier to enumerate the times he didn’t function this way — when, every once in a while, something punched through that cool, simple set of casual reactions right down into his real, more profound ones. It would be easier especially because every time this occurred, it left behind a lasting impression he couldn’t help but look back on in wonder, and shook him hard while it was happening.

Now he stared up at the ceiling of his dark bedroom, the utter stillness of his body belying his inner unrest. That he remained sleepless when late night had become early morning proved just how much emotional involvement he suddenly had in this affair. He hadn’t entirely expected this.

At face value, his words hadn’t been harsh; “I was relatively gentle” hadn’t been a lie. He could have been so much worse, could have made pointed accusations and denigrations instead of mere implications. Yet, in light of Zanza’s reaction, even that circumspection must be considered harsh. And of course it had been necessary, and was hopefully even now wreaking significant and positive changes in the mercenary’s attitudes and projected lifestyle, but Saitou couldn’t help thinking he’d hurt him by it. He didn’t regret having said it, nor the way he’d said it — which, though he hadn’t been consciously aiming for kindness, really had been the kindest possible way to say it — but he must regret having, so early in their acquaintance, occasioned a frame of mind in which Zanza couldn’t stand to meet his eyes.

And where was Zanza now? What was he thinking about? Saitou considered the very fact Zanza had reacted so strongly to his relatively gentle words proof he had taken them to heart; and in that case, he should be thinking more or less exactly what Saitou wanted him to be at the moment — about how he was wasting his life and there were better options for him. But Saitou couldn’t know that for sure, and even if he could, it was uncertain yet what Zanza’s thoughts about him might be. Did the idea of Mibu no Ookami still induce anger and bitterness in the kenkaya, or… well, what alternative was there at this point?

Since a young age Saitou had been so firm in his own convictions that it had never been a struggle to base his attitudes and actions firmly on them. What would it be like not knowing how to believe or act? What would it be like to realize suddenly that your path in life thus far had been leading exactly nowhere? If Zanza was indeed contemplating these things, regardless of the conclusions he drew at the end of his musings, it seemed an outside chance he could be thinking very kindly of the man that had planted such self-doubt in him. Saitou had probably given Zanza a far more legitimate reason to dislike him than he’d had before… at precisely the same moment he’d found a far more legitimate reason than he’d had before to like Zanza.

He hadn’t realized just how close he’d been standing to a steep slope whose descent could not easily be halted or controlled, until the events of the evening had pushed him down onto it and he’d found his interest in Zanza not merely slightly increased but startlingly greater. Because during the course of those events, Zanza had demonstrated not only the perception, apparently, to grasp what Saitou, while ostensibly talking about himself, was trying to point out about him — and then to assess a criminal situation quickly and with a degree of accuracy Saitou believed was only imperfect because Zanza lacked several years of law enforcement experience to direct his interpretation — he’d also demonstrated a capacity for impressive moral strength.

Even in the midst of whatever inward-looking turmoil Saitou had inflicted on him, Zanza’s avidity to help a stranger in need had been genuine, his straightforward desire for the justice owed her murderer every bit as evident. In the life Saitou led, surrounded by men that put on or cast off morality like a mask at will, this was refreshing and intriguing. Little as Zanza might be driven by it at this juncture, he seemed to have a strong innate sense of good and evil — and it was a passionate sense that, when it directed him, directed him hard and fast. Passionless good could triumph just as effectively over evil, but the more intense and heartfelt good of which it seemed Zanza was capable made him all the more attractive to someone like Saitou.

He was definitely sliding quickly down a severe slope toward serious infatuation.

And all of this had come upon him at exactly the wrong time, for not only did Zanza, most likely, hold Saitou in higher antipathy than ever right now, he might simultaneously be thinking much more favorably of someone else.

What currently kept Saitou awake might actually be jealousy, an irrational and unproductive emotion he would prefer to be rid of but didn’t experience often enough to have much practice in dealing with. Because he’d seen those looks: the looks indicating something had changed in the way Zanza saw Tokio — which implied he’d seen her quite amicably before and could probably do so again — but that, even with the change, she was still the best place for his gaze to rest during his internal chaos; the looks indicating that, if anything had changed in the admiring way Tokio saw Zanza, it had only been for the better as he demonstrated his alignment, at least in that context, with her pet pursuit, the protection and advancement of women. He’d seen the way she touched his arm; he’d seen the way Zanza’s tortured eyes lingered when she turned away.

Saitou was so used to relying on Tokio’s almost uncanny ability to read the emotions of others, he occasionally forgot what a hard time she had reading his. Of course she didn’t know he was interested in Zanza; how could she? He hadn’t mentioned it, certainly hadn’t demonstrated it, and, indeed, hadn’t been nearly so interested until just this evening. It was neither his fault nor hers, then, that he now found himself resenting his own wife as she chased after the man he had his sights on without any idea her husband might be jealous… but what a ridiculous predicament! How many men of his inclinations might find themselves in such a situation?

How many men, though, of whatever inclinations, had a wife like Tokio? She was a good friend — indeed, his only friend — and her talent, intelligence, determination, usefulness, and amusing personality had long ago led Saitou to forgive the arrangements that had saddled him with marriage in the first place. But these positive qualities — which Saitou was at the moment inclined rather to curse than praise — might be overwhelmingly alluring to Zanza, especially when combined with Tokio’s physical beauty and powers of flirtation.

And this was, in large part, why Saitou had sent Tokio after Zanza at the moment: as someone to whom the kenkaya was attracted, someone that could undoubtedly read him better than anyone else could, and someone that understood (to some extent) what he was going through, she might be the best possible confidante for Zanza right now. That she still hadn’t returned certainly wasn’t helping with Saitou’s jealousy, though. If she didn’t come back at all tonight, would he dare ask for details of the encounter?

Well, there was nothing he didn’t dare, if he felt it needed to be done, but there were times he despised his own level-headedness. He knew quite well that bringing down a minor criminal empire headed by a corrupt politician was far more important than the interpersonal prospects of a police spy, that Zanza might be the key to unlocking the Karashigumi… and that Tokio had a much better chance than her husband did at winning the mercenary over to their cause.

But after tonight… if and whenever Zanza was recruited… what then? There seemed to be a few different options, and now while Saitou lay insomniac with these thoughts occupying him so thoroughly seemed as good a time as any to decide from among them.

Tokio was kind and decent, had a hobbyist’s engagement with the emotional drama of others, and hated to see people’s honest desires toyed with. It was not entirely impossible, depending on how Saitou worded his confession and how advanced her own interest was, she might be willing to back off if he laid his feelings before her. Of course at that point she would undoubtedly prod him endlessly, try to play matchmaker, and refuse to allow him to work at his own pace, so there was that to consider.

Or she might not back off. If her interest was as advanced as his, it would be nothing unreasonable for her to declare she wouldn’t be giving up; it wasn’t as if either of them could claim precedence in this matter. She would probably feel guilty about thwarting his desires — unnecessarily guilty, which would form a perfect mirror to his totally unnecessary asperity at being thwarted — and things would be tense between them for the foreseeable future. Could their friendship survive that?

Of course he could make it an open contest between them, vie for Zanza’s attention right in her face. Tokio enjoyed competition, in many settings, and might accept that arrangement better than the aforementioned. But people got hurt, sometimes irrevocably, in contests of that nature, and not only did Saitou think it would be a little disrespectful to Tokio, he had probably already hurt Zanza enough. For himself he feared far less, though Tokio was capable of making his life hell in innumerable ways.

The point that kept coming up dismayingly, even as Saitou contemplated various possible actions and reactions on the part of his wife, was that under any of these circumstances, he conspicuously lacked the advantage. Tokio had a head start based on the conversations she’d had with the kenkaya in Saitou’s absence, and a better initial position in that she was merely the partner of a perceived traitor rather than a traitor herself.

Saitou would, in fact, begin with a handicap in the form of both the preconceived notions that had brought such a hateful Zanza to him in the first place and the emotional harm he’d done (for all it had been constructively meant) with that little lecture this evening — not to mention his gender, which Zanza might not even view in the correct light. And when it seemed unlikely Saitou would ever be able to catch up to the runner in the lead, was it wise to start the race at all? Especially when doing so might possibly jeopardize the more professional — and politically critical — pursuits in which they were involved? No, probably not.

That didn’t mean he was giving up, of course — not after this evening’s boost in interest! — but it wasn’t as if he’d made any overtures, as if there were some pervasive behavior for him to quit. At the moment it seemed wisest to remain silent on the subject, do his job the way he always did, and keep a careful eye on the proceedings. After all, it was entirely possible nothing would happen between Tokio and Zanza, or that anything that did would be transient and offer no interference to Saitou’s long-term plans. Yes, standing back seemed like the best option for now.

And that little-accessed true emotional state into which Zanza had so unexpectedly punched his way wondered, quiet and provoking, Even if that means watching them end up happy together forever? To which his dominant, logical side — the part of him that kept that shallow trough of casual feelings clamped down so tightly over the other set — replied forcefully, Even so.

Having resolved this internal conflict to his satisfaction, he thought perhaps he would now be able to sleep. But it seemed that, to his deeper emotional side, things hadn’t been resolved quite so satisfactorily, for he continued to stare at the ceiling with no apparent progress away from wakefulness. A voice in the back of his head, just as disruptive of his rest as speech aloud might have been, was inquiring naggingly how long he thought he could keep up any kind of show of indifference and lack of active pursuit when he was actually working with Zanza — which, if things went as he was hoping, might very soon be the case.

***

Tokio had been confident in her ability to find Zanza, and, though that confidence had not been misplaced, the process had taken quite a while. By the time she found him, out at the end of a pier in an area not far from the neighborhood where he lived, it was early morning, and she wondered how long he’d been there. If the dockworker from whom she’d gotten the tip was to be trusted, it must have been at least several hours.

She approached slowly and silently, taking advantage of his absorption and her own subtlety of movement for a chance to assess his current condition. The dejected slump of his shoulders, combined with the nervous tapping of one foot against the boards beneath him and the listless trailing of one hand across the same, told her he not only felt unhappy and lost, but was determined, in some way, to change that state. He just didn’t know how.

Having ascertained all she could by looking at him from behind (at least from this distance), she finally approached down the pier. He appeared, she thought as she drew nearer, lonely and forlorn, perhaps even downright miserable. And when the sound of her footsteps attracted his attention and he turned, his unguarded face was even easier to read.

As before, she had her doubts about the feasibility of recruiting this young man. He seemed so astray and uncertain, and yet so emotionally charged — like a child suddenly robbed of its favorite pastime and unsure how to react — and he definitely gazed at her now with no great enthusiasm or welcome. Whether that uncertainty could be changed to something more useful, whether that welcome could be improved upon, was what she’d come to find out. Among other things.

“May I?” she asked without any other greeting, gesturing to the place beside him.

Managing to sound both wary and indifferent, he said, “Sure.”

She sat, focused not only on his possible mental state but on what she could say most effectively to cause it to manifest. She started the conversation with a calculated bid in a quiet, regretful tone: “One of the hardest things about being with the police is that there will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do. No matter how good you are at your job, you’re going to run into those times.” And though this was an attempt at getting him to open up, it was also relieving to say aloud.

He nodded his spiky head but made no reply, and even that gesture of agreement wasn’t as invested as she would have expected. So it must not be the young woman he’d been unable to rescue that specifically bothered him right now. It probably did bother him, but that wasn’t what had him so churned up, nor what had driven him to sit out on this pier for however long he’d been here. His mood must really, then — unless some other trauma currently marred his life, coincidentally, that had nothing to do with this situation — hail from whatever Hajime had said to him. Tokio was forced to admit to some secret pleasure at that thought, since she still intensely wanted to know what that had been.

“We’re both upset about it too, Hajime and I,” she went on, deliberately inserting her husband’s name to see what reaction it would get out of Zanza. “Of course, I arrived late and didn’t watch most of it, but even I saw that poor woman… Hajime actually fought one of those men, so he’s even more unhappy about it.”

“Yeah, I fought one too.” Zanza’s tone was a grumble, but he sounded more sad than peevish. “That didn’t make Saitou any happier.”

Tokio assured him, “He just wanted the guy alive. He wasn’t upset with you for fighting.”

“He doesn’t think much of me fighting.” Zanza drew both knees up and wrapped his arms around them, resting his chin on his wrist with a bleak tilt to eyes and brows. “He doesn’t think much of me at all.”

Now they were getting to the heart of the matter. Clearly Hajime’s statements had left Zanza feeling small and worthless, which was what really had him hurting at the moment, above and beyond the pain of the other affair. And with that in mind, the determination Tokio believed she also saw in the mercenary promised good things, since it seemed to exist in spite of this dejection. She put some surprise into her tone as she responded, “You think so?”

“Ohhhhh, yeah. He made that pretty damn clear.” Zanza did not, however, offer any elucidating quotations from the conversation in question.

“Are you sure you’re not exaggerating his opinion of you?” She added leadingly, “I know he thinks you could be doing better things with your strength, but to say he doesn’t think much of you at all…”

“You gonna lecture me about what I’m doing with my life too?” Zanza sounded simultaneously bitter at the prospect, wearily resigned, and perhaps, paradoxically, as if he looked forward to it a little — three steps on an unexpected road to acceptance seemingly undertaken all at once.

“No, he lectures much better than I do. But I do have to say I agree with him on that point. Someone young and strong like you…”

“Strong’s not worth shit,” he replied vehemently, now crossing his legs and balancing backward onto his tailbone in a frustrated gesture that shouldn’t have been as amusing to watch as it was, “when you don’t know what to do with it. He’s way the hell stronger than me, and he told me the kind of stuff he does… but I’m not cut out for that shit.”

Evidently Hajime had gotten through to him, made him want to better himself. She should never have doubted; of course Hajime had managed to touch Zanza’s natural determination and sense of rightness. Those things were what Hajime was all about. And that meant Zanza had determination and a sense of rightness inside him to be touched in the first place. Tokio wasn’t necessarily surprised, just glad it seemed Zanza wanted to seek a new purpose for his strength. Not only was that an excellent path for him to walk personally, it made her more sanguine about the immediate goal Hajime had proposed.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I’m not a spy.” Zanza’s emphasis on the last word contained no disapproval of the concept as many people might have conveyed; rather, he spoke sourly as if about something far beyond his reach. “I’m just a warrior — hell, warrior’s not even the right word. I’m a self-taught fighter — with a lot of practice, yeah, but I’ve barely even ever had any training in anything. I just bash heads and get paid for it. What good is that?”

She smiled encouragingly. “I think all you need is some direction. There are plenty of heads you could bash for a higher cause.”

Zanza shrugged, and his tone was acerbic. “Why bother? He could bash them all better than I could anyway.”

That’s certainly true,” she laughed. “But you can’t let the fact there are people better than you at certain things stop you from trying those things if they’re worthwhile. If I let that bother me, you wouldn’t see me in a police uniform when there are people like Hajime who are much better operatives than I am — and warriors on top of that, which I’m not either — and then a lot of valuable work wouldn’t get done, if I do say so myself. And on the other hand, what I’m really good at is cooking — should everyone else in the country just give up and starve because I make a better sukiyaki bowl than they do?”

Apparently cheered somewhat by her levity, the mercenary chuckled briefly. But after a moment the smile faded from his face and he sighed. It sounded a little less desolate than he’d seemed before, but no less lost. He flopped backward onto the pier and let his white-clad legs stretch out bright in the darkness. “I guess in my head I’m really confused about the difference between what I can do and what I should do… hell, and what I’ve been doing. It’s like I suddenly see a whole bunch of shit — new ways to think about my old life, options for what I could be doing instead, just thoughts about what I am, you know? — and I don’t even know which direction I’m facing anymore. I wonder whether I made a big mistake years ago, and I’ve just been living in the middle of that ever since, or whether what I’ve been doing is fine and I shouldn’t think so much of what Saitou thinks of me. And if I do want to make a change, what kind of change? Am I even qualified for anything that’s really worthwhile? I’m confused as shit. And I wonder–“

He cut off abruptly, and looked at her sidelong from where he now lay. There was some suspicion in the brown eyes that appeared as black as her own in the midnight dimness, but more assessment than mistrust.

In response she prodded, “What do you wonder?”

“Seems like Saitou knows all about my time with the Sekihoutai. Well, probably not all of it, but enough… What about you?”

She didn’t plan to mention her eavesdropping on his conversation with Tsukioka that had clued the police couple into the Sekihoutai business in the first place; nor that it had taken Hajime searching normally-sealed-away government records to which his unique position gave him access to provide information about the history of — and the Ishin Shishi’s betrayal of — a group of whose existence they’d only been marginally aware prior to this. She merely said, “I know as much as he does.”

“Well, I wonder…” He looked away from her again, back into the stars. “What would Sagara-taichou think of me now? What would he want me to do, with the way things have turned out?” His deliberate removal of his eyes from hers seemed a gesture aimed at avoiding awkwardness or even embarrassment, and she wondered how many people ever got to hear the tough kenkaya open his heart like this. She was pleased with her own success tonight.

“The way things have turned out in Japan, or with you personally?”

“Both. I don’t think he ever expected me to be what I am today… and I guess that’s one answer right there. He always thought everyone deserved a chance at being the best they could be, and I don’t really think I am. He wanted equality, and for the rich to stop walking all over the poor just because they were born into a different class, and I don’t think I’ve been helping. He thought the war was really going to end all the bullshit, but it sure as hell didn’t.

“I don’t think he ever expected the government to be the way it is, either. He never thought they would backstab him back then, and he didn’t predict the kind of corruption we get these days either. I don’t know what he would’ve done if he’d survived and seen what the Ishin Shishi who supposedly supported him really turned into.”

Again Hajime had been right: Zanza’s attitude toward the late Sagara was more than fondly, innocently nostalgic; it was naïvely reverential. He obviously couldn’t see past the heartbreak he and the other Sekihoutai members had suffered to the less pleasant truth that the group he’d been part of and its leader, no matter how victimized and therefore how legitimate their anger, had been far from the paragons of virtue and righteous revolution he still considered them to this day. Fortunately, it was not Tokio’s job to clear up the misconceptions formed in childhood, to convince Zanza his retrospective attitude might not be entirely correct. Her job was assessment and preliminary recruitment.

“He would have kept fighting.” She said it promptly and with surety. “Even if it might not have been a physical battle anymore.” Then, just to butter him up a little further, she added, “Real heroes, you know…”

He propped himself onto one elbow and looked at her, appearing somewhat surprised and pleased. “Yeah,” he said with more certainty than had sounded in his voice during this entire interview so far, “I guess you’re right.”

“He wouldn’t have wanted you to stop fighting either, you know. Like I said, direction…”

Now Zanza’s brows drew together into an expression that reflected some of the same bewilderment and gloom as before. He lay back again, turning away from her. When at length he resumed the conversation, he sounded almost childlike in his forlornness and inquiry: “Is it any fun?”

She made an educated guess as to what he meant. “Spywork?”

“Well, knowing you’re doing something that’s worth doing. I mean, if I really do decide to get off my ass and live differently from now on… I’m not afraid to change myself or anything, but what I am afraid of is… is that kind of life any fun? It’s pretty discouraging to think, if I change what I’m all about, then if I don’t end up dead in the name of Doing Something Good, I’ll die of boredom.”

Tokio believed it safe to laugh at him. “Sasuga kenkaya Zanza! Always looking for a good time!”

“I’m serious!” he protested.

As her mirth diminished she answered, “I don’t know about ‘fun,’ but it certainly is interesting. And it keeps you busy.” She shrugged. “You wouldn’t die of boredom doing this kind of work.” Then she frowned a bit as she pondered her own words, and eventually made an amendment. “Though that’s just me. For Hajime, I think it really is fun. Or at least as close to fun as anything he ever does. He cares a lot about it, in any case. You should see how irritated he gets when he doesn’t have a big assignment. He does standard police work then, and his skills are completely wasted on it. He’s too good for that kind of thing. Not that that kind of thing isn’t worthwhile, just…”

Zanza smiled a bit ruefully. “Yeah, I can see how a guy like him would be cut out for more important shit. And he seems like he’s still into that whole Aku Soku Zan thing I kept hearing about while I was researching him.”

“Like you would not believe,” she chuckled. “He lives to destroy evil. I laugh, but it’s really very impressive and admirable.”

“No wonder he thinks I’m a waste.”

Zanza’s mood was gradually shifting, the sensation of emotional wavering about him diminishing while his determination increased, seeming less aimless. Obviously this conversation had helped him reach or solidify a decision. He still seemed disheartened by Hajime’s assessment of him, though, and that appeared to play into what uncertainty remained. Was he that desirous of not being considered ‘a waste’ by her husband? Tokio thought she had him just about where she wanted him, but apparently this needed to be dealt with.

I don’t think you’re a waste.”

The young man smiled a bit. “Thanks. But Saitou… he really laid into me earlier.” He sighed in a mixture of melancholy and frustration. “And I’m pretty sure it was all true.”

“Well, so maybe he does think you’re a waste now,” she allowed, “but he wouldn’t have spent so much time and energy laying into you if he didn’t think you had potential for improvement. Trust me: most mercenaries he just knocks out immediately, or even kills; and for him to agree to a second fight, even if it didn’t end up happening…”

“Huh.” Now Zanza sounded pensive and slightly more optimistic.

Tokio measured the silence very carefully before speaking again, letting it seem she was turning an idea over in her brain. “You know, if you’re really interested in doing something worthwhile…”

She knew she had him when he sat up completely and turned toward her with an expression more than a little eager and an almost sharp, “Yeah?”

“There’s something Hajime and I are working on right now,” she said slowly, throwing out her bait, “that I think you could really help us with… if you’re interested…”

“I dunno how comfortable I’d be working for the police.” He seemed hesitant to sound hesitant, as if reluctant to express aversion to the change in lifestyle he’d claimed earlier he wasn’t afraid of enacting.

“And, honestly, I can’t see you in a police uniform,” she replied solemnly. Actually that was blatantly untrue; the hypothetical image of Zanza in a police uniform was candy for her mental eye. “But as an official member of the force isn’t really what I have in mind.”

“So what is?” Despite his earlier reluctance (and perhaps because of this latest small reassurance), Zanza sounded easier.

She put a pensive expression on her face and shook her head. “I only just thought of this,” she lied. “I need to talk to Hajime first to make sure he’s on board. There’s certain classified information…”

“What? You can’t just suggest something like that and then leave me in the dark!”

“I’ll tell you the very instant Hajime says it’s all right.”

“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure he hates me even if he does think I have potential or whatever.”

“I don’t think he hates you,” Tokio laughed, somewhat dismissive, “and in any case, don’t underestimate my level of influence.”

“Well, at least give me a hint about what kind of work it is!”

“No!”

“It’s not something stupid, is it?”

“No!” she said again with another laugh. “In fact it’s something I think you’re exactly suited for.”

He groaned. “That makes me even more curious!” Which was, of course, precisely what she’d intended. But she judged she had him in just the state of inquisitiveness and anticipation she needed, and shouldn’t press things further. So some distraction was in order.

“I’ll make it up to you.”

There was no way he could miss her flirtatious tone, and he was obviously pleased by it; but the shift in focus that spread over his expression as he didn’t entirely lose track of the foregoing exchange, yet seemed suddenly to consider the possibilities of this isolated spot in the darkness, was still pretty funny to watch. “Oh, yeah?” He assumed a kneeling position, hands on thighs, readier for action than before.

Scooting toward him, she answered, “I was mentioning things I’m good at just a minute ago…”

He was much happier to have her around now than he had been earlier this evening, which, though it did play into her specific goal, was really more of a personal bonus she wouldn’t complain of. “So are you better at cooking,” he asked, grinning, “or making it up to someone for not telling him what kind of work you might want him to do?”

She returned the expression. “You’ll have to be the judge of that.”

“But I’ve never tasted your cooking,” he pointed out just as his lips responded to the clear invitation of hers.

For a first kiss, it was a little rougher and more overwhelming than she liked. He didn’t seem to know how to control his power, to be as gentle as she would have preferred. The strength of his body was attractive, though, and the sake flavor of his mouth not unpleasant. She decided it wasn’t a bad start.

But then when he eventually pulled back, he looked at her with sparkling eyes and whispered, “Tell me.”

So obviously he needed further distraction. And since she wasn’t at all averse to providing it, to attempting to get from him the type of attentions she would more greatly enjoy, she simply resumed her grin, answered with a negative just as quiet, and kissed him again.

Section 3

Only a policewoman would break up a good encounter because they were in ‘too public a place.’ True, early morning was progressing, and eventually the docks would be alive with busy men, but enough time remained before that inevitability for some in-depth fun there on the pier — or they could have gone to his apartment. But Tokio, instead, had ended the night’s entertainment by saying she needed to return to her own home; apparently she had to be working again after not too long. Zanza might have been more annoyed and frustrated at this if he hadn’t suspected he’d been using the circumstance in the first place as a respite from the thoughts that had occupied him for the previous several hours.

Although those thoughts were trickling back as he headed home, his primary consideration at the moment was how tired he felt. It seemed incredible how much he needed sleep; he’d been a very active person for most of his life, and yet was wearier right now than just about any time he could remember. The day had been unusually taxing, despite the fact he hadn’t actually fought Saitou and that Tokio had turned out to be a rather tame kisser.

“You taste like mint,” he murmured, withdrawing far enough from her lips after his third or fourth contact with them to make this observation.

“We keep some candies at the office,” she replied, somehow managing to give a sense of allure to this mundane phrase.

“But you smell…” He shifted his position and brought his nose and mouth close to her shining black hair to inhale the scent. “You smell more like cigarettes.”

Sardonically she chuckled. “Anyone who spends time with Hajime…”

Wondering idly what you had to do to be allowed to call that guy by his given name, he replied in probably the most charitable tone he’d used when speaking of Saitou, “Yeah, I bet!”

“I kissed him once, you know.” He thought she said it a little wistfully, and, remembering her comment about Saitou being a hard man to love, he couldn’t help thinking maybe she would have liked to love him — and feeling a touch of the same discomfort (jealousy?) he’d experienced the last time she’d brought this up. She certainly sounded wistful when she added, “Just the once.”

With that discomfort or jealousy hovering — it was a little like hearing a new lover talk about her ex — he almost didn’t want to ask, but he was curious. Then he had to decide how to word his question, since ‘Why?’ seemed potentially insulting. Finally he went with, “What was the situation?”

She looked as if she knew exactly why it had taken him a moment to formulate the query, but her smirk at his unease contained also the same wistfulness as her previous tone, and she answered straightforwardly enough. “We were in Okayama spying on some smugglers we’d been following for weeks. The meeting we were listening in on broke up earlier than we’d expected — not through any fault of ours! — and there was no way we could avoid being seen by the men leaving the building…”

“Oh, I see where this is going,” Zanza grinned.

She returned the expression, though hers was still a little wan. “Yes, the place we were standing… there were only a few reasons a man and a woman might be there. We took advantage of one of them.”

“Did it work?”

“The smugglers were spooked, and in a hurry to get out of the area, but one of them gave us a dirty laugh as he passed, so obviously they weren’t suspicious of us.” She sighed. “It probably helped that I was a woman. For all I’d rather be taken seriously by the men around me, there are certain… I’ll call them ‘consolation prize advantages’ …to not being taken seriously.”

Having nothing to contribute on the topic of a female spy and what advantages or disadvantages she might have, Zanza said, “But you probably caught ’em eventually, and paid that guy back for laughing, right?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, he probably doesn’t laugh much these days.”

Zanza gave a dark laugh himself.

“The best part, though, was the look Hajime gave me when we both realized what we needed to do: a very grim look, as if this was our last resort and he deeply regretted it already.”

“He’s such an asshole. Why was that the best part?”

“Because I’ve been able to tease him about it ever since! Though the kiss itself wasn’t too bad either.”

“Really? Sounds like kissing an ashtray to me.”

“It was. But if you can allow for the kissing of an ashtray not being a bad experience…”

For some reason this exchange, the longest they’d had during their makeout session, interested Zanza significantly in retrospect. It made him chuckle a little as he walked, and also wonder what a smoker of cigarettes would taste like. He tried to picture the scene described — the harsh-faced Saitou and the beautiful Tokio in plain clothes tucked into a corner somewhere determinedly kissing each other to avoid looking like exactly what they were — but whether because she hadn’t given him much detail or for some other reason, he couldn’t get the image to come out right in his head. Maybe he was just so into Tokio already that the idea of her kissing someone else seemed wrong.

But thoughts of Tokio moved abruptly into the background as he entered his apartment and found he had a guest. “Oh, hey, Katsu,” he greeted, not particularly disturbed that his friend had let himself in.

“Good morning, Sano.” And it still was awfully early morning.

“How long have you been here?” Zanza yawned as he said it.

“Only an hour or so. How did your fight go?”

Zanza gave a somewhat startled look to where the artist sat beside the tea stove. “How did you know about that?”

Katsu, watching with shadowy eyes as Zanza settled onto his futon, gave a slight shrug. “Word gets around.”

Without any particular conceit, Zanza supposed this was true enough where a well known mercenary was concerned. He’d probably better keep that in mind if he did end up working on whatever Tokio thought he might be useful for. For now he answered Katsu’s question. “Well, the fight didn’t really end up happening. There was this lady in trouble, so we stopped to help, and then he had to go to the police station to deal with it, and I was kinda upset about it, so I ran off, and now I’m back here finally.”

Katsu nodded slowly, and just a shade of darkness lifted from his eyes. “I was worried about you,” he admitted in that solemn tone of his. “After your description of your previous fight with Saitou, I talked to a few people about him, and I was afraid he might actually kill you this time.”

By now Zanza was seriously starting to wonder just what ‘few people’ Katsu had been talking to, how exactly ‘word got around.’ For even the beginnings of a satisfying set of facts about Saitou Hajime, he had been forced to track down a number of sources, several of which had turned out dead ends, over the course of about two weeks. And here Katsu claimed to be far better informed after only a couple of days. This he would also have to keep in mind; if Katsu was that well connected, it might be useful in the future.

“Nah, Saitou didn’t even want to kill me. I think. Turns out he’s… not as bad as I thought.”

With a frown, Katsu said nothing.

Zanza wasn’t sure he should get into details about everything he’d been contemplating tonight. He’d discussed the matter with Tokio, yes, but she had already been involved and knew the situation that had prompted that contemplation; Katsu, for all he was the kenkaya’s oldest friend, remained an outsider to this affair. Zanza would like to talk it over with him, to have the perspective of someone more familiar with the events that had led to his previous way of life, but not just yet. Let his emotions straighten out first. But he did, oddly enough, want to set the record straight regarding Saitou. So he said, “I’m serious. He and his partner — that hot policewoman you met the other night — are spies who watch out for corruption in the government.”

“The rumor was true, then, that Saitou was responsible for taking down the Yuuju ring and its leader?”

A little uncomfortably Zanza said, “Yeah, that’s the kind of shit he does.” But there probably shouldn’t be a rumor; was Katsu really that deep in gossip about government dealings, or was the impression Zanza had gotten of Saitou’s skills as a spy exaggerated? This time he decided to ask. “But how the hell do you know that? He only told me some of the stuff he does because he was trying to make a point.”

“I have many friends.” Contradictorily, depressingly, the word ‘friends’ sounded awkward and out of place coming from Katsu.

Not wanting to press the issue, however, Zanza took the statement for the dismissal of the subtopic it seemed intended as. “Well, don’t worry about Saitou. He’s a good guy. A complete jerk, but a good person.”

Katsu shook his head. After a moment of silence he remarked quietly, “A good, strong man. A man dedicated to the downfall of major criminals. A man who fought against the current powers during the Bakumatsu.”

“Uh-huh,” Zanza said when Katsu didn’t follow up with any conclusive remark.

“I wonder…” Katsu frowned. “I wonder he isn’t fighting against the government openly rather than just treating the symptoms of this Meiji disease.”

Zanza yawned again before answering. “He knows the government’s got problems. He told me so himself. He’s just decided to work inside the system we have and do the best he can.”

“And I wonder why, when he could be working against the system we have.”

“There’s only so much one person can do. Even that Saitou probably couldn’t put much of a dent in this government.”

“On the contrary.” Katsu leaned forward slightly, fixing Zanza with an intense gaze. “It doesn’t take a large group to make a great difference in any system. With the right tools, even one man could cause enough damage to the Meiji to bring chaos, and start a new revolution with his example.”

Zanza had nothing to say in reply to this. Not only was he growing more tired by the minute, and increasingly unwilling to entertain these serious subjects, this talk of revolution made him a little uneasy — not least because he didn’t doubt Katsu was correct.

“Sanosuke,” Katsu said suddenly, startling the kenkaya. Except for Saitou, who’d also said it once, Katsu was the only person to call him by his proper name for years and years. It was like an electric shock every time. “What would Sagara-taichou think of these times?”

“I don’t know that he’d like ’em much,” Zanza answered slowly, perhaps a little worried by the fervor in Katsu’s tone. “Not a lot he was fighting for actually happened.”

“And don’t you believe, if he were here now, he would still be doing whatever he could to reach those goals?”

Tokio’s words echoed in his head: “He would have kept fighting. Even if it might not have been a physical battle anymore. Real heroes, you know…”

“I know he would.” Zanza’s reply was immediate and definite, though it was almost more for himself than in answer to Katsu’s question.

The artist evidently approved, if his sharp nod meant anything. Zanza seemed to have passed some sort of test, proven himself somehow, and as silent moments dragged on he was less and less sure he liked that. He had lain down on the futon in order to avoid Katsu’s earlier gaze, but now drew himself back up into a sitting position as he worked through things in his mind. Finally he said, “What do you mean, ‘with the right tools?’ And how much chaos are you thinking, exactly?” For he’d gradually come to realize that this wasn’t mere talk.

“If any vital government function were brought to a halt, that would be chaos enough.” Katsu did not, Zanza noted, address the ‘tools’ question at this time. “The key is to show the common people what can be accomplished if we stand up against the government. Once that was demonstrated, things would move from there.”

Zanza nodded slowly. So when Katsu said ‘revolution,’ he meant it. It made a certain kind of sense. And given what Zanza had come to know of this adult version of his old friend, he couldn’t even say he was surprised. He noticed, though, that Katsu chose his words carefully, giving no specifics about whatever he might be planning. Just as Zanza wasn’t quite ready to share the somewhat painful personal metamorphosis he’d been revolving in his head these past several hours, Katsu obviously wasn’t ready to share the entirety of his subversive thoughts and machinations with Zanza quite yet.

But Zanza found himself unwilling to leave the artist to it, leave him alone with his revolutionary ideas, let him walk out of here without some show of support. For one thing, he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t be on board. It seemed he’d had two different options presented to him in rapid succession just when he’d been thinking he wanted to make a difference in the world — one by Saitou and Tokio, one by Katsu, neither clearly delineated at the moment but each representing a highly divergent path from the other. The question of whether to work within the system or against it was a momentous one, and one he didn’t think he could tackle right now. And he didn’t want Katsu’s option withdrawn from him because he was too indecisive to give an impression of willingness.

So finally he said cautiously, “I’ve been thinking — Saitou made me think — I could be doing more with my life than this fighting-for-money shit. I could maybe be accomplishing something somewhere. I think that’s more what Taichou would’ve wanted than me being a mercenary.” He shrugged slightly, as if this thought were less complete than it really was, then yawned again.

Katsu eyed him searchingly, but his gaze seemed to soften a trifle at the yawn. “You look exhausted.”

“Like I said, thinking.” Belatedly Zanza realized he’d crafted an insult for himself without meaning to, and chuckled wearily. “I mean I was out all night thinking.”

Though he smiled faintly at the inadvertent self-deprecation, Katsu paused before speaking, as if considering continuing the conversation in the direction it had been going before. But finally he said, “I should let you get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Zanza agreed, lying down again. “I need it. But I’ll come see you tomorrow, all right? In the evening? With sake?”

There was another moment of apparent hesitation before Katsu answered, “All right.” And though he didn’t sound entirely enthusiastic, at least he didn’t decline the offer either. He was probably as indecisive as Zanza was about all of this. After a quiet goodbye, he slipped away into the paling darkness.

What a night, Zanza reflected as he tossed his gi aside and started to arrange his blanket. His life was suddenly upside-down, and parts of the upside-down had been turned again so everything was set at odd angles, none of which matched. Just a few hours earlier he’d been wondering how he could attain his goal of doing something worthwhile — that goal itself a brand-new and startling development he hadn’t yet entirely assimilated — and now he was spoiled for choice. It left his head spinning.

Within or against? Alongside new acquaintances that had demonstrated competence in weeding corruption from the government, or an old friend that seemed to long for the destruction of that same government? He knew only one thing for certain: no matter what Tokio wanted him for, or what exactly Katsu was planning, he couldn’t have it both ways. He could assist the police, or he could go revolutionary; he couldn’t combine the two. And it seemed he must decide which he would prefer before this evening.

It might prove a struggle to continue disregarding this little voice in the back of his head that insisted it would be so much easier to forget about that decision and his new resolve and just go back to kicking ass indiscriminately and seeking oblivion.

Because it would be so much easier.

He desperately needed sleep. His unprecedented exhaustion threatened to swallow him at any moment, and he couldn’t keep thinking about this. In the face of all this nonsense — it wasn’t really nonsense, but it sure as hell felt like it right now — a good long rest was going to be very welcome.

***

The look on Tokio’s face when she finally found her way into the station late the next morning was enough to give Saitou an instant headache. Why she smiled so broadly, why her eyes sparkled so brightly above the shadows indicating just how little sleep she’d had, why there was such a spring in her step after so little sleep, he really didn’t want to know… but was sure to find out. Even had he not required an account of the night’s dealings, even had those dealings been solely personal and unrelated to business, she would still have told him about it. They were friends, for all ‘unwitting rivals’ might have been a better description at the moment, and they shared things with each other. He would hear about this whether he liked it or not. And he couldn’t even berate her for wandering in far closer to lunchtime than his dawn arrival, since she was scheduled for an afternoon patrol.

“Good morning!” she hailed him in a much too spirited tone as she entered his office.

“So there you are,” was his only greeting in return.

Unfazed, and in fact evidently not paying very close attention, she leaned toward the door she hadn’t pulled completely shut as she’d entered, eavesdropping through the crack. The sounds that filtered down the short hallway leading to Saitou’s office were only the usual station bustle, but the grin tightening Tokio’s profile indicated there must be something out there of interest. Saitou didn’t particularly care to know what it was, but this too he would hear whether he liked it or not. As she closed the final half inch that remained to be listened through and turned to face her husband, she remarked cheerfully, “They’re all making wild guesses about my mood. ‘Looks like the man-woman got laid last night,’ Hino-kun just said.” And she chuckled.

Is that a ‘wild guess?'” This response was far milder than the one Saitou might have made and had, indeed, originally had in mind. Though Tokio was currently too sanguine to comment on it aloud, yet an edge of bitterness to her smile and laugh was all her husband required to recognize her stifled unhappiness with her work situation, with the disrespect so consistently shown her by her fellows. At such moments, he felt it no imposition to ease off the harshness and sarcasm a bit.

