Aku Soku Zan(za) (2)



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

Last updated on May 26, 2019

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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.

None of the notes on this part of the story are very interesting, but if you want to see them, check out these Productivity Logs.


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



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

Last updated on May 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

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

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

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

“What did you find out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

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

“You will when you hear my message!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

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

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

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

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime snorted derisively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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