“Not so terribly wild, no.” The bitter edge blunted somewhat as she focused on something more pleasant. “It was really only kissing, but…” But things were obviously heading in the direction of Hino-kun’s inappropriate and unkindly worded suggestion. She came to lean a hand on the end of the desk, crossing one ankle over the other in a jaunty pose almost more indicative than anything else of her chipper frame of mind. But her eyes were calculating as she looked into his face. “You’re annoyed, aren’t you? Can’t let a lady have any fun?”

He was annoyed. But it wasn’t only his frustrated curiosity at what it would be like to kiss Zanza, his wish that he could be the one to show up here at 11:15 with a spring in his step after ‘having fun’ until early morning. It was also the irritating awareness that, though he could head out into the main room of the station and use certain pointed looks and statements to strike fear into the hearts of those that insulted his wife, it would be a treatment of symptoms only; he could not forcibly share the respect and esteem he felt for Tokio with anyone else, nor better her situation by intimidating those around her into merely being more cautious about how openly they displayed their ignorant disdain. But his impotent desires on both counts could not easily be expressed to her, so by saying nothing he allowed her to think he was simply a hard-nosed taskmaster that didn’t approve of kissing on the job.

Her expression turned wry, though there was a hint of defiance to it as well. “Well, don’t you worry… I wasn’t so busy enjoying myself that I didn’t get what we need. And I think the kissing even helped.”

“Two birds with one stone?” When she just grinned unrepentantly he added, “So you think he’ll be willing to work with us?”

“I’m almost certain of it.” She sobered a trifle. “You really shook him with whatever you said to him yesterday. He’s determined to change his life and do something useful, and when I told him there was something he might be able to help us out with, he grasped at the idea as if I’d thrown him a lifeline. I didn’t give him any details — left him very curious — but unless he has some specific objection I can’t predict to the actual work we want him for…”

Saitou was conscious of a certain amount of relief at this news. No matter what conclusions he’d come to about Zanza’s level of moral intelligence, those conclusions yet remained little more than educated guesses; he didn’t really know Zanza that well. There had always been the lingering possibility — and a cold awareness thereof under everything else — that the kenkaya was either too mired in his mindlessly violent ways or too much of a stupid thug to live in any other manner. That he’d confirmed Saitou’s educated guesses in taking the officer’s words to heart and resolving on a more upstanding future not only vindicated Saitou in his beliefs, but also strengthened his confidence and interest in Zanza.

“Good,” he said with a nod. “We’ll need to take the next step as soon as possible.”

“I told him I needed to talk things over with you before I could give him ‘classified information.’ I thought it would be best if we approached him together with the details.”

“Yes, if you’re there too, he may not mind me so much.”

No offer of consolation, only amusement, showed in her smile; she obviously recognized that his dryness of tone referred to Zanza’s disliking of him, but not the bitterness the thought of that disliking provoked. “He doesn’t hate you nearly as much as he did, now he knows you’re not a shameless turncoat.”

While this was somewhat comforting, it came from altogether the wrong person. Saitou was starting to want her out of this office, and not even so much because he had other work to do. “I have people to talk to today,” he said as he began to file the paperwork he’d been perusing and amending prior to her arrival. “We’ll go find Zanza tonight.”

She nodded, standing straight as if in preparation to leave the room alongside him when he went. “Anything on that woman’s identity yet?”

“Nothing,” he replied grimly. “But if the quality of her clothing was any indication of her importance, I expect to hear something any time.”

Tokio nodded again. “One more thing before you go: I’m a little worried about that friend of Zanza’s — the artist.”

“The other Sekihoutai survivor?”

“That’s the one. He may be planning something. I listened in on him talking about it with Zanza last night — this morning, really — after Zanza thought I’d gone.”

“Planning what?” Saitou asked a little impatiently.

“He talked about ‘fighting against the government,’ ‘starting a new revolution,’ and ‘attacking vital government functions.’ What he didn’t mention was anything at all specific, anything he actually plans to do — if he even has any specific ideas, and isn’t just philosophizing.”

He observed her expression and demeanor of cautious concern. “But you think he does have specific ideas.”

She nodded. “That was my impression, but I don’t think he feels entirely secure confiding in Zanza yet. Zanza’s been pretty open with him about his involvement with me, and even what he’s learned about you, and Tsukioka doesn’t know how far he can trust him.”

“But he wants to trust him,” Saitou surmised, “or there wouldn’t have been any conversation on the topic for you to overhear.”

“I think so.” Tokio looked pensive, but her unusual cheer still lay insidiously underneath. “I think he wants to involve him, and it’s possible he won’t make any move until he knows for sure whether Zanza will agree with whatever he’s planning. Zanza was too worn out last night for them to discuss it very extensively — and I don’t know how much of this Zanza picked up on — but when they meet again tonight…”

“Any idea what time?”

She shrugged. “Zanza doesn’t seem to work much by clocks.”

Saitou didn’t express all his thoughts on the matter — his concern that one more conversation might be all it would take for Tsukioka to decide either to invite his old friend into his schemes or to carry them out on his own; the even more pressing worry that Zanza, if invited, might accept, probably putting himself irrevocably beyond any purpose Saitou wanted him for and possibly making him a criminal Saitou would be forced to deal with personally — but his tone was as serious as those unspoken thoughts as he said, “It would be very useful for us to know what they talk about tonight.”

“Another patrol made interesting,” she grinned. “Why we didn’t bring Zanza into our lives years ago…” He gave her a stern look, and in response she laughed aloud. “I promise I’m taking this seriously! I’ll see if I can’t manage to be outside Tsukioka’s apartment when Zanza’s inside it.”

Saitou gave a curt nod, after which they agreed to meet up when Tokio had finished this round of spying, discuss any new information thus obtained, and then (hopefully) go have their own conversation with the popular kenkaya. And once these arrangements were made — Tokio’s ‘one more thing’ having proven the meeting’s lengthiest segment — they left the station, ignoring the suspicious silence that took hold of the main room when they walked through it, and headed for their separate tasks.

Saitou was determined not to spend the entire day thinking about Zanza. He’d had plenty of that last night, had admitted today that much of it had been speculative in the first place, and didn’t need to entrench himself farther in his fascination and interest when it wasn’t impossible Zanza would be completely lost to him after not too long. He had work to do at any rate. And fortunately the headache induced by Tokio’s practically afterglowing demeanor was already dispelling in the pleasant weather. It was a warm, almost humid spring day; he had a feeling they were in for a hot, wet summer.

A proficient spy can always tell when someone is tailing him, and Saitou knew without conceit that he was a proficient spy, but the prickling feeling that grew on him as he went about his business was not that of eyes on him or ki directed toward him… and yet it was similar. Superstition formed very little part of how he looked at the world, and in fact he sneezed not once the entire day, but he could have sworn people all over town were talking about him behind his back the moment it turned on them. People all over town had no reason to be talking about him behind his back; even his true name and personal history, were they more widely known, though they might cause a stir in certain circles, could not possibly generate as much conversation as his tingling spine seemed to indicate was being carried out about him right now.

Disconcerting though this sensation was, because there could be no confirming it there was also nothing to be done about it, and he certainly wouldn’t let a bout of apparently unjustified paranoia dictate his actions. Had he felt someone was actually watching or following him, it would have been simple enough to lay a trap and, having determined their identity and intentions, deal with them appropriately… but this was different. Though he didn’t consider himself imaginative enough to have invented it wholly out of nothing, still he might be exaggerating what he legitimately sensed — someone he’d just talked to whispering to their neighbor about his hair, for example; it had happened before — and there really was no ‘them’ to be dealt with, appropriately or otherwise.

At least it didn’t drive him crazy as he knew it would have done Tokio. She was as proficient a spy as he was — in some ways, especially when it came to surveillance, even better — and such an ambiguous situation, where truth was difficult to sift from misleading impressions, was precisely the type she hated most. He half wished she were with him right now just so he could watch her squirm… though that desire probably arose in response to his continued and continually difficult-to-eradicate bitterness about her involvement with Zanza, and was definitely unworthy of him.

And Zanza — how would he react to this feeling of being talked about? Of course Zanza’s ability to behave with any degree of subtlety would have to be brought up before they set him an intelligence-gathering mission; he seemed like a very straightforward person in general. He might have no inkling of anything wrong in the first place… in which case it could be amusing to bring the matter to his attention and then see how he reacted not only to the idea of being quietly discussed but also the awareness that he hadn’t noticed it until now. Would he get angry? Try to fight someone? Precedent rather indicated he would.

Questioning people rendered the afternoon exceptionally tedious. Apart from the necessity of making certain irrelevant inquiries in order to muddy the trail he left, so that his efforts felt very diffuse, there was also, in this case, the unpleasant awareness growing throughout the day that those efforts were destined never to bear much fruit. Yes, he did get from those he spoke with about the Karashigumi (sometimes very indirectly) a sense of new direction and greater focus and ambition, which did seem to confirm that some fresh unknown power had been guiding the gang’s activities lately; but anything more specific or detailed than this proved impossible to obtain, resulting in a lot of very boring and seemingly pointless conversations. Whether he wore his polite face or his intimidating face, not one single encounter provided him with the least bit of interest.

He couldn’t help thinking it would have added greatly to the day’s entertainment value, probably without decreasing the number of useful facts acquired, to have Zanza question people — perhaps under the guise of casual gossip — and simply watch from a distance rather than taking part himself. Based on the kenkaya’s conversational maneuvering during their fight, Saitou believed the young man wouldn’t do too poorly on the questioning scene; at ingratiating politeness he might not be particularly skilled, but he certainly had a pleasant appearance and voice, and if necessary could undoubtedly be plenty intimidating to the average person. In any case he would, most likely, be fun to observe. Well, depending on how things went tonight, Saitou might have an opportunity to find out for sure.

Feeling he should wring every last drop of information (for a certain definition of that term) out of a day probably destined to be his last at this particular pursuit, he stopped at a soba stand as the sun went down rather than returning to the station just yet, planning a little more questioning once he’d finished supper. And as he ate, he stared down into his noodles with unusual attentiveness. None of the reports the police had on Zanza — all of which Saitou had, of course, carefully read — mentioned the kenkaya’s eating habits or preferences. Sake was referred to a couple of times, but never food, and Saitou wondered…

…why, after so firmly telling himself he was not going to think about Zanza all day, he’d done exactly that almost without even realizing it. Ridiculous infatuation, this; very distracting. He gave an exasperated sigh, returned his empty bowl, and moved to get back to work.

And he still couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone everywhere he went — soba stand attendant included — was discussing him with whoever happened to be around as soon as his back was turned.

***

Hajime’s timeliness and punctuality were constants that could be relied on, but he would have to return to the station to receive her message before he could act upon it, so it was anyone’s guess when those aforementioned virtues would actually come into play and put an end to Tokio’s impatience.

She had a particular talent for stifling this type of restlessness, and she was almost never bored; she simply had too much to do. But that typically applied to duties a little different than this, to long hours of surveillance aimed at the unearthing of specific information. At the moment she wasn’t after any particular knowledge, but, rather, waiting for action — keeping her eyes open for either Zanza to leave his apartment yet again or for her husband to show up. She thought in this instance she could be forgiven a little untoward impatience.

She and Hajime had worked together for long enough that he was able to slip into position beside her without either forewarning her or startling her with his arrival. She did, however, smile at his appearance, since now the night could really get started. “So there you are,” she threw back his greeting from earlier. And when he only made a sound of acknowledgment, she gave him an update instead of any description of her late boredom. With a gesture, “That longhouse there is his,” she said. “You can almost see the sign on the window from here, at least in better light.” Ruffian’s Row was not the type of area to boast an abundance of streetlamps, which was more convenient to their purposes than anything. “He’s in there right now — yes, sitting in the dark — probably trying to decide whether he wants to go look for Tsukioka again.”

“Then those two haven’t had their meeting yet.”

“Tsukioka hasn’t been home. Zanza’s been over there at least three times checking for him, but…”

“That kind of persistence,” Hajime remarked pensively, “may suggest Zanza has some idea of what Tsukioka is planning.”

Tokio agreed, “It may,” but couldn’t help adding somewhat reluctantly, “or it could just mean he has no idea what else to do with himself. He seemed pretty lost yesterday — all drive and no direction — and every time I’ve seen him today, it’s been about the same. He’s had a lot to think about but not a lot to do, so…”

“We’ll give him something to do. You think he’ll come out again?”

“If he does, it should be soon, based on how long he spent at home between his previous attempts. I don’t think he’s likely to fall asleep in there as early as this — not after how late he was out last night; I’m sure he slept until noon. He has sake in there, but I know he bought it to take to his friend’s; I don’t think he’ll drink it by himself.”

Hajime nodded and said, “We’ll wait here a little while longer, and if he doesn’t come out, we’ll go in.”

Tokio mimicked the nod. Knowing from experience how easy it was to eavesdrop on conversations held inside the shabby longhouse, she too would prefer to take the one they planned to some more propitious location. This neighborhood could undoubtedly supply any number of venues for a private discussion, and this time of night provided just the right level of darkness; all they needed now was for Zanza to emerge.

While they waited for that to happen, Tokio brought up what had been bothering her for the last several hours. “I felt like someone was… watching me today.” Her volume didn’t sink merely for the sake of remaining undetected, but also partook of her uncertainty. “Nothing definite… nothing I could pinpoint specifically… and in fact ‘watching’ isn’t even exactly the right word…”

He rendered further explanation unnecessary with, “I know the sensation. I’ve had it all day too.”

“That can’t be a coincidence.”

“No. Was anything unusual about your patrol?”

“Nothing.”

“I encountered nothing suspicious either. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”

“Oh, good!” she said in as bright a tone as subtlety would allow. “I was looking for something else to add to my list of things to watch for.”

He made a sardonic sound.

Just when she thought they were both growing too impatient with this waiting game and would certainly decide at any moment to enter the apartment, Zanza finally came out of it. Whatever indecision he’d been suffering inside, he set off now with no hesitation in the direction that would eventually take him to Tsukioka’s home. Relieved and looking forward to a lessening of her uncertain anticipation, Tokio, accompanied by her husband, immediately followed.

They’d almost reached an appropriate spot — where the street was wide enough that standing in its center would put them beyond the hearing of anyone at its edges, but the buildings on the east side were tall enough to cast halfway across it an all-concealing gloom — and in fact Tokio believed she heard Hajime drawing breath to make their trailing presence known to the kenkaya, when they both paused and drew instinctively back deeper into the shadows they’d been clinging to this entire time. Zanza didn’t notice the approaching figure nearly so soon; in fact, it required the man stepping from his own concealing shadows into the moonlight to alert the mercenary that he was making use of this same convenient place to instigate a private discussion. Lucky it was that he obviously didn’t have the same perceptive skills the other watchers did, and that they had so much experience remaining unseen.

“Zanza-kun, hisashiburi.” Even lurking in the darkness of a trashy neighborhood, the man appeared nothing but unremarkable — late twenties, plain-cut black hair, unassuming features, casual attire — except for the tattoo intermittently visible on his left arm that marked him as a member of the Furukawatai, a criminal organization whose Tokyo territory stretched into this part of town.

Zanza had been startled for only a moment; now his demeanor shifted into wary resignation. “Hey, Kanno. Figured you might show up around here eventually.”

The man Kanno smiled, and, though his hands rested unthreateningly in his pockets, Tokio thought there was something remarkably… acquisitive about his attitude. “We heard you–”

But Zanza cut him off with a sudden fierceness that startled probably everyone present besides himself. “That was a joke. You guys didn’t really think I meant that, did you? I never planned on coming back, no matter what happened.”

Recovering quickly, Kanno gave a thoughtful nod. “You have to admit, though, it made sense: you would strike out on your own, but if it didn’t work out, you’d come back to us.”

“Losing one fight doesn’t mean it ‘didn’t work out.'”

“But it is exactly what you referred to when you left: that you’d come back when you lost a fight.” Tokio got the impression this promise had been very much along the lines of, ‘when hell freezes over,’ and she thought Kanno knew it too. “Besides, we heard your sword was destroyed.”

“So?” Zanza wondered impatiently.

Kanno shrugged, and his next statement was made with an air of reluctantly pointing out unpalatable inevitabilities. “I just hope you’re still successful. We’re moving in this direction, you know… We’ve let you do your own thing, left you alone out of respect, but eventually, when we’re fully in control of this area…”

Zanza’s brows had risen. “You were always about merchandise, not shit like what I do.”

Regretfully Kanno shook his head. “We’re not going to be able to overlook you much longer. We’ve been branching out into services lately; ask Kotono-san about it if you run into her.”

The immediate transition in Zanza’s demeanor to one of discomfort and perhaps guilt would have been hard to miss even for someone less accustomed to studying body language than Tokio. And she had to admit that hearing a woman’s name brought up in connection with the gang-controlled ‘services’ being hinted at here made her ears prick. To Zanza, obviously far more familiar with the situation and the woman in question, it must be infinitely more significant. “Kotono-san…” he repeated in a low tone. It was the first time she’d heard him use an honorific for anyone’s name besides that of his long-dead captain.

“She misses you,” Kanno said simply. “You were always her favorite.”

“I know that.” Zanza sounded very uncomfortable.

Kanno took a step closer; Tokio guessed it was only the awareness of the strong organization at his back that kept him from being appropriately nervous about putting this kind of pressure on someone as dangerous as kenkaya Zanza. “You’re still one of us, you know. No matter how successful you are on your own, you’ll always be part of the family.”

“So, what,” Zanza demanded belligerently, though his discomposure obviously hadn’t eased, “you came out here to try to convince me to come back?”

“More or less,” Kanno shrugged, still with that noncommittal air. “We’d all like to see you back — I and the other advisors, and Tone-sama, and certainly Kotono-san.”

Tokio fully expected Zanza to give a firm if not explosive negative to this proposal he obviously hated the thought of, but to her surprise he hesitated. Evidently details she didn’t know had significant weight here. Finally he said, “I’ll think about it. Not gonna promise anything else.”

With the same deceptive affability he’d been displaying all along, as if he weren’t a manipulative yakuza dirtbag, Kanno nodded again. “I suppose I’ll accept that answer for now.”

“Yeah you will,” Zanza grumbled, and there was almost a threatening edge to the words.

Once more Kanno smiled. “I’ll see you around, then. Sometime soon.” And as he turned away, before Zanza could react to this maddening goodbye, he added, “And I’ll give your regards to Kotono-san.” This effectively silenced the kenkaya, and the other man disappeared into the darkness.

Zanza stared after him, standing completely still and frowning, for several seconds. Then he shook himself and looked around, as if recalling with some difficulty what his original errand had been. His unease still had not faded, and it seemed to supersede the passions that had been aroused by the previous conversation.

“So you actually walked away from full membership in a yakuza,” said Tokio. “Not just any yakuza–” throwing Hajime a significant look– “but the sworn rivals of the Karashigumi! I’m impressed!”

“‘Impressed’ wasn’t exactly the term I would have used,” Hajime replied dryly, “but it’s certainly unusual.”

Zanza, who had jumped and whirled at the first word, now glared into the shadows in a pretty accurate direction for Tokio and Hajime, though she didn’t think he saw them specifically. “Where the fuck are you? How long have you been there? Don’t fucking startle me like that!” Hajime let out a monosyllabic chuckle as he and Tokio stepped forward into dim visibility, and as a consequence Zanza was glaring specifically at him as soon as he could see either of them. “What the fuck are you guys even doing here?” His list of questions seemed more a response to his own combined discomfort and startlement than any attempt at getting actual information.

“No surprise they want someone like you back,” Tokio mused, looking in the direction Kanno had taken. “It’s a wonder they let you go in the first place. How on earth did you manage that?”

Zanza followed her gaze, though there was nothing to see; even had Kanno not been long gone, a cloud rolled across the moon at that moment and rendered the entire scene difficult to make out. “Only with Kotono-san’s help. She can always convince Tone to do things better than anyone else. She could see I was tired of yakuza life, and, like you probably just heard, I was always one of her favorites, so she helped me out.”

“She must have a lot of influence. Who is she, exactly?”

“I don’t know all the details, but she used to be a geisha.” Zanza’s voice was as dark as the night around them. “Tone pulled some kind of mi-uke bullshit that probably shouldn’t have applied to her in the first place, and now she’s his personal property. He treats her like shit, and any influence she has over him is mostly just because…” It interested Tokio that he trailed off here. He’d been willing, only a few days before, to question her about her sex life in blunt and vulgar terms; that he was unwilling to raise the topic at all in reference to this Kotono woman — especially when combined with that unexpected honorific — indicated better than anything else how concerned and frustrated he was. And she had to appreciate that. Though the tale was far more common of prostitutes, even geisha — the most independent of women — were never completely safe from the vagaries of men when situations went awry.

“Is that why you wanted out?” Hajime asked, tone neutral.

Visible once more in briefly returning moonlight, Zanza shot him a suspicious glance. “Well… when I first got in, I thought there’d be a lot of… partying. Lots of drinking and gambling, you know? And fighting, of course. And there was some fighting, but way the hell more sitting around looking intimidating while other people did the actual work. And it turned out — you probably heard what I was saying to Kanno just now — Furukawatai’s more the dealing-shit type of gang than the kind that runs a bunch of gambling halls.”

“So in the end,” Hajime summarized slowly, all neutrality fled, “you wanted to leave not because of the suffering around you, but because you were bored.”

Zanza’s response to Hajime’s disdain was a mien Tokio strongly associated with an angry flush of the face; such a fine color distinction, however, was not discernible in the current lighting. “Hey, I hated watching Kotono-san suffer — I mean, there was more than one reason — there’s all sorts of messed-up personal shit that goes down in an environment like that… But this was before… I wasn’t really thinking yet…”

Knowing Hajime would not be able to resist an opening like ‘I wasn’t really thinking yet,’ Tokio jumped in. “Did you try to take her with you when you went?” The answer seemed pathetically self-evident, but it was the first question that came to mind that might stave off an argument. And here she was using mentions of this Kotono to keep Zanza in check just as that Kanno guy had done. But she could sense the tension between her companions as if they were at either end of a taut rope hauling away without ever breaking a blistering eye contact, so something had to be done.

“I did talk to her about it.” It was the timbre of someone that felt he hadn’t done nearly enough, but didn’t know what more there had been to try. “She said things with Tone were more complicated than I knew, and I should just worry about myself.”

Tokio made a sad sound of understanding. Things were always more complicated than you knew in a situation like that… more complicated, and yet painfully simple underneath. In any case, it seemed nothing short of miraculous that the woman had been able to exert so much influence even on Zanza’s behalf; there undoubtedly hadn’t been influence enough in the world to save herself.

“Is this Tone Joji?” Hajime wondered.

“Yeah,” Zanza replied, still suspicious, “that sounds right.”

Now to Tokio Hajime said thoughtfully, “I’ve seen that name in connection with Rokumeikan. He’s acted in some advisory capacity to him in the past.”

“Is Rokumeikan playing them off each other, then?” she speculated. “That sounds…”

“Ill-advised?” Hajime finished for her, understating the matter. “More likely he’s making use of both organizations, each without the other’s knowledge. But we can’t know for sure at this point.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Tokio could barely make out the scowl on Zanza’s face, but she could easily hear it in his voice. “What the hell are you guys talking about?”

With a faint laugh she took pity on him, and explained concisely, “Rokumeikan Hatsuo of the Army Ministry is our current target, since he appears to be guilty of… well, a number of things. But he also seems to be supporting and funding his private desires and ambitions by means of the Karashigumi, whom you may be familiar with. We’d like to take out at least some of the gang at the same time we deal with Rokumeikan.”

“And that’s what you want me for.” Zanza’s scowl had turned to a contemplative frown.

“Exactly. You’ve probably seen from the inside how difficult it is for the police to confront yakuza openly; we need irreproachable reasons to make arrests. Someone in your position will have a much better chance at accomplishing what we need to get done.”

“All right.” Zanza nodded. “That makes sense.” Moonlight glinted faintly off his eyes as he shifted them to look at Hajime. “As long as you don’t beat me up, I’ll do what I can to help you guys.”

“And why would I do that?” was Hajime’s immediate reply. “As I recall, it was you who sought me out.”

“Well, I’m the one who’s wasting his Meiji era,” Zanza retorted almost primly; it seemed he hadn’t quite recovered from that comment yet, no matter what had been said since then to assuage the wound. “I would’ve thought–”

“Because everything you’ve thought about me so far has been so very accurate,” Hajime interrupted bitingly.

“The way you’ve been–”

This time it was Tokio’s turn to interrupt. She didn’t dare raise her voice in the current situation, so she compensated by making her tone particularly intense; the result was a rather odd-sounding statement that was nevertheless successful at procuring the attention of the two men: “We don’t know yet whether Rokumeikan is playing the Karashigumi and the Furukawatai against each other, but maybe you could, Zanza. If you were to quietly join each of them…”

Zanza seemed to tear himself away with some reluctance from his argument with Hajime, but he did, at least, sound invested in the conversation. “They do hate each other’s guts… If I played it right, I might be able to get them into a situation where they’d fight each other… Then you guys could jump in and make a bunch of arrests for brawling or whatever, and maybe that would be enough to take care of your politician problem…” He sounded doubtful, though.

“The Karashigumi are always looking for strong fighters,” Tokio said encouragingly, trying to sell him on the formulating plan. “And you’ve already got connections in the Furukawatai, even if you didn’t necessarily want to go back to them…”

“And the Karashigumi are a gambling-centric organization,” Hajime jabbed, “so there’s some fun in it for you.”

“Hey, shut up.” Zanza said this a little absently, though, as a new idea appeared to have struck him. “If I managed,” he began slowly, “to arrange things so Tone would be there… and he got arrested… I might be able to get Kotono-san out. Get her somewhere safe.”

Tokio was pleased and impressed that his thoughts had gone in this direction, and agreed that the freedom of a downtrodden woman would be an excellent secondary benefit to the proposed venture. “Sounds perfect. Hajime, what do you think?”

“It’s the Karashigumi oyabun, Eisatsu, and as many of his men as possible, that we’re most concerned with having an excuse to take into custody,” Hajime replied with unexpected sternness. “If we can manage that, I don’t care what you do with the Furukawatai.”

“Hey, just a minute ago you were acting like you blamed me for not caring enough about Kotono-san, and now suddenly–” And Zanza definitely had a point: it was strange for Hajime to act so indifferent all of a sudden. Even if he couldn’t tell perfectly well how much this woman’s fate meant to their new protégé, he must be aware what it would mean to his own wife.

But what he broke in with was, “Just don’t let your concern for her distract you from our primary goal.” And admittedly this too was a good point. “And don’t move too quickly. Don’t seem too eager. We don’t want the Karashigumi investigating you too closely.”

“I know how to deal with yakuza,” Zanza replied impatiently, with a slight and barely perceptible roll of eyes.

“You weren’t too bored to pick up a few things here and there?”

“I fucking told you, that was back before–”

“Keep your voice down,” admonished Hajime in a harsh murmur.

Zanza gave a guilty start and looked around. “Somebody watching us?” he asked much more quietly.

Tokio had mirrored his glance at their environs, and now answered just as softly, “Not necessarily. But we’ve both felt as if someone was… paying us a lot of attention today.”

“That’s weird,” Zanza muttered, frowning. “I kinda have too.”

“In your case,” said Hajime, his manner still inciting, “it was probably your Furukawatai friends.”

“They’re not my friends!”

“No, I suppose they were too boring for that.”

“Would you just drop that already?”

“I think you’re the only person I’ve ever met who got tired of organized crime not for moral reasons but because it just wasn’t interesting enough.”

“I fucking told you–”

Zanza was getting loud again, and this particular branch of the discussion was getting nothing accomplished. Tokio raised both arms, pointed a flat palm at each man, and said, “At least for tonight, can we please…”

They looked at her as if they’d forgotten she was there, and she laughed faintly. As she lowered her dictatorial hands, a silence fell but for the sudden rumbling of Zanza’s stomach.

“I was hoping Katsu would get me dinner,” the kenkaya mumbled, embarrassed, “but I never did run into him.” He looked up abruptly, and back and forth between the two of them again. “And that reminds me — I’m gonna get paid for this, right?”

“You won’t be supporting yourself by fighting anymore?” Hajime’s voice had returned to its earlier neutrality.

Zanza took a deep breath. “No,” he said, “I won’t.” And, firm as the words were, still they seemed difficult for him to speak. More easily he added, “Anyway I won’t have time if I’m going to be fucking around with two different yakuza and trying to set shit up.”

Beside her Hajime nodded sharply, but Tokio didn’t know if Zanza would recognize the approval in the gesture. In any case, it had always been the plan to offer the mercenary a wage for his services… but when Hajime then went on to mention what that wage was to be, Tokio had to fight a sudden slackness of jaw and constriction of brows. No independent operative made a salary like that; it was unheard of. She knew they were both overtasked; she knew the current case was important; but did they really want Zanza working with them that much? Or did Hajime have other uses in mind for the kenkaya that he hadn’t mentioned yet?

Something a little unusual was going on here. Hajime always seemed to be in a strange mood during and after encounters with Zanza, and now this… So, as the foolish young man, probably not recognizing the ridiculous deal he’d been offered, began attempting to haggle, good-naturedly at first, with her unusually animated and responsive husband, Tokio took care to observe them both more meticulously than she previously had, trying to figure out what on earth was brewing between them.

***

Katsu, appearing every bit as baleful as when Zanza had last seen him, answered the knock after several moments of interior shuffling and gestured his friend inside. He then re-seated himself where he was evidently working on an ink painting of some sort beside a bright lamp with a number of other drawings — references? — strewn about him. A jug of sake stood at the far end of the table, carefully corked even though it was already at a safe distance from Katsu’s work.

“Too bad I missed you last night,” Zanza remarked as he approached to look over his friend’s shoulder at his progress. Such art meant very little to him, so he moved back to help himself to the sake. “I was going to check again when it got later, but then I ran into Tokio.”

Though he didn’t look up, Katsu’s brush stilled for a moment above his dish of ink as he asked quietly, “What exactly is your relationship with her?”

The answer to that was more complicated than Katsu could know, and Zanza didn’t believe it wise yet to elaborate on the details. “Nothing official,” was the technical truth he decided on; even the strictly personal aspects of their relationship were not entirely simple at this juncture. “I’ve kissed her. Why?”

Katsu resumed the motion of arm by which he was applying long, elegant lines to the thick paper in front of him. “I was worried.”

“About what?” Zanza tried to allow nothing more than curiosity into his voice, tried not to indicate his sudden fear that Katsu might somehow already know about his arrangements with the two police officers — and what that might mean for their friendship and Katsu’s mysterious plans.

“I was worried you might be deceived about her and about Saitou.”

Zanza covered up his relief with a snort. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, pal.”

Now Katsu did raise his gaze, his expression as serious as ever. “I’m sorry,” he said soberly. “You were right.”

“Was I?”

“I spent yesterday gathering information about them.”

“We’ve both felt as if someone was… paying us a lot of attention today.” Well, there was that mystery solved. Whether Zanza’s similar feeling had merely been, as Saitou had suggested, the Furukawatai keeping tabs on him, or some sympathetic paranoia invented in response to Tokio’s mention of the sensation, he didn’t know.

“I could see you believed it,” Katsu went on, “and I’d heard some things that made me inclined to believe it too… but I wanted to be sure this woman you’re getting yourself involved with, and her partner, are actually what they say they are.”

“You were that worried about me?” Zanza might have been flattered or touched, but he was afraid this had more to do with Katsu’s lack of trust in him than concern for his well-being.

“I’m satisfied now.” Katsu dodged the implicit questions about how much emotional attachment was expected in their renewed friendship and how much faith he placed in the kenkaya. “It seems everything Saitou told you about himself was true. They really are doing good work.”

If Zanza had entertained any doubts on this score, they would have been eased with last night’s conversation and the scheme he’d agreed to take part in, but he didn’t say so. He watched in silence as the artist dipped his brush into a ceramic dish of clean water, watched as the ink meandered out in a small fog around the bristles and dissipated. Katsu pressed the brush gently against the bottom of the bowl, and the water turned slowly murky around it. In a low tone, shaking his head slightly, he said, “I just can’t understand why they don’t do more.”

Zanza couldn’t stand it any longer. He had intended to allow Katsu to come to his point in his own good time, but he was so agitated by this discussion of Tokio and Saitou when he hadn’t yet spilled everything that was going on with them, he wanted to have a more aboveboard discussion about something. “All right. You’ve got ‘more‘ in mind, I can tell; you were talking about that the other night too. What are you planning?”

Blotting his brush on a cloth much stained by a history of this specific usage, for a moment Katsu neither said a word nor looked Zanza in the face. But finally, setting his implements aside, he met his friend’s gaze. And now, instead of the moroseness that had darkened his eyes ever since the moment they’d reunited, there was a sudden fire and intensity that startled the kenkaya into setting down the sake jug he’d just taken up again. And though Katsu said, “I’ll show you,” quietly enough, it was the quiet before a thunderclap.

Across the room Zanza followed Katsu, stopping with him before an unobtrusive closet. In such a cabinet one might expect to find clothing, linens, or even an adroitly rolled futon, but when at the soft slide of the door Zanza saw what it actually contained, his eyes widened in astonishment.

“Katsu, that’s… Are those…?”

“You remember how I always use to help Akinobu-san with the guns. I learned a lot about gunpowder back then, and I’ve taught myself more since. I can vary their explosive power, and how soon they’ll go off after I light them, and their weight and aerodynamics for different uses.” Katsu’s manner in relating these facts was almost morbidly casual, as if he were discussing artistic techniques rather than a hundred or so little round bombs, their fuses curved in places like devilish grins where they sat piled up in wooden trays like fruit at a market stall.

And all Zanza could think to say was, “Why?”

The light in Katsu’s eyes hadn’t dimmed; it was a wonder he didn’t inadvertently set off the explosives right then and there. He slid the closet door closed, however, with a gentle hand, and answered, “These are all I need to start a new revolution.”

“Katsu…” Zanza barely knew what to say as he trailed after his friend back to where they’d been seated before. “A closetful of bombs isn’t gonna destroy the government.”

“It doesn’t have to.” The same intensity that had marked Katsu’s words the last time they’d met was growing there again, but now, to match his expression, there was a new determination to his tone. “It merely has to provide a spark to start the fire… a beacon the people can follow.”

This was a little too philosophical for Zanza. “What are your exact plans?” he demanded.

And Katsu too became direct. “I’m going to destroy the offices of Internal Affairs. After that, if I can manage it, the military offices and the Bureau of Finance. It will damage government operations, but more importantly, it will act as a sign to the people. The Meiji government was brought to its knees by the Seinan War, and after this it will never rise again.”

“You know,” said Zanza carefully, fighting off an urge toward sarcasm, “I kinda got the impression the Seinan War was a complete failure.”

“Only because Saigou-tachi were foolish enough to start things down where they were easily isolated and defeated. When a revolution starts in the heart of the nation, here in Tokyo, there won’t be anything the government can do about it. All the people need is an example, and–”

“All right, enough with the ‘example’ shit already; I get it.” And it made a sort of sense: as Katsu said, he didn’t actually need to cause significant damage, if he could count on the swelling after the sting to do the rest of his work for him. But some logistical questions still remained. “Do you really think you can manage this? Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?”

“If I time my explosions right, no.”

“And afterwards? If they come looking for you?”

“Why should they? Would you suspect an artist of such a thing, if you were with the police?”

Zanza struggled to keep from squirming. ‘If you were with the police’ wasn’t nearly as inconceivable as the tone of that statement seemed to imply, but evidently even the all-knowing Katsu wasn’t aware of this. He pressed on. “And… after afterwards? You’re pretty much talking about a new war here…”

“War is a machine of change that’s fueled by death. If I can get it running, my death afterwards won’t make a difference.”

This was all very well, and probably true (if a little sententious), but Zanza wasn’t convinced he wanted to lose his friend so soon after having found him again. He couldn’t decide what to say, though.

Katsu didn’t allow him to say anything. “I was planning to do all this by myself,” he continued, immediately but slowly. “But then, just as I was finishing my preparations, I ran into you. And you said you were interested in making a change in your life, doing something that would make a difference. That timing is too perfect to be a coincidence.” He left unspoken the ensuing implication — that if not coincidence, it must have been orchestrated, presumably by someone with the power to do so and an interest in them both — but the idea hung in the air for a long, heavy moment. Finally Katsu turned abruptly toward Zanza, and the suddenness of his movement drew the mercenary’s gaze to meet the artist’s. “Well, Sano, will you help me?” The fervor in Katsu’s face was almost maniacal. “Shall we revive the Sekihoutai, you and I, and usher in a new era?”

It was a decisive question, but Zanza couldn’t give a decisive answer. As he had been early yesterday morning, he was inundated with a variety of thoughts on the subject, now without even the excuse of weariness to put off examining them.

Katsu was headed down a path of chaos and death, and had invoked the name of Zanza’s oldest organizational loyalty to request his assistance in a venture that might indeed be exactly what the country needed — a bold step and a possible martyrdom that not just anyone was willing to make. As one of the few survivors of the Sekihoutai, Zanza didn’t know if he could allow his comrade to do this alone. Yet as, essentially, an independent police operative — recent a development as that was — as an ally of Takagi Tokio and Saitou Hajime, he didn’t know if he could allow his comrade to do this at all.

He took a deep breath. “Like you said — like I told you before — I want to do something worthwhile with my life… something more like what Taichou would’ve wanted…” He tried to restrain himself from sucking in more air unnecessarily, from showing how nervous he was about throwing doubt on Katsu’s project and possibly risking a new rift between them. “I just don’t know if what you’ve got in mind is that kind of thing.” After all, as the artist had said, the two friends had reunited precisely as one’s preparations were nearing completion and the other’s attitude was transforming… but Katsu had reckoned that supposed non-coincidence without Saitou, and Zanza wasn’t sure that sequence of events must naturally result in the same future Katsu envisioned… even if Sagara-taichou had arranged it somehow from beyond the grave.

Katsu’s brow furrowed at Zanza’s words. “What Sagara-taichou always wanted was equality and freedom for the people of this nation. Do you think we’ve come anywhere close? Is this the Japan he died for?”

Zanza could give nothing but a bitter negative.

“He would have succeeded, if he’d lived,” Katsu said passionately. “Now it’s up to us, the people he left behind, to make his dream a reality. I’m going to create the Japan he fought for, and I’m going to do it any way I can. I’m going to start a new revolution, one in which you and I can truly fight at last — not as children, not as assistants, but as fully realized warriors with all our painful history behind us.” His eyes, bright and blue as a driftwood fire, burned into Zanza’s, and his inkstained hands clenched into fists. And Zanza felt it: the call of that new revolution, that opportunity to fight — to fight for the good of the people his captain had sought to raise up.

Of course, even if he didn’t die in attempting to bring it about, a new war would change everything, would mean giving up everything… but what did ‘everything’ consist of at this point? He had long since walked away from his family, and had no idea where they were these days, assuming they still lived; he’d never felt he belonged in the Furukawatai, and had left them at the earliest opportunity; and then he’d recently abandoned his only source of income, and, though he’d made arrangements for a new one, there were no guarantees. All he had were casual drinking buddies, a broken sword, and a dilapidated home he could just as easily turn his back on as not. That… and Tokio.

He didn’t exactly ‘have’ Tokio, but there were certain opportunities she represented that would be lost to him if he followed Katsu down this path. And Saitou — that man had, for reasons of his own, taken the trouble to speak the words Zanza needed to hear rather than responding to his violence in kind… Wouldn’t it be like throwing those words and that inscrutable generosity right back in his face if Zanza then chose to fight against the system Saitou had dedicated his life to improving? Yet Saitou had frankly admitted that system was flawed…

And if Zanza refused any part in this new, subversive undertaking, didn’t that mean giving up Katsu? And wasn’t his old friend, his old loyalty, worth more than these new acquaintances, even a potential lover and someone that had made such a monumental difference in his way of thinking? Especially when the new undertaking could mean so much good for the nation?

“And then, you know…” There was a subtle alteration to Katsu’s fervid tone, as he broke into Zanza’s thoughts, that the kenkaya didn’t entirely know how to read. “She would be freed…”

“Who?” Having just been thinking about Tokio, he recognized the foolishness of this question almost at once. “What do you mean?”

“Your policewoman friend. And that Saitou too, of course. When the revolution starts, they’ll be free to fight for what they truly believe rather than kept skulking in the shadows of a government they actually hate.”

It was an idea that had never occurred to Zanza. Did his new allies do what they did only because they were barred from the actions they would truly prefer to take? Next to Katsu’s explosively straightforward plan, machinations concerning politicians and yakuza bosses seemed petty and needlessly roundabout. But might not Zanza only think so because he was himself so much more straightforward and hadn’t ever previously considered anything like the type of spywork he’d agreed to last night? He wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Tokio and Saitou did wish they could take more direct action against the current regime — and if so, perhaps joining in the attack on the government offices wouldn’t mean giving up the prospects of the one and flouting the advice of the other… but at the same time, there had been nothing indecisive or discontented in “That’s how I’ve spent my Meiji era.”

It came back to the same question as before: was it more effective and creditable to work within the system against its minute evils, taking on corrupt influences a few at a time and slowly bettering the country as best they could, or to smash the system apart and rebuild it? Zanza didn’t know the answer.

“I see what you’re saying,” he said at last with painful honesty. Because he absolutely could see the potential in Katsu’s plan, and unquestionably sympathized with the motives behind it. The dilemma wasn’t, after all, whether it was a good plan, but whether it was the right plan. He stood, breaking eye contact with this friend, and started a quick, agitated pacing of the room. He couldn’t sit still, but the motion wasn’t helping him make this crucially important decision.

“Your strength will be invaluable in this new conflict.”

His strength… the thing he’d relied on for years to help him with his old hurt. What to do with that strength was the question here. And of course, in thinking of those years and that hurt, it occurred to him that he did have a third option: he could simply return to that life. Forget about Katsu’s grand-scale ideas, forget about Tokio and Saitou’s little yakuza drama… just walk out again onto the dirty streets, to fighting and fighting and fighting, the only thing he really knew how to do well, and forget everything.

It would be so easy. Definitely easier than making this agonizing, momentous decision.

But that too would be a decision, even if merely of omission by neglecting his other options. So he was still left with this choice, and he was running out of time. He turned toward Katsu suddenly, though only fixing his gaze on his friend’s knees, and asked, “When are you planning to start all this?”

“Tomorrow night.” Katsu certainly named the hour of his possible death, or the beginning of the new upheaval, calmly enough! “It’s a new moon, and the offices have fewer guards on Sundays.”

Zanza nodded sharply. His period of respite had not yet expired. “You’ll see me again before then,” he promised, and, still without meeting Katsu’s eyes, reached for the door.

***

The range of Tokio’s expectations concerning Tsukioka’s plans had been fairly wide, so what she’d now discovered them to be could not be considered outside the pale. But she was perhaps a little startled at the details. There had been no way to determine, just listening outside the door, exactly how much explosive power the artist had in there, but given the number of offices he’d mentioned intending to destroy, he had to be pretty well equipped. The scheme was crazy, but Tsukioka himself didn’t strike her as far enough out of his mind to embark upon it without the necessary tools.

At first she had planned to head quietly over to the police station once she was confident she’d heard everything useful she could, but as the conversation inside the apartment had become more intense — and especially as it had begun placing more specific demands on Zanza — she had reluctantly changed her mind. She needed to see his face and read his demeanor, needed more certainty than she could take from the mere sound of his voice and pacing footsteps… because, though the only promise he’d made his friend had been to get back in touch with him before the time of the attack, he’d sounded an awful lot as if he only had minor objections left to overcome and really would go along with the artist in the end. Tokio was more than a little concerned.

So now she waited a short distance down the street, out of the flow of traffic but in plain sight, in the direction she speculated Zanza would take. If he went the other way she would have to run after him, but she didn’t want to hang around, and possibly hold a conversation that might become angry and attention-grabbing, too close to the apartment when Tsukioka was still inside. And she’d barely assumed this position when he was, as anticipated, moving toward her; he had sounded as if he intended to leave immediately.

She’d guessed correctly about which way he would come, and now she had the distance between Tsukioka’s door and Zanza’s catching sight of her to glean what she could of his intentions from his candid expression and movements. Unfortunately, all she could make out was unhappiness and confusion. Though perhaps that wasn’t so unfortunate… Surely if he were resolute in supporting his friend, he wouldn’t exude nearly so much uncertainty.

When he observed her after not too long, possibly sensing and then seeking out her focused gaze, he immediately scowled and altered his path to come straight to her. “So you do spy on me,” was his surly greeting, as if confirming a long-standing suspicion. She thought he might not have sounded quite so annoyed, though, if he hadn’t been in some turmoil already.

“And a good thing, too!” she replied, throwing a significant glance at the artist’s door and folding her arms.

Mirroring her look behind him, he grumbled, “Vote of confidence from everyone today.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked him bluntly.

“I don’t know yet,” he answered with just as much frankness. And shoving his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he continued on down the street.

As she followed, Tokio judged his statement to be honest and accurate, and this came as a relief: if he truly hadn’t made up his mind, perhaps she could help sway his decision. She fell into step beside him and said quietly, “You are aware it won’t work, I hope?”

“I dunno… he’s got some good points…” Zanza looked at her sidelong, perhaps a little bitterly and perhaps not — she got the feeling he was postponing determining how he felt about her eavesdropping until after the more important choice was made — and added, “You’re the spy; you heard ’em.”

“He’s counting on a people’s revolution,” Tokio said, just as quietly as before and glad they were walking fairly quickly; this wasn’t a subject she would like to have overheard (though she wouldn’t be able to deny it was her turn; all the more reason for caution). “But that isn’t what the people want right now. Even assuming he can pull this off without getting killed or arrested, the best he can hope for is some minor scattered uprisings in response. Remember Akizuki…”

Zanza’s frown had deepened. “But he’s not trying to restore the samurai class,” he protested. “That’s the last thing he’d want! People have gotta see that!”

Tokio shook her head. “I work with ‘people’ every single day. They’re busy trying to build new lives after a lot of chaos and misery. Another war is the last thing they want.”

Zanza stopped suddenly, straightened, and turned to look at her very seriously. “Maybe he’s right about you guys, though… You could be doing more, and you want to do more, but you’re trapped in this system and need a big shakeup to get out of it.”

“Don’t talk about what I could be doing or what I want as if you know better than I do.” She hadn’t meant to sound quite so pugnacious, but it always annoyed and provoked her when men condescended like that. Zanza himself was a little surprised, and drew back slightly at her tone. This latter she amended somewhat, so it only sounded disdainful rather than immediately threatening, as she went on. “Do you really think Hajime and I need rescuing? Do you really think there is some better way to improve the country, and we’re just not doing it because — why? It never occurred to us? We’re too frightened?”

Predictably, in response to Tokio’s altered demeanor, Zanza too had a thread of ire in his voice. “Maybe Katsu’s seeing things clearer than you guys because he’s on the outside.”

“He’s a single-minded fanatic! He’s seeing exactly what he wants to see to support what he’s already decided to do.”

Zanza gave a rough sigh. “Look, this isn’t helping. You’ve… made some good points too, but…” His grudging tone still sounded angry, and his shake of head was just as rough as his sigh had been. “He’s my oldest friend. I’ve gotta figure this out on my own.” He started to turn away. “I’ll see you when I see you.”

Her gloved hand shot out and seized his gi in a crumpling grip. “And if we’re enemies then?” Even as she said the words she realized how much she didn’t want to be his enemy, how horrifying that thought was, and perhaps some of that rising emotion sounded in her voice.

“Then here’s a goodbye kiss.”

That should have been warning enough, but somehow finding herself in his arms took her completely by surprise, and the kiss even more so — perhaps because it was so unexpectedly furious. She’d kissed him before, of course, but she got the feeling now, as he attacked her mouth and nearly crushed her with his embrace, that he hadn’t been serious then. This was different: far more intense than she liked, as if he were seeking something to feed off of and she was not enough. It was arousing, but it didn’t feel right. If she had been superstitious, she would have said it portended disaster.

He was walking away before she even knew it was over. “And quit following me around!” he called over his shoulder.

Agitated, with a hand before her lips as if to shield the bittersweet sensation, she watched his aku ichimonji recede and disappear. Then with a deep, troubled breath, she spun and headed for the police station by the quickest route.

Hajime was absent from his office when she arrived there red-faced after jogging the last half of the trip. She sat on his desk for a moment to catch her breath, and occupied herself while her body cooled with looking over the papers he’d left out: a decent compilation of information about the Karashigumi. That he had left it out indicated he was still in the station somewhere, so as soon as she’d recovered from her run she rose again to find him. This goal would have to be accomplished solely by her own abilities, since she didn’t rank among the precinct’s most popular, and few of her co-workers inclined toward volunteering her husband’s whereabouts even when she was clearly looking for him.

It didn’t prove difficult, however: the nervousness of the guards stationed at the door across the main room from her indicated something was going on behind them, down the stairs in the cells. Generally the only thing that could cause such uneasiness in the ordinary police was Hajime himself, so it was probably a good guess he was interrogating a prisoner. And the only prisoner in whom he would take an interest at this juncture was the man they’d captured the other evening. Something must have come to light about the murdered woman. Since interrupting would be pointless, and since she couldn’t tell him what she needed to in front of anyone else in any case, she returned to his office to wait.

Seated properly in the actual chair at his desk, she skimmed the paperwork in front of her for something to do. Even these accounts of recent gang activity, though containing enough specifics to have some value as written reports, were as imperfect as she had expected: indicative of greater guidance and direction recently, but in no way incriminating of the politician she and Hajime believed was providing that guidance and direction. This was definitely something that needed to be worked on from the inside. If Zanza got himself incarcerated or killed going along with his friend’s suicidal plan, it would be back to the drawing board on how to deal with this yakuza and Rokumeikan. Of course that wasn’t the only reason for her concern about Zanza’s decision — in fact it was the farthest from her heart — but it carried considerable weight nonetheless.

It was not entirely surprising that, when her husband finally returned, the sound of his entrance startled her awake. Though he did look a little grimmer than usual, he didn’t chide her for this lapse; they were both awfully tired these days. She was somewhat embarrassed, though, and, as she sat up straight from the uncomfortable slump she’d fallen into, started immediately on her report to compensate:

“Zanza just had his big meeting with Tsukioka.”

Hajime stopped in front of the desk, giving no indication he wanted her out of his chair, and asked in a tone as dour as his expression, “How bad is it?”

She shook her head. “Bad.” And she related the conversation she’d overheard. It did not help Hajime’s face lighten.

“Did you talk to Zanza afterward?” He must know she would have wanted to.

She nodded, and now her voice was as dark as his. “He as good he said he doesn’t mind if we’re enemies the next time we meet.”

“‘As good as said?'”

Thinking of that disturbing kiss, Tokio’s frown deepened, and she shook her head again, this time to clear the memory. “I pointed out that a plan like that isn’t likely to work and Tsukioka isn’t thinking clearly… Zanza reminded me Tsukioka is his oldest friend, and said he has to figure this out on his own. Whatever else he might be thinking…”

“What do you think he’ll do?”

“I wish I could tell you.” Situations like this, she knew, were the ones where her ability to read others was most useful, not to say crucial, and she hated feeling so helpless. “He’s torn. This is hitting him deeper than just on a logical level, and, Hajime, he’s so tempted.” She stared up unhappily at her husband, who, leaning on the desk, stared back with narrowed, pensive eyes.

Finally Hajime said, “Well, it’s his choice.” Lips tight between phrases, he turned away. Though his back was now to her, she would recognize from any angle the customary movements of pulling his cigarettes from his jacket pocket and singling one out for lighting. “We’ll see how much he actually wants to change.”

“And Tsukioka?”

“I’ll deal with him.” Hajime seemed very tense as he let out a long initial stream of smoke and added tightly, “And Zanza too, if it comes to that.”

“By…”

“Doing whatever I have to.” Which was Hajime’s life in a nutshell, but Tokio wondered if he would be willing to ‘do whatever he had to’ to prevent the disaster but still try, somehow, to keep Zanza on their side. Morosely she nodded, though he wouldn’t see it.

“I need you to go back to Rokumeikan’s mansion.”

“Mmm.” Wearily she accepted the change of subject. “Just what I wanted to hear.”

“That woman was supposedly a servant in his household.”

Finally, now with greater energy, Tokio got to her feet and left the desk. She found her husband staring at nothing in particular as he smoked, the line between his brows pronounced. The mention of the unfortunate murder victim had an electric effect on her, as Hajime had undoubtedly known it would in bringing it up. She felt all over again that sick, agitated despair and the urge toward motion in response to her inability to help that woman, her frustration that she wasn’t able to help in similar situations everywhere, and her desire for justice to be enacted on the perpetrators. The point she chose to raise out loud, however, was, “That’s an odd coincidence… That someone working for the politician we’re investigating would show up so close to our house…”

“The cab driver we managed to track down says he took her from Rokumeikan’s estate to that neighborhood just north of ours; apparently she was in some distress, but said she had friends there. She wanted to be let out down the street from their home, though, so the driver understood he shouldn’t ask questions. He, at least, was telling the truth as he knew it.”

“And the men who attacked her?”

“Apparently somebody not only knew when she was going to run, but where she would go, and sent someone after her. I thought at the time the way they killed her seemed more like a hit than a random crime. They were hired through the usual circuitous lowlife channels, though, so that’s a dead end.”

“How dead?” she asked wryly.

His eyes flicked over to her briefly, and his mouth curled into a mirthless smirk. “Very dead.”

“When Zanza hears that…” It probably wouldn’t be enough to keep him aligned with their purposes, but she thought he would take the same vindictive but justifiable pleasure in it that Hajime was. How she felt about it was beside the point, but under examination it might turn out to be identical.

“I’m sending Shimada and Kasai out there tomorrow to ask some questions. They’ll frame it like a routine investigation of a murder on the streets; nothing for Rokumeikan to worry about. I want you there to see how the household reacts.”

“What was she running from? Who put out a hit on her and why? And was it really just a coincidence she ended up so close to where we live?” Tokio spoke pensively, not merely laying out her mission objectives but pondering aloud.

“And is there anything in all of this we can use against Rokumeikan?” Hajime finished for her.

She nodded. “Well, you know how much I love sneaking around under windows and on balconies and hiding in the bushes.” And in actuality she did rather enjoy it… sometimes. “I suppose that means I’ll be out there tomorrow night.” This job might give her the chance to take steps toward avenging that unknown woman neither she nor her companions had been able to assist before, but in the middle of this business with Zanza and his radically idealistic friend, skulking around Rokumeikan’s mansion on the outskirts of the far side of Tokyo was the last place she wanted to be.

“It can’t be helped.”

She watched her husband steadily for a moment. Naturally the news of an impending bombing and the unpleasantness of the interrogation had left him in a dark frame of mind, but he was behaving even more curtly and unsympathetically than she would have expected under the circumstances. He must know how worried she was about the situation with Zanza and Tsukioka, yet all he gave her was a puff of smoke and, “It can’t be helped.” She thought the likeliest explanation for this was that he too was worried — more than he was willing to let on. She never had figured out why everything connected with Zanza seemed to carry such a charge where Hajime was concerned. She considered tormenting him over this, trying to get more out of him in one way or another, but thought better of it. He would, as he’d said, do whatever he had to… and she trusted him.

At last she asked, “When are the boys going to be there tomorrow?”

“7:00. I want them to catch Rokumeikan at home before he goes in to his office; he may be offended by their showing up that early, but I want his reaction as well as his household staff’s.”

She gave a sharp nod of acknowledgment, already starting to plan. The route she took to any monitoring assignment must by necessity be unobtrusive and relatively untraceable, and she didn’t want to go the same way she had last time to Rokumeikan’s estate. So she would need to leave especially early in the morning to establish her position before the questioning officers arrived. Which meant she could probably squeeze in a few more hours of patrolling today before she went home to cook supper and some surveillance snacks and get to bed early. So the next question was, “Will you be home to eat tonight?” She definitely put an edge into the question; it was really more of a remonstrance, “You should come home to eat tonight.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Hajime replied somewhat stiffly.

“That’s what I thought,” she said in disapproval. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, then.” And she headed for the office door. Before leaving the room, however, she had to turn. “And…” No matter how closed-off Hajime was, no matter how much she trusted him to deal with the situation appropriately, she simply had to say something. “Don’t be too hard on him.”

He gave her another smile that did not touch his eyes, this one somewhat cryptic, as he replied, “Only as hard as I need to be.”

Far from satisfied but having no other choice, she hurried on her way, unsure whether she was most annoyed with her husband for refusing to confide in her, Zanza for having her so agitated in the first place, Tsukioka for his revolutionary craziness, or Rokumeikan for dragging her away from all of this just at the wrong moment. Well, Zanza couldn’t really be blamed for being pulled in opposite directions by polarized ideals. And as for Hajime not confiding in her… technically she hadn’t actually asked. And the other two nearly canceled each other out: Rokumeikan, who used the government and his position in it to full advantage, and Tsukioka, who would like nothing more than its downfall even if it cost him his life.

But Rokumeikan, or at least someone in his circle, had driven a woman to her death, and Tokio still hadn’t even learned her name (for she was sure Hajime, no matter what kind of mood he was in, would have mentioned if he’d found it out, knowing how much she would want to hear it). And because of that already unforgivable deed, Tokio was going to miss the outcome of everything else she was primarily worried about at the moment. So she supposed, after all, she was most annoyed at Rokumeikan Hatsuo and his inhumane selfishness and corruption. She’d rather suspected that might be the case.

Section 4

Of course the simplest solution would be to arrest the artist before the catastrophe could take place, but for a few different reasons Saitou chose not to. The greatest of these was Zanza’s existing feeling of annoyance, perhaps even betrayal, that Tokio had been spying on him. Stepping in and hauling his friend off under his nose wouldn’t help him like or trust those that were supposed to be his allies. Besides, he’d said he needed to figure this out on his own; arresting Tsukioka would take that opportunity from him.

Tokio’s uncertainty about the decision Zanza would make had been aggravating, but nothing more than Saitou could have predicted. For the young man to be faced with a choice like this so soon after his life’s metamorphosis and before he’d even had the chance to start his new assignment seemed an unkind and unfair trick of the universe… but the universe was known for its lack of gentleness and parity. Zanza would have to deal with it as best he could; what conclusion he eventually came to would speak volumes about his character… perhaps even release Saitou from the fascination and emotional involvement he’d been gripped with ever since meeting the young man. Not that this was the outcome Saitou wanted, but it would, at least, be a silver lining to a poor decision on Zanza’s part.

He would like to talk to him, or at least observe him — though he doubted he could get any clearer impression of Zanza’s intentions than Tokio had; she was better at that kind of thing — but in any case found himself unable to track the kenkaya down. It was a big city, and on his own (since enlisting anyone else’s help was obviously out of the question) he had neither the time nor the luck to locate Zanza in it. And he had other things to do anyway. He would just have to wait for tomorrow and see how the scenario played out. Though well aware it could play out very badly for everyone involved, still it seemed wisest to stay his hand until the proper moment. But he was early to the Internal Affairs offices on Saturday night.

What route the artist planned on using to enter he couldn’t predict with 100% accuracy, but if Tsukioka had any sense — which Saitou believed he did, clouded though it might be by old pain and a revolutionary haze — he would scale the wall (which, though crenelated, foolishly bore nothing sharp at its top to prevent this) near where Saitou had stationed himself: some trees, also foolishly placed for tactical purposes, grew on the grounds in this area and would hide the climb from the sight of anyone not close by, and the earth’s slope made this the highest point anywhere inside the perimeter. Saitou was still taking a chance waiting where he was, for doing so assumed Tsukioka had planned thoroughly and wouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks; given the man’s fanatical nature, no matter how much sense Saitou ascribed to him, he could be certain of neither. But he trusted his instincts and stayed.

He glanced upward into the tree whose deep shadows concealed him. No, he couldn’t be sure he was correct, but he estimated a pretty high probability. So even when, a tediously long and quiet time after he’d taken up his position, explosions sounded outside near the main gates, he held his ground, watching the wall carefully from his hidden place through the moonless gloom. His speculation was confirmed when, with a click, the head of a grapnel arced up and over, drawing back and latching onto the inside corner of the top of the wall on the first try. Saitou remained perfectly still, counting on his dark clothes and hair and motionlessness to keep him from notice, as a man followed the hook onto the summit, where he gathered it and the attached rope concisely around his arm and peered into the space beneath him.

Saitou recognized Tsukioka from the description Tokio had provided: a stocky, long-haired figure in dark red and saffron with a bandanna reminiscent of Zanza’s around his forehead. Against the stars at the top of the wall he appeared inscrutable and almost ominous, and the officer didn’t remove his interested eyes from him as he dropped to the turf below.

Tsukioka wasn’t the only one that jumped down seemingly out of nowhere. Zanza hit the ground not five feet in front of Saitou, descending from where he’d been relatively well concealed in the tree (‘relatively’ because, despite his ideal hiding place, he still wore all white), and ran toward his friend. It took only a moment for the artist to notice him and pause.

Saitou leaned forward slightly, scarcely breathing. This was the moment that would confirm the hopes or fears he and Tokio had been harboring for days, determine the course of their mutual interest in Zanza, and possibly completely alter the Karashigumi investigation.

Tsukioka had said his friend’s name, and the tone in which he spoke as well as his subsequent words caused Saitou’s heart, previously subdued as if to muffle its own sound and make listening easier, pick up again and thud perhaps a bit more vehemently than usual: “You said you weren’t coming with me!”

“And you said you weren’t gonna try this alone.” Zanza spoke as if they’d both been taken in a lie, or perhaps something less reprehensible — as if they’d each been cheating at a game where this was allowed as long as it remained undetected, and they’d caught each other out at exactly the same moment.

Tsukioka’s response, “And I thought you believed me,” held the same rueful, friendly accusation.

“Nope.” Zanza shook his head. “I know you were already getting ready for this even before I showed up. No reason not to still go through with it just because I didn’t want to, right?”

“That’s about right. So why are you here?” Tsukioka looked impatient to get on with his work, but also justifiably suspicious at Zanza’s presence.

Even from his concealment some distance away — though only because he had excellent night vision — Saitou could see the deep expansion of Zanza’s chest. This wasn’t easy for him, but he seemed resolute. “I’m here to stop you.”

And at these words, Saitou too found himself able to take a deep breath and let it out. It was all right. Zanza had come to the right conclusion. And did Saitou’s disproportionate relief have anything to do with the fact that he wouldn’t be forced to abandon his infatuation? Because it would really be more convenient if he could let it go…

Tsukioka stiffened, perhaps a little bewildered or betrayed, if not both. “Why?” he hissed. “After everything we talked about, why would you–“

Zanza interrupted, “You musta known I didn’t like this, or you would’ve just told me you were still planning to do it even when I didn’t want to come along. So I think you know why, too, underneath everything.” When the frowning Tsukioka just shook his head, Zanza went on. “This isn’t what taichou would want. Maybe years ago, right after the Bakumatsu, this would’ve been a good idea, but not now, not anymore. Taichou wanted people to have safe and happy lives, and this isn’t going to give them that.”

“We have to do something,” Tsukioka protested. And that, at least, was a better attitude than many citizens had.

“But not this! This–” Zanza gestured toward the building and the distant sounds of running feet and shouting– “is only going to start your new war if you’re really, really lucky, and either way you’re probably gonna die.”

“I told you I don’t–“

Zanza was relentless. “And so will a bunch of other people, innocent people! Look, I know this government is bullshit, but there’s a lot of people working their asses off trying to make things better. You can’t just trample all over that!”

Now Tsukioka definitely appeared betrayed. “You’ve been talking to that Saitou about this, haven’t you?”

“I haven’t even seen him,” Zanza said dismissively, making Saitou glad, in a way, he hadn’t found him when he’d looked. “I’ve just been thinking a lot. Because things are improving, aren’t they? People — like Saitou, yeah — are working hard for reform, and they’re getting somewhere! People are happier now! Isn’t that worth preserving?”

“There’s only so far anyone can get in a faulty system! It needs to be overthrown!” The noises of inquiry and alarm from over by the gates seemed just a little louder, and Saitou thought Tsukioka’s willingness to stand here debating proved something, if not about his overall intentions, at least about his dedication to this specific attack at this specific moment: he wasn’t as sure as he pretended. Exactly why this was, Saitou didn’t know — he would have welcomed Tokio’s assessment of the emotions in this scene — but the wavering was there in any case.

“And once it’s overthrown, if you can somehow manage that,” Zanza was saying, “what do you think’s gonna replace it? Are you gonna rule Japan, or just try to talk some sense into the Emperor? Or are we gonna assassinate him too?”

Saitou didn’t want to grin and risk having starlight gleam off his teeth and possibly betray his presence, but he was just so pleased with Zanza for bringing up this point — especially as he observed the lack of certainty in Tsukioka’s answer, “There are many people who think like us…”

“You know who else there’s a lot of? Old, bitter Bakufu supporters just waiting for a chance to put things back the way they were. Seriously, what are the odds the right people are gonna grab power after this?” Zanza snorted. “‘After this?’ Hell, what are the chances even the right people will be fighting this new war of yours? Seems to me it’s more likely to be people like the guys from Satsuma, trying to get back the last three hundred years.”

Saitou wished he would bring up foreign relations and how petty scuffles like this appeared to other power-hungry countries, but you couldn’t have everything — and he’d already gotten so much more than he could have asked for tonight. He’d come out here fearing Zanza would do something stupid and morally questionable that would damage him irreparably in Saitou’s estimation… and instead the wolf found himself more impressed by and attracted to the young man than ever.

Again Tsukioka insisted, “But we have to do something!”

“You don’t always have to break something to fix it, though.”

“But do you really think people like those police of yours can possibly have any long-term effect on a system like this? You can’t fix a problem this big from the inside!”

“Maybe with enough people working on it, we can fix some of this shit. It’s like you said — people just need an example to realize what they can do.”

Tsukioka’s demeanor by now seemed perfectly desperate, though toward exactly what end Saitou didn’t know. “But what kind of example besides violence could possibly–“

The noises of what must have become a thorough and energetic search of the entire grounds were suddenly growing significantly louder with increasing nearness. All three men glanced around, but could see very little through the shadows of the scant trees. And when Zanza turned back to his friend, he appeared very grim.

“We’re out of time here,” he declared. “We gotta go.”

“No!” Tsukioka’s gaze seemed to burn in the starlight. “I can still — Sano, I’ve worked too hard for this!”

“At least put it off,” Zanza begged, lowering his voice now there was more danger of being heard. “Think about it and come back another night if I really can’t convince you.”

Tsukioka just stared at him hopelessly, and it became clear he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his progress and all his preparations. No matter what he felt or to what extent Zanza had him persuaded, he was simply incapable of moving. Saitou had seen that look before — in battle, just before cutting down an opponent whose conviction outweighed their common sense and self-preservation instinct. Tsukioka had admirable desires and even a certain amount of savvy regarding social change… but he needed a better channel for his energy.

Zanza looked just as troubled and agitated as did his friend. With another deep breath, he placed a hand on Tsukioka’s shoulder and said slowly and heavily, “Hey. Forgive me for this.” Then in a swift movement without warning, he punched Tsukioka so hard in the gut that the artist collapsed immediately into his waiting arms. “I won’t lose you,” he muttered. “Not like this.”

Saitou stepped unhesitatingly from the blackness at that moment, and Zanza, busy slinging the red and yellow figure over his shoulder, almost dropped him in his startlement at the unexpected movement and the officer’s abrupt appearance. “Holy shit! How long’ve you… why are you here?”

“In case you needed help,” Saitou replied, “and now you apparently do. Can you get over the wall?”

Gathering his wits, Zanza blinked, shook his head slightly, then looked around. It seemed he hadn’t given much thought to how he was going to get out of here carrying an unconscious body. “I… could use a hand up,” he admitted.

“I’ll tie his wrists together so you have your hands free,” Saitou suggested, and, swiftly approaching, confiscated Tsukioka’s rope for the task.

Still baffled, Zanza asked, “How long were you there?”

“The whole time. Nice work with him.” With this brief answer, Saitou was finished preparing the artist for transport. He took up a place near the wall and cupped his hands expectantly. “I’ll take care of the guards. Go!”

“Can you…” Zanza seemed suddenly a little flustered. “Can you meet me at his place later? Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes.” Saitou gestured with his head toward the wall and repeated, “Go!”

Zanza got a decent running start from where he’d been standing talking to his friend, stepped onto Saitou’s waiting hands and sprang upward with the added force of Saitou’s heave. Even with the assistance, he barely made it high enough to grasp the top of the wall with that swinging burden on his back, undoubtedly scraping himself and possibly Tsukioka in numerous places as he hauled them both up and over and out of sight. The sound of the doubled weight hitting the ground on the other side and his retreating footsteps assured Saitou he’d gotten down in relative safety. And then the wolf turned to meet the approaching guards.

Without appearing very suspicious — and his story of coincidentally hearing the bombs go off as he passed by on a night patrol and somehow entering and reaching this corner of the grounds without anyone seeing him was already a little suspect — he couldn’t disengage from the offices’ employees and the search for the attackers for quite some time. With those ambiguous words ‘Can you meet me’ echoing in his head, this was more than a little irritating. But so satisfied was he at how well Zanza had handled the situation, he couldn’t consider even the futile pursuit of a bomber long fled throughout the empty grounds of the government buildings a waste of time. Still, he was intensely curious what Zanza could want from him, so when, after almost two hours, he was finally able to depart with impunity, he set off for Tsukioka’s home by a roundabout way as quickly as he could.

***

Given the numerous disasters in potentia during Zanza’s walk back to Katsu’s apartment — to name a few, his friend awakening, declaring he hated Zanza and should never have trusted him, and running back to the Internal Affairs offices to complete the interrupted job, undoubtedly getting himself killed in the process; any one of the truly distressing and extremely uncomfortable number of hard round bombs secreted about Katsu’s person and digging into Zanza’s as he carried him going off unexpectedly and blowing them both to pieces; someone he passed on the street, darkness notwithstanding, noticing the tied wrists around his neck of the figure on his back, very understandably mistaking him for a kidnapper or murderer, and reporting him to police far less likely than Saitou to be relatively sympathetic — it was nothing short of a miracle that he reached his destination without incident.

Katsu didn’t stir when Zanza clumsily searched his pockets to find the key to his door, nor when he was laid onto his futon by tired arms trying, and probably failing, to be as gentle as possible. Nor did he react when Zanza began removing the copious bombs from his pockets and sleeves and stacking them very gingerly in the cupboard from which they’d originally come. The artist remained still and silent, except for his somewhat shallow breathing, as Zanza finally finished his task and threw himself down to rest.

The kenkaya leaned back and closed his eyes, unexpectedly bone-weary and beginning to feel the smart of the scrapes he’d taken from climbing that wall and a certain kink in his back from carrying another grown man such a distance. And in his head he heard, rather than any of the things he and Katsu had said to each other tonight, a different statement from days before: “One of the hardest things about being with the police is that there will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do. No matter how good you are at your job, you’re going to run into those times.”

He had applied Tokio’s words, as she’d specifically intended, to the anger and wretchedness of not being able to help an anonymous woman attacked by anonymous men; they tore at him so much more viciously now as he considered the possibility that Katsu might soon open eyes full of angry rejection, that Zanza might be forced to say goodbye to his oldest friend just as definitively as if he’d allowed Katsu to go through with his suicidal plan. He couldn’t decide whether to hope for a longer or shorter period of unconsciousness; he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how Katsu would behave when he awoke.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing he had to think about.

“In case you needed help.”

Not, “To stop you from doing this,” or, “To arrest your friend,” but, “In case you needed help.” That Saitou had remained hidden until the other two had finished their debate (if it could be called that), until the moment Zanza had specifically required him, attested to the truth of the statement, but Zanza could still hardly believe it. Because it meant Saitou, the guy that had never said anything kind to him once since they’d first met, had trusted Zanza to handle the situation using his own judgment.

Reasonably, why should he be surprised at this? If Saitou didn’t trust him at least a little, he wouldn’t have hired him. Yet Saitou, even in the midst of discussing that very assignment, had given him such a hard time about past choices he considered poorly handled… It astonished him that that Saitou had been willing to watch and say nothing until the situation had progressed to a point where Zanza could no longer get by on his own.

And then, “Nice work with him.” ‘Nice work?’ This was so far from the condescending and insulting behavior Saitou had offered him on previous occasions that Zanza was almost tempted to call it ‘praise… ‘ but didn’t quite dare. In any case, it had been comradely and encouraging… and since when was Saitou that friendly to him? Or did Zanza simply not know the man as well as he thought he did?

Why, though, should he think he knew him at all? He’d fought him exactly once, talked to him barely more often than that… Most of the knowledge he had of him was from the research he’d done before his battle, which wasn’t exactly personality-profiling. Sure, he had a pretty good idea what Saitou’s morals were, but what did he really know about Saitou personally? Maybe it would be wise to spend some time with his new employer and find out whether the guy was actually as big a bastard as he’d been assuming.

With these reflections helping to push away the far more uncomfortable ones about what would happen presently when Katsu woke, Zanza nevertheless waited uneasily for that event and his doom, leaning against the wall between a cabinet and a table alternately staring up at the dark ceiling and into the deeper blackness of his eyelids in a room where he hadn’t bothered — or perhaps had the heart — to light a lamp. It was no great wonder that, after a while, he drowsed and lost awareness of his surroundings. He wasn’t so deeply asleep, however, that the sound of Katsu stirring did not immediately return him to full consciousness. He had the vague impression that hours had passed, and there was definitely a crick in his neck, but as it was time to face the music he didn’t spend too long thinking about either of these circumstances.

At first it was merely a change in Katsu’s breathing patterns and a slight shifting of limbs — perfectly normal sounds for someone coming out of sleep or something like it — but then, so abruptly it startled Zanza into a more upright attitude of his own, he bolted into a sudden sitting position as if memory had come back to him just as precipitously. “Where–” His level of tension hardly decreased as he looked frantically around and recognized his own room, and eventually his eyes fixed on Zanza and stayed there, wide and trembling. “Sano…!” And a long moment of silence followed.

Recognizing the necessity for him to start the conversation, no matter how difficult it would prove, Zanza forced his mouth open. His words came out very heavy indeed: “Hey. I’m sorry I hit you. I hope you don’t hate me.”

Katsu simply continued to stare at him.

“I just thought the whole thing was such a bad idea,” Zanza explained awkwardly, “and it felt like I was never gonna be able to get you to leave.”

Katsu’s face seemed to be compressing, his eyes losing their agitated wideness, his brows drawing together, and his mouth tightening to a hard, bitter line. This change of expression spoke volumes, but his voice said nothing.

Zanza pressed on. “Taichou did a lot of dirty work trying to reach his goals, even if his goals were good…” Though an integral part of the conclusion he wanted to draw that had been on his mind quite a bit lately, this hurt him to say aloud, and he felt the driving need to add, “I know we’d rather think of him as this perfect guy who always did the right thing, but we’ve both gotta know that’s bullshit.”

The artist’s gaze dropped his lap, his face now at an angle unreadable in the darkness.

“But it wasn’t like he wanted it to be that way. Because his goals were good, and he probably would’ve liked it a whole lot better to keep his hands clean for them.”

Finally Katsu spoke, but if Zanza hoped to gage his current attitude and likely future actions from his tone, he was disappointed. “Sometimes the end justifies the means.” He said it so dully, so totally without emotion or direction, that the words could indicate any point along the scale from unmotivated philosophy to specific planning.

“Maybe,” Zanza allowed helplessly. “I dunno.” He sat silent for a moment, feeling his ability to debate this topic entirely exhausted for the night, but also that he must get his final point out before giving up. “You kinda made it sound,” he resumed at last with some difficulty, “like you thought taichou was arranging things from wherever he is now… like he brought me to you just at the right time…” And perhaps it was dangerous to state this idea so explicitly when it had only been hinted at before, but Zanza felt what little conversational finesse he might have had earlier draining from him now.

Nevertheless, Katsu, though still staring down at the hands clenched in his lap, nodded slightly.

Zanza believed this was a good sign, and his tone was a little stronger as he continued, “I think you’re right about that. But I don’t think it was for me to help you with your plans.” After this his words came out on a rush: “I think it was for me to stop you, because he might see that as a second chance — a chance to keep us from making ourselves as dirty as he was.” He took a deep breath. “We can’t do shit that makes us as bad as our enemies. That’s never what taichou would’ve wanted.”

Almost no motion had shown in Katsu’s figure during all of this, but at these last words he went so perfectly still it appeared he’d stopped breathing. Zanza knew from recent experience how very, very difficult it was to have your way of life and the attitudes behind it criticized in a manner you couldn’t ignore; the situations weren’t entirely the same, but he did have some idea what he was putting his friend through at this point.

‘His friend?’ Was that even true anymore?

“But, look…” He also knew, from that same recent experience, how important choice was in personal revolution. Sorely, wearily, sadly, he got slowly to his feet, watching nothing but Katsu even as he stepped toward the door. He sighed, and finally dragged his eyes away, directing them toward making his way through the dark room. “I didn’t touch anything. Your bombs are all still there, and nobody knows what you tried to do tonight.” He refrained from mentioning Saitou, unsure where they stood on this matter. “You can still go back another time if you want. I just… really… really hope you won’t.”

No word, not even a shifting of garments sounded from behind him, and in fact the only thing he heard was the echoing statement in his head, “There will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do.”

“I hope you find another way,” he said, and left the apartment.

Outside, he sighed again and turned his gaze upward. This wasn’t comfortable on his neck after having dozed however long against Katsu’s wall, but he nevertheless stared up at the moonless, spotted blackness for several long moments, seeking to calm himself. He might have been seeking something else as well, which he realized only when he directed a mental call into the sky: I did my best. What the outcome of his best might be he couldn’t guess, and he would be watching newspaper headlines anxiously for the next several days, but he doubted there was anything more he could have done. If Sagara-taichou had arranged this, it was time for him to take a hand again to nudge things along to their proper conclusion.

When Zanza’s eyes finally dropped from the stars, he found Saitou standing beside him. He started violently, and had to restrain himself from yelping; instead he hissed, “Dammit, stop startling me like that! You and Tokio both are so sneaky!”

Saitou’s smirk was more visible in the starlight than Katsu’s entire form had been inside the unlit apartment. “You asked me to meet you here.”

Slowly Zanza nodded, and began moving away from Katsu’s door so as to be able to speak at a more normal volume without risking the artist hearing them from inside. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had asked Saitou to meet him here; he supposed he’d entertained some hazy idea of the officer’s being useful if Katsu decided he wanted to run straight back to the Internal Affairs offices, but now, as uncertainly as everything had turned out, he knew neither what to do with himself nor what to request of Saitou.

The latter followed him across the street, then followed his constantly returning glance to Katsu’s door. “You think he’ll try again tonight?”

Zanza let out yet another sigh. “I’ve got no idea what he’s gonna do.” With a deep breath, trying to order his thoughts, he shook his head and forced himself to be more rational. “No. I don’t think he’ll try again tonight, at least. But I sure as hell don’t know about tomorrow night.”

It was probably nothing more than a trick of the shadows, but there seemed an unexpected amount of understanding in Saitou’s nod. “You made a number of excellent points, and told him what he needs to hear; all you can do now is stand back and wait for him to make his own decision.”

This was exactly what Zanza had been thinking inside, and coming from exactly the person most qualified to make the pronouncement with far more conviction than Zanza had been thinking it. It heartened him, but at the same time stood as a painful reminder of how much control he didn’t have over the situation, the potential loss of an important friend. Saitou couldn’t have felt precisely this way while waiting to see what effect his words would have on the backward mercenary that had come to attack him, yet he must understand to some extent what this was like for someone that had suggested a change that might after all never take place.

Saitou was leaning against the wall now, withdrawing a cigarette as if he had nothing better to do than stand here with Zanza in the dark discussing possibilities. And when he evidently observed the young man had no answer for his latest statement, he went on casually. “And you don’t do anything by halves, do you? You only just agreed to work with Tokio and me, but already you’re throwing around phrases like, ‘Don’t you think that’s worth preserving?'”

“I…” Zanza had to smile faintly at hearing himself quoted. “I didn’t even know what I was saying half the time. I was just trying to save him. If it sounded like I knew what I was talking about, I was putting on a really good show. I just… didn’t want to lose Katsu.”

“Do you think his plan has potential?” Saitou’s tone remained surprisingly conversational, something Zanza had heard almost none of from this source in the past.

“The more I thought about that, the less I believed it. That shit would only work if every little thing lined up just right, and maybe not even then.”

Saitou nodded sharply, exactly as Zanza had seen him do in a similarly dark street on a recent night during a very different discussion. It was, he thought, a nod of approval. “But you were tempted.”

Yeah.” The smile returned, now bittersweetly nostalgic. “You’re too old to know what it was like to be a useless kid during the Bakumatsu. The idea of really getting to fight this time sounded really good.”

Saitou shrugged. “You’re still a useless kid, though. Sano.”

Engrossed in formulating a response for the slander, he almost missed the cop’s deliberate use of his real name, but as soon as it caught up with him he stilled the words on the tip of his tongue. Despite its appendage to a needlessly insulting remark, he found he rather enjoyed being called that. “Yeah, that’s me… Sano…” A slow, thoughtful frown grew on his face and a slight shiver ran through him as he fully realized what Saitou was prompting him to let go of. “I guess I’m not really Zanza anymore, am I?”

“Aren’t you?” Saitou asked neutrally.

“Zanza…” Sano worked through this slowly, more for himself than for his listener. “Zanza would have gone along with Katsu, for one reason or another. Either just for fun, or because…” He shook his head, and his next words held increasing decisiveness. “Zanza was the reason I was tempted in the first place. Zanza was all about living in the past, and this–” he gestured across the street– “was all about the past: reviving the Sekihoutai, bringing back the war, sticking with an old friend… but Zanza was always just a bad way of coping; he was never really right about anything.”

And now, at last, Sano could give him up. As he put this into words for the first time, he felt a positivity, a surety, about his own actions and beliefs that he’d never been able to harbor before. He’d been certain of nothing tonight — or, indeed, since Katsu had presented his plan — except his desire not to lose his friend, but now all of a sudden he saw his path clearly and felt he could walk it with determination. There was no longer even a shred of temptation to go back to his life of meaningless fighting in order to escape the complications that currently plagued him. And this had taken place specifically because he’d been able to talk to Saitou about it; perhaps subconsciously, in response to those unexpectedly encouraging phrases the officer had granted him back at the office grounds, this had been the real reason he’d asked him to come here.

Saitou was nodding, the bobbing end of his cigarette bright in the darkness. “And maybe this whole plan was just your friend’s way of coping.”

Sano dragged his eyes back from where they’d wandered to the police officer as he considered yet again what a difference this man had made in his life, and turned them once more on the door deeply shadowed in its frame across from them. Would Katsu be able to let go the way Sano had? There simply was no telling at this time.

“Well,” said Saitou after what felt like an extremely long silence, throwing his spent cigarette to the ground and stepping on it as he stood straight, “no reason to keep waiting around here like a stray dog hoping for scraps.”

Wondering to what extent the circumstances did cause him to resemble that ignoble beast, Sano too pushed himself straight from where he’d wearily been leaning against the same wall Saitou had. “Yeah,” he agreed reluctantly. “And I guess if he does decide to try again…” But he didn’t know what he would do in that case.

“I’ll send warnings to all the government offices as soon as I get back to the station.”

“You won’t just arrest Katsu? Or…” Sano could barely bring himself to say it, but he remembered certain statements Saitou had made that he’d never been able to doubt. “…kill him?”

“Only if I have to,” replied Saitou steadily, and Sano appreciated his honesty even while deploring the idea. And then the officer turned to leave.

The former kenkaya found himself loath all of a sudden to part from Saitou after the events of the evening. It seemed his life’s metamorphosis that had begun during their second encounter had been completed tonight, and there was a sort of binding power to Saitou’s words, even the ones not strictly concerned with Sano’s state of being. It felt wrong — ungrateful, lonely, unthinkable — to let Saitou walk away. Besides, hadn’t he been reflecting earlier that he should probably spend some time with the guy and get to know him a little better?

And perhaps Saitou recognized this when, upon his taking the first step up the street, Sano immediately followed as if it were prearranged they would be going together. He glanced back at the younger man with a raised brow, at first asking a wordless question. Behind Sano the sky brightened, changing to a dark grey instead of black and gradually swallowing up the stars, and he was surprised to realize the night’s adventure had taken so long; but he was even more surprised when the growing light seemed to show a softening of Saitou’s facial expression before him, as if the officer truly did understand Sano’s present vulnerability and did not necessarily object.

Saitou turned fully to face him again instead of merely looking over his shoulder. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Yeah!” Sano replied, startled. He’d had no idea, but found he was.

“Come on.” Saitou gestured as he turned again. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”

Sano did not hesitate to fall into step beside him, but couldn’t help querying, “Is it a good idea for you and me to be seen together in public, though?”

“There’s a restaurant where the police often go,” Saitou assured him. “They’re very good at keeping quiet.”

“Then lead the way!” Sano restrained himself from throwing one last glance back at Katsu’s door, just continued to walk at Saitou’s side filled with an almost startling new feeling of satisfaction and confidence.

***

After Sano left, how much time passed with Katsu in exactly the same attitude, cross-legged on his futon staring down at his hands, he wasn’t sure; but he had the impression he’d been sitting in the dark far longer than this. In fact light had been the aberration; the periods of his life he hadn’t spent in the dark were vastly overshadowed by those he had.

The family into which he’d been adopted as a young child had given him a few advantages: among them, the beginnings of an interest in fine art in a setting where he was privileged to enjoy such things; a name he’d eventually discovered he could trade on, however he felt about it, and thereby obtain a somewhat better education than he otherwise could have; and a relatively safe haven when his birth parents had been executed for treason. What they hadn’t given him was any motive — based on loyalty, love, or an idea of what he ‘owed’ them — to stay with them once he discovered what had happened at his former home; any significant amount of respect for a class system that encourage the swapping of sons like trade goods, no matter the reasoning behind it; or any sense whatsoever of family. That sense had only come later, with Sagara Souzou and Sanosuke.

And now had he lost it all over again?

There was a certain feeling he often experienced at the completion of a long-running artistic project he’d granted a lot of concentration and energy: a bleakness, an emptiness, an ignorance of what to do next or even if he could do anything next or ever again. Of course he invariably recovered — especially if he had another project lined up — but the labor took a lot out of him, and, even when he approved the finished work, that depression of spirits at the closure of any such project sometimes made him wonder whether it was all worth it.

This was worse. In addition to those precise sensations, he felt crushed, defeated, that all his hopes and plans had meant nothing; he suffered the same lowness that came after he’d finalized some intricate painting weeks or months in the creation, but with no finished work to show for it.

He remembered lying awake with Sano far into the night, in their little tent adjacent to the captain’s or an alcove just off his bedroom when they weren’t on the march, talking about basically nothing — the trivia children discussed, meaningless and unremembered in its specifics but inestimably valuable in the bond it forged — then being chided good-naturedly by Sagara-taichou in the morning when they drooped over breakfast. Taichou always ate breakfast with them, even if official conversations had already started across that meal and even if he would soon be called away on other business. He always made that time. And thereafter, tired though they might be, Sano and Katsu would enjoy carrying out their duties — tasks within their skillsets assigned to them without condescension — because they knew they were valued members of the group.

Sagara, the man that had eaten with him regardless of what other responsibilities he might have, that had cared whether he was getting enough sleep, that had listened to what he had to say, that had allowed a couple of kids from two totally disparate classes to do what they were capable of in the fight for justice and equality, had walked out of his life one day in 1869 when he’d gone to Shimosuwa supposedly to try to clear up the ‘misunderstanding’ regarding the Sekihoutai but probably knowing very well he would never return.

And Sanosuke, the friend to whom Katsu had drawn so close, the tent-mate to whom he’d bared his young heart, his comrade in what arms they children had been allowed to take up, the only true brother he’d ever acknowledged, had walked back into his life just when Katsu had honed the biting memory of that time ten years ago to its sharpest point, one day in 1878… to do what? To refute his beliefs, thwart his schemes, destroy his vision of the future?

Or to rescue him from disaster?

Katsu didn’t know whether he felt he’d been stabbed in the back or snatched away at the last possible moment from a precipice whose edge he hadn’t realized was so near and whose height he hadn’t realized was so towering.

Not that Sanosuke had been absent from Katsu’s thoughts even before he’d returned. With the scattering of what remained of the Sekihoutai’s first regiment after Sagara’s execution, Katsu had entirely lost track of Sano physically, but never mentally. Having plunged back into that darkness of a life without family, without love, he’d clung all the more tenaciously to the distant memory of the father figure whose severed head he’d seen on public display and the brother he acutely hoped had survived. In a way, the plans he’d gradually been formulating and the bombs he’d eventually created had been every bit as much for Sano’s sake as they had been for Sagara’s.

And then Sano had shown up and declared he didn’t want any of it.

But this couldn’t be exclusively about what Sano wanted. Whether or not his friend had betrayed him, the issue was not merely Katsu’s will versus Sano’s. True, Katsu’s motivation in this matter had taken a severe blow at Sano’s declaration that he wouldn’t be accompanying him, but he’d felt strongly enough about the enterprise to proceed with it anyway. And he’d been utterly torn when Sano had appeared unexpectedly on the office grounds to try to stop him, but even the intense desire to comply with Sano’s wishes in some way — any way — in deference to their old attachment hadn’t been enough to drag him from what he intended to do.

A combination of his indecision and Sano’s physical strength, however, had been enough. And afterward — how long afterward he still couldn’t tell — his decisiveness had yet to return. Of course he could go back, try again, just as Sano had stated on his way out of the apartment, but his limbs felt stone-heavy; the faint light of stars and streetlamps through the shouji of his door was not enough to show his path clear, and he didn’t know what to do. But did this irresolution arise from to a desire to placate Sano now he had him back in his life (if he had him back in his life), or from fresh doubts about the entire business?

He felt as if he’d suffered a significant loss: not merely of the opportunity provided by a moonless and less-guarded night, but also of the burning drive that had powered the undertaking in the first place. Everything was in a shambles now, and he couldn’t decide, intellectually or emotionally, where he currently stood in relation to his former designs. Was he merely shaken by the events of the evening, by feelings and memories that naturally reached deep but that were, in the end, unrelated to this endeavor? Would he recover, regain that drive, feel secure again that he’d come up with the only viable option for enacting change, and head out once more with strength of spirit redoubled? Or had Sano’s words and actions — many of which had come across as less reasoned than blatantly desperate but all evidently hailing from an honest place — penetrated him more thoroughly than he recognized yet? Was he truly doubting his own convictions?

He’d hinted at a belief in Sagara-taichou’s supernatural supervision, and Sano had later stated the idea openly… but did Katsu truly have any faith in that phenomenon? He’d been so alone for so long… Surely more light would have shone into his empty life if his captain had been watching over him? And Sano too, the ‘Zanza’ Katsu had met after so many years apart, had, at least up until this very night, seemed so lost, so aimless… If Sagara Souzou was directing events on behalf of either of them, why had they both walked such tortuous paths through darkness? The one reasonable supposition was that Sagara had taken a ghostly hand in the proceedings only when that hand was most needed — that is, when Katsu had finally solidified his plans for sedition and violence. But had that interference been intended to bring Sano to him just at the right moment, as Katsu had believed, to assist… or, as Sano believed, to hinder? Each of them regarded the timing of their reunion as significant, and possibly ascribed it to the will of their dead commander, but each had assigned him a different motivation. Each was using the circumstance to support his own point of view.

Exactly as Katsu had been using the memory of Sagara-taichou’s political goals, the concept of ‘reviving the Sekihoutai,’ to further his own agenda?

It had hurt him so profoundly earlier to hear Sano talk about Sagara as having been dirty, as having committed wrongs even in the name of the righteousness he’d longed to achieve. Some part of Katsu was glad Sano had left him to his thoughts, because after that statement he wasn’t sure he was capable of a level-headed conversation with his friend. For the beloved companion of his youth, his brother, to malign a man that had been as good as a father to both of them had been more than Katsu could bear, even if Sano had gone on in practically the same breath to reaffirm the essential virtue of that man.

But Sano had once had a real father and an affectionate family, even if some careless impulse had driven him to run away from Nagano farm work and join the Sekihoutai, and perhaps — it stung even to consider, but seemed nonetheless rational — perhaps that allowed him a clearer view of the figure that had acted as surrogate during the war. Perhaps Katsu’s memories of Sagara were warped in a way Sano’s never would be by the fact that the Sekihoutai had been the only true family Katsu had ever known. And perhaps the whole bombing scheme had been an attempt, however strange and backward it might seem, to reconnect with that. Maybe Sano was right, and it wasn’t at all what Sagara-taichou would have wanted, whether or not the blinded Katsu could see that. If only Sano hadn’t cut so deeply in conveying the idea.

And yet… no matter how he felt about his old friend, the manner in which Sano had altered his course, or his goal of destroying the Internal Affairs offices… no matter how accurate Katsu’s picture of their captain was or wasn’t… it was undeniable that the vision Sagara-taichou had died for was not yet realized. The classism of the previous era, though technically abolished by law, was still tacitly upheld in the dealings of this fraudulent government. Criminals such as those that had betrayed the Sekihoutai to disgrace and death still ran unchecked and often even unrecognized, certainly unpunished by this imbalanced system. His specific drive might have faltered, but he still had a deep-rooted desire to fight against this corruption on behalf of Sagara and all of his fallen comrades. As he’d told Sanosuke earlier, those that had eyes open to the true state of things couldn’t simply do nothing.

He’d also told him the end sometimes justified the means. He’d told him war was the only way. Sano hoped he would find a different one, but Katsu couldn’t imagine what that might be.

Would the people of modern Japan respond to anything short of violence? Was there any better, more peaceful manner of righting the wrongs brought about by the Meiji, of inspiring the downtrodden to claim their rights without embroiling them in the weary horrors of another bloody conflict? Could anyone expose and begin to scrub away the grime of this era without getting it all over his own hands? And if such methods could be determined upon, would someone that had lived most of his life in a darkness without family, without love be capable of using them?

He found himself staring over at the lamp on his table. Light was such a simple thing, so easy to produce and maintain. He could strike a flame and set it to the wick and bring his room into much greater visibility and comprehensibility just as he’d done thousands of times before in preparation for going about his daily activities and working at the tasks that were important to him, the things that made his existence in some measure worth continuing. Yet he found, though unable to remove his unhappy eyes from the familiar implements that could so easily restore luminance to the space around him, that he simply didn’t know how.

***

Tokio had informed him in the past that he had a terrifying smile. While taking the statement with a grain of salt and assuming only certain smiles qualified in any case, Saitou nevertheless had good reason to believe it upon reaching the station that morning. Overt cheerfulness, after all, was no particularly striking characteristic of his, and might convince anyone his mood was homicidal rather than pleased and optimistic.

Imitating his wife’s behavior of a few days before as he entered his own office, he closed the door only imperfectly and leaned toward it to listen. And just as when Tokio had done this, what he overheard simultaneously amused and annoyed him.

“Holy shit, what’s his problem?”

“Didn’t look like a ‘problem‘ to me.”

“Well, he sent his butch woman off somewhere–” Of course this remark was Hino’s– “so he’s got some time free for his side piece.”

“Are you kidding? Any woman in her right mind would run like hell if a guy looked at her like that.”

“Maybe it’s a man, then?”

“A suicidal man!”

Nervous laughter.

Shaking his head, Saitou shut the door completely. Maybe indeed. It was remarkable how disrespectful otherwise fairly rational people felt free to be when the objects of their discussion were even minutely unorthodox in any way. He still would have enjoyed avenging himself and his wife — giving those officers something far more terrifying to consider him by than a smile — but when he wasn’t working directly with them, that would have been unprofessional, petty, and (most pertinently) ineffectual. Best just to get on with what he had to do today.

The latter, predictably, struck him as infinitely more boring than usual. At the same time, he seemed also to have a vastly improved ability to tolerate it, a greater strength for dealing with tedium, fueled by the memory of breakfast. If Zanza — if Sano had grasped exactly how much that simple meal had affected the man he’d eaten it with, he surely would have been taken aback. He might have reacted very much as the officers out in the station proper had, speculating inappropriately though probably not coming as unwittingly close to the real reason for Saitou’s good mood as those policemen.

Saitou hoped, however, and to a certain extent liked to believe Sano wouldn’t be nearly so stupidly offensive about it. Stupidly offensive about any number of things Saitou could easily picture the young man, but in this area, at least, probably not. Sano had demonstrated a decent level of respect for Tokio and her professional abilities so far, and she usually didn’t interest herself in anyone inclined to treat her (or refer to her) the way men like Hino-kun did.

Admittedly Sano had mentioned Tokio in Saitou’s presence only a handful of times, which contributed in no small degree to the frame of mind that so unsettled his co-workers. Though their discussion over breakfast had ranged from the personal to the occupational and back, Saitou’s wife and possible rival had barely been touched upon. That seemed a promising sign.

“Tokio claims she’s a really good cook.” Sano exhibited a preposterous and charming fluctuation of mood as he ate: every time his attention returned squarely to his food, he seemed immediately to experience an entirely pure and simple happiness based on its presence in front of him; but when his thoughts evidently moved toward anything else, his face would gradually darken — up until the moment he looked down and remembered his breakfast again, at which point he would grin slightly and shovel another bite into his mouth. He’d made his latest comment in the pleasant atmosphere, then started once more on the descent.

“She is,” Saitou replied, but did not elaborate; instead he spoke in response to the unpalatable reflections that obviously repeatedly returned to Sano’s stream of consciousness. “Are you still worrying about your friend?”

“I’m trying not to,” Sano sighed. “It won’t do any good, right? He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and me dwelling on it won’t change what he decides.”

“What’s bothering you, then?” Saitou asked bluntly, fully aware he might not get any kind of satisfactory answer. And when Sano glanced up at him sharply, his handsome face closed off, then visibly relaxed, Saitou’s curiosity might have been described as ‘desperate’ regarding what rapid thought process had prompted the young man to open up.

“Just thinking about the Sekihoutai… and taichou… and all that.” The smile Sano couldn’t seem to help as he somehow plucked another strip of pork, a head of broccoli, and three or four noodles all at once appeared incongruous with the statement he next made before stuffing everything between his teeth. “I said some awful shit to Katsu in there.”

“You said you didn’t know what you were saying half the time,” Saitou recalled. “Did you mean those things, or was it just something you were using to try to convince him?”

Sano swallowed half of his mouthful and talked through the rest. “I did mean it, and that’s what makes it so awful. It was the first time I ever admitted out loud that taichou wasn’t perfect, but I’ve known for years and years the Sekihoutai had all sorts of problems. Don’t get me wrong; the Ishin Shishi screwed them over and murdered a bunch of… well, not innocent guys, but innocent of what they accused them of: guys who maybe didn’t deserve to die. But there was some pillaging, and intimidation and shady deals trying to get recruits and a better position with the patriots. It mostly went over my head as a kid, but with what I heard afterwards and then looking back…” He shrugged unhappily, helplessly, then directed his gaze down at his food and smiled seemingly against his will yet again.

“While I was fighting all those years, I didn’t think about that much.” He began gathering together another massive bite. “I was proud of being the ‘evil’ survivor of the ‘false army,’ and I didn’t give a shit whether the Sekihoutai and Sagara-taichou really did some evil things. But now…” His next words came out muffled. “I don’t feel like I can ignore that real evil anymore. I’ve always worn the kanji to protest what happened to people I cared about, this label that got put on them unfairly… but now… maybe it’s more true than I ever wanted to admit it was. And I don’t know if I wanna claim that anymore.”

Saitou thought he understood. He still didn’t know why Sano had chosen to lay this dilemma before him — perhaps simply because he’d paid for such a substantial breakfast — but he was touched, every bit as happy as Sano seemed to be at finding food continually in front of him, that he had. And he considered himself uniquely suited to respond to these concerns. It wasn’t something he discussed with just anyone, but the fact that he wanted to be closer to Sano and was therefore willing to broach this subject only increased his suitability for the exchange.

Since he, unlike his companion, wasn’t given to talking with his mouth full, he swallowed his current bite before beginning. He also lowered his tone, though restraining himself from glancing around suspiciously at the few other early-morning restaurant patrons and staff. They really were tight-lipped here, and he’d trusted the setting with more secure information than this. “The Shinsengumi,” he said slowly and seriously, “has been called a lot of things by various parties since it dissolved. We’ve been painted as everything from the most honorable protectors of true nobility to a despicable band of treacherous thugs.”

Motionless, Sano stared at him, and as he did so a long noodle slithered from the grasp of the chopsticks that had paused on their way to his mouth and plopped back into his bowl. The look on his face was an interesting mixture of far-away consideration, grudging admiration, and what Saitou could almost describe as rote disapproval. Many people reacted thus to talk of the Shinsengumi these days. At last he said, in a tone expressing all of this, “To a lot of us you guys were the enemy. Larger than life. A lot of kids thought if they could just get to Kyoto and beat you, the war’d be won.”

Speculating that Sano himself might have been one of those kids, Saitou remarked, “Kids are ignorant like that.”

Sano snorted. “The point is, yeah, I get it — there’s been lots of talk about the Shinsengumi and what it was like as long as I can remember. Why?”

“The truth about us was a little of all that talk. There were the honorable and the noble among us, and there were the treacherous thugs. And there were honorable, noble men who sometimes descended into treachery and mindless violence.”

Slowly Sano nodded, finally chewing with his mouth closed as he evidently had nothing to say.

“My time in the Shinsengumi was integral to who I was then and who I am now.” He had reached the crux of his discourse. “But I don’t have to claim everything they were. I can retain my pride as a former captain while rejecting what I consider evil.” Even, he did not add, evil committed by his own hands under the Shinsengumi banner during a youth that had shaped him into a man that would look back on some of his former actions with regret.

Again Sano was staring, and by the arrangement of his features he clearly took the point. He couldn’t seem to decide how to respond, though, and sat in silence with without moving for several moments. Eventually, rather than acquiescing or offering thanks for this insight or acknowledging how unexpectedly private some of this exchange had been, he cleared his throat, returned his ostensible attention to his food, and shifted their focus. “You were always trying to fix shit in the Shinsengumi, though, weren’t you? I heard you were kinda the police back then too.”

“Something like that,” Saitou agreed, his tone lighter than before.

“And now you’re doing the same thing with the Meiji government.”

“The Meiji government is significantly bigger, though,” Saitou observed, sardonic.

“Yeah.” Sano gave a rueful laugh. “Still, it’s good you’re going after guys like… well, I already forgot his name… that politician who’s working with the Karashigumi.”

“Rokumeikan Hatsuo.”

“You know you kinda grind your teeth when you say that?” Sano wondered with apparent interest.

“Some politicians abuse their influence to provide themselves with money and luxury and social prestige,” Saitou replied — indeed, through gritted teeth — “which, while far from harmless, tends to be the least of the evils they can do. But Rokumeikan, in addition to that, seems to love power for its own sake. We can’t definitively prove any crime at this point, but it’s evident his every political decision is intended to flatter and appease his professional colleagues, and every deal he makes is aimed at gathering more influence in the Army Ministry. Needless to say, those decisions and those deals aren’t made in the best interest of the country or its people.”

“So why don’t you just take him out?” Sano wondered. “You could clean up the gangs afterwards?”

Saitou wondered if Sano could tell just how much he’d love to do exactly that, how his hand almost twitched toward the hilt of his sword every time this came up. It seemed wise to remind himself of the answer to the question even as he provided it for Sano. “Several reasons. Rokumeikan’s death will be a warning to anyone involved with him, and if these gangs he’s working with are still active at that time, their most important members may go into hiding and take greater care to avoid capture. It’s also more convenient when it comes to the case review — because I do have to answer for my actions — to have dealt with all aspects of the problem at the same time. Then, damaging or destroying his underground operations all at once may bring to light other organizations under his control that we’re not aware of yet. And of course it’s just sensible caution to remove his manpower in addition to him personally.”

“Well, that all makes sense.” Sano was picking the last morsels out of his bowl. “It doesn’t really answer my question, though. I mean,” he continued quickly before Saitou could demand how on earth he hadn’t been thorough enough with his reply, “all that’s really good stuff, and you’re right: it is sensible caution. But it’s not exactly immediate. Aku Soku Zan, right? You’ve got this freaky look like you could go out and stab someone right now. How can you stand to wait when you know what that bastard’s up to?”

He could tell, then. That pleased Saitou more than he was willing to show, especially since a smile would have seemed incongruous at the moment and he had no food-related glee to excuse it. So he just sighed a little as he replied, “This is the Meiji, and while things are fundamentally unchanged in what I do and what I believe, we’re no longer at war. Acting in haste or with undue passion would be foolish.”

“Shit, you’ve got more patience than I do,” marveled Sano.

Saitou restrained his smile no longer, though it had a disdainful twist to it now. “Of that I’ve been aware since our first meeting.”

“What?” Sano’s brows lowered over the tea he’d been slurping. “Why?”

“If you had any patience at all, you wouldn’t have been running around accusing people of treachery and attacking them without talking to them first.”

“Hah!” Sano set down his cup so firmly that tea sloshed over its edge onto his hand. As he wiped the latter on his pants, he added with a grin, “Like I would ever have talked to a jerk like you!” And his expression and tone made it plain he didn’t mind the idea nearly so much anymore.

“No, indeed,” Saitou agreed. “That would have been far too sensible for someone like you.”

Almost everything Sano ever said to him reiterated how headstrong and impetuous he was, yet Saitou liked him. And maybe those traits, annoy him though they might at times, were part of the foundation of his infatuation. Certainly Sano’s ability — a somewhat unexpected ability, but all the more delightful for that — to seriously consider issues of self and morality was part of why Saitou felt about him the way he did. He didn’t even mind, after that conversation, the thought of how weightily captivated he was and how this morning had only intensified the condition, despite how it threatened to distract him as he went about his work.

Tokio entered his office that evening, weary and dirty as usual after such an assignment, and gave neither report nor even greeting before soliciting news of last night’s events. In fact her hand hadn’t left the door handle yet when she demanded, “Well?”

Her presence could not exactly destroy his mood, but was somewhat irksome, and he found himself, in response to her insistence, perversely unwilling to tell her anything — as if last night were a secret he wanted to guard jealously from her, or as if while she’d been gone some new understanding had arisen between himself and Sano and he balked from welcoming her into it. That might well be the case, and in fact there was no actual need to describe breakfast, but hadn’t he decided he wouldn’t be competing with her? So with an effort he replied casually, “It went very well.”

What went well? What happened? Did you have to fight him again? Is he all right?”

With the beginnings of a smirk at her frustration, he leaned back in his chair and reached for his cigarettes. “He’s fine. I didn’t fight him.” As she rested a hand on his desk in a gesture more like pounding it down insistently than supporting her tired frame, he put a cigarette to his lips (which were therefore conveniently occupied for a few more moments) and lit it. Finally he finished his brief account. “He went to the Internal Affairs offices and talked Tsukioka out of his plan. I just watched.”

Tokio took a deep breath, standing straight again and letting the air back out in a sigh of relief. “He… talked him out of it…”

“At least for last night.”

“I thought the most he would manage was just not to go along with it. I didn’t think he was far enough along to actively oppose his friend.”

“It was more that he didn’t want Tsukioka to get himself killed.”

“He didn’t want to lose him,” she breathed, nodding. “Of course. That was the angle I should have tried all along.” She looked irritated all of a sudden. “We could have skipped that ‘enemies’ talk.”

Saitou laughed briefly, though he did sympathize: Tokio could almost always read, during the course of a conversation, what someone was feeling, and could often use that knowledge to extrapolate about their plans and spin the discussion in the direction she wanted in order, perhaps, to manipulate those plans. But no one was omniscient, and she knew it; her irritation faded as quickly as it had arisen. She was obviously far more relieved, anyway, that the potential disaster had been averted than hung up on what had passed.

“So what about Tsukioka?” she finally asked. “‘At least for last night?’ Is he likely to try again?”

“That’s what we’ve been wondering. Sano raised every point in the book to convince him his plan was foolish, but whether it was enough to shake Tsukioka out of his idealistic trance… we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“‘Sano?'” Tokio sounded nothing more than curious, but in her eyes that did not break from her husband’s was the light of epiphany. Usually he saw it shining there over dinner when she’d realized belatedly she could have made such-and-such to go with the fish or something equally trivial, but this time it was perhaps a little more detrimental. To what, Saitou wasn’t sure, but he feared maybe it had been a mistake to speak Sano’s newly resumed moniker. There was an edge to his wife’s expression that Tokio herself possibly wouldn’t have recognized if she’d seen it: a demand, a challenge.

And Saitou would not meet it. “That is his name.” He might inadvertently have thrown down a gauntlet, and she might have taken it up with dawning recognition, but he refused to acknowledge that.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice already absent as her gaze became guarded and pensive. “Yes, that’s what Tsukioka calls him.”

“Well.” Saitou deliberately changed the subject. “What do you have to report?”

“Yes,” Tokio said again, now seeming to shake herself in an attempt at focusing on the new topic. “That poor woman, whose name was Youko, was Rokumeikan’s resident plaything.” A deep crease appeared between her brows and her lip curled in disgust as she added, “I hate to use the word ‘mistress’ when he controlled her so completely, but to society… She was originally hired as a maid, though, and never really achieved the status a mistress would have. But when he transferred his attentions to some other mistress — this one a woman named Tajiru who lives elsewhere and only occasionally visits; Rokumeikan usually goes to her — Youko tried to run away. Obviously she, as the previous mistress, was afraid of retaliation from the new one.

“Everyone in the household — even Rokumeikan’s wife — knows about both Youko and Tajiru, and doesn’t think very highly of either of them. But since Youko was on the premises and Tajiru usually isn’t, the talk about Youko was much more vicious, as if it were her fault Rokumeikan pressured her into sleeping with him and then her fault she tried to escape the situation.” By now Tokio’s tone reflected the vehement bitterness only a woman deeply concerned for an abused fellow could feel; it was an intensity of emotion Saitou could only partially understand. “Some of them even laughed about Youko’s death. I don’t know if Tajiru really had anything to do with it, or whether Rokumeikan ordered Youko hunted down because she knew too much about what goes on in his household, but all his other servants knew exactly what had happened to her and didn’t seem to care much.”

“Animals,” Saitou muttered.

“To last any length of time working for someone like that…”

He pursed his lips in distaste similar, if perhaps not equal, to hers, and ground out what remained of his cigarette in the ash tray. “I’m going home,” he declared, rising. It was a little earlier in the evening than he usually did this, but he’d had no sleep last night and had only been slogging through paperwork today anyway.

“I’ll write up my report,” she replied, “and then…” The blank pensiveness returned briefly to her expression, but she snapped out of it fairly quickly and her eyes flicked over to him with a momentary touch of suspicion. “I’m going to go look for him.” There was just the briefest pause before the pronoun, as if she’d been considering greater specificity but perhaps hadn’t been able to decide which name to use — or simply didn’t want to think about names at the moment.

Saitou nodded; that was more or less what he’d expected. And as he left his office, feeling no obligation to return a goodnight for her silence, he wondered if things were actually going as well as he’d believed.

***

So… ‘Sano,’ was it?

She moved through the evening streets, silent and pensive, ignoring the traffic that diminished gradually at the coming of night and ignored even more thoroughly by it. With her self-contained movements and her dark hair and clothing, thoughts turned entirely inward with no inquisitive or aggressive edge to give her a discernible ki, she became, ironically, more thoroughly invisible than she could ever manage during a spying mission when on her guard and actively concentrating on not being seen or heard.

‘Sano?’

She must be a very great fool. She relied too much on manifest emotions and not nearly enough on the actions people took in response to those emotions. Usually this wasn’t a problem, because most people’s feelings were so readily legible… but every once in a while, when she met someone with a tighter-than-usual control over what they displayed, she had a tendency to forget there might be other ways to determine what someone was thinking and planning. And she interacted with Hajime far more often than ‘every once in a while,’ so it was a very foolish thing to forget.

Why had Hajime offered Zanza such a high wage for a task they could have assigned more cheaply to one of their regulars?

Why had Hajime fixed on Zanza at all to work with them on the Karashigumi business?

Why had Hajime aggravated Zanza with such seeming pointedness, such deliberation, very much like the grown-up version of a petty child that didn’t know how else to make sure someone’s attention remained firmly fixed on him?

Why did Hajime call him that name used by Zanza’s oldest friend?

The answer to these questions — a single, looming, all-encompassing answer — seemed painfully obvious to her now. But she’d had to be obtuse and delude herself into believing that since she couldn’t easily decipher what her husband might be feeling most of the time, she must be completely lost when it came to what was going through his head. As if she hadn’t known him for seven years. Damn.

What was she going to do about this?

She sighed. The answer to that question was precisely as obvious as the previous, and frustrated and distressed her precisely as much. Because there wasn’t anything to be done about this; this wasn’t a puzzle for which she was required to find a solution. Even if part of her absolutely believed it was.

Hajime hadn’t seen fit to reveal his simultaneous interest to her, undoubtedly because he could see perfectly well what was developing between his wife and the young man he had his eye on. After Tokio had made the first move and clearly captured Zanza’s attention, Hajime exhibited discretion entirely typical of him by keeping quiet — not to mention, most likely, a sense of loyalty equally typical of him in not making this a contest that might destroy his relationship with his best friend.

It was this sensibility on Hajime’s part, this unwillingness to drive a wedge between them by making his own overtures, that seemed to insist Tokio change her own behavior in response to what she’d learned today. And that was absurd. Of course she hated the thought of making light of his feelings, of hurting him or letting him be hurt, but it would be unreasonable to expect someone to give up something they’d been working for just because someone else wanted it. She didn’t think she was unselfish enough in any case to make such a sacrifice, even for Hajime.

And of course she was considering this in very finite, one-sided terms. She had no romantic understanding with Zanza, and they could veer from the path they were on at any time. She liked him, and wanted to see where that might lead, but she certainly wouldn’t claim at this point to be in love, and was fairly sure he felt the same. Things could change one way or another, and she did not plan on feeling guilty.

Well, it was too late for that: guilt had prompted all of these musings in the first place. But the end result was still that what she’d discovered didn’t and wouldn’t change anything.

It galled, though, and undoubtedly would for a while, that Hajime’s interest had so completely escaped her notice until today.

She found Zanza’s longhouse uninhabited — or at least no reply came to her knock and identification of self — and the combination of her desire to sit quietly thinking for a while and the feeling of eyes on her from somewhere in the near vicinity prompted her to let herself in to wait for him. The cheap, simple lock on his door gave her little trouble, and soon she was picking her way across the dark, dirty space beyond — empty just as she’d believed — looking for the most comfortable place to settle.

Having time to sit and think did nothing for her, since her reflections proved exactly identical to those she’d had on the way here, but she was glad to rest for a while with no surveillance to conduct and no potential enemies to avoid. And in fact she descended into something like a doze, having pushed her unreasonable guilt away as best she could, by the time, now fairly late, Zanza returned home.

The first warning she had of his arrival was not the sound of a key in the lock (though that came soon after); it was an unknown voice shouting across a certain distance outside, “Zanza! You fucking that police woman now?”

Zanza’s tone closer to the door was very jovial as he returned, “None of your goddamn business!”

“I can’t think of any other reason for her to be sneaking into your house at night,” called back the other voice proddingly.

There was the briefest pause before Zanza, still sounding very cheerful, repeated himself. “Still none of your goddamn business!”

And the neighbor, disappointed at his failure to get any gossip out of the kenkaya, replied with friendly surliness, “Aw, fuck you,” at least one syllable of which was partially drowned out by the sound of the door sliding open.

The dimly backlit Zanza scanned the room carefully before entering, though his gaze seemed to pass over where Tokio sat at least twice without any apparent slowing. When she chuckled at his inability to locate her, his head turned properly in her direction even as he closed the door and stepped up out of his shoes. “You’re still sneaky as hell,” he remarked. Then with an audible grin he added, “But not sneaky enough for that dumbass over there not to notice you.” He gestured over his shoulder, presumably indicating the nosy neighbor. “Is that safe?”

Tokio stood and stretched. “Actually, if people think we’re having an affair, that gives us a perfect excuse…” Never mind that she fully intended to have an affair with him if it worked out, rendering this far more than just an ‘excuse.’

Zanza made a thoughtful, amused sound as he moved to set down on the table whatever he was carrying, which by its sloshing clunk was probably a big jug of sake. This guess was confirmed when he lit a lamp thereafter, but Tokio was less interested in the alcohol than in the expression on Zanza’s face as he turned toward her: obviously very happy to see her, and not merely because he was operating in a general state of as-yet-unexplained jocundity at the moment.

They met for an enthusiastic hug in the middle of the room, and Zanza rocked her back and forth with a glee that couldn’t be stifled. “Not enemies!” he said with great satisfaction. He smelled like sake, smoke, and cheap food, and his gi needed washing, but she wasn’t significantly tidier, after her time sneaking around outside Rokumeikan’s enormous house, and didn’t let it bother her.

“No!” Though she shared his pleasure to some extent, she couldn’t help responding with a certain amount of annoyance and accusation, drawing back from the embrace far enough to look him in the face. “You had me worried half to death for the last couple of days; why that stupid ‘goodbye kiss’ if you weren’t planning…”

“Sorry,” he said a little sheepishly, releasing her and standing back a bit. He reached one hand up to scratch beneath his bandanna as he added, “I really hadn’t actually decided yet. I really didn’t know. It was a damn tough decision.”

“I know it was,” she said more gently.

He turned from her and went back to the jug he’d been carrying, which he used to fill an extremely battered copper pot he then set atop an undersized stove that looked as if it might fall apart and spill ashes all over the floor at any moment. As he lit this questionable device, Tokio came to sit nearby and listen to his latest statement. “I was just sure you’d show up at the Internal Affairs offices, and when it was only Saitou I was worried. I thought you must be so pissed at me you didn’t want to see me yourself, so you just sicced him on me and Katsu. Then he was really nice about it — actually surprised the shit out of me, how nice he was — so that was all right; but I forgot to ask him where you were, so when I thought about it afterwards I was still afraid you might be pissed at me.”

Tokio was disheartened for more than one reason. First, Zanza had believed her willing to ‘sic Hajime on him and Katsu’ even though he must be aware Hajime not infrequently killed wrongdoers; did he really believe her that vindictive when upset? Second, Hajime had been ‘really nice about it,’ to the point where Zanza had specifically noticed what struck him as unusual behavior; her husband might not have declared war on her in this field, but there couldn’t help being a certain amount of quiet competition between them regardless of whether or not they admitted what was going on… and Hajime had evidently scored a point. Third, though supposedly concerned about Tokio’s absence, Zanza had forgotten to ask the one person that knew where she was for an explanation. He’d certainly been happy and relieved to see her this evening and affirm they weren’t enemies, but had he actually cared as deeply as his words implied?

She intensely wished she’d been there last night.

But there was no reason for him not to know where she had been. So, while the sake warmed and Zanza peered into what cups he owned that weren’t too badly damaged to imagine drinking from to see if their level of cleanliness didn’t also disqualify them (and for most of them it did), she explained what Hajime had learned about the woman Youko that had sent her to spy yet again on a mansion on the edge of the city. “She was Rokumeikan’s mistress, however unwillingly, and she ran away when he started openly seeing someone else. It was either the new mistress or Rokumeikan himself who ordered her killed.”

Zanza shook his head in response to this unfortunate summary, and handed over the cup he’d eventually selected for her. He still seemed contradictorily upbeat, and evidently her brief story had contributed to that; it seemed she would have to wait a moment to pick up on why, though. “Saitou told me a little more about Rokumeikan, so I guess I’m not really surprised… What an asshole…”

And there he was mentioning Hajime again — in all innocence, yes, but no such reference could fail to discomfort her now she knew what she knew. It shed some light on Zanza’s mood, too: in part, she thought, he was pleased because she’d been so open with him about her relatively secret assignment; he’d obviously been pleased that Hajime had provided information about their current target as well. It seemed he was gratified to be a part of their work. That wasn’t everything, though — he’d already been tickled when he’d approached the apartment, before he’d even known she was here or any of this had been brought up — and she didn’t want to have to dig for the rest of the answer. So she asked, “What are you so cheerful about tonight?”

He glanced at her sidelong, as if finding the question a bit of a non sequitur but unable to deny the truth of her words. And indeed his cheer sounded in his tone, gradually increasing, as he answered, despite the seriousness of his response. “After last night and this morning, I really felt like I wanted to get to work on something that would help make shit better.”

Tokio wondered about the distinction between last night and this morning, but did not interrupt.

“I couldn’t do anything that Katsu thinks is gonna help, even if I wanted to, but I figured there was something I could do. So after I got some sleep, I headed right into Karashi territory. Saitou’s right: they are all about gambling. I just spent the last three hours being really visible rolling dice like I didn’t give a shit about what I lost.”

He’d mentioned her husband again, without even any annoyance in remembering how insulting Hajime had been when he’d brought up the nature of the Karashigumi. Did that matter? In any case Tokio speculated, “But you didn’t lose.”

The smile he’d been trying to restrain, in light of his lightheartedness seeming inappropriate just after having discussed the sufferings of a murder victim, now blossomed into a full grin. “Nope! The guy I was playing with ran completely out of money, so he had to wager his sake–” Zanza gestured at the jug on the table– “and obviously he lost that too, so he damn well won’t forget me anytime soon… and even if he wasn’t Karashi himself — seriously I fucking cannot remember what their tattoo looks like — I’m pretty sure at least a few of the other guys in the place were. So that’s a good start, right?”

Suspecting the sake in question would soon be rather too warm with only the inattentive Zanza keeping an eye on it, Tokio removed the pot from the stove and poured herself an experimental dribble. A quick sip having demonstrated the need for another minute or so, she replaced it and turned back to the young man that had taken a seat at her side. “It starts out on the upper arm with black and white bands and flower petals,” she said.

“Yeah.” Zanza followed the gesture she made with one finger along her own arm. “That does sound right.”

“Hajime and I have researched them quite a bit lately — in fact when I talked to him earlier, he was up to his elbows in all the reports we’ve collected about them — so if you need to know anything else specific…” And there she was talking about Hajime. But she and Zanza both worked with him, for god’s sake… she couldn’t keep taking special note of every single time he came up in conversation between them.

“He was busy with reports all day even after being out all night with me, huh?” Zanza shook his head. “I wonder if he got any sleep.”

This she could take special note of, not that there was anything to be done about it. “We’ve already established he’s a workaholic,” she sighed. Though it might be still a little too early, she reached for the sake again in order to give her hands something to do, and changed the subject. “Did you see any of that tattoo at the gambling hall?”

“I think so.” He held out his cup so she could pour for him, then added at a grumble, “Upper arm’s a stupid place to start a design; it’s usually gonna be covered up, depending on what you wear, and by the time you get enough added on so it’s down to your wrist and people can actually see it, you’re already such a big shot in the gang that people’ll recognize your face anyway.”

“Yakuza aren’t known for their practical social customs.”

He snorted, and for a while they drank in silence. He still seemed pleased with himself, and with this attitude Tokio was equally pleased. She didn’t know exactly what had been said last night (‘and this morning?’), but obviously not only had Tsukioka been at least somewhat convinced, Zanza too had taken away from the experience a greater resolve than she’d seen in him prior to it. It was good to find him so eager for this work, regardless of how that had come about.

The sake was cheap and not of the highest quality, and Tokio tired of it sooner than Zanza, who continued to drink and refill while she sat mulling over what remained of her second cup. But what the acquisition represented was more important than how it tasted, so it was safe to say she was enjoying it nonetheless. And when he next spoke, she believed there couldn’t be much left in the copper pot in any case.

“So you’re really not mad at me?” He gave her another sidelong look, and she thought she knew why he was asking.

“I was more worried than angry. I could tell how much you were tempted.”

“Could you? ‘Cause I was really tempted.” Zanza went to pour himself a final cup, but made a disappointed sound at the bare few drops that emerged. He had long since poked out the stove fire, and, most likely, that last trickle wasn’t even warm anymore.

“Have mine,” Tokio offered, handing it over. Zanza set his cup down on the nearby table and accepted hers. She went on, “And maybe I couldn’t tell exactly how much you were tempted, but…”

“Did you think I’d go through with it?”

With a slight frown Tokio shook her head. “I didn’t know. No matter how much I analyzed everything you’d said…”

“That’s because I didn’t know yet.”

“Mmm.” She felt she should have known, even so. She should have been better attuned to him. There were a couple of different things she should have known recently, in fact, about men she was supposedly close to.

“So we were worried about each other all weekend for nothing.” Zanza still looked incongruously cheerful as he set down her empty cup beside his.

She had to smile at his demeanor, and though she was serious as she remarked, “If you call everything that’s happened ‘nothing…'” she said it more lightly than she otherwise might have.

He moved closer to her, and pointedly put an arm around her shoulders. “Yeah, you’re probably right. We still don’t know what Katsu’s gonna decide to do, and it’s terrible about that poor woman, and Rokumeikan’s a dick. But…” He turned his face, now very close, toward her. “You and me are good, right?”

Right.

It wasn’t like the uncomfortable kiss he’d given her the other day when she’d left fearing they might be enemies, but much more like the reassuring, playful ones they’d shared on the pier. She enjoyed it very much, but it immediately brought back the guilt she’d sworn she wouldn’t entertain.

Throughout Zanza’s discourse this evening, it had become clear — subtly but plainly to someone listening for it — that he considered Hajime much more a comrade now than he had before. That was probably where the ‘Sano’ had come from: last night’s events had changed Zanza’s feelings toward Hajime, if only ever so slightly, and Hajime had taken encouragement from the interaction. Of course Zanza had no idea he had shored up the romantic ambitions of the man that had stabbed him in the shoulder, or he would have conducted himself very differently tonight… but that encouragement had obviously been given, and Hajime — who, Tokio recalled, had also seemed to be in an unusual mood, as far as she could tell, when she’d spoken to him at the station — believed he had more of a chance now. And Tokio was forced to revisit her earlier question: What was she going to do about this?

But as she enjoyed the taste of sake in Zanza’s mouth more than she had in her own cup, enjoyed the feeling of his lips working against hers and his arm drawing her near, she came to the conclusion that the answer was also the same as earlier.

Whether she pushed him or he pulled her or both, or whether it was solely his tipsy lack of equilibrium, they were suddenly on the floor, she squirming into a better position on top of him and their hands busier than they had been all night (not excluding Zanza’s three hours of gambling). And whether it was Zanza’s foot or Tokio’s elbow, or an impossible gust of wind through the suddenly warm room, the little table beside them was shaken hard enough to put out the lamp that had been their only source of light. And in the resultant darkness, any number of things could happen, Hajime entirely notwithstanding.

She simply refused to feel guilty about this.

Section 5

The hour was far too early for his eyelids to remain so stubbornly raised, and, given that all he could see anyway was a mass of shining black hair he would truly rather not look at, he had multiple good reasons to try to keep them shut… but he couldn’t. So he shifted onto his back, away from the accusatorily beautiful hair and the curve of a fine cheek visible through it, and tried to focus instead on the pale beginnings of dawn that gradually filled his apartment.

His next motion was to pillow bare arms beneath his head to facilitate his pointless gaze up at the shadowed, dusty ceiling, before he realized that so much movement might leave him not the only person prematurely awake and he wasn’t ready for that. He resisted the urge to turn and look at her again, simultaneously stifling a sigh. In addition to his inability to continue sleeping, he also couldn’t get comfortable, but he needed to lie still and avoid waking her. Too bad the thoughts in his head seemed to be bellowing.

He’d enjoyed it, of course; he always enjoyed sex. But he couldn’t deny that it hadn’t been… well, it hadn’t really been satisfying, and not necessarily in a physical sense. He didn’t want to postulate something wrong with Tokio any more than something wrong with himself, but this encounter simply hadn’t been enough for him. In fact the memory of last night suggested he’d lost interest fairly early and gone along from there solely for her sake. And while he didn’t believe he’d performed poorly, such perfunctory attention to such crucial business was something he couldn’t recall ever having given before… and it seemed tactless, perhaps even disrespectful. That wasn’t why his conscience was bristling, though. It wasn’t about whether his body had taken pleasure from it, or even whether hers had; it was that he’d done it at all.

But why should he feel guilty about that? Sleeping with Tokio had been a normal progression after flirting with her and kissing her, right? Sex was something people did… desire for it was a normal instinct… Sano was as red-blooded as anyone else he knew, and had indulged in sex ever since he’d been old enough…

No. Zanza had indulged. To him sex had been merely another tool, another physically distracting activity he could use to forget his past, erase his pain, even alleviate his boredom. Just another game, a pursuit as meaningless as his mercenary work had always been. And here Sano was playing that game again after he’d supposedly renounced that kind of sport and started living his life seriously. He knew he wasn’t serious about Tokio — he’d known it last night — and yet he’d done it anyway: played with her as he’d done with others in the past; taken advantage of her for some kind of quick, distracting thrill; forgotten himself as he used to do and brought her with him. How was he going to tell her it couldn’t happen again? How did you confess to something like that? How was he supposed to work with her after this?

Course I’d think of all this after He’d been so pleased with himself last night, caught up in the progress he’d made and excited to share it with her, not to mention overwhelmingly relieved at finding her still his friend, and consequently full of fondness toward her… but that was no excuse for impetuosity that might prove to have hurt them both. Great mess I’m in now…

During this reverie, he’d turned onto his side again, away from her now and facing a haphazard clutter of blue, black, and white across his floor; as he stifled another sigh his eyes abruptly focused and began to range over clothing and wraps until they came to rest on a certain kanji that had somehow draped itself over the edge of the table to stare at him in stark condemnation. He grimaced. He really did feel like a villain.

She stirred beside him. His attempts not to bother her had been negligent, and it made sense she would be a light sleeper. How to interpret the apparent casualness and unconcern of her movements as she stretched languidly and sat up, he did not know.

“Ohayou,” she said. Either she knew he’d awakened before her, or she wanted him to awaken now. She didn’t reach out to touch him, to shake or alert him or to explore his body further than she’d done last night; but as she drew her legs up one of them brushed in a whisper of smooth skin against Sano’s right buttock under the blanket beside her, and it was an effort for him not to jerk away as if burned. He certainly mimicked her motion of sitting up abruptly enough, and his return good morning came out hoarsely.

For a moment they stared at each other, and Sano reflected what a shame it was that he couldn’t be serious about her. She was fun to be with, very convenient in his current situation, and sure as hell beautiful. This was the first time he’d seen her hair free of its bun, and, sitting there with it spilling down over pale shoulders past the line of a cute uniform tan and across nicely rounded bare breasts, she looked good enough to eat. For someone else, anyway. Sano, at the moment, would rather turn and run, faint residual stirrings in his lower body notwithstanding.

Her smile had changed as they examined each other, but Sano didn’t understand the new version any better than he had the old. She leaned back on her hands and crossed her legs, disarraying the blanket atop her. “I’d volunteer to make tea, but I’m almost afraid to touch your stove. It looks like it might fall apart and set the apartment on fire.”

Glad of an excuse to direct his attention away from her at the device in question, Sano protested, “You saw me use it just last night!” Not that he really wanted to bring up last night, and not that this attempt at naturality succeeded in any way.

“Every use could be its last,” she intoned.

Sano tried to laugh, but this too sounded far from genuine.

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Tokio sighed, “before we plunge into our serious discussion.”

Sano winced. He hadn’t meant to look like he wanted one, nor believed he’d betrayed his subject of reflection in any way. “What serious discussion?”

Her expression, as he swiveled back toward her, became a little sad even if her tone was still light as she replied, “The one we’re about to have.”

Sano nodded, attempting to return the smile but having more success returning the sigh. He should have known he couldn’t hide anything from a spy — especially one he’d slept with — but he’d been hoping for a little more time to figure out how to tell her he regretted what they’d done and didn’t want to do it again. Of course, she probably already knew… Two people didn’t start the morning after sex with a ‘serious discussion’ except to make a momentous change in their relationship — and as Sano obviously wasn’t planning on proposing marriage to her, she must be aware that any such discussion between them entailed a breakup of sorts. The problem wasn’t really how to tell her, but how much to tell her. He took a deep breath. “The thing is…”

She used the hesitant interval in his words to protest. “You’ve got to stop looking so guilty. We’re both thinking the same thing, so…”

“Are we?”

“That this was a mistake we shouldn’t repeat? I believe so.”

“Yeah…” He managed a weak smile this time, of relief perhaps but more of bewilderment. It hadn’t crossed his mind that she might have reached the same conclusion he had — and what an arrogant little shit it marked him as that he’d never even considered she might regret sleeping with him. This only added to how unfairly he thought he’d treated her, and he began again, “I’m sorry–“

“No apologizing either,” she cut him off, shaking a finger. “If we haven’t done right by each other… well, it’s in the past now.”

In what manner she could possibly think she’d wronged him lay beyond his ability to guess, but perhaps she was as reluctant to confess it as he was to put his own earlier thoughts into words. Still, he couldn’t keep from asking a bit helplessly, “What’s left to say, then?”

She pondered, crossing her legs and leaning her chin on her hand. He stared at the faint line between her eyebrows rather than any other point on her naked body. “How about this: I’ll say what I think, and you see if you have anything to add. If we haven’t worked this out by then…” A shrug seemed to finish with something to the effect of, “I don’t really know what we’ll do then.” Sano didn’t know either, but thought her proposed plan was probably for the best, and said so. And with a deep breath of her own Tokio began.

“I think,” she said slowly, “you’re a great guy. I’m glad I met you, and I’m looking forward to working with you. I think we’ll continue to get along very well. I’m glad we didn’t have to become enemies; I’m glad we’re still friends.” She looked him squarely in the eye. “And if it took sex to make us see what kind of friends we’re supposed to be, and what kind we’re not… I’m not going to regret it.” Her lips spread into a self-deprecating smile. “No, I’m already regretting it… but as an experience that’s in the past that we can both learn from…”

Contradictorily with a certain amount of effort, Sano finally relaxed. While Tokio’s description of the situation did not meet with the full approval of his conscience, it was plausible and he was more than willing to go along with it for the sake of preserving the friendship she’d mentioned. She hadn’t explained her compunctions about last night, nor her comment earlier that suggested she thought she’d done him wrong, but neither did she need to know the sordid details of his thought processes. At last, more easily than he’d said anything this morning, Sano allowed, “Well, I agree with you.” He almost wished he did have something to add, if only to prove how seriously he was taking this, but still found himself floundering in guilt and uncertainty and a desire not to tell her how much and how senselessly he felt he’d used her.

She raised an eyebrow. “You agree that you’re a great guy?”

“You sound like Saitou,” he snorted.

“Hn,” she replied. Then less facetiously, “So we’re not going to hate each other over this?” And despite having been the one to set everything right between them, to come up with the excuse that would prevent them from hating each other, a kind of nervous supplication flickered for a moment — only one moment — in her eyes as she asked this. As by pure luck alone he caught the expression, Sano reflected that in addition to having reached the same conclusion about the night’s events and their relationship, she might be experiencing emotions similar to his own on the subject. Perhaps she felt like a villain as well. And he wondered if she bought the ‘if it took sex’ speech any more than he did, or if it would simply become their standing silent agreement to leave it at that.

“Course not,” he said, struggling hard for a real smile at last if only to reassure her, as well as himself, that his words were true. And they had to be. He would make certain they were even if he had to work every moment for the rest of his life not to hate Tokio. How to go about repairing a mistake of this sort remained a mystery on the whole, but he could begin by ensuring it didn’t get in the way of their immediate happiness. He could only hope he’d be successful at deliberately holding together a friendship marred by a poor decision when that was something he’d never done before or even considered. At least he knew he could count on her help.

“Good.” It was her usual cheerfully brusque tone once again. Unashamed of her nakedness, she pushed the blanket away, rose, and began to pick her clothing from among his off the floor. “You should make tea.”

Sano figured she was right: not belaboring the issue was probably the best way to move past it, at least while they were still in the same room together. “You don’t think it’s going to burn the apartment down when I touch it?”

“There’s always the chance,” she admitted regretfully.

Determined not to make tea in the nude, Sano reached for his pants. “Besides, don’t you need to get to work?”

“Yes, I have things to do — and so do you.” Finished with her undergarments, she was pulling a black shirt over her head with her back turned to him. “But there’s nothing wrong with starting the day out right.”

Sano laughed, but didn’t comment that they were off on the wrong foot — or would it be the wrong side of the futon? — already in that case. Half clothed, he looked around to see if he even had any tea, or anything to go with it; he was hungry.

Their brief and meager breakfast was a struggle, he guessed, for both of them, but a necessary one. Whatever degree of awkwardness they parted in now would undoubtedly multiply for their next meeting. Better to force themselves to stay friendly and casual and discuss things that remained common between them as if nothing untoward had happened. At least that was how he saw it, and the fact that she stayed for half an hour chatting about work over weak tea seemed to indicate she agreed. Still, he experienced unabashed relief when she finally made to depart.

“I’ll talk to you later,” she was saying as she moved to the entry to put her shoes on.

“Yeah,” he nodded, following like a good host.

“Do me a friendly favor?” she asked, looking up at him.

“Sure.” He paused in the act of reaching out to open the door for her.

“Kiss me.”

He shook his head in a mixture of amusement and admiration at her cheek. “Shameless woman.”

Now who sounds like Hajime?”

“Fine,” he laughed, and kissed her one last time. He couldn’t help feeling as he pulled away that there was something unhappy in her eyes. It probably mirrored his own, but whether this was sadness that they weren’t meant for each other or guilt neither could completely overcome, he couldn’t tell. Things wouldn’t be entirely smooth between them for a while; that much was obvious.

“Bye,” she said softly, pulling the door open on her own.

“See ya,” he replied, equally quiet, watching as she stepped briskly away. After a moment she looked back at him. She didn’t turn, only glanced over her shoulder; it reminded him of when Saitou done exactly the same just yesterday. But all Tokio did was wave and move off again.

He returned the gesture, though it felt empty and she wouldn’t see it in any case, and closed the door on the sight of her receding figure. Then he slumped back through his room, absently straightening up for no reason other than needing something to do with his hands. Finally he sat down on the rumpled futon and lay back, arms behind his head and feet propped up on the table, and stared again at the ceiling.

Everything had happened so quickly — how they’d started down an unwise path last night and how they’d left it just now — that he felt a little dazed. And when he thought about it, he hadn’t really known Tokio very long in the first place, so even in relationship terms it at all been hasty. Maybe he’d purposely rushed things. Why he might have done so he didn’t know, but something had caused him to race ahead in his progress with Tokio. He’d never thought of himself as particularly desperate for sex — which only made him feel worse for having slept with her — so why had he done it? Was it simply what he’d been labeling it before — a leftover dalliance of Zanza’s — or was there some other reason he hadn’t yet recognized? Some craving for companionship, perhaps a result of recent events and actually having more to do with his new life than his old, that had led him to seek the only kind of closeness he knew he could rely on at this point? He couldn’t be sure.

What he was sure of was that nothing like this could be allowed to happen again. Somberly he made a vow to himself: Next time I fuck someone, I’m not gonna have to ask myself all these questions about it; there’ll be a damn good reason for it, or I won’t do it at all.

As this almost ritual moment of silent oath-taking passed, he gave the ceiling a grin both rueful and bitter in addition to slightly amused. It was funny, he thought, how much thinking he’d been doing since he’d met that woman. Actually it had mostly started with Saitou, hadn’t it? Lots of thinking in general lately, then. And he wasn’t entirely certain how much he liked it.

***

Tokio counted out coins to the solicitous attendant, and with a murmured thanks allowed herself to be directed into the dressing room. Steam welled up around her in a sudden rush as the door opened, and, hands stilling briefly on her jacket lapels, she closed her eyes and breathed in the good scents of wet tile and soap. She was glad she’d had some money on her. She’d already stopped by an herbalist she probably patronized far more often than most ‘respectable’ women did to purchase a certain technically illegal but very convenient concoction… but primarily she was simply relieved she didn’t have to meet Hajime today before taking a bath.

As she began, pensive and frowning, to undress, she anticipated with no great pleasure the moment when she would meet Hajime, an event that could not be put off for any reason so petty as social awkwardness. In fact she looked forward less to encountering him than she did to talking to Zanza again, since one ‘morning after’ conversation had already taken place, whereas the other… the other she didn’t even quite know how she would deal with.

There was some irony here that brought a faint, bitter smile to her face. Typically a woman’s thoughts regarding her husband after sleeping with another man would be very different than this, and her current reflections might have surprised anyone to whom she happened to relate them. Not that there was anyone to whom she would; she didn’t lack friends, but none of them besides Hajime himself were close enough, sufficiently privy to the details of her unusual life to share such personal affairs with. And how much she could possibly share of this with Hajime was a matter of very doubtful question.

What she’d told herself yesterday remained true: she didn’t owe it to him to give up on something she wanted just because he’d developed an interest in it (without offering any indication thereof, she might add). It represented neither betrayal of friendship nor dishonorable conduct to continue down a path she’d already started walking even having inadvertently discovered her husband would prefer to be the only one moving toward her destination. So far she was in the clear.

The combination of her new awareness of Hajime’s interest, on the other hand, with everything that had come to light last night and this morning made her feel she hadn’t treated either him or Zanza properly.

Three other women, one with a chubby child to soap up along with herself, occupied the washing area, and it appeared at least three more sat in the tub. Tokio took one of the last few stools, determined to scrub as slowly as possible in the hope that some of the soakers might leave and she wouldn’t be forced to share the space with seven other, probably socially inclined people. She didn’t have all day, but she also thought spending a little extra time in here to secure peace of mind would be well worth it.

One aspect of last night’s experience had been totally new to her: her partner’s heart hadn’t been in. Which is not to say she’d never had lackluster sex, that no previous lover had ever been tired or preoccupied… but she couldn’t recall ever having gone into a sexual encounter with someone so seemingly eager at first who had then pretty clearly lost interest the way Zanza had. In a way she was almost grateful for the circumstance, as its uniqueness was opening her eyes about her own condition as nothing in the past had ever done.

Excluding Hajime, most men treated her very poorly. At best they interacted with her the way they did with other women — that is, as if she were some kind of extra-intelligent animal that, while it could provide certain services, needed a lot of looking after and was (and must remain) gratefully subservient. The worst examples treated her like a criminal, a personal affront, something heinous and disgusting that needed to be trampled down on a regular basis to keep it in its place. There were very few exceptions. She’d always had to fight simply to be allowed to exist as she was in society; she’d become so accustomed to it by now that she often gave it very little thought. And she hadn’t considered, until today, exactly how deep this necessary rebellion ran, exactly how specific and personal some of her efforts were at getting the men in her life to take her seriously.

She scrubbed with only a very average level of force, but prolonged repetition was turning her skin red; yet she continued, as if with the motion she might rid herself of the guilt and the confusion and the… and the unexpected unhappiness that welled up inside her at her own thoughts. Even though she couldn’t actually wash away what she felt, action was still better than non-action.

Her last lover, Noriyuki, was a fellow police officer. She’d only slept with him a handful of times before discovering that, though he’d given an impression of respecting her abilities and ambitions, he expected without even asking that, once they became physically intimate, she would, if not actually divorce her existing husband, at the very least ‘settle down’ with Noriyuki, abandon her police career, and start having his babies. His inflexibility on this point — indeed, his frank skepticism at her unwillingness — probably should not have come as such a surprise to her; perhaps she’d been too optimistic. But the sex — the very act that had ushered them toward the end of their relationship — had been passionate and enjoyable while it had lasted.

The man before that, Taku, a rare uncorrupted government secretary met during the course of work, had made specific verbal claims to understand and support Tokio’s life choices; yet it had become obvious over time that, at least subconsciously, he, like Noriyuki, believed her government employment to be nothing more than transitory, that domesticity and perhaps even motherhood must be her actual ultimate goal. That relationship had suffered no serious change at the introduction of sex, so they’d had quite a bit of it, but it had necessarily eventually ended.

Prior to that, Iwashiro the struggling poet had always immortalized in verse such traits as her trim figure, charming laugh, or sparkling eyes, writing nothing of her mental or spiritual characteristics or professional accomplishments. He would listen largely in silence to her description of her day, having nothing to add despite his eloquence, then praise her cooking and wander off to get back to his own work. The sex had been pretty fun, though.

She didn’t want to go any further back in her memory. The latest four were more than enough to tell her what she needed to know: that she’d developed a habit of using sex not nearly so often for connecting with someone she cared about, or even merely a physically enjoyable pastime, as for a method of proving herself to her partner. It had long been an indicator not only of her unwillingness to lie quiescent and allow a man to take charge of the proceedings in any part of her life, but of a demonstrable talent not nearly so easily dismissed by someone close to her as the one she had for police work and spying. She hadn’t recognized that she did this until now, until she’d had an encounter during which her partner hadn’t paid her the attention she was accustomed to, had remained largely unengaged and unimpressed.

And this was shameful, disgraceful. Whatever a sexual encounter should mean to the people involved, it wasn’t this. It made sense, perhaps, that she had developed this habit, but just because she’d been treated poorly didn’t mean she should behave poorly in response. And given that sex was one of the few things, in the minds of the backward men of her culture, women were allowed to be good for (if not necessarily good at), aggressively proving she was skilled in that area seemed likely to do her — and other women — no real favors.

She rinsed away soap and shampoo at last with an almost vicious application of fresh, cool water that smarted against the flesh she’d rubbed raw. The number of ladies in the tub hadn’t decreased as she’d hoped, and they were over there chatting in a manner she would usually have considered pleasant about their lives, their children and husbands. She might as well join them rather than waiting any longer. None of them had a life like Tokio’s, though; none of them had a husband like Hajime.

And this brought her back to the one man that invariably treated her like a fellow professional and an intelligent being, yet with whom she not infrequently, if only subconsciously and probably merely because he was the closest man to her at any given moment, set herself up in competition. Had there been some of that last night? Had she, with the stone she’d used to ‘prove herself’ to Zanza, also killed the bird of scoring a point against Hajime in an undeclared and entirely inappropriate contest?

In the time she’d known him, which was about four months longer than she’d been married to him, she’d seen Hajime take interest in exactly two different men, not counting Zanza. He was picky and demanding — neither of the two had been with him long — and eclectic in his tastes — they’d been totally dissimilar, and Zanza was as different from them as they from each other. Not that either had been unpleasant… they simply hadn’t been what she might have expected Hajime to appreciate. And neither was Zanza. She’d given up trying to understand it. She only knew that, when Hajime did like someone, the entire impressive strength of his tenacious nature came to bear, and he didn’t give up until having it incontrovertibly demonstrated that being or remaining together with the man in question was impossible for whatever reason. Someone as passionate as Hajime (as Hajime often pretended not to be but unquestionably was) could easily get his heart broken that way, so it was probably for the best that he took such interest in others so infrequently.

She knew all of this, yet had brushed it carelessly aside, and for what? For a night of unwisely demonstrating some ephemeral superiority in some area to someone she’d specifically admitted she didn’t love. She had no moral objection to sex without love or commitment, and normally would not even have taken this point into consideration, but here was where that combination of circumstances she’d been thinking of earlier came into play.

Love, or even merely the desire to form a fulfilling physical arrangement, would have been sufficient reason to disregard Hajime’s interest in Zanza; or, if she hadn’t been aware of that interest, embarking on sex with Zanza with foolish, selfish motivations would have been as bad as in her previous relationships but ultimately harmless — even educational when Zanza, by losing interest, helped her understand her own heart at last and then (thank god!) seemed both unhurt by her behavior and disinterested in continuing the farce.

But having done what she’d done for the reason she had while knowing what she’d known, she had acted wrongly by each of her friends. And she felt wretched about it now.

And where in all of this she should place the question of how she might go about developing a real relationship with a man, having sex with someone for real reasons and never feeling the need either to prove herself or to compete with him, she couldn’t begin to guess. She didn’t have to be with someone… yet she almost constantly was. It was a stroke of luck, really — good or bad she didn’t know — that Zanza had caught her between other men at all; they came into her life like clockwork. But somehow it never answered. Was there anyone out there that was right for her, with whom she could have a fulfilling romance without all this inappropriate and destructive emotional and social fencing? And did the problem perhaps lie with her just as much as with the men around her? She didn’t know.

Not entirely to her surprise, though she had been a little perverse about it, relaxing in hot water alongside other women with troubles of their own — regardless of how simplistic some of those troubles might be in comparison with Tokio’s — calmed and comforted her. True, she couldn’t open up to them (and probably wouldn’t have been able to even had they been more than complete strangers), but there was a supportive, comradely feeling simply to having them there and to the pleasantness and welcome in their conversation. Then too it relieved her to concentrate a little less for a while on the tangle her own interactions with men had become.

Eventually, though, she could postpone no longer her departure and inevitable getting back to work. It was time to dress, leave this soothing ambience, and face her husband. He would probably have her take one of the day’s patrol assignments, which could prove either helpfully distracting or precisely the opportunity for further brooding she didn’t need right now, depending on which area of town she ended up walking and the happenstance of the day. But she had to get through that conversation with Hajime first. So, cleaner but wishing she had a different uniform to wear, she dried, covered her nakedness, and left the bathhouse for the police station.

She would need to tell him things hadn’t worked out with Zanza. She would like to tell him what she’d realized about herself as a result of this event, but knew that, at least, would have to wait. How she could even word the statement she most needed to make, the one that was to set things on the level between them, she couldn’t imagine. As she moved through town with steps she had to struggle to keep from becoming sluggish or ceasing entirely, she tried futilely to think of how to say what was required without having it come across as something like, “I’m done with him, but there might be some left over for you.”

Preoccupied, she hadn’t wrung her hair out as thoroughly as usual before putting it back up, and now drops of water fell perseverently from the bottom of her bun right down the collar of her uniform jacket. As she reached an annoyed hand up to rub the moisture into her skin, she realized that wasn’t the only somewhat uncomfortable sensation on the back of her neck. Perhaps she might have noticed sooner had she been less busy inside her own head, though maybe it had just started and she wouldn’t have, but she did have the sudden feeling that someone behind her had their eyes on her. She veered into a side street without breaking stride — what stride she was managing to maintain, anyway — and was able, with the ninety degree shift, to glance unconspicuously toward the area from which she believed the scrutiny came. She didn’t allow her expression to change at what she saw, though admittedly she couldn’t be sure what it would have changed to.

She knew that the disquieting impression she and Hajime had suffered the other day of being continually talked about had arisen in response to Tsukioka setting inquiries in motion about them out of worry either for Zanza’s safety or the degree to which he could trust him, or a bit of both. Despite the foolishness of his subsequent scheme, and the inconvenience he’d caused the two police officers, Tokio hadn’t really been able to blame him for that. But surely he’d learned enough at that time to require no further information about her and Hajime? Surely there was nothing else he felt he needed to know in order to protect (or assess the trustworthiness of) his friend? Because he seemed to be staring pretty fixedly, yet so subtly that it was clear he didn’t seek her attention.

But there could be another reason besides the aforementioned for him to spy on her. Zanza had expressed significant concern, after all, about where Tsukioka’s path would lead from here. Though unsure of the extent of the artist’s knowledge about Zanza’s involvement with the police — whether Zanza had framed it as a totally personal relationship such as Tokio herself hoped to use as their cover story with most of the world, or whether he’d elaborated on the professional arrangement as well — Tokio thought it seemed not improbable that the artist, knowing there was some involvement of whatever kind, sought to discover just how detrimental that involvement might be to any future illegal plans he was concocting. Honestly she couldn’t come up with any other explanation for that intense, secretive stare.

She also couldn’t think of anything to be done about it at the moment. To confront him would probably scare him off, and she doubted she’d get any honest answers out of him in any case; and it wasn’t as if he committed a crime — or even a particularly unusual deed, unfortunately — in staring at her. She would simply have to bear in mind that he still needed to be monitored until they knew for certain what he was up to.

This didn’t exactly oust the matter of Tokio’s relationship problems, only added a secondary subject of concern, but it did diffuse somewhat the more weighty subject in her thoughts so that when she entered the police station and her husband’s presence at last, she was less prepared than she had been for the scene that must follow. But her complete focus returned almost violently to the topic she’d been worried about all morning at the look Hajime gave her immediately she entered his office. For it was clear that he knew, without a single word from her, what had happened last night. He’d recognized her recognition of his interest yesterday, and now he knew she’d proceeded in spite of it. But he didn’t know what happened this morning — what had passed between her and Zanza, what had gone through her head — and she had no idea yet how to tell him.

“We still need to keep an eye on Tsukioka.” She wasn’t usually given to blurting things out so awkwardly, and as greetings went it was pathetic, but these were unusual circumstances.

“I’ll leave that to you.” He could be so cold when he wanted to! He didn’t even ask why she thought they should be watching Zanza’s friend.

She attempted to clear her throat silently, and continued seeking some method of delivering her news that wouldn’t be totally mortifying.

More paperwork than ever covered his workspace, and he’d been writing busily when she’d arrived. Now he stared at her, obviously aware she had something else to say and waiting for it with steely patience — or perhaps demanding she say something with his expectant silence and narrowed eyes. Desperately she dropped her gaze from his and scanned the sheets on the desk just to have anything else to look at. It appeared he’d opened up not only the packet of information they had on Rokumeikan but the more recently compiled details on the Karashigumi, not to mention a collection of miscellany that was undoubtedly connected in one way or another, and was using all of it to get a head start on the case report so he wouldn’t have quite so much to tire his hand with when everything was finished. That meant he’d done everything he believed he could with what they had at their disposal, anticipated no further useful reports on any of these subjects, and would soon leave his desk to work on some interim project — patrols of his own or unsolved minor cases — while they waited for progress on Zanza’s end.

Tokio found she still couldn’t say what she needed to say, so she asked the next question that came to mind: “Are you working Youko in?”

Whether he’d been passively waiting for or actively demanding a statement from her, Hajime probably saw he wasn’t going to get it. His eyes narrowed an infinitesimal further amount, and he shook his head. “There’s no real indication she’s related to Rokumeikan’s criminal activities. He may have driven them to it, but the blame for her death still seems to rest with his other mistress, that Tajiru woman.”

Though this was true, and Hajime’s exclusion of Youko from the report perfectly reasonable, it felt like a personal sting, punishment for her poor behavior and her inability now to explain things to her affronted husband. He probably knew it, too. She had so looked forward to seeing — to helping attain! — justice for that poor young woman. “Now she’ll never be avenged,” she murmured in some despair.

There was, somewhat ironically, a sense of relenting slightly to the grimness of Hajime’s response, “That depends on whether he’s with his new mistress when I eventually go to kill him.”

She looked into his face again, and, though things were not right between them and she still had no emotional strength to make them so, yet there was an acknowledgment in his gaze that their mutual concern for justice in this case superseded all personal awkwardness.

He was the next to remove his eyes, smoothly and with apparent unconcern: difficult to read, as ever. “There have been some unarmed disturbances centering around the Ayameie lately,” he told her with perfect coolness. “Head over that way today and keep an eye on things.”

“The Ayameie…” She’d heard about the disturbances, but couldn’t quite remember what or where the establishment in question was.

“It’s a brothel in Taitoku-akasen,” Hajime replied shortly.

“Ryoukai,” she acknowledged, heart sinking. Was he making a statement by sending her to a house of abused women? She could see clearly what he might mean by it. But, no, she was overthinking and paranoid. Hajime would never do such a thing. Not even to someone that had mistreated and possibly hurt him — not when that someone was a respected friend. Not even when that someone had something very important to tell him and still hadn’t figured out how.

She left the office feeling like the worst of cowards.

***

Useful though it often turned out to be, memorizing case information did not feature among Saitou’s top priorities. Of course he kept enough in his head to facilitate efficient work away from office and records, but there tended to be numerous little details he had to refer to that same written material in order to remember specifically. Things simply went more smoothly that way than spending further tedious hours he already didn’t have free committing everything in his paperwork to memory, even if it did mean a set of legible data he wasn’t entirely comfortable leaving under only the protection of the general police force.

In this situation, however, he’d memorized more than was typical of him, undoubtedly because he had alternately been more emotionally invested in this case than usual (thanks to Sano’s involvement) and readier than usual (this moment, for example, because of Tokio) to take advantage of the case as a distraction from unprofessional issues. He was far more conversant with the minutiae of Rokumeikan’s guilt than he usually was with that of a normal target, and really more than he wanted to be.

Although an unequivocal sense of certainty was an absolute necessity in his line of work, feeling that certainty often deeply frustrated him, and having the evidence memorized could only contribute to that frustration. What they’d collected about Rokumeikan was by now more than enough to satisfy Saitou personally, but undoubtedly would be insufficient in a court of law. Even if they could obtain a conviction on any of the charges they might bring him up against, it was likely to be a hesitant judgment in the face of the goodwill Rokumeikan could purchase; sentencing would be lenient, and Rokumeikan’s money and influence were likely to help him evade punishment altogether. And to anticipate this, to know the system remained so flawed while truth stared him in the face, was the primary source of Saitou’s discontentment.

A secondary source might have to do with his wife, but he was concentrating on something else right now.

And of course for the sake of situations precisely like this he had taken on the job in the first place. As he reorganized the papers he’d been headaching over and started filing them away again, he could practically smell the blood. Someday, perhaps — honestly he wasn’t too sanguine — assassination would become obsolete; the system would see improvement such that an operative like him would no longer be required to bridge the gap between idealism and reality; straightforward law would be powerful enough to achieve the ends he currently fought for in the shadows. But as long as things continued the way they were now, he would work toward blood. And assassinating Rokumeikan was going to be especially satisfying.

Though that might have been as much because he was in a sour mood as at the thought of the influence that corrupt official had on the fate of the nation.

To punish Tokio — or, indeed, to act any differently toward her than usual — had not been Saitou’s intention, and perhaps if the day had progressed further before their first interview he would have had his demeanor under better control. He believed that by the next time he saw her he would be able to maintain their normal amicable interaction; it had only been just then, in the face of her morning-after nervousness and rumpled uniform, that he hadn’t been able to help acting a little more like the rival he essentially was than the friend he was supposed to be.

And it didn’t help that he’d now used up his primary source of diversion from that matter by gleaning all the useful insight he could from the compiled notes — indeed, as previously mentioned, by reading them so thoroughly and repeatedly he’d mostly memorized them — and writing out everything he could at this point of the details of the case. What to do next? He required no further evidence about Rokumeikan, so dragging out the investigative stage would be counterproductive. Some rats, after all, could feel the eyes of even hidden predators, and it would be wise to take the direct focus off their enemy for a while and let him believe himself safe. If he were nervous and wary, that attitude would be reflected by the gang or gangs he controlled, making Sano’s deception more difficult. So Saitou needed to step back, find something else to busy himself with — hopefully something engrossing — and wait for word from his new operative.

As if taking its cue from his desire for a distraction, the universe saw fit here to provide him with one. Its herald came in the form of a police rookie knocking at his office door and subsequently entering to deliver a thick folded letter. When the young man had retreated and Saitou had finished stowing his papers and locking his drawers, he turned his attention to the correspondence. As he picked it up and examined it, the character of his frown changed, losing the look of profound private frustration it had held all morning and shifting to an expression of simpler puzzlement and annoyance at the tricky manner in which the letter was closed. Who would go to so much trouble folding their message? This was practically origami…

To my esteemed former colleague…

Oh. He knew who must have written this.

To my esteemed former colleague, whose efficacy in the management of affairs previously mutual to us both and whose demonstrated prowess in personal skills required by and related to those affairs I have always held in the highest admiration even at such times as — to my deepest chagrin in the light of further information that perhaps, in a spirit of trust born of a history longer and more profound than the time in which I had to consider what in the end proved to be a false notion, from the moment of the inception of that notion and to the contradiction thereof, I should have anticipated — I was deluded by circumstance regarding more intimate and, in the scales of eternity, crucial aspects of your character, I write, with the aim of obfuscating personal detail you and I might both wish to prevent any third party becoming familiar with, in the event that this correspondence be misdirected or stolen, with a constraint that will, I hope, meet with your approval or at least forestall your immediate disapprobation.

‘Constraint’ was one way to put it. Saitou pitied the victim of this letter ‘misdirected or stolen,’ and in fact rather pitied himself as the victim of it properly directed. And as for personal detail he might wish to prevent a third party becoming familiar with, he doubted even the plainest and most straightforward language Yonai Fumihiro could torture himself into coming up with — which this wasn’t — would inform that hypothetical third party of anything Saitou didn’t want them to know before it caused their brains to boil and leak out their hypothetical ears.

Undeniable as we find the naturality within the scope of human nature of a man’s deep-seated belief in the basic goodwill and courteous interest of those around him, particularly those with whom he shares a history of action undertaken in a spirit of moral conviction, and the certainty of any one contributor to a long-disbanded aggregate that the desire to rejoin, if only temporarily, some reminiscent vestige of that aggregate burns as strongly in the breasts of other contributors as it does in his own, modesty, bitter comprehension of personal culpability, and a sense of reason that, though perhaps neglected in the specific consideration of the aforementioned false notion, I yet retain forces me to admit the likelihood that you must meet my attempt to communicate with you herein, despite that constraint heretofore briefly touched upon, with no favorable attitude or feeling…

Well, that was certainly true.

… consequent on certain recent events orchestrated by my hand which must have proven injurious to your pride if not indeed harmful to your person…

And that was certainly not the reason. If anything, he should be thanking Yonai heartily for setting kenkaya Zanza on his trail. Even if things with kenkaya Zanza weren’t working out exactly as Saitou would prefer just at the moment.

Yonai went on to discuss the sense of betrayal and injury to himself and to the Shinsengumi that lay behind the excessive haste in his choice to hire a mercenary against his one-time captain, rather than directly questioning him, when he’d discovered that Meiji police Lt. Investigator Fujita Gorou was actually Saitou Hajime (without using names, of course; such was his constraint). Then he had to get into the circumstances under which he’d become acquainted with that fact, a story Saitou didn’t need in the first place and was in the second somewhat confused at reading due to Yonai’s insistence on repressing any kind of potentially sensitive detail. And all this in the type of language Saitou associated with mid-level government officials, not war-time companions. He didn’t appreciate having that pleasant nostalgic illusion eroded, and knowing Yonai could make up for this truly irksome habit with a number of good qualities made it no less annoying.

The letter then expressed surprise and admiration regarding the willingness of Saitou, not an especially forgiving man according to what Yonai remembered of him, to spare the bearer of so violent and inappropriate a message, and even to send an elucidating reply by, as it were, return of post. If, Yonai postulated, Saitou could overlook the affront of the physical attack, he could conceivably pardon the state of mind that had led to it as well.

Good god, there was another page and a half of this.

Though fully aware Saitou might not choose to forgive him and might, in fact, consider him henceforth an enemy, Yonai nevertheless felt it expedient to make what reparations he could for his impetuosity, despite the discomfort and possibly even danger of so doing. And since his time in Tokyo was drawing to a close… here he felt it necessary to elaborate upon his current business interests and how they tied in with the pre-existing family trade that had always made him richer than he needed to be…

Saitou started skimming.

…appeal to that justice aforementioned… …if you would favor me… …make apology face to face… …hear from your own mouth the account… …additionally, perhaps share some reminiscences of… …meet me at… …if it is not your desire to… …assume that you no longer… …hold no grudge… …ever respectfully…

He should have guessed — no, he should have known this entire epistle was merely a glorified invitation to go out and endure Yonai’s bombast somewhere in person. He tossed the letter onto his desk, closed his smarting eyes, and sighed.

In fact he should have seen all of this coming. Yonai had a fanatically elevated idea of the dignity of his station in life that led him to be thus ridiculously verbose, but that was the worst of it. His principles were otherwise excellent, and he would take the insult he believed he’d inflicted on a former comrade very seriously. Right now, with Saitou not only between projects but actively wishing for a distraction, really made for the perfect time to get this over with — to meet Yonai and accept whatever apology he wanted to offer, to put misunderstanding behind them. It was just that Saitou couldn’t abide the man. Had never liked him, did not plan to start now, and wanted little less in the world than to spend time in his company ‘sharing some reminiscences’ or anything of the sort.

Truly, though, it would be in his best interest to bite this bullet. It seemed likely that Yonai, a gossipy socialite, remained in contact with many of the other former members of the Shinsengumi (whatever that number had dwindled to these days), and talking this out now could put the matter of Saitou’s loyalties to rest indefinitely. Of course this wasn’t his first encounter, since joining the Meiji government, with someone that had worn the blue haori, so there must be rumors among them already; but this appeared to be the most convenient way of getting the word out more definitively and yet with relative subtlety.

Not that his heart burned, particularly, to have them hear about and believe in his continued devotion to justice and righteousness regardless of which side of a dead conflict he currently occupied — nearly everyone from those days whose opinion had meant anything to him had died long ago, and those that remained could think what they would of him, accurate or otherwise, without robbing him of sleep — but, regardless of his pleasure at the outcome of this latest instance, the string of mercenaries sent against him by those with the wrong idea could, to his preference, stop any time.

So he’d better go meet Yonai. It would feel easily as productive as finding a minor case to work on (though he would do that on returning to the police station later anyway, so this would only be a postponement of that other lukewarm productivity), and would give him something else to think about to help adjust his mentality so as to be ready to face Tokio — and Sano! — when next either of them came before him. He only hoped Yonai didn’t annoy him so much that he snapped and admitted exactly what he thought of the man.

He glanced first at the clock, then down to find the time and place listed in the letter, but the movement became a more searching gaze as it proved impossible to locate anything specific in that morass with a mere glance. Eventually he discovered he had just under half an hour before the proposed meeting, whose location lay a corresponding walking distance from here; at least Yonai wasted far less time in physical life than was taken up by the composition and perusal of his written communication. Refolding the letter as best he could (making no attempt to follow its original complicated network of creases), unsure of when would be too early a moment to set it on fire, Saitou pocketed it and departed.

***

The novelty of Sano’s new position as a secret operative hadn’t yet entirely worn off, and now it dragged him from his apartment when he might otherwise have gone back to bed not long after Tokio left — though he might not have been able to fall asleep again in any case. The room held that lingering scent of the night’s activities that would only have made him uncomfortable, so sticking around awake was out of the question. He left a window open and set out to get some work done, or at least to distract himself from unpleasant thoughts.

Unfortunately, the type of people by whom he needed to be seen and among whom he needed to be known — the grunts that could pass the word upward about Zanza’s habits, strength, and interest in finding a new organization to attach himself to — didn’t emerge much at this time of day. Plenty of higher-level yakuza members would be busy organizing their criminal activities this very minute, but Sano hadn’t progressed far enough yet to have any hope of finding or interacting with them. So what remained for him to do until the vermin started coming out of the woodwork this evening?

With the vague idea that it might yet profit him to hang out in Karashi territory even during the hours when the only gang members available would be the dregs not trusted enough by the organization to be offered regular work, he slouched off, still uncertain, in that direction. He couldn’t help thinking that what he would really like was to see Katsu. How was his friend doing? Had he come to any kind of decision? How did he feel about Sano? Were they, in fact, friends?

Though Katsu seemed far more likely than any yakuza thug to be up and about this early, and Sano might even be able to catch him at home if he tried, the timing didn’t feel right. It was still too soon after the incident. When the timing would feel right, when he might have waited long enough, he couldn’t guess. But he didn’t dare reopen dialogue today. In fact he should probably allow Katsu to make the first overture, knowing full well that if he chose never to do so, Sano would have to respect that choice.

And where had this sense of severe loneliness come from all of a sudden?

Warm sunshine flooded the morning, but it might rain later. He enjoyed the cool of the rain in the afternoon Tokyo heat that only grew as spring progressed, and today might be perfect for finding a porch somewhere to lie down on for a catnap, then strolling through some particularly alcoholic area to pick a fight. Too bad he couldn’t possibly pull off the first in his agitated mental state and had no interest in the second anymore if it would prove as pointless as it had always been. He really was suffering from a dearth of options.

Not two streets later, though, he realized abruptly and with some confusion that, during the course of these thoughts, he had unconsciously altered his route. He no longer headed toward the area of town where the Karashigumi held sway, but into a district full of bigger businesses and some government facilities, including Tokyo’s main police station. He rarely had anything to do with that part of the city except when he spent time in a cell, which hadn’t happened recently. Yet when he looked down at his black-shod feet, he noted with mild surprise that they still moved as if for that destination. Was he walking toward the police station? Why was he walking toward the police station? He couldn’t just pop into the place without reason, shouldn’t even be seen in its vicinity if he could help it, and wanted nothing less than to meet Tokio again right now. If talking to Katsu today would be ‘too soon after the incident…’

Of course he knew someone besides Tokio at the police station. Perhaps the thought of the distraction Saitou could provide — what with his having inspired, shamed, intrigued, irritated, entertained, and enraged Sano in dizzying alternation during the course of their acquaintance — had been the subconscious source of Sano’s redirection. The same considerations applied to make this an unfeasible goal, but for now Sano did not change course. He was safe for another few blocks. Not like he had anything better to do.

Though the ubiquitous carts and temporary stands people set up in this area charged only somewhat steeper rates than elsewhere in town, the permanent commercial establishments around here ran toward the decidedly pricey — which amused Sano when he considered how cheap so many policemen were. The open-air dining enclosure of a restaurant he now approached, for example, included among its current patrons only two employees of the nearby station, whereas Sano might see as many as a dozen off-duty cops at some dirty bar in a trashier part of town on any given night. He supposed the lower police ranks, like yakuza thugs, weren’t actually paid all that much.

Saitou never had mentioned his precise salary during their argument on the subject, but it seemed he was actually paid all that much, for as Sano drew closer he recognized his new employer as one of those two figures in blue at the restaurant. Except maybe he didn’t eat on his own yen today, because unless Sano was very much mistaken, Saitou sat across from none other than Yonai Fumihiro. Of course the kenkaya had seen the latter only once, but his strikingly handsome face had made an impression.

Sano stopped. For some reason, he found the scene annoying. It wasn’t that he regretted the results of Yonai’s request — in fact the eventual effects of his being hired to fight Saitou had been some of the most fortunate of his life — but it just seemed so ridiculous to see the man that had been willing to pay him decent money to prove an angry point to a former comrade sitting there chatting with that comrade as pleasant as could be. Well, actually, though Saitou did appear fairly relaxed, he also, Sano believed, had an air about him of patient irritation. Anyway it all felt so stupid. Why it should bother him this much Sano couldn’t guess, but somehow it discernibly increased today’s loneliness.

He turned away. This could be a good opportunity to talk to Saitou and get some of that diversion he’d apparently sought in coming his direction, but he certainly wasn’t about to try it under these circumstances. He hadn’t understood any of Yonai’s letter on his own; with Saitou present, even longer words might be flying around. At any rate, Sano’s steps seemed more sluggish now, as if he’d suffered a disappointment, in walking back through the crowded street.

What a great day this is turning out to be, he reflected bitterly as he passed by the expensive shops and neat merchants’ stands. Wrong side of the futon indeed.

“Zanza-san?”

Startled, Sano turned again. Of all the unexpected voices… “Kotono-san!”

Standing in the doorway of a store that advertised European haberdashery (whatever that was), Kotono looked stunning as usual in a sea-green kimono decorated with pink flowers and white swans and touches of gold embroidery that made the overall impression just a little too fancy for everyday wear. Sano had never considered where she might do her shopping, but now that he did, this seemed as likely an area as any. He hastened to her side, where she smiled shyly up at him. Tucking an escaped lock of wavy hair behind one ear, she said, “I’m so glad to see you. Will you step inside and keep me company?”

Glad to see her too — especially with how his morning had gone — and curious at her immediate invitation, he replied, “Sure,” and followed her into the shop.

As she moved to a place beside a shelf full of various styles of gloves marked with positively ridiculous prices, away from any other customers, he took the opportunity to examine her closely. Believing he could do nothing for her, he’d avoided paining them both by seeing her since her influence with Tone had assisted him in leaving the Furukawatai, but today she appeared no worse off than then — no new bruises on her exquisite face, her attractive figure no thinner — though she did seem worried.

“My escort is across the street,” she said, gesturing out the window through which she must have noticed Sano as he walked by. He followed with his gaze, which alighted on a tea shop where her bodyguards presumably enjoyed some illicit relaxation while she went about the (to them, undoubtedly) tedious task of selecting gloves or whatever else was sold here. Given that their presence probably functioned more as a sign of status and a method of keeping tabs on the oyabun’s favorite out in public than actual protection against enemies, Sano doubted this breach of performance represented any particular threat to Kotono’s safety… He just wished she had the nerve to slip away while her escort wasn’t looking and find a new life for herself. But apparently the only use she wanted to make of their absence was, “We can speak privately for a moment.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano would have asked how she was doing, but, observing she had a specific purpose for pulling him in here, left it at this.

She took a deep breath, glancing around at the other people in the shop and lowering her voice to say, “I’ve heard that you might be coming back.”

Having anticipated something like this, Sano was ready with his answer. “I’ve been thinking about it. Got to missing the old days, you know?”

Her lips and eyebrows formed only the faintest frown as she replied with a futile attempt at conviction, “You… you shouldn’t.” It seemed difficult for her to get this out at all. “You should value your freedom more. Stay free. Stay away.” And though her words said, “Don’t come back,” everything else about her said, Please come back.”

He wished he could tell her the truth — that he intended no permanent return, that in fact he planned to strike a blow against the organization that should allow her the same freedom she had once granted him — but he didn’t dare. He had to act his part, and only hoped, after how vehemently he’d sought to leave the gang in the first place, he could convince her or anyone else of his sincerity in wanting to rejoin. So he shrugged and said, “Hey, freedom’s overrated. Having a support network, and… you know… getting close to people… I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have given that up.”

She pursed her lips, seeming indecisive about her next statement. Finally she made up her mind and began, “But I’m afraid…” She smiled uncertainly at him, and a deeper dusting of pink joined the rouge that colored her cheeks. “I’m afraid you’re doing this for me. You were always so kind… and I was afraid you’d heard about… but you don’t need to worry about me…”

As she trailed off, as he looked down at this almost unbelievably beautiful shell of a woman, Sano reflected with astringent regret that the life Kotono had been compelled to lead had drained from her all assertiveness and effectiveness as a person. Minor remains of her former self and her geisha training, from the days before she’d essentially been enslaved, still clung to her, leaving her with smoothly enticing movements of body and, sometimes, engaging powers of conversation, but what was she underneath? A timid shadow of what she had once probably been. It outraged him that anyone should be in a position where her very character was forced to change for the sake of her survival. He had to get her out.

Then, all of a sudden, his mind caught at exactly what she’d said, and he asked in some startlement, “Heard about what?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. I only want you to understand that you mustn’t be concerned about me.”

“No, seriously, I want to know. Heard about what?”

“It’s not important! I’m worried about you; don’t you see?” And she really seemed upset. Sano couldn’t help but be touched. “Kanno-kun said you’ve had some trouble with the police lately.”

This Sano had not necessarily been expecting, at least not so soon. Though he filed away the confirmation that Kanno oversaw the matter of keeping an eye on him, as he’d suspected, now he had to figure out something to offer in response to the rumor Kanno had started as a result. “Oh, yeah.” He put on an air of annoyance to buy himself time. “Don’t worry about that. See, my girlfriend’s a cop, and–“

And maybe this hadn’t been the best direction to take his explanation, if Kotono’s little twitch meant anything. She tried to hide the clenching of her hands into delicate fists, the slight widening of her eyes, but Sano saw them anyway. He’d often thought in the past, somewhat idly, that Kotono might have some romantic interest in him… Now he gave the idea more serious consideration. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, especially when she’d already gone through so much and still lived in bondage. At the same time, he had to have a solid story, and the words ‘my girlfriend’s a cop’ — not even true! — had already been spoken.

Perhaps to cover up her visible reaction, Kotono remarked, “I have heard that the local precinct has a woman working as a police officer. How interesting.” She tried with impressive success to sound politely curious rather than unhappy.

So that he wouldn’t sound unhappy, Sano adopted the tone of one that hasn’t noticed his conversational companion’s disinterest and is going to chatter away obliviously until he’s out of things to say. “Yeah, it’s great! She’s great. But her partner’s a complete asshole–” he invented as he went along, and hoped the cheerful speed with which he spoke wouldn’t end up getting him in trouble– “and he didn’t like her running around with someone like me. Actually I think he was jealous, even though she won’t give him the time of day in that way. That was the fight I lost where my sword got destroyed — you musta heard about that — because this guy really is a serious jerk, but eventually she got him to back off, and everything’s fine now.”

He ended so abruptly that he found Kotono staring at him as if expecting more. It made him nervous, so he endeavored to come up with a conclusion of sorts. “It’s kindof a pain being with a cop, ’cause I gotta be so careful about what I say and do so she doesn’t find out, uh, certain things about me, but it’s still a good deal ’cause now I’m in their blind eye, you know? Eventually I figure I’ve gotta hear some nice police secrets.” And he managed to come up with the most painstaking conspiratorial grin that had ever decorated his face.

His performance seemed to have eased her mind, for she returned a tentative smile. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, but take care. If this policewoman finds out you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai…”

“Hell, if she finds out I was ever a member in the first place, there’ll be trouble,” said Sano, proud of himself for this line. “But, yeah, I know what I’m doing.” And in response to Kotono’s continued solemnity, despite the smile she’d offered a moment before, he added, “I’ll make a deal with you: you don’t worry about me, I won’t worry about you.” Since he was lying to her about everything already, he might as well go this far. “Sound good?”

“I’m not entirely sure that’s an equal bargain,” she replied in the lightest tone she’d used with him yet today, “but I suppose I can close on it.” Then she looked around again, out the window, and her quiet seriousness returned as the happier moment passed. “I need to go. I wouldn’t want my escort to come looking for me.” She returned her eyes to him, and as usual appeared somewhat downcast. “I suppose now you won’t allow me to tell you again to be careful.”

With a shake of his head, Sano replied silently, And I can’t tell you not to let anyone kick you around or use you like a broken toy… but I never could, could I? Aloud he said, “Put in a good word for me with Tone-sama, would you?”

She nodded deeply enough that it was almost a bow, then turned and made her way out of the shop.

Sano frowned after her. The very thought of what that woman’s life had become made his blood boil, and he avidly rejoiced in the assignment he’d more or less stumbled into that would allow him to help her out of her terrible circumstances. It couldn’t happen soon enough.

***

Every time Katsu had ventured out of his home since Sunday, he’d suffered the weariness and confusion that typically comes with convalescence after a long seclusion. Which struck him as ironic, since he didn’t know that he’d really recovered. Beyond that, his eyes seemed peculiarly sensitive to bright lights — again as if he’d been lying abed in a closed room for weeks or months attempting to get over some tenacious illness — so he’d quickly become crepuscular in his limited activities following the events of the new moon. He’d emerged to replenish his rice supply Tuesday at dawn, and to buy some ink that same evening… but hadn’t found himself particularly inclined either to eat or to sketch.

There was one thing he did incline toward, and it was the reason he loitered, in the overcast gloom of a Wednesday dusk, at the entrance to a particular neighborhood, standing conspicuously on a street corner doing absolutely nothing. Nothing but seething with much the same thoughts that had filled his head for the last several days.

He felt that Sano had not so much talked him out of his plans as touched them with the hand of death, withered them and rendered them ineffectual, impossible. And with them, some part of Katsu seemed to have crumbled away as well — perhaps this was the illness he’d been struggling to recover from — and he’d been left half formed, aimless, and likely to blow away at the whim of the next heavy breeze.

His passions had not deserted him, but as a defense mechanism against his current complete impotence to satisfy any of them, he’d pushed most of them aside. He still desperately longed to change this flawed society, but, at a loss how to go about it, he did his best to muffle that and all interrelated desires in the back of his head. Which left him with almost nothing besides the one other thing he wanted above all else, something he’d now decided to allow himself to seek.

He was starting to think, however, that he should be a little less circumspect about it, face the matter more straightforwardly, and that he might have missed the woman or chosen the wrong day to wait for her, when a carriage of just the right style — that is, the kind that tended to vulture at the police station — approached him around the corner from just the right direction — that is, that of the police station. These circumstances gave no guarantee that the person he wanted to speak to was inside (and in fact it might as easily be the husband, whom Katsu had no particular desire to meet), but he lacked the energy to think of a better plan.

It worked, though. The carriage drew to a halt not far past him, and the figure that emerged and cheerfully paid the driver before turning toward the waiting artist was the police woman, Tokio. As the equipage pulled off, she made her way toward him with the air of one approaching a prearranged meeting rather than having stopped out of curiosity to see what this friend of a friend might be doing at the outskirts of her neighborhood.

“Tsukioka-san, isn’t it?” She stopped in front of him, throwing a quick glance at where a lamplighter made his way down the street toward them, then met Katsu’s eye with a smile. “We were never properly introduced before, that night when Zanza was so drunk, but…”

“But he’s talked about us both,” Katsu finished for her. He tried to return her smile, reminiscent of the night in question when he’d been reunited with his old friend, but thinking about Sano was both pleasure and pain to him right now.

“Walk with me,” she invited. She probably wanted to keep ahead of the lamplighter. Katsu wasn’t sure exactly how much she knew about him and his recent activities, or how much she might guess about what he wanted to say to her now, but in any case she would still probably rather keep this conversation relatively private. He fell in by her side.

“Have you seen Zanza — Sano — lately?” Though on the surface this seemed a pretty standard polite inquiry about a mutual acquaintance, Katsu thought it was made with both care and precision.

“No,” he said, then added somewhat confusedly, “at least not for a few days. I was hoping you could take a message to him for me.”

“Ah, so that’s what you’re doing waiting around in my neighborhood.” She gestured before them. “Since you obviously know where I live. But you know where he lives too, so…”

And it had come to the question, Why don’t you talk to him yourself? even sooner than he’d expected. Katsu stifled a sigh, but couldn’t repress a frown, and did not immediately answer.

She turned her head toward him, walking without watching her next few steps as she studied his face. She wore, and had worn since she descended from the carriage, a demeanor of shrewdness, of penetration, as if, no matter how much she did or didn’t know about him, she could easily tell what he was thinking now. And this seemed more than mere fancy the next moment when she came up with the answer in his place: “You’re not sure what to say to him, so it’s easier to start with a message from me.”

Katsu admitted she was right, but, still completely uncertain about the message he supposedly wanted to send, said nothing more.

She glanced at him again, and her shining black eyes seemed to make quick work of what she saw. “I know you two had a falling out…” And was that really what Sano had told her, or was she paraphrasing due to the presence of the assiduous lamplighter that made irritatingly good time in their wake? “And you’re still bitter about it. You still resent him for what he said and did.”

“Yes.” Sano had closed off what Katsu had believed a clear path, nullified all the hard work of the last many months, stabbed ruthlessly at their shared past, and left Katsu a frustrated drifter with no remaining goals, no new plans, and no hope for any future fulfillment of his longstanding desires.

“But you don’t want to lose him,” Tokio added.

“Yes.” It came out even more quietly this time, though it was no less true. Sano was the only family remaining to him, and it still seemed nothing short of a miracle that they’d found each other again when they had — though Katsu had been avoiding the question of whether taichou had had a hand in it and, if so, what his motivations might have been. Katsu wanted to hold onto that friendship, that brotherhood so unexpectedly regained, and somehow the bitterness he felt in regard to Sunday night only made him want to cling all the more tightly to Sano.

“So you want to talk to him again, but you don’t know what to say.” Then, with a critical expression, she amended thoughtfully, “Or is it that you want to talk to him again because you don’t know what to say?”

“I… I’m starting to believe I can’t figure things out on my own. I need Sano.”

She threw him another look, this time more sidelong than before. “He told me he said some hurtful things, and you don’t seem like you’re ready to forgive him yet.” And was she standing up for Sano here, seeking to stave off Katsu’s prospective wrath, or simply working her own way through the tangle that was their relationship right now as best she could from the outside?

Katsu sighed again. “I don’t know that it’s a question of forgiveness. He did and said what he believed was right and true, and he tried his best not to hurt me with it. It’s more a question of me adjusting to that, aligning myself to his right and his truth.”

“But you don’t know that you believe he was right,” she insisted, “so whatever it is you have to do — forgive or adjust or align — you’re not ready to do it yet.”

“I have to be. I need him.”

“You feel like you’ll be able to find some answers by talking to him, but you’d be much better off talking to him after you’ve already found some.”

He shook his head, simultaneously sorrowful and deeply impressed. “You must be an excellent police officer.”

Now the look she gave him was startled, indicative of some confusion at the sudden subject change and some apparently reflexive wariness. “You say that because…”

“I wasn’t planning to discuss this all with you. I intended to request you take a message for me, and leave it at that. But you read so much of what I was thinking, and drew me out so well… You must be very skilled at dealing with witnesses.” Katsu had always considered himself fairly good at drawing information out of people, but didn’t think he could have prompted the level of emotional confession this woman had so easily gotten from him tonight.

She smiled acerbically. “Thank you. I’m afraid you’re one of the few men who thinks so.”

That explained her wariness when he brought up her profession. It also fit with what he’d learned when he’d been looking into the activities of Tokio and her partner. “I meant it,” he said seriously, “and I’m sorry.” There wasn’t much else to offer.

She gave the shrug of one that has been laboring under a troublesome weight for so long it’s almost become a matter of indifference. “If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

“Nothing is right in this system,” he murmured, sounding almost more forlorn than grim. But even as he said it, the first hint of a new idea, like a scant stream in a dry channel after a long drought, came trickling down to him.

“It’s like you said — people just need an example to realize what they can do.”

“But what kind of example besides violence could possibly–“

“I hope you find another way.”

“If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

Only moments before, he’d said he didn’t think he could figure this out his own… but perhaps it hadn’t really been any further help from Sano that he needed. Not that he wanted to see him any less — especially now he had this faint beginning of an answer — but perhaps he’d just received the catalyst he wanted from a completely unexpected source.

He’d stopped dead on the sidewalk, grasping at the threads of this idea, trying in a measured panic to weave them together into something less ephemeral before they slipped away. The lamplighter had caught up with them, and was, in fact, mounting his ladder not three feet off; and Tokio was staring at Katsu with a curious smile.

“I seem to have given you an idea,” she said.

Keeping a tight mental hold on the all-important strands, Katsu yet allowed the woman in front of him to come back into greater focus. “Yes,” he said gravely. “You’re very inspiring, Takagi-san.” And he meant it as sincerely as he’d meant his complimentary assessment of her police skills before. With her firm but pleasant demeanor and those lovely lips saying so easily exactly what he’d needed to hear tonight, she’d made a significant impression on him.

Her smile widened. “I’d love to hear about it sometime.” –though a quick glance at the lamplighter they couldn’t get free of, a slight roll of eyes, and a shake of head indicated that she wouldn’t ask for details in present company. Which relieved Katsu, since he didn’t have details yet, and remained uncertain how much to share with this woman regardless of how she’d inspired him.

“If you could take that message to Sano for me,” he said instead, with a nod, “I’ll let you get home.”

And again she read him with seeming ease as she suggested, “Only that you want to talk to him?”

He nodded again. “Thank you, Takagi-san. Good evening.”

She returned the goodbye with a wave he barely saw before he hurried away into the growing darkness.

***

Sano hoped the thunder that rumbled in precise concurrence with the door’s opening didn’t auger badly for the conversation he’d come here for. The sounds of an approaching rainstorm had colored his entire earlier discussion with Tokio — the first since they’d slept together — and that had gone more or less not terribly… but the growling sky lowered a lot more closely and darkly now. Still, it might be a propitious sign that this encounter started out exactly as that one had: with the two parties staring at each other in silence across the threshold for a length of time that quickly escalated the mood into extreme discomfort and awkwardness, clearly unsure how to begin or whether the visitor should be invited inside.

Tokio had been much better at this, and had started things out eventually with a creditable attempt at smoothness. Now, not nearly as skilled but desperate for something to put forward, noting the condition of Katsu’s hair and yukata, Sano said, “I didn’t wake you up, did I?” His voice sounded hoarse, and he had to clear his throat after speaking.

Katsu let the silence hang for another very awkward moment, and finally replied, “You did, but only because I was out all night.” And despite being the one to have solicited this meeting, he sounded every bit as uncertain as Sano did. While the latter refrained from demanding to know why he’d been out all night and whether he’d been doing something revolutionary, Katsu with a visible effort went on in no particularly welcoming tone. “It’s going to be raining soon. Come inside.”

Sano hesitated, drew in a deep breath he hoped Katsu wouldn’t take special notice of, and followed when the artist stepped back to allow him past. As he watched Katsu close the door and then absently make a rather futile attempt at calming his tousled locks, Sano swallowed and forced himself to say, “If you need to go back to bed, I can go…”

“No.” It was more commanding that welcoming still. “Sit. I’ll warm up some sake.” And this must be deliberate; he must know what an inducement for Sano to stay, and what an indication of the proposed length of their interaction, sake would be.

Sano found a seat at the table, which seemed at least twice as cluttered as it had been the last time he’d visited. Surprisingly, the mass of papers strewn across its face was not, as he’d expected, a collection of sketches or random-looking blots of ink or color tests, but covered in writing, not all of it in the same hand. His curiosity and unease only increased at this sight, but he exerted his will power and did not pry. The atmosphere in here was already stiff enough; he didn’t need to be jumping right in with accusatory questions.

Whether or not Katsu had the same idea, his next remark, as he rummaged through something across the room, seemed somewhat forced. “I hear you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai.”

Did he want to induce panic? Sano saw no reason he should — that would be an awfully stupid revenge, and, besides, Katsu shouldn’t even know his statement would make Sano panic — yet here Sano was panicking. It came out in his voice, for all he tried to keep his tone even, as he asked, “How do you know that? Are people talking about it?”

Katsu paused in the act of getting a demurely small bottle of sake set up on his stove, looking over at Sano darkly but also with some bemusement. “Only certain people in the Furukawatai,” he said both carefully and curiously.

This wasn’t the first time Katsu had been far better-informed than Sano had expected, but it was perhaps the most important to Sano and his interests. He wanted this cleared up right now, no matter how it increased the awkwardness between them. “So you have contacts — sources — in the Furukawatai. It’s not just gossip.”

They believe it’s just gossip,” Katsu replied, lighting his stove. “But, yes, ‘contacts’ or ‘sources’ describes them better.” And, indeed, the words sounded much more appropriate than the ‘friends’ he’d used in a previous conversation.

“Well…” Sano had already practically admitted it, and might as well not backtrack. “Yeah. I’m trying to get back in.”

“I would have thought you were done with gangs.” Seeking cups, Katsu faced away from Sano, so only by tone of voice could his attitude be assessed. And he really did seem to be trying to make casual conversation — ‘casual’ relative to talking about his own terrorist activities and Sano’s hurtful behavior, that is.

“I would have thought you were done spying on me” was, perhaps, a less casual return.

“I am. If what I do can be called ‘spying,’ then I spy impartially on everyone.”

Sano relented, for more than one reason. “Spying’s fine. Or gossip, or whatever you want to call it. Go ahead and spy impartially on everyone. I love spying.”

Katsu raised a brow as he set down their cups and took his place at the table within arm’s reach of the stove.

“Just…” Sano hadn’t wanted to come right out and ask, but his impatience and agitation now took the lead. “Why are you spying on everyone? What are you doing? Looking for new targets? Are you still planning to–” But at Katsu’s hard glance, he bit down on his words with a grunt. They stared grimly at each other for a long moment.

“I wish,” Katsu finally said softly, bitterly, “I could explain… I wish I had the right words for how much I let go of because you insisted. For how lost I felt after you made me give up everything I was working on for so long.”

“I didn’t make you,” Sano protested, his heart aching. “If you did give up on that bombing shit, I’m really glad, but I left you a choice.”

Katsu shook his head, and looked as if he would speak again, but refrained.

“And you don’t need to explain,” Sano went on. “Because I do know how that feels. I just barely gave up fighting for money, remember? How do you think I felt after that? I was doing that for years too, you know.”

With a smile only a tiny bit too sad to be sarcastic, Katsu asked, “But did your fighting aim to free the country from a corrupt government?”

“No, but it was everything I was for so long, and… the only thing that helped with the pain from back then.”

“We were both thinking of taichou…”

“Listen.” Sano shifted restlessly. “I can’t take back what I said about him and what he would have wanted. But I’m sorry, all right? I’m sorry I had to say shit like that; I’m sorry I hurt us both.”

The artist continued to frown. At last, slowly, he prefaced with a deep breath the response, “And I’m sorry I’ve been so upset with you for it. I know you were doing right in your own estimation, and I should never expect you to do anything by halves.”

Sano wasn’t exactly sure where this exchange put them. Katsu hadn’t told him what his plans were yet, and they’d really only apologized for unpleasant emotional interactions. He had to admit, though, to a lessening of the heaviness and unpleasant pressure in his chest, to the thunder that roiled inside his own head rather than outside.

I can’t take back what I intended,” Katsu went on presently. “I don’t know that I don’t still think it’s the best way to set an example for the people, to set events in motion. But that’s over.” He made a helpless gesture that was yet less unhappy than Sano would have anticipated. “Sometimes a plan has only one right time, and that time has passed.”

Sano could not apologize again, and sat uncomfortably silent.

Katsu turned and took longer checking how the sake was getting on than seemed strictly necessary. Sano believed he was staring into the heating water beneath the bottle without realizing what he saw there.

Sitting in loaded silence with Katsu was easily as bad as the forced continuance of conversation from earlier with Tokio. So anxious had she and Sano both been not to let this exact type of wordlessness fall between them that they’d manufactured cheer and chatter and ended up repeating themselves and laughing too loudly and spewing nonsense just for each to check how the other was doing and Tokio to report that Katsu wanted to speak to Sano. Still, it had been a crucial patch to their damaged friendship and a promise of less awkward times to come… which was exactly what he needed with Katsu here and now, and probably what Katsu had been aiming for when he’d first entered.

So, “Probably not ready yet,” Sano forced himself to remark. And he was about to go on about his terrible stove at home and say something about the last time he’d used it, but, recalling what the issue of that evening’s drinking had been, shut his mouth with a faint heat in his cheeks.

“Not yet,” Katsu agreed, finally tearing his eyes from the stove and resuming a normal position at the table. He didn’t look at Sano, but let his gaze range over the papers strewn between his resting hands and his friend’s. As if he’d been reading Sano’s thoughts, or as if some other set of mental prompts had led him to the same topic as Sano’s reflections, he said, “I spoke to Takagi-san the other evening, as you probably know.”

“Yeah…”

“She’s impressive. A very talented, effective woman.”

“Yeah.”

“And yet she’s held back by the way men think of women and have always thought of women.”

“Absolutely.” Sano wondered where this was going, but didn’t wonder at all that ‘the way men think of women’ had come up in the conversation between Katsu and Tokio, even if that conversation’s original purpose had only been to get Tokio to relay a message to Sano.

“It seems there are more subjects than corruption in the government people need to be enlightened on.”

Remembering what Katsu had postulated before, about Tokio also being held back by her devotion to a system that should be dismantled, and her potential to do so much more if she were ‘freed’ from that restriction, Sano said a little uneasily, “Probably more than that, even.”

Katsu nodded. He spread his long fingers out across the chaos of papers in front of him, ruffling them gently, and looked up at Sano. “So I’m going to do my best to enlighten them. I’m going to present the truth wherever I find it, and with it the idea that things need to change.”

Sano’s breath caught, and in a frantic nod-like motion he turned his gaze up and down from Katsu’s eyes to the chaos of text in front of him a couple of times. “So you’re gonna be writing–“

“A newspaper.” Katsu tapped the table gently and turned back toward the stove again. “Something easily distributed. I’m already set up for printmaking, of course, and since everyone talks to an unthreatening artist, I have, as you realized, many well placed sources of information.”

For a moment Sano couldn’t speak. It wasn’t merely relief that Katsu truly had abandoned his bombing scheme, and to all appearances wouldn’t resume it now he had this significantly less dangerous undertaking in mind. It was that Sano had seen a hint in his eyes of what he’d seen there so intensely before: the fire of drive, of faith in a tenable plan and eagerness to start on it. Yes, it had only been a spark, but the point was that Sano hadn’t crushed Katsu’s spirit or destroyed his ambition to better Japan and work toward what taichou had wanted.

That Tokio had apparently inspired this new idea only made Sano a tiny bit jealous. He knew full well how inspiring those police officers were, and didn’t begrudge it as long as Katsu had a new idea. As long as Katsu could hold onto his beliefs and desires and his personal safety at the same time. As long as Katsu was no longer looking to start a war.

Sano found a purely happy and relieved smile on his face, and himself drawing breath to speak. He paused, though, trying to get a grip while Katsu’s back was still turned to test the sake. He had to remind himself not to be patronizing, not to act like a parent whose kid has finally found something non-destructive and non-annoying to do so dad can take a nap, not to immediately compare this new notion with the old, terrible one. That was probably why, in the first place, Katsu had felt the need to work his way around gradually to telling Sano about his intentions: for fear of how his friend would react in multiple senses.

At last he allowed himself to say, “That’s an amazing idea.” It came out sounding very much like his smile: happy, relieved, approving, enthusiastic. “You can get the word out to so many people that way.”

The set of Katsu’s spine relaxed just a trifle at this, though his face remained as serious as before as he reached across to pour sake into the cup Sano raised. “If I take care to word it simply. I’ll need to keep the language accessible in order to make it as generally readable as I can.”

Sano chuckled. “Not too many kanji, then,” he advised, and sipped his sake. In light of this conversation, it tasted excellent.

Katsu smiled, his relief now clearly evident. “I have enough information for an issue or two.” He gestured with his own filled cup to the papers on the table again. “I was out late talking to all kinds of people. Now I just have to write it all up. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

“A lot of work and maybe a lot of trouble,” Sano said consideringly. “If you’re gonna be printing up ‘truths’ about the government or anything else, you’re gonna have a lot of enemies pretty quick.” It remained less dangerous than bombing government buildings, but there was definitely a risk involved.

The artist shrugged. “Nothing in this world is truly safe,” he said philosophically, offering Sano a refill. His eyes rose to meet Sano’s as he did so with a look of slight accusation. “Would you say the Furukawatai is safe?”

Sano sucked in a breath at the unexpected subject change. Pleasant as it was to recognize Katsu’s reciprocal concern, he couldn’t be sure of the wisdom of getting into details on this topic right this moment. But a quick, complicated set of reflections on Katsu’s impartial spying, the probability of his finding out eventually anyway, his potential usefulness as a source of information, his openness with Sano today and ever since they’d met again, and just how much Sano wanted things to be on the level between them convinced him to tell all.

“They won’t be when I’m done with ’em,” he said.

Katsu gave him a skeptical look.

“I’m trying to join the Karashigumi at the same time,” Sano explained succinctly with a growing grin, finding it was actually pretty fun to say what seemed like overblown dramatic nonsense so straightforwardly. “I’m gonna get the two groups to brawl so the police have an excuse to make a bunch of arrests. Especially the leaders.”

“You’re working for Saitou,” Katsu said flatly.

Sano’s grin faded at the tone. “Yeah. I’m trying to make a difference too.”

Slowly Katsu nodded, and he sipped his sake in silence for a moment. Finally he said, “I owe those two for more than just the idea Takagi-san half gave me. If I hadn’t been looking into their activities, I would never have realized just how much useful information someone like me can dig up by speaking casually to the right people.”

“I owe them even more than that,” Sano murmured.

“Is that why you’re working with them?”

“No.” Sano’s voice went completely serious now. “I really, truly am trying to make a difference. Fighting’s what I’m best at, and being a lowlife, and I’m gonna use that to get shit done.”

Katsu laughed a little, probably at Sano’s wording, and said, “Then I’m very happy for you, Sano.” And perhaps this reaction was his version of what Sano’s had been minutes before on learning Katsu’s plans. They’d each found something new to do that would, they hoped, please their dead captain.

They drank quietly for a few moments, and Sano reflected on the blessedly improved atmosphere in the room. It seemed they’d come to terms and were properly friends again, which was what Sano had wanted most in the world, at least from this afternoon and this meeting.

Eventually Katsu asked, “Why those two particular yakuza? The Karashigumi has always been big news, and I haven’t seen any efforts to take it down before. The Furukawatai is only starting to become a serious force.”

“Turns out the Karashigumi kinda belongs to this one politician–“

“Rokumeikan Hatsuo? Army Ministry?”

“Well, shit, if everyone knows, I don’t know why Saitou can’t just take him out openly,” Sano grumbled.

“That’s only a guess based on a combination of rumors,” Katsu soothed. “I doubt a man of his connections and influence could be brought to justice openly in any case.”

“Well, anyway, I guess Saitou wants to take care of the gang Rokumeikan controls before he goes after the guy himself.”

“Not a bad idea. Just a dangerous one.”

Sano grinned all over again. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to that part.”

“Bakayarou,” Katsu murmured. He tapped a pensive finger against the sake bottle, tipped it toward him to see inside, and refilled his cup. “Actually, I may be able to help you. Do you remember the organized fights they used to have in Azabuku two or three years ago?”

“The ones that got stamped out ’cause too many guys got killed?”

“Those ones, yes. They’re restarting, with much tighter security this time around so they don’t get shut down again. And as far as I know, it’s mostly Karashi involved. That is their part of town, after all.”

Sano was nodding enthusiastically. “That’s a great idea! If I can get in on those, it’ll be easy to get into the gang next.”

“And I can’t see that they’d pass up an opportunity to have you fight,” Katsu agreed somewhat dryly. “It should be simple.”

“That’s an amazing tip,” Sano said. “Thanks!”

“Of course. Any time you need information, feel free to ask. I may not have exactly what you need, but I plan to do a lot of gossiping from now on.”

“Careful,” Sano advised, “or you’ll end up as an honest-to-goodness police informant.”

“If they’re all as attractive as that friend of yours,” Katsu said with relative lightness, “I might not mind so much.”

Sano was incredulous. “Who, Saitou?”

Katsu blinked. “Takagi-san, I meant.”

“Oh. Well.” Complete openness in mind, and because the implication here was fairly clear, Sano added, “It didn’t really work out with her.”

“Really?” And Katsu definitely seemed interested in that news. “I had heard you and she were a fixed thing.”

“Good. That’s my excuse for hanging out with her.”

Pensively Katsu nodded.

Sano was pondering whether to tease him about all of this or whether he should let what charged conversation they’d had be enough for today when the sound of downpour from outside — which he realized abruptly had been going on for some time — made him suddenly sit up straight and set down his sake cup. “Oh, shit, I forgot. I gotta go.”

“Forgot what?”

“I got this anonymous note yesterday telling me to meet someone if it was raining today, so that means now I’m late.” His anxiousness first to talk to Tokio in anything like a rational manner and second to smooth things over with Katsu had driven it entirely out of his mind.

Both of Katsu’s brows went up. “That sounds incredibly shady.”

“Yeah it does. Hopefully it’ll be either fun or useful.”

“It could be someone who wants to hire you for a fight; the ‘rain’ clause makes it sound like something someone wants to keep under cover.”

Sano nodded as he got to his feet. “Anyway, it’s raining–” he pointed toward the shouji– “so I’ll find out soon.” Heading for the door he added, “Thanks for the sake.”

“Sano.”

When he turned, he found Katsu too on his feet. The artist threw his arms around the kenkaya as soon as Sano faced him, and pulled him close with a grip that would not be denied. “Stay safe,” he advised. “I’d rather not lose my brother to some stupid ambush in the rain.”

Sano’s heart clenched, and to his own astonishment he felt a prickling behind his eyes. Gruffly he replied, “You too, nichan. Don’t go asking the wrong questions.” And they avoided each other’s gaze as they withdrew from the hug and Sano turned away again to leave.

Section 6

They’d chosen the case that looked the most interesting and time-consuming of all those currently open to them, and, though it promised to remain just as interesting until it wrapped up, the number of days or hours it would pass seemed to shrink with every new lead Tokio uncovered.

Though she might do it sometimes subconsciously, she never truly wanted to retaliate against men by undervaluing them they way they undervalued her… but sometimes it did seem that male officers completely ignored the emotional nuances of cases and blundered past information whose importance couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious to a more sensitive investigator. Not that Tokio had the precise solution to this mystery yet, but with the picture coming together for her, it was only a matter of time.

Yasuyoto, the old man running the restaurant across the street from where she waited, knew everyone in the area and lived to tell all of them everything there was to be told about one another. In this noble endeavor he was aided by his funny little wife, and even an eccentrically female police officer had only to be polite, buy something insignificant, and word things in an amiable and non-threatening manner to get just about any kind of district gossip from them. This was doubtless the reason the group of local teenagers for whom Tokio now waited made the restaurant one of their hangouts: to take advantage of the information hub while still appearing totally innocent.

These hooligans, all the more docile during the day for being little hell-raisers by night, would probably show up here any time now for their afternoon snack; and once they did, they were sure to be informed with relish by the gossipy restaurateurs that a police officer had been asking about them around closing last night, and why were such nice young men being asked about by the police at such late hours? The nice young men couldn’t discuss their miscreant doings in front of the old couple, so they would make an excuse and then run — if not all the way back to their hideout, at least to some place convenient for them to talk and Tokio to eavesdrop — and she could discover whether or not they were concealing the person around whom this case revolved.

She took some pride in her makeup today. Sometimes she was forced to wash off and redraw the shadows and crow’s feet two or three times before she got them right, but today’s middle-aged woman had been convincing on the first attempt. Even older might have been preferable, but the more wrinkles she applied, the farther away anyone needed to be for her to maintain verisimilitude. As it was, with a little padding, grey streaks in her hair, and a staid married woman’s kimono (in a precisely bland color the eyes slipped right over), she was mobile, unobtrusive, and completely unrecognizable as that weird cop woman.

Why this plausible wife and probable mother of four was skulking around in a side-street small enough to be called an alleyway, in the rain, eyes glued to the restaurant across the way, might have been difficult to explain, but nobody asked because nobody saw her.

Zanza startled her by appearing about forty-five minutes after the rain had, strolling up the street without regarding the elements and heading she did not know where with purpose in his step. His bearing intrigued her, its nonchalance seeming little more than a façade that barely concealed a mixture of what she believed to be contemplation, agitation, and relief. He appeared satisfied and optimistic, but in a way that spoke of having had these emotions delivered via a turbulent scene. Had he spoken to Tsukioka, then? How exactly had that gone?

She peered after him as long as he remained in sight, trying to read him better and get some idea of what she wanted to know. Their conversation earlier had been awkward and low-key unpleasant, despite their best efforts, but also good to get out of the way and promising of better exchanges going forward; and she’d taken from it an impression of Zanza’s desire to comply with his friend’s request immediately. In fact that had been an excellent excuse for her to cut their exchange short: to allow him to get ready to go out in public (not that she suspected there was much involved in that process) so he could meet Tsukioka.

Of course she could have done some general damage control, worked on smoothing over what had happened between them, by regaling him about the current case and her need to put a bunch of subtle wrinkles and shading on her face, but the other option had seemed quicker and much less emotionally demanding. She still felt like a bit of a coward.

Her full attention returned to the restaurant as Zanza disappeared up the street. The volume of rain drumming just above her head increased every moment, and still no sign of her targets. If they were suddenly changing their habits just when she’d begun looking into them, either they were hiding Ichiro, as she believed, or they knew someone suspected them of it and were up to something else they didn’t want to fall under scrutiny. She would give them a little while longer to show up, though.

A tattered umbrella was the next distraction to come into view, and Tokio barely caught a glimpse of the face beneath it before its bearer had ducked into Yasuyoto’s. And this actually struck her as more interesting than Zanza’s appearance, though in the same vein. Not only was it the second time she’d seen Tsukioka by chance since his adventure at the Internal Affairs office, for him to show up so soon after his friend along the same street…

Well, he didn’t live too far off, and couldn’t a man leave his home and enter a nearby restaurant without all eyes upon him? But why not eat with Zanza, when they’d probably been together and had definitely come the same direction? The kenkaya had evidently had somewhere to be, but was that by his own choice or because Tsukioka had dismissed him? Zanza hadn’t seemed anywhere near as unhappy as Tokio assumed he would if the discussion with his friend had gone badly — assuming it had taken place at all — but if it had gone well, why had they separated? Did it relate at all to the fact that this restaurant was one of the district’s best information mines?

She’d seen the light of inspiration in Tsukioka’s eyes when they’d spoken the other evening, and knew he’d been on the verge of some sort of breakthrough. Did his behavior today have anything to do with that? Did he specifically want gossip from the Yasuyoto couple, or was this merely an early dinner? She wished she knew him well enough to ask, because curiosity was about to kill this cat. The best she could postulate at the moment was that, if he had some inappropriate plan, he must not have told Zanza about it; she didn’t believe the latter would have been nearly so satisfied in the wake of such news.

So the question was: did Tsukioka have some new subversive scheme he hadn’t disclosed to his friend, with whom he must then have had a deceptively placating conversation not too long ago in order to set Zanza at his ease? Tokio wanted to trust him, trust that whatever idea had sparked during their exchange the other evening had been an acceptable one. She didn’t like to think that a friend for whom Zanza had exerted so much might be deceiving him — but, though it was little to the credit of Zanza’s discernment that she thought so, she had seen too many corrupt, exploitative friendships and known too many idealistic radicals to be entirely convinced just yet.

At any rate, Tsukioka remained in the restaurant for long enough to convince anyone he’d had an innocent meal, not to mention long enough for the time Tokio had planned to give the hooligans to show up to have expired. In light of this, she decided to set the Ichiro case aside for a while and follow the artist when he emerged. If Hajime faulted her on this behavior, she could easily point out that it was his case too and she hadn’t seen him around here today. Of course he was undoubtedly doing something important — that was all he ever did — but he couldn’t deny having left her alone on this one.

Despite the excellent cover provided by the weather, she made more than a conscientious effort to remain totally undetected as she trailed Tsukioka up the wet, grey street, and he gave no sign of being aware of her. Beyond that, he acknowledged none of the few people he passed; he went at no greater speed than a natural walking pace; he seemed not at all nervous; in general, he succeeded in looking absolutely normal and trustworthy. Her misgivings didn’t necessarily lessen at this, but it seemed a good sign.

He entered a shop that sold paper and ink and emerged with a large package, which he shielded more carefully under his umbrella even than his own person; so far, for an artist, so unremarkable. After this they went in the direction of his home, and Tokio began to relax. On this little rainy day outing, at least, it seemed Tsukioka had no more sinister intentions than a bit of shopping. Or so she was ready to judge, until the moment Tsukioka recognized with a mostly unobtrusive nod a man leaning against the building’s corner in the shadows, who disappeared the moment after into the alley behind.

Her suspicions redoubled. That he could appear so very unassuming, so perfectly innocent, and still be up to something all along cast him in an even worse light than before. And that Zanza had apparently left him in such a satisfied mood and, she guessed, with no hint of suspicion that his friend would immediately after their discussion get started on some clandestine pursuit, spoke of deception and betrayal.

She spent the rest of the distance to Tsukioka’s apartment urging herself to be rational about this. There could be a perfectly acceptable, if not necessarily technically legal, explanation for the secrecy of the exchange she’d witnessed, something that fit with his new idea that didn’t involve destruction and war. Zanza might have seemed so satisfied simply because Tsukioka had, in fact, told him everything, and that everything was nothing to worry about. She didn’t have enough information yet to properly read the situation, and she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But since Tsukioka might also be planning to bomb something, and that man he’d exchanged nods with was his new confederate, she kept up her surveillance.

For the next long while she listened uneasily for any sign of unusual activity from within his home, but there was none. Indeed, but for the light still unquestionably lit within, she might have thought he’d gone to bed early, for not a sound reached her above the pattering of the rain. This, for greater concealment, she endured without her umbrella, certain her wrinkles were horribly smeared at best.

He certainly was quiet in there! Surely if he planned something for this evening, he would not be so idle at the moment? Though since she never engaged in terrorism herself, she couldn’t be certain what preparing for it entailed, and whether it wasn’t just as likely that the nod earlier had been an ‘everything is ready’ indicator and Tsukioka had only to wait until the appointed time. Still, based on what she’d seen in his demeanor as she’d tailed him, she couldn’t bring herself to believe it would happen tonight.

Of course the only way to find out for sure was to remain here until then, and she’d come to the point where she had to decide whether that or returning to the Ichiro case should be her priority — whether to give more credence now to her paranoia or her surveillance instincts, her desire to protect Zanza or to trust his friend (and, by extension, his judgment). If only it didn’t all seem to balance out so equally.

Arbitrary as her eventual decision was, she felt as satisfied with it as she had with anything today or lately. She would talk to Hajime later and bring him up to speed on all this; she would talk to Zanza when she had a chance, awkward as it might be, and find out what he knew. But for the moment, she left the observation of the artist to the falling rain.

***

The glance Sano cast around the area as he picked his way from the street down the shallow gully that sloped between two properties was observed and assessed by Saitou, who waited at the point just before where the ground took a more precipitous dip toward the river. The young man appeared appropriately suspicious, ready for anything but for battle most of all. Still, though Saitou would never wish to encourage pointless paranoia, if Sano’s correspondent had intended him harm, the bravado and carelessness with which he looked around would have availed him little walking into such a perfect ambush scene.

As the kenkaya attempted to avoid the deepest mud, the downpour reached a point where it defied credulity that so much water existed in the world, let alone in the sky above them, and details blurred any farther away than about arm’s length. So Saitou couldn’t examine Sano’s expression any further, and only by the color of his uniform did he believe Sano might guess his identity.

The young man splashed along the side of the indentation, descending the general slope, and as he drew nearer and the rain eased up a trifle, Saitou could make out the mixture of skepticism and annoyance on his face. When he’d come close enough, he said in a bit of a grumble, “So it was you, was it? I was hoping for some kind of fight.”

“You found one.” Saitou gestured and turned.

“What’s the big idea?” Sano followed obediently, and they both slid down the steep wet hill onto a flatter space where the rainwater oozed in a less confined channel into the river beyond. Scrub blocked their view of the latter in that direction, and the walls of the flanking properties rose above the bushes and behind the trees to either side, creating a relatively open — if boggy and a little cramped for the purpose — and very private space in between.

Saitou turned to face Sano. “You need training.”

With a dubiously belligerent expression, looking around at the hidden field, Sano wondered, “In this weather?”

“What better cover?”

“Why not just at night or something? Well, yeah, I guess I have shit to do at night, but… in the rain?”

“People who are afraid of getting wet,” Saitou said in a mocking tone of patient explanation, “tend to stay inside when it’s raining. Beyond that, visibility is bad. We’re less likely to be seen now than at any other time. Do I need to explain why it’s better for us not to be seen together?”

“All right, all right. You’re heartless. What am I learning?”

Saitou felt some surprise at finding Sano amenable to the suggestion of training; maybe the young man’s bravado and carelessness were more of a show than he’d realized. Good for him. The officer began to unbutton his soaked jacket, and replied with a smirk, “How not to get stabbed and knocked out.”

The scowling Sano appeared to be trying to come up with something to say. But having been so thoroughly beaten by Saitou when they’d fought before evidently left him with little defense — quite appropriately, given he had so little in general. He settled for mimicking the man opposite him and stripping his upper half… which, though he probably didn’t know it, was retort enough.

This physical admiration had crossed a line into the realm of lust. With perfectly formed shoulders, beautifully tanned skin shifting over taut muscles as Sano shivered slightly in the cool rain; with clear droplets running past prickling nipples and over near-transparent skin-tight wrappings to disappear teasingly into clinging pants, he should really consider himself luck Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion.

He didn’t realize how long he’d been staring until Sano said, perhaps a trifle uncomfortably, “What?”

Then he wondered for an extended moment whether or not to be frank. He wanted to believe there would be no harm in making his interest known, wanted to believe a casual admittance of admiration would not come like an unexpected blow… but there was still the chance it would be exactly the wrong thing to say. He dared not risk driving Sano to desert their cause — not with Sano’s role so central. The ambiguous situation with Tokio remained as well. He couldn’t discover that those two had spent more than one night together so far, yet they might be more deeply involved than that fact seemed to imply. Best to keep his own counsel as he excelled at doing.

But the part of him that longed to run his mouth over each scar on the rain-drenched chest opposite him and see if they tasted as good as they looked whispered, He’s right; you are heartless. And, “Studying your balance,” he lied, pushing that thought away in annoyance.

“Why? Something wrong with it?”

“Maybe. Try to attack me.”

Sano’s face finally took on a more pleased expression as his demeanor went in half an instant from static to vigor, and he growled in a tone surprisingly devoid of anger (for now), “I’ll do more than try!”

What followed was a sore test of temperance. Despite Sano’s initial lack of complaint, he didn’t relish the idea of altering his clumsy fighting style, and felt the need to resist everything Saitou tried to show him. This was not the true difficulty, however. Sano’s stubbornness, though frustrating, was more of a challenge, a game, and almost more endearing than anything else. Saitou’s real trial was holding to his resolve of aloofness in a secluded place with a soaked, panting, flushed, increasingly angry young man glaring at him in perfectly unwitting sexiness. No matter what Sano did, no matter how reckless or stupid the move he chose to respond to Saitou’s techniques with, it looked good, and only the cool rain kept the heat of their exercise from being a serious problem in some areas.

As the force and volume of precipitation began to lessen in preparation for ceasing all together, Saitou brought the lesson to an end as well. “You need quite a bit of work still,” he told Sano, a little breathless even himself, “so unless you have something else to do, we’ll plan to practice here every time it rains.”

That Sano did not immediately protest was hopeful, but he didn’t exactly jump at the suggestion either. “All right,” he grumbled, “if you say so. I still don’t think I’m all that bad.”

“Once you can hold your own against me, I’ll let you say that.”

Sano stuck out his tongue. God, he obviously just had no idea.

Saitou changed the subject. “How close are you to either of our gangs?”

Slicking back his wild, wet hair (futilely) with each hand in succession, Sano answered. “I’ve got some people talking up letting me back in to Tone, so I figure that one won’t take much longer. Then once I trash some guys in the fights in Azabuku, the Karashi’ll probably be begging me to join them.”

“So those are active again, are they? We’ll have to shut them down as quickly as last time as soon as you’re done with them. It’s convenient timing, though.”

“Yeah, I was pretty happy to hear about ’em.”

“Just don’t get yourself killed.” This admonishment was only half serious in tone. “Those fights have always been brutal, and my wife won’t forgive either of us if you die.”

The statement had been a bid for information about the state of things between Sano and Tokio, but its results were different from anything Saitou had expected. Sano stared at him with brows lowered, looking slightly confused and as if he hadn’t quite heard right. “What did you just say?”

Puzzled by Sano’s expression, Saitou reworded. “Tokio won’t light any incense for you if you get killed in the Azabuku fights. And as for me…” But he fell silent, watching Sano in increasing bemusement.

The young man’s mouth opened once or twice, emitting no sound. Finally it simply remained slack. His eyes were equally wide, unblinking. After several long moments he dragged his jaw up with an evident effort and said, “But you called her your… You and her are…”

Recognizing at last the source of Sano’s astonishment, Saitou could find no other outlet for his own than disbelieving laughter. And at the sound, the younger man’s expression of shock and chagrin gradually crimsoned, whether in embarrassment or anger Saitou couldn’t be sure.

At length he said, “How is it possible you didn’t know we’re married?”

“Nobody ever…” Sano spluttered his way through his explanation. “I mean, somebody did tell… but I forgot… And she uses her old family… and-and she and I–” His blush intensified as he ceased abruptly.

“Ahou ga.”

“It’s not my fault!”

“Whose fault, then? You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.”

“Just because I didn’t know Tokio is… is… ” He seemed to choke on the words.

“To have picked up so little when you were researching me isn’t very promising for an undercover agent.”

Sano ran his hands through his hair again, this time in a motion more like pulling at it in agitation than squeezing excess water from it. “Someone did mention it — I remember that now — but I didn’t really care! so I didn’t bother to remember it. I was researching the best way to fight you, not your personal life!”

“And her given name didn’t jog your memory? Nor the fact that we live together?”

“But you two don’t act like…” Sano no longer met Saitou’s eyes, and his face, if possible, glowed even redder than before. “I mean, why don’t you…”

The officer had been entertained by this exchange up until now, but Sano’s growing embarrassment was no good sign. Why would he blush so much, after all, or question intimate details if not from awkwardness or guilt about something that had happened between himself and Saitou’s wife? This was not unforeseen, really, just discouraging… but at least it served as some confirmation.

Saitou allowed Sano to proceed for a few fumbling moments — dancing around his real point, eventually trailing off, and looking again, hesitant but angry, up into Saitou’s face — before answering succinctly, “Our marriage is one of friendship and convenience. I’m not romantically interested in women.”

“Ohhh.” Sano sounded relieved and enlightened. Then silence fell just as the rain sank to a quiet, negligible sprinkle. The kenkaya once more had his eyes turned away, and obviously no idea where next to take this conversation.

Stifling a sigh Saitou finally said, “I believe we both have work to do.”

“Right.” Sano began searching for his gi. “Yeah.” Throwing the recovered garment over his shoulder with a splat against his bare skin and turning hastily, again not meeting Saitou’s gaze, he added, “So here whenever it’s raining, right?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied, and watched the young man walk off without any further word of goodbye.

Once Sano had struggled up the slippery hill and out of sight, Saitou found his own discarded jacket and absently reached into its pocket, glad he’d thought to tuck his matches into the water-resistant cigarette case before the rain started. For a long time he stood in the long, wet grass as the sun came out and dried his skin, smoking in thoughtful silence.

***

Looked at in a practical light, no logical reason existed for Sano to be so agitated about this. Understandable as it was to be a little agitated upon discovering a woman you’d slept with was married, and all the more humiliating and potentially dangerous as it made the situation to learn her husband was your boss, if you’d found out at the same moment that said boss only liked men and probably wouldn’t care you’d slept with his wife, the reaction should be negated, right? And since both Saitou and Tokio had obviously assumed he’d known all along, he couldn’t rationally be upset with either of them. So why did this bother him so much?

So rattled he couldn’t keep still, he wondered in a silent shout how many things a person could be expected to keep track of at once. He hadn’t ceased mulling over his own character and life philosophies… he hadn’t stopped worrying about Katsu and his life philosophies… He needed to go to Azabuku and impress basically the entire district, then find someone that knew about the fights so he could get signed up or passworded in or whatever it would take. He needed to find Kanno or some other Furukawatai jerk and check on his status there. He needed to figure out a way, in the middle of that, to help make Kotono’s situation less miserable. And now he really needed to get away from reflections on Tokio and Saitou and why it bugged him so much that they were married.

At first he couldn’t decide which item of business to pursue this evening — mostly because the aforementioned agitation had left his planning abilities in scattered pieces. He would like best of all to sit down calmly at a quiet bar somewhere and try to drink his head straight… but he hadn’t much enjoyed giving Tokio’s husband a no-real-progress report earlier. Saitou hadn’t said so, but Sano knew he would appreciate greater speed and efficiency. But which gang to play with tonight? They operated out of different districts, so the average night held insufficient hours to try making contact with them both.

After attempting some breathing exercises to calm himself (though pretty sure he got them wrong), eating some leftover rice that had to be finished off now or never, and confirming that the clothing he’d left draped beside the stove to dry had mostly done so, he finally managed to come to what actually seemed an obvious answer now he thought about it. If he harassed members of the Furukawatai about reentering the gang, it would make him seem desperate. They already knew he was poking his nose in that direction, and they specifically wanted him back; best to let the matter stew. The Azabuku fights, on the other hand, could already have started, and, for all he knew, the Karashigumi had no idea, as an organization, that he existed.

Dressed now in wet shoes, damp pants, and a very wrinkled gi he hadn’t had time or inclination to steam properly, he at last issued forth to spend the final light of the day carefully examining all the establishments in Azabuku where Karashi members seemed likely to show up. Taking special pains not to let it look like he traversed a premeditated route, he considered the probable schedules of such people based on his own history in a gang, and which of these bars and opium dens and gambling halls promised the strongest and most pugnacious of them.

He did this with a scowl on his face, partly in pensiveness and partly directed inward at his fixation on irrelevant facts. At least the expression matched his intentions; he’d decided the best way to attract the kind of attention he needed was to go heavy on the tough-guy act and get thrown out of a few places around here for fighting. All right, this didn’t constitute much of an act. He would have to be careful not to take it too far. Tokio (‘Takagi‘ Tokio his ass) would never let him hear the end of it if he got arrested during the course of what was essentially police work. He didn’t like to think what Saitou himself (who was just as married) would have to say about it.

A surprising amount of the time, bars that appeared to be the scummiest pockmarks on the world’s face actually had cleaner noses than their slightly less grimy and run-down fellows — possibly because they were ideal raiding-places for bored police rookies, and possibly because yakuza types, even the thugs, tended to consider themselves too high-class for such establishments. Therefore, though his own tastes weren’t so discriminating in the presence of decent drink and the absence of drug addicts, Sano avoided anything matching that description. And by the time true darkness had settled, he’d composed a sufficiently long mental list of places he thought worth visiting, and wondered idly how many of them it was safe to get tossed out of in one night.

The next problem he encountered, immediately inside the first bar, was how not to give the impression he was expecting someone or keeping an eye on the clientele, only angry-drinking or longing for a good fight. The subtle difference between how he wanted to appear and how he didn’t might make things difficult. It would be a breeze if he could drink a decent amount, fulfilling the bar’s purpose like everyone around him, but, being low on money (because a certain married man hadn’t yet given him the wage he’d promised), and wishing to remain cautious and observant and clear-headed, he had to limit himself.

Eventually, planning to keep an eye open for anyone he could insult or be insulted by in order to start some trouble, he decided on the brooding-in-a-corner look. Nursing a single drink (all he wanted to pay for) was really only convincing in solitude with a grim face, after all. And he had no difficulty coming up with a subject to occupy his thoughts and keep that scowl in place.

Might Tokio have said something to her… husband (thinking of Saitou in such terms remained almost mind-boggling) …about having slept with Sano? No, Saitou wouldn’t have failed to bring it up and work it into his mockery of Sano’s ignorance if he’d known. And she wouldn’t say something now, would she? Now they’d decided not to do it again? He couldn’t think of any reason Saitou should need to know about that. He also couldn’t think of any reason he should care so much whether or not Saitou knew, aside from wanting to avoid more mockery, but he did. Dissonance arose in his head whenever he considered having slept with Saitou’s wife. Perhaps he only worried Saitou would object to him as a partner for Tokio, believe him not good enough for her or something. But the affair had ended, so what could the officer even say along those lines?

“Gotta problem, kid?”

He’d become so lost in reflection as to completely miss that he’d been staring straight at someone for maybe quite a while. Now as he came to his senses, he couldn’t even curse himself for losing track, as this was exactly what he needed. “Name’s not ‘kid,'” he replied at a growl.

“I don’t give a fuck what yer name is,” said the object of Sano’s absent gaze. Burly and disgruntled-looking, he might be precisely the right type of person for the task at hand. “Just keep yer pervert eyes off my ass.”

Sano struggled not to show how much this startled him. He’d been very unaware of the direction his eyes pointed! But he managed to recover without letting his glower falter, and sat up straighter to indicate a greater level of engagement. “Most guys’d be proud I was checkin’ them out, but for someone as ugly as you, it’d be more logical to be scared shitless I’m just gonna kick that stupid ass out to the street.”

“You lookin’ to get killed?” the man snarled, and Sano had to work to keep from grinning at how well this was going. Not so difficult at all, really, putting on a show of this sort.

“Lookin’ to teach some cheeky bastard like you a lesson, maybe.” It took some practice to rise quickly from the benches at most bars without the movement appearing awkward and entirely backfiring even if you didn’t outright fall over, but fortunately Sano had had that practice. He stood abruptly to see if the guy would startle, and when the thuggish fool didn’t flinch, the pleased younger man added in a slightly louder tone, “Ain’t had a good fight in forever.” Entirely untrue, this, since he’d fought Saitou earlier today — right before the cop had mentioned he was married to Tokio — but the district needed to hear it.

The stranger stood as well, from a stool that took less dexterity and experience to leave smoothly. “You little shithead, I’m gonna–” But he was cut off by the appearance at his side of another man, who shook him hard and leaned up to whisper something roughly and beratingly in his ear. Sano definitely caught the words ‘kenkaya Zanza’ and ‘strong.’ So at least he had some reputation left; at least his recent loss to Tokio’s husband wasn’t the talk of the entire town.

The primary antagonist’s red face soured even further, and he pushed his friend aside mid-admonishment. Somewhat to Sano’s dismay, he said as he closed the distance between them, “You think I’m scared’a some failure who got his ass kicked by a cop? Yeah,” he added with an unpleasant little laugh, “yeah, I heard about that, Zanza.”

So maybe it was the talk of the entire town. Sano tried to plan in haste.

“Did your friend there have to tell you about that too?” he taunted as he weaved between two badly thrown punches. (His enemy had obviously taken a tad more to drink than he had.) “Does he always tell you bedtime stories?” He was buying space to think with these weak lines, but it also made him chortle a bit to see how angry the guy got.

Obviously next he must take this man out in the flashiest, concisest manner possible. But he also needed to make it absolutely clear to anyone paying attention that a kenkaya Zanza that had gotten his ass kicked by a cop still made a desirable acquisition for organized fights and for the Karashigumi. Not having a lot of time at the moment, he plunged into the first scheme he formulated without giving it much further thought.

Voices shouting at them to stop fighting or get out of the bar were converging from multiple sides, and the older man was making some new threatening statement Sano didn’t bother paying attention to. Instead, he said loudly as he continued to dodge, “Lemme tell you one too: everybody — even me — figures out eventually there’s always someone stronger than him. And for you and everyone else in this room…”

He caught the man’s right fist in his left hand, leaning back slightly so the wide upper body behind it bent forward inadvertently to follow. Then, using the strength of his legs rising from the crouch this had put him in to add extra power to his punch, he struck upward into the enemy’s stomach, lifting him off his feet and flinging him toward the low ceiling. The contact of body and plaster provided only a dull thud, since the guy’d been damned difficult to throw that high in the first place, and in the wake of the disappointing sound Sano finished his cocky statement: “…that’s me!” And he stepped aside as his enemy made a much more satisfying noise hitting the floor in front of him.

He wondered what Saitou, the husband of Tokio, would say about that move. Probably that Sano had been foolish to leave himself open for a left hook; what if he hadn’t been able to get in his punch quickly enough, and had been knocked out as payment for his showboating? Tokio, the wife of Saitou, would probably mock him for the showboating too, even if she had nothing to offer on his technique. It wouldn’t help to point out that he needed to showboat, and only did it (well, mostly did it) in the pursuit of their goals.

“And I’m still lookin’ for a good fight,” was his closing statement, rendered a touch grumpier in tone than he could have affected on his own by the thoughts he’d been entertaining.

“You need to leave,” came a voice over his shoulder. Much of the room had turned to chaos now as whoever this was threatened him, two other solid employees approached with a wakizashi and a club respectively, the downed loser’s friends clustered around to discover whether or not he’d died, and other patrons crowded for a good view and commented among themselves. Little more could be gained in here tonight.

“Yeah, yeah.” Sano waved the man behind him away with one hand, the two in front with the other. “You need to make sure your clients don’t bug me while I’m drinking.” Belatedly, already heading for the exit, he added, “Unless they’re actually worth fighting.”

The temperature outside compared comfortably well to the overstuffed bar, though the nearby gutters, still running high from the afternoon’s rain, scented the air just about as pleasantly as body odors and whatnot did within. The cloud cover had mostly passed, but a faint haze rising from the area’s various establishments colored the air, and the stars looked as dirty as the ground beneath his feet. These he moved smartly, heading for the next bar and the next fight. He wished he could gamble as he had the other night, but his near lack of funds made that unfeasible.

As he walked, he considered how he’d handled that last scenario, and decided he didn’t like it. He’d entered into it by lucky accident while distracted, then been so focused on how he would knock the guy out and what he should say to get his point across that he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the people around him. How long had that man’s sleeves been? Might Sano have missed a chance to look for a Karashi tattoo? Had any been visible elsewhere in the room?

A voice spoke suddenly in his head: “You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.” Because, yeah, Saitou wouldn’t have anything nice to say if he knew how inattentive Sano had been. He would probably connect it to Sano’s previous obliviousness about his nuptial state, and come to unflattering conclusions. And Tokio wouldn’t be much help; she was married to the bastard, after all. Besides, the only skill of Sano’s she could really attest to was…

He scowled and pushed onward, pushing at the same time all such thoughts out of the way. He had work to do: people to intimidate and awareness to attract, fights to start, and so on.

Now if he could only get the platonic married couple in his head to leave him alone while he did it.

***

The monotonous scraping of blade on wood had been Katsu’s constant companion these last few days, and without it he seemed to feel as if something had gone wrong, as if there were something he needed to be doing but wasn’t. The time had come to begin the printing process, to turn out the twenty copies of his first edition, so he’d set aside his carving tools and now faced a stack of thin papers that would undoubtedly prove tricky to find places for in his small apartment so they could dry after inking.

Something nagged at him beyond merely the absence of the previous days’ habitual sounds. He assumed it had to do with this being his initial step into a new world, a new line of work — he certainly recognized some measure of agitation concerning the public reception of his newspaper, the effect it might eventually have, and the potential dangers involved — and perhaps it was indeed limited to that. He nevertheless directed his mind toward ferreting out the cause for certain as he began to set up.

In the interest of making this a tenable long-term endeavor, he’d chosen just about the cheapest paper and ink on the market — the former much flimsier and the latter of a far lower quality than he used for artistic prints — and smallish, thin blocks of wood that often sold as remnants and that he wouldn’t have given a second glance for any other project. Each story existed on a separate block (though the main piece had stretched long enough to require two), and he’d carefully measured the space on the paper to make sure they would all fit.

Now he laid out the blocks edge-to-edge on the first sheet to be sure he’d done the calculations correctly. Confident that he had, he fetched a baren and a dish and brush for his ink (none of these ever too far from his hand). He decided to dilute the latter somewhat; after all, this first edition, and probably the second, would go for free, so he needed to conserve resources.

Along those same lines, he also needed to come up with a new artistic print that would be likely to sell. Regular nourishment formed a significant part of his life, and he would like to keep it that way.

But as he began an inking process that, though contextually different from what he usually did, he could still probably accomplish in his sleep, his head remained full of vague curiosity and worry over what kept needling him — what he’d missed, what he should be doing and wasn’t.

His distributor had signaled not only his readiness to hand out copies, but his success in locating the people he believed most likely to appreciate the content and share it in their own circles — thus paving the way for future editions. Katsu and his contact would be going about this quietly and as anonymously as possible; they’d taken every precaution. That couldn’t be what bothered him now.

Or could it? Increasingly while he inked and pressed and spread sheets of paper across his living space to dry, that woman, Takagi Tokio, kept drifting into his mind as if she had something to do with this. She, as a police officer not merely slightly acquainted with Katsu but romantically involved with his best friend, would be perfectly placed to make trouble for him. Despite what he knew of the work she did with Saitou Hajime, he couldn’t be sure she would react favorably to the suggestive or even specifically incriminating content of his newsprint. Perhaps she haunted him now due to skittishness concerning that reaction.

And yet… something about her fascinated him and seemed to draw his thoughts without needing any such excuse. He’d recalled her surprisingly often lately, and not necessarily when he pondered or labored at his new undertaking. Why should there be any reason to dwell on her today beyond what had driven him on previous occasions? On further reflection, he decided she couldn’t be the cause for his subdued anxiety either.

He’d finished the main article, and the next step was the second, starting back at the beginning of the line where the ink should have dried by now. But he hesitated, moving only slowly to gather up a few of the initial sheets and angle them toward the light to catch its reflection on any remaining moisture. Finally he set them back down in their places and reached instead for a drawer where he kept paper for nishiki-e. He had to sort through his somewhat disorganized stock before he found a size that would work, and then he extracted two pieces.

It would be wise, he’d realized, to keep a copy of each edition for himself in case he needed to reference something previously printed at a later date. And the second higher-quality facsimile would go to Sano, not only to ensure Katsu knew his thoughts on the content but as a gesture of friendship and gratitude.

As he pressed the main article’s two blocks again and replaced the wet cloth that would keep them from becoming crusted with dried ink before he was quite done with them, his movements remained slow with indecision. Because it had been Takagi-san that had largely inspired him to do this, not Sano. If he planned to make a gesture of friendship and gratitude, it ought to extend to her as well. If he truly didn’t fear the repercussions of giving a police officer a copy, he should prove it by sending her one in good faith. Perhaps that was what had been bothering him. He fetched out a third sheet of the finer paper.

He believed, printing the primary story for the last time, he’d solved his mystery. He was even able to give some thought to the kind of tray or sliding apparatus he would need to buy or build in order to lock all his blocks in place and be able to ink and print them in one go instead of piecemeal like this. But as he really did get started on the second article, he found that woman’s face once again interposing itself between his eyes and the work at hand.

“You must be an excellent police officer.”

“I’m afraid you’re one of the few men who thinks so.”

From the research he’d done, not to mention her attitude when they’d very briefly discussed this, Katsu knew Takagi-san had undertaken a constantly uphill journey, even a battle, when she’d signed on with the police. He knew many of the men at the precinct considered her as something like a pet Fujita kept around to amuse himself with. He knew, from the way they’d talked about her, that they viewed and treated her with very little respect. He knew, in short, that she couldn’t get herself taken seriously because she was a woman.

It came as no surprise, but he couldn’t understand it. He’d met her twice, studied her to some extent from afar, and heard Sano talk about her, and through all of that she’d done nothing but impress him deeply with her abilities, her effectiveness, and her moral determination. How could her co-workers fail to see it? How could anyone give her anything but the acknowledgements and admiration that were her due?

Yet men never took women very seriously, did they? Perhaps even he. His hands faltered on the third article as he made this speculation. He’d had it pointed out to him by a beautiful, fascinating woman that publicly performed notable work usually conducted by men; would it ever have occurred to him otherwise? Did he think of women — most women, everyday women, the ones that didn’t grab his attention and force him to own up to this social deficiency — as inevitably secondary, as less capable, as amusing pets whose concerns were far outranked by those of men?

He scanned the room, directing his gaze toward but not really seeing each growing copy of his first edition: a newspaper that mentioned no female even once in any of its articles.

Now a different woman’s face occupied his mental eye: a startlingly haggard face aged beyond its twenty-some years.

This contact he’d made at a market stall in Tsukiji had fallen into a strange melancholia after delivering her baby. She’d felt herself unequal to caring for the child, herself, or the household. She’d had trouble sleeping and little interest in eating, and could rouse herself from lethargy to no emotion other than anger. She’d grown distant and confused, and almost completely indifferent to everything in her life, including the baby.

Instead of seeking medical care — doctors in Europe, she’d said, studied melancholia and were developing new treatment methods every year — her husband had declared her unfit for motherhood or the maintenance of a household, and accused her of neglecting her marital duties. He’d divorced her and sent her back to her family in disgrace, where she’d spent almost a year recovering from both the initial malady and the subsequent shock. She hadn’t seen her son since, and now lived very miserably helping her parents sell fish.

Katsu had jotted all this down, omitting names, thinking, This story has merit. Then he’d brought it home and set it aside, buried it under more important men’s matters, continuing the thought, But it’s a personal or a social or a medical issue, and I’m writing a political paper.

But weren’t laws concerning marital duties and divorce a specifically political issue? Since primarily women suffered from them, no one — no man — gave them a second thought. Even he had dismissed the account as unuseful. But didn’t that bereaved mother deserve justice every bit as much as the victims of a pay conspiracy among shipping officials? Wasn’t she downtrodden and suffering, heavy with a story that needed to be told? Wasn’t her experience precisely the type of subject he’d set out to cover, to tell the citizens of Japan about?

He draped his wet cloth over the third article block and scrambled for yet another sheet of paper and a pen, as well as the notes he’d initially taken after talking to the woman. He could use the cheap ink to draft this and then rewrite it. He had to make it fit in the space he’d reserved for his fourth story, the one about the much-exploited loophole in a grains export law, and therefore must choose his words sparingly. The loophole could wait until the second edition.

How would his readers feel about this? Would it promote or discourage future patronage? Did taking this step doom his entire project to obscurity and failure right from the beginning? He was doing it anyway. Because his paper purported to expose evils in everyone’s midst, to prompt changes in attitudes and behaviors so as to improve the country. Because he believed it to be right. Because he was, and wanted to remain, ‘one of the few men.’ He wanted to be better. And because Takagi Tokio might appreciate it.

***

Though signs had all pointed in that direction, making it no surprise, Saitou yet was inexpressibly pleased that it would obviously be raining again today. Apart from the primary impetus, he wanted to get away from this Ichiro thing. Tokio, obligingly responsible, had made excellent progress despite being preoccupied with something she hadn’t mentioned — had Sano berated her for not revealing her marital status? — but, though it had seemed interesting at first, this had to be the stupidest kidnapping case Saitou had ever seen.

‘Preoccupied’ could describe Saitou equally well. The little case required little concentration, and he would much rather look forward to seeing Sano and anticipating how the young man would respond to his… well, though Saitou had tried to find another way to describe it, the best term for it remained ‘gift.’ He didn’t plan to let Sano see it that way, but the truth would be very present in Saitou’s mind at time of presentation. And perhaps he shouldn’t be engaging in courtship rituals at this point; but the opportunity, a chance encounter leading to a fortunate idea, had been too perfect.

Brushing Tokio off as the clouds darkened above them in the afternoon, he left her with no real clue as to his own plans and an instruction to continue monitoring the group of brats they believed were hiding Ichiro. All he really told her was that he’d join her again in the evening, when they could, most likely, thankfully, wrap up the case. The lack of information and the one-sidedness of the work obviously annoyed her, and he couldn’t help admitting to the unfairness of relegating her to history’s most boring assignment while he played with a panting Sano… but such was life and their job.

Sano awaited him this time, and had, though the rain endeavored to obscure it, the air of someone that had just reluctantly dragged himself out of bed. “I hope you’re not getting carried away with the carousing part of your plan,” Saitou said as he looked him up and down. To which he was inexorably compelled to add to himself, And you would do better not to get carried away in other ways, as he reflected that recently awakened Sano was no bad thing, and one he’d like to see plenty more of.

Sano yawned, shielding his mouth from rainwater with his hand, shivered, then grinned. “I can’t help it if attracting attention turns out to be way more fun than I was expecting. I’m getting into all sorts of fights; was out almost all night.”

“Any actual progress, though?”

The grin melted as if the rain had washed it off. “Nobody’s approached me yet. I’m hearing rumors about the Azabuku fights, but I haven’t run into anyone who’s obviously a member of the Karashigumi. But at least a shitload of people won’t forget me.”

“I suppose that’s a start.”

Worried, Sano wondered, “We don’t have a deadline or anything, do we?”

“Looking for excuses to drag your feet?”

“No, jerk! Just… I dunno how long this is gonna take.”

“No, there is no particular deadline. ‘As soon as possible’ is preferable, but so is thoroughness. We haven’t been working on Rokumeikan long, and you haven’t been working on his yakuza long. It may be too soon to expect concrete results.”

One corner of Sano’s mouth rose sardonically. “You know you still kinda grind your teeth when you say his name?”

Saitou assumed he meant this in a metaphysical sense. “Fortunately, I don’t have to encounter him in person yet,” he replied with a smile just as sardonic as he began unbuttoning his jacket. “We should get started before the rain stops.”

Sano had already demonstrated, both on Saturday when they’d begun this delightful exercise and yesterday, that he disliked having instructions repeated, no matter how much he needed to hear them; and the training became more and more frustrating because of it. The kenkaya’s stubbornness and belligerence even managed to distract Saitou from how attractive he was — no small accomplishment! He wasn’t an inept learner, but he tried his best to be.

Still, he remained a skilled fighter, in his own way, and had the makings of a much better one, and Saitou thought he detected improvement even just on this third day. He didn’t fancy being badgered, but he seemed legitimately to want to grow in this field. This, combined with a wet Sano that even irritation couldn’t render truly unappealing, left the officer not without hope.

It wasn’t in the friendliest of tones, though, that Saitou said, “Here,” as he held out the package of coins he’d extracted from the jacket he’d retrieved once they were finished. “The first half of your pay.”

Sano stared at the object in some suspicion, weighing it in his hand, then opened it. After a quick count, he looked up at Saitou again. “Not like I’m complaining,” he said with a laugh, “but this is a lot more than half. You cops have a hard time with math, or what?”

Saitou rolled his eyes. “There’s a purpose for the extra money; don’t spend it yet.”

“What purpose?”

For a moment Saitou considered telling him. But he decided, as he had earlier, that it would come better as a surprise. “The next thing you can’t resist buying.”

Sano appeared bemused. “It sounds like you’re giving me pocket money. You realize how many things that might be?”

“You’ll know what I mean.”

Sano’s expression shifted from puzzled to annoyed. “Why not just tell me? You can’t just give me extra money and expect me not to spend it, especially when I’m spending so much damn time at bars looking for Karashi guys!”

“We’ll call it a test, then, to see if you have any patience whatsoever.”

“Fuck that! I’m already using all my patience at the bars!”

“I thought you were enjoying that.”

“Just tell me what the money’s for!”

“Something that will help with your image.”

“What, cigarettes?”

Saitou paused in the act of striking a match to light one of the same. “How do you think cigarettes would help your image?”

“Well,” said Sano, doing a narrow-eyed mime of taking a drag and flicking away ash, “it certainly does something for yours. Maybe you want me to look like part of the team or something.”

Though interested in how, more particularly, cigarettes affected the image Sano had of him, Saitou felt it would be imprudent to inquire. “Guess again.”

“Pansy-ass police gloves?” Sano tried.

“I think it’s about time we both got back to work,” replied Saitou, who had no good retort in defense of his gloves.

“How’m I supposed to work with all this extra money burning a hole in my pocket?”

“Don’t keep it in your pocket,” Saitou suggested, donning his uncomfortably soaked jacket.

“I swear I’ll spend it.”

“And then you’ll feel like the idiot you are when the time comes.”

“If it’s important, you really should tell me.”

There are a few important things I’m not telling you. “It isn’t that important.”

“Well, then, what’s the harm in me knowing?” Sano sounded triumphant.

“Impeccable as your logic is,” Saitou said dryly, “the importance of the money’s object is not the point.”

“What is the point, then?”

“How fun it is to watch you get frustrated.”

“You bastard.”

Saitou smirked and turned away.

“Hey, wait!”

“Until tomorrow.”

He could feel Sano’s eyes on him all the way up the hill. He liked that feeling.

***

Tokio longed to talk to Zanza, but how assiduously she’d worked to make that happen left her better judgment unsatisfied. She’d been what she considered pitifully glad to have a specific excuse for seeking him out last time, and now she had another, but it seemed she remained reluctant to confront him at what she’d begun to think of as the scene of the crime.

Their relationship as co-workers of sorts and friends might, she knew well, be damaged by this delay. They needed to meet more often during this embarrassing time, not less, in order to prevent the buildup of weird feelings and skewed impressions in each other’s absence… but she lacked the strength for it today. Tomorrow, absolutely, she would talk to him. She wouldn’t allow anything to stop her then.

And for now, since she would not receive news of Tsukioka’s plans from Zanza, she might as well see what she could make of them by her own observations. Of course that would shed no light on how their conversation had gone the other day — the second subject (perhaps first in her heart) she wanted to discuss with Zanza — but it might make her feel better about the world in general and prepare her for the interaction that must without fail take place tomorrow.

Hajime had disappeared again. She would rather like to know what had him so preoccupied, but since she was putting off a (probably even more difficult) conversation with him too, she hadn’t pressed him. He’d obviously been thoroughly bored by the Ichiro case, not sharing Tokio’s fascination with the tangled emotional dramas of other people, so she didn’t entirely blame him — especially now that only the paperwork remained, which lacked even that dubiously redeeming feature. He’d also been very little help on the Ichiro case, so she saw no reason not to leave the clerical part of it to him.

So after stopping at home briefly to change into something less conspicuous than a police uniform, she made her way toward Tsukioka’s neighborhood with, if not exactly a clear conscience, at least one that had come to terms with her current decisions.

Ignorance of the artist’s agenda had her on edge. Obviously he hadn’t carried out anything like what he’d been planning before, since that could not have escaped her notice. And in the absence of that insufferable “Gougai! Gougai!” on every street corner accompanied by some headline like, “Catastrophic bombings at government offices; fires spread!” she’d been keeping her ears open for rumors that might indicate something from him on a smaller scale. Though there were always rumors, and though she wasn’t sure what ‘smaller scale’ would mean with a man like that, she judged he hadn’t made any moves yet.

But there had been the subtle signal and acknowledgment she’d clearly witnessed. It had looked for all the world like an ‘Everything is ready’ nod, and she couldn’t just let it go. You didn’t ignore head-cold symptoms in someone recently recovered from pneumonia.

Suppressing a sneeze, basically ignoring her own head-cold symptoms, she hurried on. Rain was not her favorite setting for spywork, but it wasn’t her favorite setting for paperwork either, so this course of action represented the lesser of two evils. Not that she would like being suspected of assigning herself a spurious mission solely in order to get out of paperwork; this matter really did strike her as important. It was more that she’d chosen to investigate it on her own in order to get out of talking to Zanza today. And, knowing Hajime, the paperwork would probably be waiting for her later anyway.

A surprising number of people came and went through Tsukioka’s neighborhood, considering the weather, and Tokio had to make extensive use of rooftops to reach his apartment unseen. This naturally resulted in a level of wetness approximately double what it would have been had she used the narrow streets, but even that entertained her more than paperwork. The rain, she guessed, wouldn’t keep up for more than about an hour.

Between the heavy cloud and the thick downpour, the light within contrasted eye-catchingly with the dimness outside. Unfortunately, that same rain made it impossible to catch any sound from within, so she could have no idea, until it let up a bit, what use he might be making of that light. Settling in to wait, she tried to find a better angle for her right ankle on the uncomfortable roof, brushed water periodically from her face, and watched and listened intently.

If Tsukioka were indeed deceiving Zanza, it would be another of those clues that the universe had a design flaw. After the efforts Zanza had made — and still made to this day, as far as Tokio knew — to turn his life around, it would be nothing less than a stab in the back for the long-lost friend with whom he’d been so joyfully reunited to prove himself the embodiment of the brutality and lack of rational forethought Zanza was attempting to leave behind. It made her angry to consider his pure emotions and resolution being taken advantage of… but, as in so many situations, the anger was more tired than anything. She’d seen that type of thing too often for the wrath to maintain a sharp edge.

She shifted on her slanted perch as someone hurried down the street on the other side trying to get out of the rain. As rooftops went (and on this subject she considered herself an expert), this one was pretty exposed, and she kept checking to the left and right and over her shoulder, glancing at the other three lanes from which she’d determined she might be seen. She doubted anyone would pass close enough to do so without her hearing their footsteps first, or that they would look up into the rain at a random rooftop even if they did, but her anxiousness for the weather to clear and her agitation to know what Tsukioka was up to made her restless.

It did eventually clear, and at about the time she’d predicted, but the neighborhood didn’t wait for the skies to dry to become lively again. Children emerged to splash in puddles, adults to do outdoor chores or errands or merely enjoy what remained of the day; so some time passed before Tokio, handkerchief pressed to her dripping nose, could dart down to listen at the artist’s door long enough to hear anything definitive.

Of course she wanted Tsukioka to be completely innocent (well, as innocent as any disgruntled radical; a lack of violence was really all she asked), but by now she also had a perverse half inclination to hope she would find unpleasant evidence, simply to justify sitting around in the rain. And perhaps it was this that prevented her feeling particularly relieved when she found none. The only sound audible from inside was a steady, meticulous scraping, as of metal on wood, that for a man so prolific in the production of nishiki-e signified nothing remarkable.

So for today, there remained only that ambiguous nod and Tokio’s misgivings to condemn him. Not for the first time, she admonished herself to let it go, to find something more productive to do — talk to Zanza now instead of putting it off until tomorrow, for instance.

Yet Tsukioka had obviously been struck with some more or less bright idea when she’d talked to him in the street that night. When she pushed aside the sense of flattery that came with having inspired someone, she found beneath it an intense curiosity to know what that idea had been. And did he mean good or evil by it? If she’d prompted some new revolutionary train of thought in him, it seemed almost her responsibility to find out what it was and, if necessary, put a stop to it.

Or was that yet another excuse not to talk to Zanza right away?

She feared she’d fallen into that uncomfortable state where she couldn’t put an accurate label on her own motives. Was she here — she’d returned to the roof again and begun searching for a dry spot on her handkerchief — because she truly believed she needed to be, because she suspected Tsukioka of something and wanted to protect Zanza from deception and betrayal? Or had she invented this suspicion as part of a selfish agenda only obscurely connected to Tsukioka’s guilt or innocence?

The best way to deal with this twisted frame of mind, she knew from experience, would be to walk away and let it untangle itself with time and perspective. But she didn’t have time. She couldn’t abandon the surveillance until she’d obtained proof that Tsukioka required no further monitoring… but, if she’d been clinging to this needlessly, would she be able to recognize such proof even if it were waved in her face?

I’ll go crazy like this, she thought with a laugh. Finding a path stealthily to the ground once more, she turned her back on Tsukioka’s apartment and her own folly, and hurried away before she could change her mind. Better let him bomb half the city than keep that up. Which consideration might be a fairly good indication of how seriously she believed him likely to do so.

She didn’t bother to repress her sneeze this time, only looked forlornly at her disgusting handkerchief afterward. She’d spent too long out in the rain lately, which had to be every bit as healthy as her mental corkscrews. That wouldn’t stop her from doing what needed to be done, though. Arrange a conversation with Zanza tomorrow, finish the Ichiro paperwork, deal with Tsukioka as necessary when she had more information — she would accomplish it all. Maybe one of these days she would even talk to Hajime about the status of everyone’s relationship with everyone else.

***

Two very good reasons existed for Sano to study his surroundings: first, that looking at Tokio where she sat wrapped in a blanket beside the hearth reminded him a little too much of previous in-home activities between them, especially since he’d entered clandestinely through the back door; second, that he’d never been inside Saitou’s house before, and it interested him. It was small, but seemed comfortable and in good repair (and, whatever Saitou had disclaimed, far outside Sano’s budget). Its homey touches he attributed entirely to Tokio, yet he couldn’t help thinking of it as ‘Saitou’s house’ despite it, presumably, belonging to the both of them.

“So he told me to do the paperwork and then come home,” Tokio was saying. “I was looking forward to letting him handle that, but…”

Sano forced a chuckle. “Probably better to get some rest.”

She snorted, then coughed. After a sip of hot tea that filled the room with a honeyed scent, she went on. “Paperwork may be more restful than patrolling or spying, but in general… I had to make two copies each for every heading I was filing the report under, and ‘kidnapping,’ ‘runaways,’ ‘Ichiro Tatsuyo,’ and the name of each of his five friends made for sixteen times I had to write out the same information.”

“Why’d you have to do ‘kidnapping’ when it turned out they were just hiding him from his dad?”

“Because it started as a kidnapping case. If anyone needs to look it up in the future… Anyway, I don’t envy the people at the filing office who have to copy it all forty more times and send it to all the other stations.”

This chuckle came out more naturally. “Why the hell do you guys need so many copies?”

“I’ve heard we borrowed this system of record-keeping from somewhere in Europe. I don’t know how many copies their police officers are expected to make, but we may have beaten them at their own game. Halfway through I was thinking of your friend and wishing for his woodblocks.”

“You should get someone to help like that,” he mused. “Not Katsu, though; he wouldn’t have time.”

“Why? What’s he busy with?” She asked casually enough, but Sano got the impression a lot hinged on his answer. He supposed Katsu truly hadn’t done much to engender trust or satisfaction in his friend’s two police officers.

“He’s writing a newspaper.” He withdrew from his pocket the copy Katsu had given him. “Educating people about shit.”

“What shit?” She accepted the folded paper and opened it, squinted at it briefly, then seemed to decide firelight and the dim glow of a cloudy day through the windows weren’t the best conditions in which to read it.

“Government corruption, politics, problems with Japanese society, all that shit.”

Though she sucked in a breath of concern (which made her cough again), she actually seemed relieved. Once her throat was clear, she remarked, “That could be dangerous for him. If he libels the wrong people…”

“I know. I’m trying not to worry too much, and I know he’s careful, but he’s still doing shit like you and Saitou do, only without really being able to defend himself if something goes wrong.”

“Like I and you and Hajime do,” she corrected with a smile.

For some reason this made Sano blush. He felt peculiarly, at that moment, the honor of being numbered among people he considered so upstanding and effective — perhaps in specific contrast to the wrong he’d done this one. Awkwardly he said, “It’s better than his first idea, anyway. He’s safer exposing people than trying to start a war.”

“Absolutely.” Her firm tone indicated how much she’d been concerned about Katsu’s activities. “He seems like a serious, driven person, and, as you said, he’s careful. I think we all feel violent about the system sometimes, and if he’s found a more productive way to express that…” She’d returned to the newspaper, perhaps rethinking its current legibility.

“Yeah. Definitely.” As silence settled but for Tokio’s sniffling, the restless Sano glanced at the window and frowned. “Everyone keeps saying we’ll probably get lightning but not a lot of rain today.” And he realized that, though he’d said it more to himself than to her, he had just fallen back on discussing the weather.

“Yes,” she murmured.

“Kanno’s supposed to get in touch with me soon,” he tried instead — “probably today — and let me know what Tone has to say about me getting back into the Furukawatai.”

“Good.” She’d clearly begun reading, and gave him only half an ear. “Good progress.”

“He probably thinks I have nothing to do besides sit around on my ass and wait for him to show up.” Not that he would be practicing in the field today in any case.

“Mm.” She refilled her teacup.

“And I feel like this is all taking forever!” He’d gone from grumbling to complaining more forthrightly, in part prompted by truth but largely because it was the best thing he could think of to talk about. “I feel like I’ve been looking for someone useful from the Karashigumi for half my life! I haven’t found anyone from there yet, least that I know of. And only just now I might be able to get back into the Furukawatai, and who knows what kind of bullshit they’ll want me to do to prove myself or whatever?”

Tokio glanced up. “Zanza, it hasn’t even been two weeks since you started working on this.” That she still addressed him thus might have made him uncomfortable, but by now it resembled a nickname more than anything. Yes, being here with her like this had an inherent awkwardness and embarrassment to it, but he believed nevertheless they were slipping into a comradeship that would someday become easy and close. When he’d received her summons by messenger earlier (too early, he normally would have said), he’d been nervous about the meeting; but now he decided it had been a good thought. He’d been able to relieve her on the subject of Katsu, and they were demonstrating to each other that they could be friends.

She hadn’t been able to relieve him on the subject of his crawling momentum, though. He sighed. “I guess I just thought I could do more than that in two weeks.”

“Don’t expect miracles of yourself.” Her voice had gone somewhat absent again as she returned her attention to the newspaper. “This is painstaking work, and it has to be done thoroughly. That’s why we have you on the Karashigumi in the first place.”

“At least I’d like to have something to report, so your husband can stop with all the looks.”

“My husband–” she gave the words the same emphasis Sano had used, though doubtless not for the same reason– “never stops. He just finds something else to look about.”

“Probably because he can do miracles in two weeks.” Sano’s transformation under Saitou’s influence proved this. “He expects all us lesser mortals to be able to too.”

“That’s truer than I like to admit…”

Sano sighed again. “I better get going. Wouldn’t want Kanno to find me not at home and put off talking to me for two more weeks.”

Tokio nodded.

Wishing he could say something casual and friendly to end this conversation, rather than simply walking out while she perused Katsu’s work and half ignored him, Sano got to his feet. He couldn’t think of anything, so walking out would have to do.

But suddenly Tokio drew in an audible breath, its roughness indicative of her level of congestion. She sat up a little straighter and brought the newspaper slightly closer to her face.

“What?” Sano wondered, unsure whether or not to worry.

“This…” She indicated with her thumb. “This article…” And Sano was astonished to see the firelight glint off a tear that oozed from the corner of her eye. She remained silent for a moment, but seemed to be devouring the article in question with unexpected avidity. Finally she choked out, “Have you read this?”

“Of course!” He couldn’t, however, recall anything in it that could bring moisture to the face of someone like Takagi Tokio.

After another wordless moment, she shook her head slightly and groped for a handkerchief. She pressed it to her nose and allowed the tears — now multiple — to continue. “Your friend…” She looked up at him with wide, wet eyes above the monogrammed cloth. “He’s… If you see him, tell him… I’m sorry; this is silly. But tell him he has my support.”

It seemed to mean so much more to her than that. Whatever she’d read beyond mere print, whatever had touched her so deeply, was not fully encapsulated in those words. But Sano didn’t know how to ask for an explanation. Maybe at their third meeting, or fourth, after the wedge they’d driven into their relationship, but not now. All he could think to say was a somewhat confused, “I will!”

She turned her gaze back to the paper. Sano took a step away, sensing the silence now like a noose threatening to drop around his neck. They should have more to say to each other; he should be able to ask, and she should be able to share. But that things should be right didn’t make them so. He mumbled an incoherent goodbye, and retreated.

***

Sunday did not condescend to grant them any rain — at least, no more than a moody sprinkle that did nothing for the heat. This disappointed Saitou, but, since he’d managed to choose a little case that actually required some thought, perhaps it was for the best. So, at least, he kept telling himself.

But despite not being a fanciful man, he couldn’t stop his imagination from dwelling on the weather. Sano appeared to great advantage with his gi removed and rainwater making inviting tracks down his body, but now Saitou pictured him in today’s breezy warmth: hair ruffled by the moving air; face flushed with exertion and anger (Saitou always thought of him as spuriously angry); sweat gleaming on golden skin, defining musculature and promising a salty flavor for an exploring mouth… And, really, the practice field was unfrequented enough to render the state of the sky irrelevant…

It didn’t do to entertain these thoughts. Sano wouldn’t be there, as it wouldn’t be raining — and if it were raining, none of that would apply anyway. Besides, Saitou had work to do, and borderline-erotic-fantasies did not assist his powers of concentration.

Tokio remained sick at home. She’d done most of the work on the Ichiro case (including the paperwork, which counted double), and had been conscientiously spying on Tsukioka prior to Sano’s revelation of the artist’s true intentions, so Saitou didn’t begrudge her the rest — though the case he’d chosen, despite demanding more concentration and deduction than the previous, was almost as boring as the previous, and he would have enjoyed her company. He would have enjoyed Sano’s company too, but that was just as much out of the question.

The day never improved: the case remained uninteresting; the one drug dealer’s dimwitted lackey he got to kill couldn’t even die with dignity or courage; the weather remained hot and mostly dry; Tokio had gone to bed by the time he returned home, so he was forced to eat what she’d left for him without conversation; and he entered his own room feeling rather disgruntled. And some vague but distinctly unfulfilling dream about Sano (lying in wet grass barely clad in blue in searing heat at midnight) did more harm that good.

However. The next day promised rain, so that was all forgotten.

Even the paperwork with which he started the morning didn’t bother him much. By the time he got out onto his patrol — he hadn’t patrolled in a while, so there was a sort of semi-novelty to it, and besides that, the long walk allowed him to enjoy the smell of moisture in the air — he was ready to admit that to build up a certain amount of anticipation did not prove such a bad thing… absence and fondness, after all…

He planned not to exhaust himself wondering what might or might not be going on between Sano and Tokio; but he could very comfortably wonder if Sano had discovered the purpose of his gift yet, and how he would react if he had. Saitou assumed that if the next thing Sano couldn’t resist buying had presented itself, Tokio would have heard about it and transmitted the news; or else it would be the very first thing Sano would mention this afternoon, so there would be no need to ask. As for the reaction… that was bound to entertain and please Saitou, whatever it turned out to be.

But, “Hey, old man,” was all Sano said, and that quite casually, when the downpouring afternoon found them in their practice field.

“Hello, little boy,” Saitou replied with a raised brow.

The little boy had already flung off his gi, and looked as if he wanted to be on his guard without looking like he wanted to be on his guard — at which he obviously failed, but at least he recognized the need for an attempt. Saitou’s gaze was drawn to the scar on Sano’s shoulder that he had occasioned not too long ago, though long enough for his frame of mind in Sano’s presence to have made a dramatic shift. The mark had begun to fade from red to pink; it would never be entirely invisible, but after a while it would blend in with the young man’s other scars and be overlooked by ignorant eyes (or those distracted by the rest of Sano’s enticing upper half).

Sano seemed to be debating the relative merits of starting things himself and letting Saitou attack; and that he was debating meant some progress had taken place in the restraint Saitou had been attempting to hammer into that reluctant skull. Zanza would have sought first blood regardless of the situation, and in this situation Saitou wanted to talk before beginning practice.

“Tokio mentioned you might finally have something to report.”

At these words Sano dropped all pretense of a defensive stance. Eventually Saitou would have to prove to him the foolishness of such a movement, but for now was merely intrigued by the complete transition of bearing. Evidently Sano could talk while attacking, but not yet while defending.

“‘Finally?'” he echoed. “I’m busting my ass here! Not my fault the fish aren’t biting!”

It doesn’t look busted to me, Saitou resisted the urge to say aloud, and restrained himself from making, even mentally, a bawdy reference to biting. “Well?”

“Che… Kanno said he was gonna come by and talk to me at some point a couple of days back, but he didn’t bother showing up until at least four o’clock, and I got bored as hell waiting for him. And then he had Kotono-san with him, which surprised the shit out of me.”

“Why did that surprise you?” Saitou broke in.

“It’s complicated. She was really happy when I got out of the gang before — I told you it only happened because she convinced Tone to let me — because she liked me, and she was glad I could escape from all that yakuza shit. Last time I talked to her, she wasn’t too happy about me trying to get back in. But at the same time, I think she’s secretly happy about it, because she still likes me, and I guess I treat her better than anyone else does. I don’t know why she came… She didn’t say she did or didn’t want me to come back — she can be real diplomatic like that — but she kept giving me a look like, ‘Oh, please, please come back and be nice to me again!'”

Saitou cocked his head skeptically at Sano’s squeaky-voiced imitation. “Does she really sound like that?”

“No. And I shouldn’t talk like that anyway, ’cause I really do feel sorry for her… but I wish she’d make up her mind. I still don’t know why she was there. Maybe she just wanted to see me. I was kinda surprised, actually, that Tone let her out with just Kanno as an escort. Usually he sends these four big guys with her to make sure she’s safe and doesn’t run away.”

Saitou knew perfectly well why she’d been there, with or without her guards. In the conversation he’d overheard between Sano and Kanno, the latter had used her name to try to manipulate the former into considering rejoining the gang; of course he would bring her along in person to a more formal conversation on the subject. Sano, it seemed, was too blinded by the lady’s plight to recognize this. But the subject of someone in whom the young man showed such pointed interest, and who obviously had feelings for him, was not one Saitou wanted to dwell on, so he forbore from lecturing at the moment. Instead he said, “You have a very rambling way of making a report.”

“Well, excuse me, organized Meiji-officer-san, for not conforming to the system! I’ll remember to write out fifty copies of it next time!”

Saitou chuckled. “I see Tokio has been complaining about paperwork.”

Sano grinned back. “Only a little. So, anyway, those two showed up at my door, and we all sat down to talk. And the first thing that bastard Kanno asked about was my broken zanbatou in the corner, like he was rubbing it in. I told him my cop girlfriend’s asshole of a partner chopped it up as revenge for me sleeping with her.”

The grin remained on Sano’s face, though it had turned somewhat accusatory, but Saitou did not fail to note the simultaneous slight reddening of said face. Sano probably hadn’t intended the remark as news — only as a complaint and an insult against the man that had destroyed his beloved weapon — but Saitou had been sufficiently prepared for confirmation of that relationship as not to suffer any significant sinking of heart. He chose not to respond to any part of the remark.

“So hopefully,” Sano went on when it became obvious Saitou didn’t plan to take his bait, “that’ll fit with whatever they’ve heard about you and me and her. Kotono-san didn’t like hearing it, just like she didn’t like it last time I mentioned Tokio to her, but eventually she’s gotta get the point that I’m not into her like that. Poor girl.

“But then Kanno got down to business, and he just… he’s so slimy. They want me back in the group; I know they do, and I’m pretty sure he knows I know it. But he was acting like I made the first move, like I was begging to join again, instead of him showing up in my street making veiled threats and feeling me out. Like it was some big favor he was doing me talking to Tone about it at all. He said, ‘Tone-kumichou consents to your rejoining the Furukawatai,’ all formal and serious. Then Kotono-san did this little throat-clearing thing she’s really good at that means she wants to interrupt but she’s too polite, so she just makes everyone look at her and let her talk. And she said, ‘There’s no need to understate. He’s very pleased with the idea.’

“And of course he is! Apparently there’ve been more territory scuffles with the Karashigumi lately, and someone like me is just what they need. But then Kanno started in about how Tone only consented under ‘certain conditions.’ He’s worried about how much I insisted on leaving before, and he wants to make sure I’m really serious about ‘the family’ this time.”

“And what is your re-initiation assignment?” Saitou inquired.

Sano looked glum. “No surprise you guessed it. There’s some merchant guy they want out of their way — killed or put out of business or harassed into leaving town, or however I want to do it, though I’m pretty sure they expect I’ll just kill him. I think they want his property, or he’s been a problem to them, or they want to be the only ones dealing whatever he’s dealing, or something.”

“Probably all of those options.” Saitou frowned. It had been easy to anticipate, but it could turn out to be a serious roadblock. Sano’s evident disinclination to commit this crime raised him in the officer’s esteem (where he had already been fairly high on various other counts), but would it prevent him from doing what was necessary? The entire job was dangerous and dirty, and not everyone would be suited to it; did Sano, despite his checkered past, have lines he would not cross?

“There may be a way around it,” Saitou went on. “We’ll look into his business and see if we can charge him with anything. Tokio can do it, and that will help convince your yakuza friends that your connection with her is a useful resource rather than a liability.”

“His name’s Hatanaka Motoki. I don’t know anything about him.”

“Neither do I, though I’ve heard the name. When do they want you to have this done?”

“Kanno didn’t exactly say, but he kindof implied ‘as soon as possible.’ He didn’t have to actually tell me when, ’cause I already know Tone will get impatient and annoyed pretty quick; he’s that kind of guy.”

Saitou wondered how that kind of guy could possibly last as the leader of a successful criminal organization, but it wasn’t the first time he’d encountered ineptitude, or at least instability, in a position of power that seemed to be retained by luck alone. “I’ll look into it as soon as possible,” he assured Sano.

“Good,” the young man said with an emphatic nod. “‘Cause I really don’t wanna go kick some guy’s ass just because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I don’t want you to either,” Saitou replied.

The little lopsided smile Sano gave him seemed to convey gratitude he perhaps wasn’t comfortable speaking aloud.

Judging this to be the extent of what information and plans they could exchange for the moment, Saitou commenced the day’s training with a very sudden and clearly unexpected attack. And a resultant cry of “Bastard!” from his victim finished the conversation up nicely.



<<5

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 section 1, please see all these Productivity Log posts.

None of the notes on the segments in section 2 are very interesting, but if you want to see them, check out these Productivity Logs.

For section 3, see this, this, and this Productivity Log.

For section 4, see this and this Productivity Log.

For section 5, see this, this, this and this Productivity Log.

For section 6, see this Productivity Log.

He Can Be Taught

He Can Be Taught




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

Heretic’s Reward

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

"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 February 25, 2020.

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
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
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
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces


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: