Heretic’s Reward 25-28

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 25 – A Small Gathering of Malcontents

“You don’t know what it’s been like.” Sano tried not to evoke the image of a petulant child complaining about having to play with the least popular kid in the village, but it wasn’t working very well. “He just goes on and on and on about his fucking swords and how he got every single fucking one of them all fucking day.”

Katsu, often morose, excelled at keeping a straight face even under provocation, but that wasn’t working very well either. This was essentially the first thing Sano had said to him tonight, after they’d walked together in tense silence — giving the ‘hiding in plain sight’ theory its initial test — from the thieves’ guild headquarters through town to the inn where the meeting was to take place; Sano hadn’t dared speak until they were upstairs in the privacy of the rented room they’d decided was the best place to hold a small gathering of malcontents, and that he’d chosen this complaint to get started with lent it even greater strength (and probably amusement to Katsu).

“Even if I try to change the subject, he drags it back to fucking swords after not too long; it’s the only thing he wants to talk about!” Sano was watching as Katsu examined the room carefully and checked for any defect of layout that might be problematic for their secrecy, but he wasn’t paying close attention to the details of Katsu’s actions in his frustration and the relief of getting this all out into the open after what had felt like the longest evening, night, and ensuing day of his life.

“He’ll talk about swords in general, or other people’s swords, for a little — swords he’d like to steal, or swords he’s heard of in history or whatever — but then he goes right back to his own fucking swords, and it is the most boring bullshit I’ve ever heard in my lady-damned life!”

And of course what Sano couldn’t mention was how much he really needed conversation that wasn’t boring to stave off things he didn’t want to be thinking about. Whenever his mind wandered from Chou’s sword-talk — which happened, or at least threatened to happen, very frequently in light of how dreadfully uninteresting that talk was — it tended to alight on the memory of Korucun’s weak smile as he died, his bloody figure on the ground where Sano had left him, and the still-looming question of why the hell he had sacrificed himself for a stranger. The shadows of the thieves’ guild even somewhat resembled the shadows in the street that night, dredging up all the emotions of those events poignantly in Sano’s heart.

Finished and seemingly satisfied with his inspection of the room, Katsu came to face Sano and wait patiently for the end of the rant.

“I thought being a ‘rebel spy’ would be exciting and dangerous, even though some of what I’ve been doing so far has been a little boring — talking to people looking for information for days and days and shit — but I never thought I’d end up in some cellar in Yumi’s armpit listening to some moron Schoukaff guy who crawled out of Misao’s ass going on and on all fucking day about his Kaoru-damned swords!”

Katsu’s previous expression of repressed amusement had turned skeptical now, and Sano realized the reference to Misao’s ass might strike the friend that had expressed himself unable to disbelieve in that particular lady as at least somewhat offensive. How frustrating it was to have to consider such things!

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just… how did you deal with that guy for so long already?”

Katsu shook his head. “Just be glad he didn’t want to come to the meetings.” Chou had stated he would be happy to take part in any endeavor that would help get Kenshin out of captivity and back into the open where his sheath could possibly be stolen, so long as that endeavor was fun in and of itself — and evidently he didn’t think these meetings were likely to be all that entertaining, and had opted to sit around in the dark (probably talking to himself about his swords) until there was something more interesting to be done.

With a frustrated sigh, Sano finally took his own careful look around the chamber. It was the inn’s biggest, and in addition to the usual accouterments of such accommodations — including, in this case, four beds — was also fitted with a larger table than usual in the resultantly larger space. It would still be crowded if all the people that had agreed to come actually showed up, but better than trying to talk privately down in the common room.

“This’ll work,” Sano said belatedly. “Thanks for renting it.”

Katsu nodded, and moved to take a seat at the table. About half an hour remained before he needed to go downstairs and start directing people to the appropriate place. “If there are any problems,” he remarked as he settled, “probably the best way to get out of here will be the main hallway and the stairs down into the common room. Anyone waiting in the street outside would probably expect you to come out the side entrance or even the window.”

“Just me?” Sano wondered, joining him at the table.

“Well, you’re the wanted one. The rest of us could hopefully blend in with the inn patrons or claim some other reason for meeting.”

Dourly Sano nodded, glad to have that plan in place. Careful as they’d been, it was impossible to say whether or not everyone they’d talked to was really on their side. Any one of the attendees could be leading Soujirou’s people here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. Of course, Katsu could have arranged for Soujirou’s people to be here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. But Sano was still trying to avoid such suspicions.

“Take a look at this,” Katsu said next, pulling from somewhere — Sano thought he kept stuff in his hanging sleeves — a folded piece of paper and offering it over.

Upon opening the thing, Sano found it to be a work order for another set of posters, and for half an instant his heart clenched… but it wasn’t as if he and Hajime could be doubly wanted, after all. “Festival of the Divine,” he read out. “King Soujirou I of house Gontamei will do honor to our patronesses Yumi, Misao, Megumi, Tomoe, and Kaoru at the opening ceremonies of a daylong festival on Yumifyo 55, a Mis’hyou. Come to the palace plaza and witness the faith of the king and the blessing of the Divine Ladies, then join in the feasting and revelry.” He looked up at Katsu with a frown.

“They delivered the order this morning, so that’s what we’ve been working on today. We’ll have them up tomorrow sometime, so people will have a good three weeks to get ready for the festival.”

“Including us,” said Sano grimly.

“I thought this might be a good time to target Soujirou.”

“Not just that…” Sano stared at the order, still frowning, particularly at one specific line, which he presently reread aloud: “‘Witness the blessing of the Divine Ladies…’ Hajime knew this was going to happen…”

Katsu’s curiosity as he asked, “What?” seemed inspired by the somewhat wondering tone that had colored Sano’s last statement.

“He said whoever was behind all this would have to make some kind of show of the ladies’ approval to make sure everyone was willing to follow Soujirou.” He jabbed a finger down at the text in question. “This is it. This ‘opening ceremony’ thing is going to convince everyone the ladies are on Soujirou’s side and it’d be blasphemy to oppose him. That’ll be the end of anyone going up against him, if it’s convincing enough.”

Katsu was frowning now too. “That’s an excellent point, and I think you’re right.” His eyes fell to the work order as if it would give him answers, and he finally shook his head and said, “We can’t let it happen.”

“Got any ideas?”

They both sat silently for several moments, thinking, and finally it was Sano that spoke again. “I guess there’ll be a lot of guards and knights there at the ceremony, and we’ll need them to be occupied if we’re going to get at Soujirou. We’re gonna have to ask people to fight, aren’t we?”

Katsu nodded grimly. “I thought it would come to that.”

“But a lot of people don’t normally carry weapons…” Sano’s tone, like his thoughts, was a mixture of musing and dismayed. “How are we gonna get a bunch of armed people onto that plaza without it looking suspicious? And how will we keep Soujirou from just running right back into the palace? And how–”

Firmly Katsu cut him off. “We need more details before we can make definite plans. We’ll have to see what information we can get out of people who work at the palace, and anyone working with Soujirou’s people on festival setup. We should be able to figure out how things will be laid out and what the order of the day is going to be, and then we can decide how to move.”

Seeing the wisdom in this — though it did mean another tedious span of waiting for information, undoubtedly broken up only by Chou’s sword-talk all over again — Sano took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

“And I think you should bring Hajime into the city.”

Though Sano’s heart gave a little leap at the idea, still he couldn’t entirely keep off a dubious tone as he said, “Just yesterday you were saying I shouldn’t do that.”

“I know.” Katsu looked conflicted. “But I’ve been thinking about it further today, and… it’s a risk you’re going to have to take eventually, and I think now’s the time. We’re going to need him to help us plan the attack on Soujirou, and for the people we’ll be meeting with we’re going to need him as a rallying point now more than ever. You’ll help with that, of course, but if–”

“Me?” Sano broke in, surprised, distracted for a moment from the topic of Hajime. “How will I help?”

Katsu smiled. “You’re a rebel spy whose face is on posters all over town. And in that outfit–” he gestured with evident amusement– “I don’t think you can help being something of an icon.”

Sano took the cuff of one sleeve in his hand and scowled down at the shiny blue trim against the translucent orange body of the garment. Irritably he began slapping the sleeve against the table. He couldn’t think of anything to say, either about the shiiya (or the orange-striped blue pants that went with it) or about his supposed status as a rebel icon.

“If,” Katsu resumed, still smiling, “we can promise these people Hajime will be present at our next meeting, that will be even better. I think that will really solidify our efforts.”

Sano remained silent, busy with unpleasant thoughts. Katsu was right about a number of things: bringing Hajime into the city was a risk they had to take eventually; and Sano would love to be hiding out with Hajime instead of just Chou, to have someone rational to wile away the dull hours talking to instead of listening to tall tales about stolen swords and blacksmiths’ touch-ups while they waited for the information Katsu would now be their primary resource seeking. And Hajime’s input on the festival matter would be invaluable, and the promise of his presence undoubtedly would be an excellent benefit to the meetings they would be having over the next few days.

But this could also be an excuse to entice Hajime out of hiding so he could be arrested. Katsu could have been working with Sano, putting up a front of loyalty, only because he was after a bigger fish. Surely the reward for Hajime, and the accompanying prestige of having been the one to bring him in, would be far greater than for a mere rebel spy in a stupid outfit. Though Katsu might indeed be angling for both.

Sano just didn’t know what to do with these suspicions. There was no logical reason to entertain them, but simultaneously he couldn’t seem to shake them. He hated himself for doubting his friend, as well as for lingering in an emotional state that might be specifically detrimental to their efforts, but he couldn’t stop. Though the fear that Katsu might betray him seemed abstract and incredible, the fear that Katsu might betray Hajime was concrete, cold, and consistently present. Would Sano be contributing to that betrayal if he brought the knight into the city now?

Katsu reached out all of a sudden to arrest the perseverent motion of Sano’s hand. Sano relinquished the slapping of his sleeve and dropped the latter to hang as usual, looking across into the artist’s face. What else was there for him to do at this point besides go along with Katsu’s plan? Nothing, he supposed. So finally he said, “After all the meetings I’ll go talk to Hajime. See if he feels like it’s a good idea for him to come into town.”

“If we ever feel like the thieves’ guild is too dangerous, we can relocate to the printmaker’s.” Katsu seemed to recognize Sano’s need for reassurance, though whether he read the emotions behind that need was a matter of question. “I’d rather not go there, since I doubt Deikon or his family or his other apprentice are going to be on our side.” Here he held up the work order he’d re-folded, and shook it slightly before replacing it in his sleeve. “Though if the new regime keeps demanding projects at a discount, even Deikon may come around eventually. Probably not soon enough. But at least his shop has a big cellar with room for a few people to hide out in at a pinch.”

Sano nodded. Katsu had mentioned before where the printmaker’s shop was located, and it was good to have this option in reserve. Everything was starting to feel precarious and uncertain, and the meeting hadn’t even begun.

As if reading his mind, Katsu stirred. “The bell’s going to ring soon and I’ll have to go down. We need to decide how we’re going to handle things tonight.”

Again Sano nodded, and Katsu launched into a list of suggestions on what topics, specifically, they should cover, in what order these should be discussed, what arrangements needed to be made, and what to do in the event (not unlikely, he believed) talk started to get out of hand or arguments sprang up. Sano mostly just agreed with everything — including, grudgingly, the idea that Katsu would have to reference some religious nonsense — and found himself somewhat unexpectedly reassured. He wouldn’t have known where to start arranging a gathering like this, and his friend’s detailed proposals made him feel a lot better not only about the meeting, but about Katsu’s intentions.

Katsu rose at last and went down to the common room, leaving Sano impatient and nervous for what was to come. Before he could even pace the room twice, however, he heard the five knocks (had Katsu deliberately chosen that damned religious number?) of the first person up the stairs. It turned out to be the first people up the stairs — there were three of them — and they’d barely had time to give Sano’s borrowed outfit some surprised looks of assessment, and comment that they’d recognized his face on the wanted posters, before the next person arrived.

Any awkwardness Sano might have felt at the unusual circumstances of semi-introduction and waiting around for the night’s doings to start was dispelled by the fairly steady stream of newly arriving others. The chamber became more and more crowded and warm, but at least the group had the sense — probably prompted by Katsu below — to keep their conversations relatively quiet as they waited. That many even relatively quiet conversations, however, in such close proximity, made for an agitating buzz of sound Sano intensely hoped wouldn’t be heard from outside.

Eventually twenty other people were packed in with him, lined up against the walls, seated on the beds and at the table, or just awkwardly standing next to each other facing Sano, who was consequently trying to avoid fidgeting and to appear calm and in control. Not a small amount of relief filled him when Katsu at last appeared with the final attendees. Any latecomers, with no guide remaining in the common room, would not be participating, but having two dozen people here to discuss things was not only a pretty good turnout, it was about as much as the rented room could handle.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu began as he made his way through the quieting crowd to the table, onto which he climbed to stand above the heads of the gathering for maximum visibility and audibility. Sano, wondering why his agitation was only increasing even though Katsu had rejoined him, followed him up. Looking around at the many eyes watching them curiously, Sano thought this was probably the scariest thing he’d ever done.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu repeated. It was a predictable greeting, and his tone seemed to indicate he might be just as nervous as Sano about addressing so many people on such an uncertain topic. But he went on without hesitation to assure everyone, “Your presence here does not commit you to anything. We are making plans, yes, but all you’re agreeing to do right now is talk. Even so, we ask that you keep quiet about this, for obvious reasons.”

A lot of nodding and a murmur of assent and appreciation moved through the room. So far, at least, everyone seemed pleased to be here and eager to hear what Katsu and Sano had to say.

Katsu cleared his throat, even more obviously than before trying not to appear apprehensive. “The issue is,” he began, “that not everybody in the city is happy about the new king. I would guess not everybody in the kingdom is happy about it, but we’re here in Elotica where something can possibly be done about it.”

More agreement from the group. Sano considered this a good sign, a good start.

“As a king, Kenshin has always been a little too easy-going. I think we all know that.” As Katsu began with the agreed-upon opening topic, ‘what we like about Kenshin,’ he started to ease into his role of public speaker a little more. “He lets criminals off too lightly, he’s a little too content for people to police themselves in most matters, and even his lawmaking process sometimes seems a little…”

“Lazy,” someone supplied from the crowd. There was general laughter, but Sano was heartened to notice it sounded good-natured.

Katsu nodded his acknowledgment. “These are absolutely problems. Nobody is going to claim Kenshin was ever a perfect king. But not only do these defects have very little negative effect on the kingdom as a whole, we have to keep in mind the reason behind them: that Kenshin believes in the goodness of people. He believes even criminals deserve a second chance, that people have the capacity to behave well in their various fields, and that laws are more of a last resort than an immediate necessity.

“This may be a weakness in some areas, but in others it is specifically a strength. Kenshin is motivated by kindness and trust, and a king that loves and trusts his people is a good king who will do what is best for them.”

There was some uncertain murmuring, and Sano, though not really wanting to speak, felt he had to jump in. “The point is, Kenshin’s a good man. He might not be the best king ever, but, hell, which of us would be? He was trying his best, and he knew what was right and what was wrong, and he had good people around him to help out.” Of course much of this was drawn from what Hajime had said about his deposed superior rather than any personal experience on Sano’s part, but he thought it worth offering nonetheless.

There followed a discussion of various impressions of and experiences with Kenshin during his time as king and even before. It was rather incoherent — no surprise, given the number of people in the room — but seemed to bear out the general point. Then Katsu waved for silence, and moved on to the details Sano had been less looking forward to: Kenshin’s level of religious devotion. Though at least this was a fairly solid topic in favor of the former king, since that devotion was evidently significant and generally acknowledged.

It did start another complicated discussion, however, this one much closer to an argument than previously, when somebody wondered whether Katsu wasn’t a heretic just as Sano was and trying to score cheap points by referencing a religion he didn’t actually subscribe to. Then they had to debate the question of whether and to what extent a heretic could possibly support a religious king, discussing the hypothetical motivations of such a heretic as if Sano weren’t standing right there in front of them and capable of answering any questions they might have. Eventually Katsu had to oil the waters by bringing up the rather loathsome point that Kenshin had always allowed a certain amount of freedom in religious observance, no doubt trusting in the goodness of the human heart to bring all heretics back eventually to where they needed to be, and that therefore even so devout a man would have no qualms being assisted by a nonbeliever in the matter of regaining his throne.

“And I hear the new guys are trying to make laws about that,” Sano said. Though still nervous, he too had relaxed a trifle as the meeting had really gotten going, and he spoke now more or less with ease. “They may end up wanting to kill people like me, but it won’t just be heretics that kind of bullshit hurts. I don’t know exactly what they’re planning, but do you really want somebody up at the palace telling you how to worship? What you are and aren’t allowed to do, how often you have to go to services, that kind of thing?”

Katsu used the discontented muttering that filled the room in response to this as a means of transitioning to the second point, ‘what we don’t like about the new regime.’ “And that isn’t the only suggested change to national policy we’ve heard about. As you can see, Soujirou wants to tighten things up — more regulations, more restrictive regulations, perhaps a complete overhaul to our legal system. This may or may not be a good thing in general or in specific, but what’s evident is that he isn’t coming from that place of kindness and trust that Kenshin always was. We may have been longing for a more efficient bureaucracy, but we can’t count on Soujirou to have the people’s best interest in mind.”

They wasted some time then on incredibly and unnecessarily detailed tangents regarding legal minutiae — both laws in existence the company wasn’t fond of, and laws hypothetical the company would like to see in place. Eventually Sano felt the need to break in again, once more with ideas he’d originally gotten from Hajime. “And even if he does make a couple of good changes, we can’t forget he was willing to throw Kenshin into prison somewhere and just take over, going against all the laws and traditions I can think of. That makes him a criminal, and a criminal’s always going to commit another crime sooner or later. Do we really want someone like that ruling the country?”

This, of course, led to a divergent debate that was half about criminals and whether they should be welcomed into various social roles (and whether, as Kenshin seemed to believe, they deserved a second chance; and whether it wasn’t hypocritical to excuse some flaws of character in the previous king while condemning the usurper for others), and half about Soujirou personally. Though the young prince had made a charitable pilgrimage to the town of Enatio some months back, and apparently done a lot of good there, which everyone present remembered — that and not a lot of the repressed details about his kidnapping as a child — it seemed the general impression of Soujirou was neither particularly good nor particularly bad: he was just another rich noble.

Eventually, though, Katsu and Sano did manage to move on to the third point on their list, ‘what we fear may happen if things go on like this.’ It was a vague subtopic, which might have actually been for the better in this case: more effectively than knowing exactly what was coming, shadowy concerns about too-restrictive laws and as-yet-unknown criminal behaviors on the part of the very ruler of the nation helped to make the point that things were likely to deteriorate rather than improve under Soujirou’s rule. Few members of the group had anything concrete or particularly useful to add — for all they tried to add it insistently and at great length — except for one woman with a specific concern she didn’t hesitate to lay before the company.

She didn’t give her name, probably in the interest of safety, but Sano thought he would remember her face: a round, friendly visage that looked all innocent pleasantness except when, every once in a while, it took on a shrewd, calculating expression that was a sudden window into the canniness and determination underneath. She was, she told them, an officer of the Etoronai merchant’s guild here in Elotica on a (now very extended) business trip aimed at organizing a branch of the guild here in the capital. Not only was all the negotiation progress she’d made at the palace now lost, necessitating she start entirely over once things had calmed down, she couldn’t be sure how receptive the new regime would be to the terms she and her associates back home had so carefully drawn up to appeal especially to Kenshin. If the previous status quo could possibly be restored, things would be a lot easier for her. And this wasn’t merely a complaint aired with no action taken: she had, she assured them, a decent amount of influence among merchants across the kingdom, including here in the city, and would gladly bring to bear that influence as needed in this conflict. Sano and Katsu were surprised and pleased.

The penultimate list item, ‘the need to gather weapons and be ready for a fight,’ was perhaps the most difficult to insinuate into the minds of those that had committed to nothing by being here. In fact, it was this point in particular that demonstrated to Sano exactly how lukewarm the general reception here was. Yes, a lot of discussion had gone on during the last two hours, but as it turned out, most of it had been exactly like all the talk leading nowhere he’d observed in the inn common rooms he’d been frequenting during his trips into the city all along. This was extremely discouraging.

He’d determined gradually during the course of the meeting that maybe nine of those present were individuals he and Katsu had spoken to and specifically invited, with the other thirteen being guests brought by the initial set. Since they’d done most of their recruiting here in the red district, it seemed likely that perhaps half as many people would show up to each of the other meetings. And if that estimate was correct, they would end up talking to around sixty people total. How many would actually commit to the cause? Half of that? A third of that? It seemed this grand resistance was likely to consist of no more than twenty or thirty people. Whatever they eventually decided to do had better not be anything on a particularly large scale.

They didn’t mention the other four meetings just like this (not just like this, Sano fervently hoped) planned for the immediate future, but anyone with an ounce of sense must have anticipated them. What they did announce was a larger assemblage to be held two weeks from now on or around Yumifyo 50 — exact time and place to be determined, and that information to be disseminated to everyone currently present at a later date — whereat more solid plans for disrupting Soujirou’s rule would be discussed. Though no one protested the idea, neither did anyone seem particularly enthusiastic about it… until they learned that royal knight Hajime would be present at that time.

It was a risk making this promise at all, since Sano hadn’t had a chance to talk to the knight just yet, but it seemed Katsu had been right: though Sano obviously intrigued this crowd, Hajime was a source of significantly greater interest and possibly inspiration. Voices sounded more enthusiastic and assenting, comments about upcoming events more engaged and proactive, and there were even some definite promises of attendance regarding that bigger meeting, once the royal knight’s name had been brought up. And it wasn’t as if Sano didn’t agree; he too was inspired and proactive in response to his involvement with Hajime… and in fact might have felt, unexpectedly, a little jealous at everyone else’s show of interest in the man that had been his companion (sometimes exclusively) ever since he started this venture. But the point was that they were engaged; that was all that really mattered

Eventually the whole thing broke up, without ever having been raided or otherwise threatened in any way. The group dispersed gradually in small portions out various entrances, as subtly as it was capable of doing, leaving the exhausted Katsu and Sano behind in a room that now felt overly large and seemed to echo with the many tones and schemes that had previously filled it. They’d survived the process. They’d taken their first real step toward forming a serious resistance, however small it might turn out to be.

And now they had to spend the rest of the week repeating the performance four times over.

Chapter 26 – The Visitant

The sky was a milky blue that promised later cloud cover and rain, and Sano’s steps were light beneath it. Not Chou’s stupid sword talk nor the memory of four meetings essentially the same as the first (if less heavily attended), not his concerns about Katsu or his very different concerns about Korucun nor his underlying uncertainty and agitation about the situation as a whole with Soujirou’s festival looming and probably only a very small group of people to resist it — none of these could dampen Sano’s mood as he made his way out of the troublesome capital and back into Enca to rejoin Hajime.

Despite the success thus far of the borrowed outfit at preventing people from suspecting him of anything but phenomenally poor taste, he was glad it was accompanied by a hood, be that article ever so translucent to match the shiiya, especially on the more sparsely trafficked path — where he certainly stood out — from one of the non-checkpoint Elotica entrances around to the smaller town. His biggest challenge was to refrain from walking as if fully aware of his absurdity of attire in addition to his wanted status and drawing even more eyes than he was already destined to.

In fact that was not true. It was perfectly simple to walk as if he felt exactly the way he did: happier than he’d been in a week and eager to get back to the inn. But he didn’t think that walk was likely to do him any disservice; it fit with his bright colors.

It hardly seemed a matter of question, today, whether or not to stop in the market for some breakfast, and Sano found himself traversing the busiest street looking for the freshest stack of fruit almost without even thinking about it. He occasioned some smiles as he made his cheerful purchase, then had to work hard to restrain himself from juggling the shining apples as he moved on through the crowd. The ridiculously delicious scent emanating from a baker’s shop tempted him soon afterward, but, preferring to avoid the notice of the red devoted currently examining the steaming wares held by an employee on a large tray just outside the building, he didn’t stop even to look.

“–so much more shopping to do all of a sudden,” the devoted was remarking in a wry tone.

“Yes, I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine,” the baker sympathized. “What a hassle for you.”

“Well, you can’t say no to the white, but those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are.”

Interested, Sano had slowed to listen, but, feeling conspicuous, now moved on before he could catch the rest of the red’s complaint. He hadn’t heard anything in Elotica about Misao’s new white devoted being in Enca; it must indeed be a last-minute visit! Scant sympathy as he felt for any devoted, he couldn’t really blame the guy: he too might want to get out of a place where people of the rank he’d just assumed had recently been attacked and the one closest to him murdered. He did wonder, though, which lower-ranking follower of Misao that left to sit on the Devoted Council. Had Soujirou and his people had anything to do with this? If so, what did they gain from it? Sano knew nothing about the Misao golds, nor which of them had been made the new fourth-wash, and therefore had no guesses. He would have to talk to Hajime about it. That and any number of other things.

But he didn’t need the unoccupied inn chamber with its beds stripped of linens to tell him Hajime was gone; the cracked door that swung open without requiring a key in its broken lock alerted him even before he burst into the room and looked frantically around. And it took no more than an instant for his heartbeat to accelerate to a gallop. Blood roaring in his ears and a coldness in the pit of his stomach, he tore down the hall and the steps — the main staircase this time — straight for the innkeeper’s office. The door slammed violently back against the wall as he rushed in bellowing somewhat incoherently, “Where is he? What happened??”

Immediately on her feet, visage dark, the innkeeper responded to his presence with every bit as much intensity as Sano himself could command: “You get out of my inn! I don’t ever want to see you around here again!”

Fists clenched, Sano advanced on her. “Where is he?

“Before dawn, four men came and–”

“Bullshit!” He hardly knew what he shouted into her face, and only a barely conscious awareness that she was no warrior kept him from taking hold of her shiiya and shaking her. “As if just four men could ever–”

“For your information, you trash,” she yelled right back at him, “they dragged my wife up there and threatened to kill her if he didn’t go with them! That’s what I get for looking the other way and renting rooms to suspicious people! I want you out of here now, and don’t you or any of your criminal friends come back here looking for service, ’cause I’ll send for the guards if I ever see your lousy faces again!”

Horrified, Sano took a step back and stared at the woman. There was no reason to think she might be lying, and her emotionality seemed perfectly justified under the circumstances. In fact it was pretty impressive for her to be standing up, without a weapon in sight, to a raging Sano whom she believed to be a criminal. But fury still sounded in his voice as he demanded, “Who were they? Where did they take him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.” She pointed vehemently. “Get out!”

Sano was surprised to find the door the woman indicated already under his fingertips, as if, anticipating her lack of useful information, he’d already moved without realizing it. He paused, though, and took a deep breath. “Is your wife all right?”

The innkeeper too calmed just a trifle, perhaps realizing he was sincere in his inquiry. “She’s fine. Your friend surrendered as soon as they threatened her.”

“Of course he did,” Sano muttered, and left the inn.

Still irate and aghast and now dizzy as well, as if he’d taken a blow to the head, he staggered out into the street, wondering what the hell to do next. The thought that he had to find Hajime reiterated itself so continually that it got tripped up by its own repetition and didn’t allow any subsequent reflections as to the how of the matter. He must, he must, he must… but he couldn’t get any farther than that. It would help if his heart would beat properly and the world’s spinning would diminish.

Between buildings and around corners at random he stumbled, probably drawing all the attention he’d managed to avoid earlier by crashing into people he didn’t see and whose indignant remonstrances he barely even heard, and with an agonizing slowness recovered his presence of mind. Yes, he had to find Hajime. And this wasn’t helping him do so. He looked around sluggishly — he would have expected his movements to be so much quicker, what with all this frantic energy pounding through his veins — and began to take stock of both his surroundings and what he knew of the situation.

Someone had known where to find Hajime. Just as the assassin had been well enough informed to locate a rebel spy in the purple district of Elotica, so these four men had managed eventually to pinpoint the location of the deposed king’s chief knight. And they’d known how difficult it might be to capture him; they’d taken the precaution of securing a hostage before approaching, and even then had felt it expedient to break open the door to his room and give him as little time as possible to respond. They’d known their business. But where would they have taken him from there? Surely four men with a fifth held captive among them, even before dawn, must have turned some heads throughout town…

Four men…

“I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine…”

From the ground he’d been staring at intently, Sano’s gaze rose and turned to where, mostly obscured by buildings from this vantage point, Enca’s aged shrine of Misao yet rose tall and orange in the distance. Was that the real reason the newly made fourth-wash had left the capital — to apprehend a fugitive on Soujirou’s behalf? Was Hajime over there even now, bound and gagged, awaiting transport to his doom inside the city?

It was the only idea Sano had at the moment, so he followed the urging of his racing blood and headed in that direction.

The shrine had originally been a monastery, until some religious leader or other — probably Rionura the Pious; everything was Rionura the Pious — had discouraged asceticism throughout the kingdom. This pointless trivia would surely never have entered Sano’s head at such a time, irritating him that he knew it at all, if it hadn’t been the explanation for the high walls, definitely unclimbable, that surrounded the place. Sano spent a very agitated half hour circling the shrine and discovering only a few entrances, none of which he could get through unobserved. It was like the Elotica checkpoint problem all over again — but here were no unattended wagons to help him on his way. He really had only one option.

Little as he fancied the lack of privacy on any of these streets around the orange walls, he couldn’t bring himself to stray far from the shrine, and had nowhere better to go in any case. So he chose a spot that struck the best balance he could manage at such short notice between ‘least frequented street’ and ‘closeness to a shrine entrance,’ knelt down in a dirty corner after ensuring no windows immediately overlooked him, and opened his backpack. It would be disastrous if anyone saw this, yet his movements were far more hasty than careful as he dug through his collection of devoted shiiyao looking for the one with Misao’s rabbit symbol on the chest.

He had no idea what he would say. He had already posed as a devoted on numerous occasions, but that had been wandering the religious districts like a gormless newcomer. Could he imitate the speech and bearing of someone with a specific purpose that knew exactly what he was doing? And what purpose, indeed, could he claim? What would get him inside so he could search the shrine unaccompanied? Could he pretend to have a message for the white devoted that must be delivered in person and in private? But then if the fourth-wash turned out not to be involved, what could Sano say that would allow him to remain in the shrine unhindered? He tried to come up with a coherent plan as he finally located and drew out his Misao shiiya, but he still couldn’t think entirely clearly.

And that was when the entire world abruptly turned upside-down. Or, rather, Sano turned upside-down, or was turned upside-down out of nowhere by the application of skilled hands whose owner’s approach he hadn’t heard or suspected. Blows landed, torque was made use of, Sano was suddenly much closer to prone than he had been half a moment before, pain had arisen, and a harsh voice was speaking somewhere above him:

“Give me a good reason not to kill you.”

Not precisely flat on his back but close enough, head spinning even more severely than it had been for the last hour, Sano struggled against the urge to struggle against the sharp metallic object that now lay threateningly on his neck. A knee, bearing most of the weight of a decent-sized woman, pressed painfully into his stomach; he could probably have thrown her off if not for the very inconvenient position of the blade she held, with which she could cut his throat in less time than it would take him to tense his muscles for the effort.

This didn’t mean he felt any need to remain silent, though.

“What the fuck? Who are you? Where do you get off jumping on random people without warning? Where did you even come from?”

“Give me a good reason not to kill you,” the woman repeated. Her face was set in a hard, unforgiving frown as she stared down unrelentingly from her advantageous position above him.

“Why don’t you fucking give me a good reason to kill me!” Sano demanded.

Immediately she complied. “Because you’re obviously planning to sneak into a shrine dressed as a devoted.”

While the woman did have a point, “Since when is that a capital offense?” wondered Sano. “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

The hard metal on his neck pushed down more bitingly; blood was sure to run soon if she didn’t let up. “You’ve got five seconds to explain yourself.”

Irritated as he was with this situation, Sano couldn’t really argue with that weapon. “Fine, all right, fine,” he said, trying to decide quickly how much he could safely tell and still placate the stranger. “Misao’s white devoted’s in here after the old one got assassinated, and I think the new guy’s taken my friend prisoner. I can’t just walk up to the door and ask if they have him; sneaking in’s my only option!”

For a few moments after this account (fairly neat and concise, he thought), there was pensive silence above him. Finally the uncomfortable knee was removed from his stomach, though the hard blade against his flesh did not retreat. “Get up,” the woman ordered. “Slowly.” As if there was any other way he would move with her threatening to cut his throat! Painstakingly, with the woman’s weapon never much farther from his neck than it had been all along, Sano sat up and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. As he did so, the woman said in a businesslike tone, “We’ll go in there together and see if any of your story is true.”

Any of it?” Sano wondered. “You’ve gotta know Misao’s white was assassinated! Haven’t you heard what’s going on in Elotica?”

“I’m not the one whose actions need to be explained here.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Sano replied, somewhat surly. He was trying to calculate whether it would be possible for him to spring backward and draw his own sword without her detecting his intention and severely injuring him. If whatever she had at his neck was a keonblade, she could easily extend the energy blade and kill him outright before he was halfway through his jump; better not try it.

The woman tilted her head in what seemed to be a specific gesture (though one Sano did not at first understand), and commanded, “Take his sword-belt.”

“What?” Sano hadn’t realized the woman had anyone else with her; it was a good thing he’d decided against attempting to break free. But he didn’t much like the thought of being thus disarmed. “You can’t–”

“You’re not in any position to argue,” she interrupted him.

“Says you.”

She was right, though. “I could just kill you without testing your absurd story, if that’s what you want.”

“Fine.” He felt hands lifting the hem of the blue and orange shiiya he never had managed to switch out and unfastening the belt on which he wore his keonblade; looking carefully toward the movements, he was surprised to find them being performed by a boy of perhaps twelve.

“You’ll get it back when I feel it’s appropriate,” the woman said as the boy finished his task; then both of them took a step away from Sano, and he was able to look them over a bit better.

The woman had the type of face that was usually called ‘handsome’ rather than ‘beautiful,’ with hard eyes generally dark despite their light brown color and a disapproving set to her lips. The similarity to hers in the boy’s appearance, coupled with what Sano guessed to be around a twenty-year age difference, made him assume they were mother and son. The boy had slung Sano’s belt over his shoulder in a movement indicating he was not entirely unfamiliar with such accouterments, and the woman was returning to its sheath the long knife — not, in fact, a keonblade — with which she’d been threatening Sano.

The most eye-catching thing about either of them was the woman’s shiiya. Off-white like that of a fourth-wash devoted, it had the same flower-cut hem, and even a teardrop-shaped device on the chest. But this device, unlike that worn by devoted, was not white: it had a blue outer band, and, instead of an image in its center to indicate which of the divine ladies she served, its inner portion held five horizontal sections, each a different color.

Blue, Sano recalled, mostly from statements made by his father so many years ago, represented the unity of the divine and eternity, which was why the sky was blue or some such nonsense. The other colors in the teardrop, he was unsurprised to note, were the green of Yumi, the yellow of Megumi, the orange of Misao, the red of Kaoru, and the purple of Tomoe. Who was this woman?? And how in the world had someone that had previously worn an empty device on his shiiya to signify his disbelief in any of the divine ladies happened across someone that apparently served all of them?

She didn’t comment on the continual, startled attention he gave her chest. What she said was, “Now come with me, and don’t say a word; you can bring your things with you.”

“Megumi,” Sano swore (perhaps prompted just a little by his hypothesis about what this woman was), “you’re worse than–”

She cut him off, with no sign that his irreverence specifically had bothered her. “What did I just say?”

He looked around: at the woman, at the boy, at his fallen backpack, at the shrine’s entrance down the street. He could probably make a break for it right now and escape, but that would involve leaving everything he possessed behind. He might be able to dash for his sword and get at it before either of them could react, but not only did he dislike the idea of possibly hurting a kid, he wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to meet this woman even in a fair fight even just against a dagger. She had an air about her of absolutely infallible competence.

And beyond all this, there was the question of Hajime. The woman had told him not to say anything, which he tentatively thought meant she didn’t intend to march over there and announce to the shrine attendants he’d been planning on conning his way inside. She might have been taking his story more seriously than he’d thought, and did actually plan to find out whether it was true. In any case, if he ran away now, he might discard his only chance at discovering whether Hajime really was a prisoner in there, and he couldn’t stand that idea. It seemed he had no choice but to go with her.

As he turned, still somewhat surly, toward his backpack to gather up his spilled things, he thought he saw a corner of the woman’s mouth twitch upward as if he was behaving exactly as she’d thought he would, and he added on to everything else he’d been wondering, How do I keep finding these condescending jerks?

Awkward as he felt moving in the wake of this unknown intimidating woman, beside the little boy that looked so much like her and held Sano’s only weapon, not knowing whether he would be betrayed and possibly taken (more) into custody at any time, Sano had to admit he was glad the stranger and not he did the talking when they reached the entrance. An elderly red devoted seated in the shadow of the open gate seemed to function more as a receiver of guests than a warder-off of intruders, but Sano would still have been forced to come up with a story. As it was, the woman walked up to the old man as if she owned the place and said, “I am the Visitant, here to inspect this shrine on my way to Elotica.”

The man rose, touched his forehead courteously, and stared at the stranger’s chest exactly as Sano had — though evidently with different emotions involved. “We are honored to have you here, mistress.” There was a touch of wonder to his tone.

More polite than Sano had expected, the woman returned the red’s salute. “Who is currently presiding here?”

“You’ve arrived at just the right time.” The red seemed delighted to be able to relay this information. “The new white devoted has retreated here from the city to meditate on his new position.”

“I’ve been carrying out an inspection tour in the coastal towns,” the so-called Visitant replied. “I had not heard a new white devoted of Misao had been instated.”

The red’s face clouded, and he hesitated a moment before speaking again. “Then it’s probably best you hear about it from him.”

The woman nodded. Her gaze didn’t even twitch in Sano’s direction, but surely she must see now that at least part of his report had been accurate. “I will do so.”

“I believe he’s in the sanctum.”

“Thank you.”

Though older and smaller, this shrine still very much resembled the temples of the divine ladies in the five corners of Elotica, so Sano was unsurprised at the direction in which the Visitant led them: past a twelve-sided dais bearing a statue of Misao, who Sano had always thought looked more impish than stately in many of her portrayals, under a mess of crisscrossing ropes from which hung a variety of homemade artwork dedicated as offerings, through the gap in the great five-sided building into a smaller courtyard featuring another, more petite statue of Misao, and across this toward a door into the shrine itself.

And as they walked, the very instant they were out of earshot of the devoted at the gate and another that had been present in the outer yard, Sano wondered, “Who are you? What’s a Visitant?”

The woman barely turned her head to admonish him, “I told you to keep quiet.”

Scowling, Sano turned to the boy at his side and whispered, “Seriously, what’s a Visitant?”

Skeptically — perhaps even a little scornfully — the kid whispered back, “What are you, a heretic or something?”

“For your information–” But Sano cut off his growling retort at a harsh sound from the woman; they were entering the building. It was time to keep his eyes open for any signs of Hajime.

Chapter 27 – At the Sanctum Doors

For all his posing and playacting lately, Sano had never actually been inside one of these big religious institutes, and couldn’t help looking around with some curiosity now. The murals painted directly onto the stone bricks of the walls in the room they entered reminded him of those he’d seen in Hajime’s memory of a certain palace chamber, though these were far older and looked as if they could do with some restoration. So too did the piece in the middle — yet another statue of Misao, this one in a much more antiquated style — though the cushions arranged around it, presumably for prayer and meditation, looked recent and functional enough. That was all he had a chance to observe, for the Visitant unhesitatingly led them through an archway into a claustrophobic hall significantly dimmer than the previous space had been. Though weavings of bright colors hung so close together that barely an inch of stone showed between them, still there was a draft and a consequent feeling of chill and darkness. The Visitant seemed to know exactly where she was going, though, so Sano saw this and two other, similar connected hallways only briefly.

The wider corridor they eventually emerged into was longer and taller, but that just made it feel even draftier. Evidently they were nearing their destination as they walked its length, for the Visitant slowed as they approached a pair of large doors, carved around the edges and painted in their centers with further images of the lady of quick thinking and deception, flanked by a pair of second-wash. Whatever lay beyond these was probably the far back of the shrine, if Sano had his bearings right; it must be the sanctum.

Before either of the men could hail her, the woman asked, “Is the white devoted inside?”

The two door-guards studied the Visitant’s shiiya without visible reaction, and in turn Sano, at least, was studying them. He remembered the comments of the red he’d overheard in the market — “Those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are” — and believed he’d found the subjects of that statement. The one on the left was hugely fat, which almost drew attention entirely away from how tall he was; he was just really big in general. The design of a shiiya as an outer garment intended to be worn over a smaller, more form-fitting shirt accommodated it to a number of body shapes… but this guy must have his specially made.

The man to the right of the doors was shorter and took up less space overall, but was no less imposing: the broadness of his chest and thickness of his arms where they showed outside his orange hanging sleeves seemed to imply he did little in his life besides exercises tailored to the development of this extremely visible style of musculature. He reminded Sano of Seijuurou; though the keonmaster was wider in the shoulders and a little taller, and therefore perhaps just slightly bigger in general, this man bulged more and was as a consequence more incredible and conspicuous. And the number of scars crisscrossing his visible skin, including his face, spoke of a greater number of deep wounds received over the course of his life than Seijuurou had ever taken. Seijuurou might appreciate the guy’s surprisingly luxurious unbound hair, though, and its waviness that was atypical in this region. Seijuurou had never been able to get his hair to wave.

In any case, the two men side by side like this did indeed look as if they could eat a significant amount of donated food in a single day, and formed a formidable barrier to entrance into the presumed sanctum. And just the fact that there were such intimidating guards outside these doors said something about what might wait inside.

“He is,” the man on the right answered the Visitant’s question at last. “But he’s not to be disturbed. He’s meditating and praying trying to heal a man who was brought in with some unknown disease.”

The Visitant’s brows rose in a skeptical gesture worthy of Hajime. “A Misao devoted doing healing work?”

“There’s no time to send for someone from Megumi; the man may die.”

Sano shifted inadvertently. It might be a lie in its entirety, but he couldn’t possibly be pleased at hearing that a man inside with the white devoted might die. The muscular second-wash certainly seemed untroubled by the prospect, however.

The Visitant’s demeanor had stiffened somewhat, and Sano guessed she was starting to believe what he’d told her — or at the very least that something weird was going on here. She still sounded relatively polite, though, if as authoritative as ever, when she said, “Perhaps I can be of assistance. I am the Visitant.”

“Thought that’s what that device meant.” The fat man sounded childishly pleased, much as that old devoted at the gate had been at the opportunity to meet this Visitant person, and more than a little stupid. Sano wondered how he’d made it to this rank.

The muscular man threw his companion a brief look of patient, comradely disdain, and told the woman, “The fourth-wash ordered that nobody should disturb him.”

“And I,” replied the Visitant almost pleasantly, “am ordering you to stand aside and let me pass.”

The muscular man shook his head. “I’m afraid his orders came first, mistress.”

“Specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church.” The Visitant said this as if making a note for later. Then, examining each of the door-guards thoughtfully in turn, she commented, “I don’t believe what you’ve told me. I think your white devoted has some other reason for wanting visitors kept out of the sanctum at this time. As the royally appointed inspector of church affairs it is my duty to determine what that reason is. Now either step aside or give me a good explanation.”

Inspector of church affairs? Sano wondered when that had happened. There certainly hadn’t been such a person back when he’d lived with his devoted father, yet the folks at this shrine seemed tolerably familiar with the position. Tolerably respectful of it, too… stopping just short of actually doing what the Visitant commanded.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” said the muscular man with a shake of his head, “I can’t let you inside, and I can’t tell you anything more than what I’ve already told you.”

“You realize you’re only giving me greater reason to insist on being let in,” the Visitant said quietly, and now there was a touch of threat to her tone.

The muscular man nodded. “We all do our duty as we see it.” And as he made this statement he made also a subtle shift to his stance — and the atmosphere in the drafty corridor had suddenly changed.

Sano, who by now doubted very little that Hajime was beyond these doors and whose mood had become more and more tense as the seemingly pointless conversation progressed, now felt his fists clenching and his body stiffening in response to the combative aura surrounding the two men that stood between him and his goal.

“Eiji, stand back.” The Visitant’s tone was cool and calm, but Sano thought she too was ready for a fight. If so, he couldn’t help reflecting, she might have had the boy return his weapon to him rather than merely ‘standing back,’ but at least the kid would be out of harm’s way.

No further signal or statement was given to turn the verbal conflict into a physical one; as the muscular man had implied, they must carry out their conflicting duties, and there seemed little point in further debate. And it was at that same man in that same wordless state that Sano now threw himself, he having been to the Visitant’s right all this time and therefore closer to this particular enemy. How she dealt with the fat man on the left was not Sano’s concern as long as that battle did not encroach upon this one.

Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, there was no way to take his opponent off guard. Sano knew this as he advanced, and certainly anticipated a challenging conflict he would not be able to end with the first strike, but he didn’t expect the response he got: the man caught in his left palm the punch aimed at him, despite its having the entirety of Sano’s weight behind it, slapped his right hand against Sano’s forearm, and used the momentum of Sano’s charge to swing the smaller man’s body continually forward and around into the wall beside the door. If the building were newer, its interior might be plastered as had become the trend throughout the kingdom; as it was, the tapestry that was the only thing between Sano and the structure with which he now became intimate did little to cushion the blow.

Brain rattled and wind knocked out of him, Sano slumped to the floor; pain ran up and down his back, lightning seem to flicker through his skull, and for a moment he couldn’t even see what else might be going on around him. And all he could think of was that, though it came as no surprise to find someone so extravagantly bulky such a master of brute force, he couldn’t allow himself to be beaten like this — not when Hajime, beyond these doors, might die. Therefore, earlier than was probably wise, he dragged himself up and struggled back to his feet.

Though his spinning head attempted to prevent him from focusing on the corridor before him, Sano noted that the muscular man had already begun to turn away, as if confident having thrown him into the wall would be enough — as, under many circumstances, it would in fact have been. Now the orange-clad devoted paused in his shifting of attention toward the other skirmish, and watched with some surprise as Sano staggered up. “Visitant’s got herself a pretty good bodyguard,” he muttered, sounding faintly impressed, as he drew near again with fists clenched.

Sano’s hands too, though trembling slightly, reformed the only weapons he could count on right now. And as the big man approached, Sano’s returning coherence informed him he must at all costs avoid allowing this enemy to take hold of him again; he couldn’t afford to be slammed into another wall. He also wanted to correct the man’s mistake, so he said, “I don’t work for her. I’m here for the guy you’ve got inside.”

The muscular man paused in his advance and studied Sano for a moment. “You’re that heretic spy, aren’t you?” One side of his big mouth twisted up into a half grin, distorting his scarred features bizarrely. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got.”

They closed again, bodies dancing and fists flying. Sano realized almost immediately that nothing short of a hard knock to the head would be enough to deal with this monster; contact with any other point on his body felt like punching a sack full of rocks, and did about as much good. He was reminded again of Seijuurou, a sparring partner against whom he’d had no qualms throwing the entirety of his power since there had never been any realistic concerns for the master’s safety. Sano didn’t think this guy could possibly be that strong, but the conflict was not without its difficulties nonetheless.

“My fourth-wash will be pleased to present you to the king,” the man said as he peppered Sano with painful blows to the chest and face.

“Why your fourth-wash, and not you?” Sano gasped as he attempted to return the hits, aiming for the head every time, and was continually thwarted by the man’s meaty palms that never seemed to tire of catching his full-strength attacks.

“I don’t care about the king,” the man answered simply. “I follow the white devoted of Misao.”

So the Visitant’s assessment of ‘specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church’ had been accurate. Sano wondered how that would figure into her inspection; did she consider it a good or a bad thing? He had to admit he respected it more than blind devotion to some invisible woman in the sky. “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us,” he said as his enemy again caught one of his punches and Sano quickly jerked his fist away to prevent the man from taking hold of his arm once more. And this gave him an idea. “Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?”

The man appeared not so much angry as determined, as if taking Sano’s question as a specific challenge, and threw another punch. This time Sano grabbed the flying fist in his own right hand. He couldn’t mimic his opponent’s opening technique by taking hold of him and flinging his entire body into the wall — the guy was far too large and solid for that — but he might be able to stop him catching his every blow; if he could get in just a single good hit to the head…

Since the big man also undoubtedly knew Sano couldn’t hope to use the same method he had, he didn’t withdraw the fist Sano had caught nearly as quickly as Sano had been doing with his own all along, and his eyes went wide with surprise when Sano clamped down hard on the big, solid knuckles and applied every bit of pressure his grip could command. No matter how strong someone was, after all, the hand had a limited amount of musculature, and must be a vulnerable point to someone with as strong a hold as Sano was capable of. He felt grinding and crunching inside his tight squeeze — whether the breaking of bones or the painful realignment of tendons he didn’t know — before the man’s hand was wrenched from his grasp.

His enemy backed away a pace, letting out a grunt of shock and discomfort, holding up for inspection fingers that did not all point the directions they should; and Sano pressed his advantage, rushing in for the long-desired blow. The man clumsily attempted to block with his damaged hand, but perhaps pain rendered him incapable of holding as steady as before; Sano’s attack brushed right past the beefy arm, and he felt the shudder of contact all the way down into his shoulder as he connected with the man’s temple. The punch made satisfyingly more noise than any previously delivered to that massive form, and the man crumpled in response and hit the floor like the aforementioned sack of rocks.

Sano almost fell immediately on top of him; aside from his earlier abrupt meeting with a stone wall, he’d taken a number of hits to places far more sensitive than the corresponding points on the body of his opponent. He was dizzy and aching, but he forced himself to remain upright; he had to see what was going on between the Visitant and the other door-guard.

Though he’d abstractedly noticed something burning off to his right during the previous conflict, he started now at finding it the left shoulder of the woman’s shiiya. Whence the fire had come he could not guess, since the fat man was at the moment empty-handed, but it seemed to be flickering more lustily by means of some type of oil that had been spilled or sprayed onto her. Even as he watched, she took a step backward and, shifting her long knife from her dominant hand into the unoccupied left, clapped the right down over her shoulder to squelch the flames with a wincing hiss.

Though disarmed — assuming he’d carried equipment in the first place — and bearing three or four shallow bleeding cuts across his arms and chest, the fat man didn’t seem ready to go down anytime soon. And indeed, without outright killing him (or at least wounding him to the point where he might die later, either of which could be considered overstepping a bit for an inspector of church business toward a devoted), what could the woman do to defeat him decisively? The behemoth probably weighed twice as much as Sano did, so the tricky throw and knee to the stomach she’d used on him outside the shrine wouldn’t be very effective; and was she capable of delivering a blow to the man’s fat head that would render him unconscious so as to end this battle? Sano thought it might be best, while he still had the strength, to help her out here. He could just enter the sanctum on his own while the sole remaining guard was busy, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the Visitant, and anyway it would be a shame to force her to kill this guy.

The fat man didn’t expect an attack from a third party, probably not having noticed his comrade had fallen, and barely had time for a stupid surprised expression on his enormous face when Sano came flying at him. And though the building didn’t exactly shake when the giant frame hit the ground, the air kicked up by the motion did flutter the tapestries on the wall nearby. And then Sano sank to his knees, breathing hard, seeing stars, ready for a long moment to compose himself.

The corridor around them was eerily silent now — in fact it seemed a little odd no one had come to investigate the sounds of battle outside the sanctum doors, and Sano wondered whether the various devoted that would normally be hanging around here had been dismissed for the duration of whatever the white was up to — and the boy’s footsteps returning from wherever he’d taken shelter were startlingly loud all of a sudden. So was his query, “Do you need help?”

“No, thank you.” The Visitant was every bit as breathless as Sano, and evidently she too was taking a few moments to recuperate. “I don’t think we have anything with us to treat burns anyway.”

“You’re right,” said the boy reluctantly, and his concern for his mother — at least Sano still assumed she was his mother — sounded clearly in his voice.

Further, heavier footsteps came across the floor at last, and Sano raised his eyes to find the Visitant standing beside him. Looking her over, Sano saw a number of scorch marks on her clothing, and one stretching down her left arm that appeared particularly uncomfortable. The fat man must have fought with an interesting technique, but Sano had no room in his head to give that much consideration. With a deep breath, struggling for calm, he stood up.

“‘Heretic spy?'” The woman gave him another once-over such as he was giving her.

Sano shook his head and turned. “I’m surprised you caught that in the middle of fighting and shit.”

“It’s my job to catch religious deviation.” She said it with a faint touch of humor to her tone that made it seem she was not so much accusing Sano of something as admitting she’d walked into a situation more complicated than she’d had any idea of at the outset.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Sano said as he reached for one of the carved handles in front of him. “I don’t think we have time for it right now.”

“Yes,” the Visitant said darkly. “Let’s see what they were so determined to keep hidden in there.”

And they walked through the sanctum doors into the middle of another battle.

>27 Interlude

The lock had crumpled under heavy blows from Shikijou’s iron knuckles, and now the ruined door swung inward to reveal a small atrium hung with the poorest examples of woven tapestries depicting the divine lady Misao that Shikijou had ever seen. They didn’t even have a statue; this really was a wretched little shrine.

Doubtless in response to the noise he’d made beating in the lock of the foolishly un-barred entrance, two figures appeared in the doorway that led further into the building (not that there was much further in to go, the place was so small). As Shikijou took in the details of their appearance — red shiiya on one, indicating the lowest rank, and no shiiya on the other, indicating she’d probably been in bed or about to be — a broad grin spread across his face, and he drew himself up to his full, impressive height.

“They were right,” he said smugly: “one old woman, one young man. Not much of a defense for all those supplies you just got in.”

Instead of cowering before his bulk as they should have done, the devoted glanced at each other — she with a frown, he with a seemingly indifferent blankness. “It must’ve been the delivery men,” the woman sighed — and in fact it had been the drivers of the recently arrived wagons that had tipped Shikijou off about the significant amount of food and other goods this understaffed shrine had recently had delivered. “Maybe we shouldn’t have ordered so much all at once.”

“It will be fine,” the young man replied in a tone far more even than reassuring or confident.

“It will be fine,” Shikijou echoed cheerfully, “as long as you cooperate.” He advanced a few more steps into the room, slamming his fists together so the iron he wore made a dull clinking sound. “Misao’s the lady of thieves, right? I’m doing her work here. This’ll practically be a religious experience for you guys!”

And again instead of backing off the way they should have done, stepping aside to let him past or even showing him the way to their storeroom themselves, the two devoted… Well, actually, Shikijou wasn’t entirely certain what they did. For the next instant, before he could take another step, blows every bit as iron-hard as the devices he wore on his own hands slammed into him at multiple points, and he was staggering back with only a confused glimpse of the young man that seemed to have crossed the room without even moving. He was knocked sideways, knocked down, knocked silly before any of his own suddenly clumsy punches could strike outward far enough to hope to connect. And he found himself on his stomach on the floor, flailing, while a slender weight pressed down on him and deft hands yanked his arms back, seized his wrists, and tied them quickly with what must be a rope conjured out of nowhere.

Though he kicked upward and otherwise struggled for a few moments, Shikijou gradually fell relatively still. The awareness of his defeat sank in slowly and confusedly, since it had taken less than fifteen seconds for the unexpectedly skillful young man to break his concentration with a series of well placed hits and then use his weight against him to bring him down. So it was in some bafflement Shikijou finally went quiescent, unable quite to believe what had just happened.

And then a calm, somewhat dark voice spoke in his ear every bit as emotionlessly as it had made its previous comments to the old woman. “Misao is the lady of thieves, but not the lady of armed robbery. For you to walk in here carrying weapons and claim to be doing her work is blasphemy.”

“Misao devoted use weapons all the time!” Shikijou protested. “I’ve seen them all over the place!”

“We do,” the young man agreed. “She has nothing against the use of weapons.” And to demonstrate this point, there came the sound of blade leaving sheath, and the next moment what felt like a short sword — possibly a keonblade — pressed threateningly to Shikijou’s neck. “But she values stealth and cunning more than straightforward combat.”

Shikijou snorted, both at the sentiment and to express just how intimidated he wasn’t by this barely adult lightweight on top of him, no matter how he might be armed. “Me and my guys go through a lot of food, you know. And straightforward combat’s a much easier way to get it than trying to sneak around.”

To Shikijou’s surprise, the young man didn’t even sound particularly disapproving as he replied, “I have no doubt that’s true.” But a harder, less forgiving note crept into his tone as he added, “Only don’t claim to have Misao’s blessing in an endeavor she would never bless.”

Shikijou had still been making token struggles during this exchange, but now even these ceased in his surprise. “Does it really bother you more that I claimed this was a Misao thing than that I was trying to rob you in the first place?”

From across the room the old woman put in gently, “Of course it does. We’re Misao’s servants. What did you expect from us?”

And the young man remarked, still perfectly calm but now slightly more conversational than before, “If you had come in here while we slept and stolen our supplies without waking us, then we would have believed you had Misao’s blessing. You would have been welcome to anything you could take.”

It was a totally incredible statement, yet Shikijou found he couldn’t disbelieve it. They truly would make no attempt at recovery or retaliation if he managed to get the stuff away from them in a manner approved by the divine lady they served. The idea affected him strangely, and he found his own tone low and husky as he asked, “You really believe in her, don’t you?”

A long, pregnant silence followed before the young man said, low and measured, “Don’t you?” And there was, somehow, a subtle threat to that demand that intimidated Shikijou far more than the mere presence of an unexpected warrior on his back with a drawn blade could ever have done.

And he was left to ponder in silence: did he believe in Misao? In his life of banditry, of taking what he could get from wherever he found it and using it to carouse with his companions until it ran out and he was forced to look to the next venture that would feed them for the next however long, the divine ladies weren’t something he routinely bent his mind toward. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of them, or the idea of their blessings when he needed them… it was mostly just that he didn’t care. And now here was this boy with his deadly earnest voice and his ridiculous combative abilities sitting on top of Shikijou and urging him to think seriously about something he hadn’t given this much attention since his distant childhood.

Before he had a chance to answer — indeed, before he had a chance to decide — the young man was speaking again, this time clearly not to Shikijou, and in a tone even more low and serious than before: “Misao, lady of quickness and brightness, let this doubting man for just one moment feel the vigor and joy that you bring. Hear my prayer.”

“Hear my prayer,” the old woman echoed at a murmur.

And Shikijou felt it.

There was a rush of energy so stimulating it would undoubtedly have lifted him immediately to his feet had he not been encumbered by another human body. And along with this came a bubbling feeling of pleasure and contentment that would surely have prompted gleeful laughter if it had lasted for more than the single moment the young man had specified. But for as brief as the sensations were, they were real; they were undeniable.

“You do believe,” said the quiet voice above. And as if he felt safe now leaving Shikijou to thrash about on the floor as he would, the red devoted got lightly to his feet, removing his weight from the bigger man and replacing his weapon audibly in its sheath that must be concealed beneath his shiiya.

Shikijou didn’t know what to say. Everything had changed, somehow, in the presence of this sedulous young man and the belief he both expressed for his own part and stimulated in another.

“You came here tonight unaware there was a warrior at this shrine.” Skilled hands were once again working the ties at Shikijou’s wrists, this time loosening them. “I offer you this bargain: fight me knowing what I am, and if you defeat me, the supplies are yours.”

Now able to move freely, Shikijou got quickly to his feet and looked suspiciously at the two devoted. It appeared he’d been tied with the drawstring of one of the room’s curtains; that was nearly as good as a rope conjured out of nowhere. The young man didn’t seem to think he would need it again, though, for now he tossed it aside onto the floor. Shikijou observed the motion, as well as the young man’s stance, from beneath lowered brows. “Thought you said Misao doesn’t like straightforward combat much.”

“She is fond of bargains, though.” The old woman appeared amused, and not particularly worried about the outcome of the contest. Couldn’t a guy get any appreciation for his solid musculature?

“And what happens if you beat me?” Shikijou wondered, even more suspicious than before.

“You stay here,” replied the young man simply.

Shikijou blinked. “As a devoted?”

The young man nodded.

“And what about my guys?”

“They’re welcome to join us too.”

For a moment Shikijou simply stared. The offer seemed every bit as bizarre as this entire encounter had been, and sparked strange thoughts in his head: thoughts of what it would be like to serve alongside (or under) this somber youth so unlike what he considered typical of Misao’s followers yet clearly so dedicated to her; thoughts of what he’d just felt while lying on the floor that had supposedly hailed from the divine patroness of such energy and joy but that he was almost more inclined to attribute to that same young man; thoughts of how his own faith, never a particularly intense flame, had been fanned so expertly and so unexpectedly here. Of course he considered his people back home, too, and how in the world they would react to the tale of this evening, no matter how it turned out…

He slammed his iron knuckles together once more and, with a sharp downward motion, flung them clattering to the floor. He fought just as well bare-fisted in any case, and was sure these rabbits would interpret the gesture as exactly what it was — a symbol of respect for a fellow warrior that had chided him for embarking on his errand to this place bearing weapons. He clenched both his hands and lifted his arms, falling into a combative stance.

“Sounds like a good deal either way.”

Chapter 28 – Twitch

Overall the sanctum was smaller than Sano had expected — certainly cramped for the fight taking place there now — but admittedly he didn’t know what type of religious activities the room was intended for under normal circumstances. It had an odd feeling to it — if any feeling could be admitted other than those occasioned by the action in front of him — with its two storeys’ worth of height but conspicuous lack of breadth, its floor-to-ceiling orange hangings creating an almost claustrophobic effect despite the openness above. A full-length painting of Misao, making use of the vertical space to stand larger than life on a recessed wall behind the plain altar, looked out with that impish smile of hers again on the violence going on in her most sacred of chambers.

Sano, the Visitant, and the boy Eiji had emerged onto a narrow balcony overlooking the sanctum’s only slightly less narrow floorspace. Down there, a set of cushions that must originally have been arranged in a semi-circle before the altar — there were perhaps five of them; more would not have fit — had been kicked aside and trampled by the inconsiderate feet of the two combatants now ranging the limited area where they had rested. One of them had been so displaced as to fly past the altar into the alcove that held the painting of the divine lady, and now slumped forlornly at her unshod feet. Sano started forward to grip the railing of the little balcony and stare down breathlessly in a mixture of anxiety and relief that should have canceled itself out but somehow was all the stronger for being so contradictory.

Hajime must have wrested one of the white devoted’s own weapons away from him, for the slender keonblade he now fought with was identical to the one in the hand of the other man. He bore no visible wounds, and moved as if unhurt and unimpeded, though Sano could see the remains of at least one of the ropes that had held him still dangling from his right wrist. How he’d initially freed himself from those Sano had no idea. The white devoted of Misao, on the other hand, moved with an uncanny swiftness masquerading as languor that Sano, though he’d observed it only once before, would never forget. His eyes went even wider as unpleasant memories and a more intense worry arose within him.

“That’s him,” he choked out. “That’s the fucking assassin.”

Her grimness having faded into resignation and possibly even something like mild amusement — in any case, a marvelous lack of concern — the Visitant leaned on the railing beside him. “And that’s the man you were so desperate to rescue?” She gestured at Hajime, who was busy blocking a series of deceptively quick blows delivered by the stranger.

Feeling his face go hot at her tone, Sano mumbled, “Yeah… he doesn’t really look like he needs…”

Her eyes rolled toward him condescendingly. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”

Sano wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and didn’t have a chance in any case. The combatants, obviously aware of the new presence in the room though they hadn’t looked up, had slowed a trifle, and now Hajime spoke in a tone indicating he found this as good a moment as any to put an end to the proceedings: “This is pointless. Do you think I can’t tell when my enemy’s heart isn’t in his attacks? You can’t defeat me fighting like that.”

Though he said nothing, and his startlingly handsome face beneath eye-shading black bangs did not change, the white devoted appeared to falter slightly; it seemed his heart really wasn’t in this. Sano wondered what it was about this guy the muscular guard at the door was so excessively loyal to. Hajime, conversely, did not hesitate; he took advantage of the momentary wavering his words seemed to have caused to press forward with a few twisting blows that struck the weapon out of the devoted’s hand. With a full-body advance, he backed his opponent up against the wall, crumpling the hanging behind him, and laid the unfamiliar keonblade against the devoted’s neck. He had allowed the energy to recede; all it would take was flashing it out again by an inch or two and the man would die.

The room went utterly still and silent: the three people on the balcony watching intently, Hajime staring searchingly into the devoted’s face, and the devoted himself carefully motionless and unblinking in Hajime’s grip. Finally the knight said, “You murdered your own superior and tried to kill all the other whites.”

The fourth-wash did not react.

“And in attempting to kill my associate, you murdered an innocent Tomoe man in the street.”

Sano felt his gut clench at the words, but Misao’s white did not react.

“But you never wanted to kill anyone,” Hajime went on speculatively. “You couldn’t even bring yourself to fight me properly here today. We would have been much better matched if you had.”

Still no hint of a reaction from the stranger.

“None of this was your idea, so whose was it? Whom are you taking orders from?”

Not a shift of frame, not a fraction of muscular movement in that impassive face, gave any indication what the fourth-wash might be thinking.

Sano could see Hajime’s hand on the keonblade pressing just slightly harder. “Who put that little snake Soujirou up to his tricks at the palace?”

If he hadn’t previously been so consummately motionless, the twitch the devoted’s body gave at this moment might not have been visible — or at least not so eye-catchingly noticeable. As it was, Sano could stand it no longer; fearing what that twitch portended and feeling more than ever the need to be at Hajime’s side with whatever assistance he could offer against this enemy, he vaulted over the balcony’s railing, ignoring the narrow staircase that curved down to the wrong side of the room, and landed near the knight. One of his feet came to rest on one of the smashed cushions, causing him to stumble slightly, and that seemed to be all the diversion the fourth-wash required: he jerked to the side at great risk to himself, given the position of Hajime’s blade, wrenching free of the knight’s right hand that had grasped his arm, and ducked behind another of the orange hangings. From behind it came the noise of creaking hinges; then there was a brief draft that sent the cloth rippling even more than had the advent of a body behind it, the closing of a door, the muffled slamming of a bar on the other side, and quick, light receding footsteps that echoed slightly and faded swiftly from hearing.

Wordlessly Hajime watched the fluttering tapestry settle, then began to turn toward Sano. The younger man braced himself for a reproof he couldn’t deny he deserved for having provided the distraction their enemy needed in order to make his escape, but it did not come. For the knight’s path of rotation brought his eyes first to rest on the Visitant who, with Eiji behind her, now descended from the balcony by more conventional means than Sano had used, and Hajime looked genuinely surprised to see her. Before he could say anything, however, she spoke:

“You’re not going after him?”

Seemingly recovered from his moment of startlement, Hajime turned his attention to removing the last of his bonds from his wrist with his stolen keon weapon. “That’s your job, not mine.” He let the energy blade fade entirely before tucking the short sword beneath his belt; presumably he meant to keep it, as he’d undoubtedly been relieved of the long standard sword Seijuurou had provided him. “It seems as if I’d have to torture him to get anything more out of him anyway, and shrines aren’t usually equipped for that.”

The Visitant chuckled as she drew nearer, and then, to Sano’s utter astonishment, threw her arms unhesitatingly around Hajime for a close embrace. What was even more baffling was that his arms immediately rose to clasp her in return.

Sano stared at them, unable to blink and, inexplicably, unable to breathe — at the unhesitating way they, obviously well acquainted, greeted each other with a gesture Sano honestly hadn’t ever expected to see from the royal knight. If he’d considered the matter (unlikely as he was to have done so), he wouldn’t have expected it of this harsh woman either, little as he knew about her at this point. And surely a church inspector… and a committed heretic…

Motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and it was with a curious blend of reluctance and a sense of reprieve his gaze left what he was watching to look at Eiji, who had stepped forward from the bottom of the stairs. He studied the kid’s face as Eiji too observed this apparently affectionate reunion… the kid’s familiar face… that faint smile, that angle of brow, those dark smooth lashes…

It was a shock so palpable that Sano’s entire body twitched in very much the same manner the white devoted’s had a minute before. For some reason he still couldn’t breathe.

“I thought you were in the border towns for the rest of the year.” Whether or not Hajime had withdrawn from the hug, Sano didn’t know.

“I heard rumors about what’s going on in Elotica,” the Visitant replied, “and thought it would be best if I was there. I ran into your friend here getting ready to sneak into this place.”

Knowing the woman must be gesturing at him, knowing Hajime must finally turn fully in his direction, Sano almost reflexively broke away from the kid that so resembled both of the other adults in the room and looked the royal knight in the face at last. The moment of gold meeting brown seemed to drag out far longer than it actually lasted. It wasn’t only that Sano was ridiculously relieved to see Hajime unhurt and free of captivity; it wasn’t only that Sano was absurdly glad to see Hajime at all; it was as if something fundamental had altered in the way he looked at him, as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“You told me about your family,” he couldn’t help accusing silently. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Not that Hajime was under any obligation, or would have had any need to mention these people if not specifically inclined to do so. Not that Sano had any reason to care. But somehow things had changed. He remembered his worries — stupid and meaningless they seemed now — that Hajime might discover Sano had possibly slept with a group of random strangers, and trying to reassure himself defiantly that he owed the knight neither restraint nor explanation in such matters. It wasn’t heartening to find that went both ways.

And all Hajime said, looking him up and down, was, “What in Kaoru’s name are you wearing?”

“Language, Hajime…” the Visitant reproved, demonstrating (as if that were needed) she knew his name without having to be told.

Hajime’s roll of eyes might have been promising, but the half smile that accompanied it made the gesture seem more fond than exasperated. He turned away from Sano as if their locked gaze hadn’t meant a thing, and said, “How are you, Eiji?” — demonstrating (as if that were needed) he knew his name without having to be told.

Sano was glad no one was watching him now as Hajime and his… and Eiji had a brief moment of catching up. He wouldn’t have liked them to see the way he trembled as if from some great exertion — and not from the battle in front of the sanctum doors, either; it had started when Hajime had withdrawn his eyes. As he struggled to regain control, he fought against rising anger and despair. Of course it made sense for Hajime to comment on the stupid outfit he still wore; what else had he expected from him? An explanation? An apology? Even just a “Thanks for trying to rescue me” would have been nice. But once again, Hajime didn’t owe him anything, and Sano needed to conquer this before he made a fool of himself.

Fortunately for his dignity, he did have an excuse for the turmoil he was undoubtedly displaying in spite of his best efforts; and in fact the results of the aforementioned battle, completely forgotten as he’d anxiously followed Hajime’s conflict with the white devoted, were practically screaming aloud now. His entire right side throbbed from where he’d hit the wall, and a pattern of spots like a constellation across his figure, including on his face, had commenced a deep, stinging ache as they remembered fists slamming into them. His lungs pulsated not so much with pain as with lingering aftershock from the long moments during which he’d had no breath after hard stone had knocked it out of him. No wonder he was so emotionally distressed! His body was certainly in no position to contribute to personal strength and discipline.

Hajime had asked Eiji a couple of questions Sano hadn’t wanted to listen to, but now was looking around at the room — most specifically at the hanging behind which the fourth-wash had disappeared — with anticipatory impatience. “I’m surprised Aoshi isn’t back yet with his minions.”

In a relatively impassive part of his brain that Sano was astonished still existed, he filed away the name ‘Aoshi,’ which he did remember having heard at some point in relation to the higher-wash of Misao. But that didn’t mean he could speak yet, and it was the Visitant that replied to Hajime’s statement: “We left two of them unconscious outside the doors.” She waved to her left, and Hajime, following her hand, evidently had his eyes caught by Sano as they would have passed him upward to the little balcony and the room’s traditional exit. His gaze moved from head to toe again, and, though he gave a little shake of head surely in continued baffled response to the blue and orange outfit, this time he also seemed to take in more details than merely that. And when he turned back toward the Visitant, he appeared to be assessing her injuries as well.

“You’re both all right, it seems.” Then solely to the Visitant, in that smirking tone Sano thought he knew so intimately but that the woman presumably knew better, he added, “You must have been practicing with that little knife of yours.”

“I have the ladies’ blessing on that little knife of mine,” the Visitant replied. And though she spoke in a tone of piety, there was a touch of sarcasm to it as well; Sano realized with a sinking of heart that she had deliberately made the religious reference in order to annoy Hajime and pay him back for the tease about her weapon and combative abilities. She did know him well. Then she added in a more reasonable tone, “Your friend here actually threw the last punch both times, though.”

Hajime gave Sano another meaningless glance and said briefly, “Well done, Sano.”

And in response to this commendation that would have meant the world to him just yesterday, Sano was tempted to reply, “Too little, too late, your knightliness.”

Looking immediately away from him again, Hajime said, “I expected another fight, but if you cut his little team in half, it may take Aoshi longer than I thought to rally his forces. We may be able to get out of here without encountering him again.” His eyes flicked once more to the hanging that concealed the back door, then up at the main ones, pensive. Finally he said, “The shrine’s eastern entrance is the closest to a street that will take us out of town; we need to get away from Enca as soon as possible.”

Finding his voice at last, Sano protested, “But that’ll put pretty much the whole town between us and Elotica!”

Hajime looked at him and away, and now Sano started to get the feeling he was deliberately avoiding meeting his gaze for more than an instant. “We can’t just go straight into the capital, idiot. It won’t take long for Aoshi to get someone on our trail — maybe even guards from the capital; he must have sent word hours ago, and they could be here any time. We have to shake any pursuit before we can even think about getting into Elotica.”

Surly, Sano had no response for this reasonable point.

Apparently sensing his capitulation rather than reading it on the face he seemingly now refused to look at, Hajime nodded sharply. “We’ll need to get out of this building quickly. They brought me in through the back ways and this door–” he gestured over his shoulder– “which won’t be available to us now. Tokio, do you remember the way you came in?”

The Visitant nodded. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble to retrace our steps, but I think the middle entrance of the shrine will be easiest to get out of from there. We may have to make our way through more streets than you were planning.”

Hajime’s nod was identical to Tokio’s. “Fine. But the east end of town is still closest. If we get separated…” He appeared frustrated, probably because he didn’t know the environs of Enca well enough to suggest a rendezvous point in this eventuality.

“We’ll find each other.” Tokio laid a hand briefly on Hajime’s arm in another gesture Sano would not have expected to see him accept so readily. And again Hajime nodded, then moved past her toward the stairs.

To a certain extent, despite the slew of negative and tempestuous emotions Sano had been struggling against in here, the room had come to feel a bit like what it actually was: a sanctuary from the world. They had no idea what they would find outside the doors — their previous enemies awakened, fresh enemies appearing, or just an empty corridor — and the very instant they set foot out there they would be on the run from as-yet-unknown powers. Whether that was better than skulking in here with the knight disinclined to look at him and a bizarre new set of sentiments Sano didn’t want to face threatening every instant to burst out of him, he couldn’t really be sure. It didn’t matter, since it was obviously time to go.

Not wanting to talk to the kid — or anyone at the moment, really — Sano got Eiji’s attention somewhat rudely with a rough wave, then pushed his hand palm-upward toward him in a gesture of demand. Eiji hesitated briefly, glancing at his mother, who was following Hajime to the stairs, but then shrugged a bit and relinquished the belt and sheathed weapon he still had draped over his shoulder. He would be freer to move without it anyway, and he must recognize by now that Sano was an ally of his… of Hajime.

The latter, taking the lead as naturally as if he’d been chosen by general consensus, ascended and grasped one of the door handles. Leaning close, he listened intently, and Sano from two steps down the staircase did the same, for whatever danger might lie without that Hajime by his own choice would be the first to face. His slight frown indicated nothing of what he might be hearing out there, but as he drew the confiscated keonblade from his belt — carefully; it seemed to be unusually sharp — the rest of them readied for further movement.

The doors opened outward from here — wide as they were, there wouldn’t have been space for them to swing inward onto the narrow balcony — and this was a tactical advantage in the current circumstances. With a swift motion and no warning, Hajime flung them both open, one with a kick and the other with his arm, hopefully breaking the nose of or smashing against the wall anyone lying in wait for them outside. The door on the left did strike something, and only opened halfway, but Sano remembered leaving the muscular second-wash lying pretty close to it before, so that could mean nothing. Quickly, single file, they all darted out after Hajime.

Was it a disappointment to find the drafty corridor exactly as they’d left it? The two orange-clad devoted still prone, and not another person — another enemy — in sight? It was. Despite being well aware that their current goal was quiet escape, Sano found he longed for further combat. Only the heat of battle, he thought, could distract him from what he experienced internally right now, and his hands and arms seemed to ache with more than the actual pain they felt — with desire for the shock of impact, the sensation of something first resisting and then giving way beneath his attack. He would like to haul that muscular devoted to his feet (near-impossible an undertaking as that would undoubtedly be) and shake him awake, challenge him, “Why don’t you throw me into another wall?”

Yet earlier he’d said to him, “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us. Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?” And then it had turned out that what he’d been fighting for was–

“This way.” Tokio directed them without hesitation, and they all followed at a jog. Maybe there was an enemy lurking around the next corner, and Sano could be satisfied then.

There wasn’t, and he couldn’t. Just as on the way in, the chambers and corridors were eerily noiseless and empty as they made their way out, and Sano continued to speculate, with the portion of his brain not occupied by bitterer thoughts, that the mundanes had been temporarily banished for the duration of the intended prisoner transfer. They arrived at what he remembered as the first room they’d entered, with its old statue of Misao surrounded by cushions, without incident, but as they crossed it they could hear the distant sound of numerous footsteps echoing down some deeper hallway.

Again Hajime took the lead, setting the door ajar and peering through before gesturing them all onward. Sano was surprised, when he stepped out after Tokio and Eiji, to find they were by no means alone in the courtyard inside the main building’s pentagon: it appeared the entire population of the shrine had gathered in some agitation where they’d presumably been ordered to stay, and now a shifting and a murmur of surprise rippled through them at the appearance of the fugitives from within. Sano wondered Hajime had chosen to emerge when he’d seen this, but supposed retreating and looking for another exit might have been even more hazardous when someone was evidently in there now searching for them.

They had begun pushing their way through the crowd before anyone could properly react, banking on the hope that none of these people really knew what was going on or would be inclined to stop them; but in fact it worked out better than that. For almost as soon as Tokio’s shiiya caught the grey light of the now-overcast sky, the murmuring became more pointed, and Sano could even make out some of it. It seemed the individual loyalty to the current white devoted of Misao she’d remarked upon outside the sanctum doors was limited to the specific warriors they’d met, or at the very least not shared by the members of this group. They had found Aoshi’s behavior troublesome and questionable from almost the moment he’d arrived here, and the appearance of the inspector of church affairs shortly thereafter seemed to confirm their suspicions. Something strange was going on, especially now Elotica city guards had entered the shrine in pursuit of someone and the rightful residents and employees — some of whom had lived here all their lives, and never before been subjected to such an indignity — had been ousted without explanation. They only hoped they would not be the ones to suffer when the Visitant reported on the untoward happenings and came down as hard as was rumored to be her wont on the wrongdoers.

Tokio obviously picked up on this atmosphere as well, for as she pushed her way through the agitated devoted she called out, “There’s no need for concern! Just let us through!” And the crowd parted as if by magic, creating a path the fugitives did not hesitate to take advantage of. As they ran, the space closed behind them, to which movement there was almost a feeling of support, of solidarity. When Aoshi and whichever of his loyalists remained to him and the city guards eventually emerged from the empty building and inquired of the assembly where the escapees had gone, Sano didn’t think anyone would be very forthcoming with the answer.

The old man at the gate, who had not abandoned his post even in the midst of this inexplicable chaos, saluted as the four of them hastened past, a gesture Sano believed was aimed specifically at the Visitant he’d shown so much respect earlier. And Sano couldn’t help wondering breathlessly, “Why are you so famous when I’ve never heard of you?” The question of why he’d never heard of this woman being presently one rather close to his heart, after all.

He could see the smirk on her face as she turned it slightly to offer him the semi-answer, “Maybe I’ll tell you once we’re somewhere safe.”

Sano huffed, but said nothing more. They were in the street by now, heading toward the intersection of this road and another that would take them out of town. Despite the cooperation of the group of devoted behind them, they could be followed at any moment, and needed to put as much distance between them and both pursuers and witnesses as soon as they possibly could. So Sano concentrated on dodging pedestrians and vehicles, matching his pace as his companions did to that of the slowest of them — Eiji — keeping his eyes open for anyone coming behind, and generally bringing up an effective rear.

There are a lot of weird things about this old picture (not least of which is the question Why did I draw this AU’s Tomoe so many times?), but there are some decent aspects to it as well.

Here’s an old picture of our Visitant. Obviously back when I drew this, it didn’t occur to me that her shiiya should be flower-cut. So inaccurate!!

For some author’s notes about chapter 26, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 27 notes, see this one.

Here’s an old picture of Aoshi before he got promoted. It’s a bit of a mix, actually — he’s carrying the staff symbolic of the office of white devoted, but as you can see, he’s not quite to that rank yet. In any case it makes him look like a tightrope-walker.


Heretic’s Reward 21-24

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 21 – Third Report: Purple Sky

It wasn’t that he hated it when Hajime was right, but in a way, Sano hated it when Hajime was right. Part of this was probably more that he hated the unpleasant and inconvenient circumstances the knight had predicted and warned him about, but merely the fact that Hajime had managed to anticipate something Sano had thought unlikely must be consistently annoying.

A mere two days in Elotica had proven Hajime’s concerns not unfounded. After the news of an assassin targeting devoted, naturally everyone in the religious districts was on edge, but it was worse than just that for Sano: suddenly almost everyone acted differently around him than they had. As Hajime had feared, a mood of mistrust had spread through the devoted, and anyone not long-established was being eyed askance and treated with less friendliness and welcome than before.

This applied, of course, to others besides Sano — any newcomer, really — but Sano, who carried a sword in contexts (such as in Megumi’s corner) where it was less than entirely usual to do so, and who’d had very attention-grabbing hair up until this very visit to town, was particularly visible. So he often got the worst of it, which was extremely inconvenient for someone trying not to stand out in order to gather information.

That wasn’t all Hajime had been right about.

Now Sano hurried back to Enca after those mere two days in the capital, his footsteps occasionally threatening to hasten into a run despite his efforts at keeping to an unsuspicious pace, his heart thudding with a beat far faster than those footsteps and that in part, he thought, served to quicken them past what he wanted, past endurance. The lump in his throat threatened to choke him, or to burst out of him as a hopeless cry, at any moment; and if it weren’t for the adrenaline pounding through him to the very tips of his extremities, he feared his entire body would be weighed down with an intolerable heaviness that would have prevented any movement whatsoever, except perhaps uncontrollable shaking.

Having passed out of sight of the Elotica gate-guards and onto a stretch of road completely untrafficked at this dark hour, Sano felt it safe to release some of his wretched energy in a brief run. It didn’t help much. And then forcing himself to slow as he reached a bend, around which he might encounter late-returning farmers or other tradesmen to whom his agitation and haste might appear strange, was tremendously difficult; it seemed his legs would easily continue running until the entirety of his being gave way in exhaustion and he collapsed. Running certainly felt more right at the moment.

There were a few people on the road outside Enca, and Sano struggled to move with something like calm. He hardly knew how he must look to them. How was he ever supposed to get into town and to the north end without someone taking unnecessary and detrimental notice of him? Or was he worrying too much? His thoughts were in chaos; he had no idea what he should be doing.

Whether or not he managed it in any way subtly, he did eventually, after what felt like an eternity, get back to the inn. And whether his footsteps on the wooden stairs and upper floor stomped or staggered, he did manage to get inside.

Hajime had obviously been in bed but not yet asleep, and was on his feet by the time Sano’s clumsy hands got the door unlocked and himself inside the room. His tall, wiry form, sword drawn against what he must perceive as an intruder at this unlikely time of night so soon after Sano had left, would have been intimidating — even terrifying — to an actual intruder, but to Sano was unexpectedly reassuring. Sano closed the door perhaps too abruptly and loudly, and leaned back against it with a shuddering breath, finally stilling except for the trembling of his body and the pounding of his heart.

Hajime’s sword lowered as quickly as it had risen, and he said somewhat harshly, “What happened? Why are you back here already?”

“I… shit…” At the thought of answering Hajime’s questions, Sano felt suddenly shakier than he had the entire way back to the inn. He moved to the table, dragged a stool out, and sat heavily down.

“You’ve got blood on your arm.” Later Sano must remember to be gratified in retrospect at the concern in the knight’s voice as he said this. “Were you attacked? Are you wounded?”

“No. Yes.” Sano shook his head. “No, I’m not wounded. Yes, I was attacked.”

“What in Yumi’s name happened?” demanded Hajime, both speaking and dropping his sword on his bed with evident impatience. “Unless you were attacked in the street right outside the inn, you’ve had the entire way back to calm down — so don’t just sit there; tell me.”

Sano snorted. “You really know how to comfort a guy.” Though the irony was that he was comforted. Somehow, though he hadn’t recognized it during the chaotic trip, he’d very much wanted to get back to Hajime. “All right.” He sat up straight from where he’d been resting his face on one hand, and took a deep breath, bracing himself to tell his unpleasant story. “I went to Tomoe’s plaza…”

Starting at the beginning helped calm him a little, enough that he was able to leave out the details he didn’t want to give. Other details, though, he found himself emphasizing to an unnecessary extent in a pretty obvious attempt to put off the eventual relation of the climax.

Hajime would never know just how difficult this was, because Sano would never tell him, because Sano would probably never want to relate the prior circumstances that made it so difficult. And maybe it was childish to keep that hidden, but that was how things were, and therefore led to how things must be.

He needed to find out more about kereme and whether or not Enishi used the stuff, and figured his best avenue for doing so — and the most effective use of his time, since, despite the approaching meeting with those he and Katsu had been chatting up lately, he often found himself at loose ends at night after most of the common roomers at the inn had gone home — was to head back to Tomoe’s corner and look around for the same companions with whom he’d had his own kereme experience.

He really, really didn’t want to — didn’t want to see any of them ever again, didn’t want to hear anything they might have to say, didn’t want to risk getting entangled in another scene like the previous — and hadn’t yet come up with anything logical he could ask that would get him information but keep him from having to partake again… but this was still the surest way he could think of to seek what he needed to know. With anyone else, he would be forced to work his way around to the subject first, and then what if they weren’t involved with kereme themselves and had no idea what he was talking about — or, worse (though probably better for them), were opposed to kereme and tried to get him in trouble for his interest? No, he thought, if he could find one or both of those two guys that had been in charge of the get-together before, that would be his best source of information.

Largely thanks to the memory gap that persisted of much of the night in question, Sano couldn’t be sure in what part of the purple end of town he’d run into them last week, so he was simply moving cautiously and watchfully through the darker and smaller streets of Tomoe’s corner, looking for low lights in any of the residences or the furtive movements of someone checking for trouble outside their doors. But thus far he’d seen nothing. It was so dark on this latest street, in fact, that he didn’t notice a still-standing figure leaning against the corner of a building until he was startlingly close.

“Sometarou?” Though there was a slight questioning tone to it, still the speaker detached from the wall and came toward Sano as if he’d been specifically expecting him.

Hoping his violent start hadn’t been visible in the darkness, Sano replied with all the levelness he could command, “Yeah. Is that–” Hair thinning and greying simultaneously, unremarkable face and figure… even in the low light it took only a moment to recognize one of his companions from that night last week, but… “Sorry, I… can’t remember your name.”

“Korucun,” the man replied with understanding friendliness. “It was your first time, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah…” Sano tried not to sound as chagrined as he actually felt, especially considering this was one of the people he might very well have slept with on that unfortunate occasion. “I forgot everyone else’s names there too.”

“That’s normal,” Korucun reassured him. He probably didn’t realize, actually, just how reassuring was his unpressing and unsuspicious good will; Sano had expected him to be as wary as the rest of the religious folks — or perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, given what they’d conceivably done together, leering and overly familiar — but here he was nothing but welcoming. He did seem a little abstracted, though, glancing around and up into the sky as if specifically waiting or searching for something.

“Are you looking for them again?” Sano wondered, quiet and conspiratorial. Maybe he could get the information he needed without having to risk another kereme encounter. “Going to hit the K tonight too?”

“No,” said Korucun, still looking upward. “No. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.”

Though it was a little off-topic, Sano couldn’t help asking in genuine curiosity at both words and tone, “Why?”

Instead of actually answering, the other man remarked, “Did you notice how purple the sky is tonight?”

Sano cast his bemused gaze in the same direction as Korucun’s and assessed, but couldn’t say he had.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” Korucun added softly, maybe even a little shyly.

“Her?”

“Tomoe.”

And what could Sano say to this? Possible answers in his head ranged from, “Are you sure you haven’t been hitting the K already?” to, “Do you have to stop existing too, to meet a nonexistent lady?”

Korucun was staring upward as if he’d forgotten Sano was there. After a moment he proved he hadn’t, however, by asking in the same distant tone, “Have you ever had your death reading done?”

Sano didn’t really want to know what a death reading was, and certainly couldn’t ask while posing as someone who probably should already have known. So he merely answered in the negative, and was a little surprised at how hoarsely the word came out.

“It’s an amazing experience. Yeah, it’s scary, but you feel so close to her…”

This time Sano didn’t bother to ask which ‘her’ he meant.

Finally Korucun’s eyes dropped from a sky Sano now realized he associated with the divine lady of mysteries and all that, and the look on his shadowed face proved that, however else he felt about it, ‘scary’ was accurate for his experience of whatever they were talking about. “Though I was a little surprised it was so soon,” he said, and there was a slight tremor to his tone.

Sano had a feeling he knew, now, what this death reading was, and it made him extremely uncomfortable. He was reminded a little of Yahiko claiming his proxy mother had pulled his father’s spirit from his body to spare him the pain of death by fire, and that was nothing he wanted to think about. He wondered how he could get out of this insane and unsettling conversation without giving away the fact that he didn’t believe in any of it. He cared less about hurting Korucun’s feelings than he had about Yahiko’s, of course, but here he had more of a cover to maintain…

“But I don’t think you’re the–” Korucun broke off suddenly, drawing in a sharp little breath, and in the shadows the whites of his eyes showed abruptly brighter around his irises. Startled at the expression, Sano whirled to follow the direction of his gaze, and he too found his breath catching when he saw what Korucun had seen.

There had been no sign of the man’s appearance or approach up until now, and he’d already come within a few yards of them. He moved utterly noiselessly, seemingly unaffected by the fact that they’d noticed him, and as he drew closer he also drew a keonblade whose sudden flash into energy momentarily brightened the scene. Though he was fairly clearly a man, judging by the shape of his body, little else could be determined about him; he had a hood pulled low over his face, which was consequently hidden in shadows. But if this wasn’t the assassin that had attempted to kill all the white devoted — and succeeded at one of them — it was, at least, somebody with a very similar purpose.

“Korucun,” Sano commanded in a low, tense tone, “run.”

“…and the guy came charging at us totally silent; I could barely hear his feet even when he was running. It was pretty creepy, but I drew my sword and got ready to fight him. He didn’t say anything — like, to explain what he was doing or why — but it wasn’t like we couldn’t tell he wanted to kill us.”

“Or just you,” Hajime speculated. His tone was tight, and he remained standing beside the table, not having found a seat anywhere in the room to listen. He was clearly hanging on Sano’s every word, which under other circumstances Sano would have found extremely gratifying.

Sano took a shaky breath. There were so many ways he could have responded to that brief statement, but some of those options — the most appealing, really — were sarcastic, and he didn’t have a drop of sarcasm in him at the moment. Probably best just to go on telling his story.

As the figure finished its approach, drawing up to Sano with those eerily quiet steps, Sano had a moment of relief and confidence as he reflected, Oh, this guy doesn’t actually move all that fast. And it was a moment in which he could easily have died. For what he mistook for slowness was a transition from running to attacking as fluidly smooth as a river that, under its apparent languidness, has a deadly swift current. The backhanded slice of the enemy’s sword, taking Sano unawares with its deceptively fast appearance of sluggishness as it did, should have removed him from the battle before he entered it, possibly even killed him immediately if it caught him in the neck rather than the chest. But in an instant of unexpected confusion, and more motion and heat than Sano’s awareness of the situation could account for, he felt nothing — no sudden, precise slice of pain from the energy blade, no blunter strike from the physical sword within — for it suddenly wasn’t his chest taking the blow. Nor was it the enemy’s body or weapon that met the keonblade Sano was raising in an anticipated attack of his own.

“Ko–!” Sano’s gasped-out cry of surprise and horror only got as far as the first syllable of the man’s name as the red devoted of Tomoe collapsed backward onto him, and Sano’s sword, abruptly devoid of energy, clattered to the ground.

Korucun had thrown himself into the middle of this with his back to Sano and arms spread, as if to shield him, but as he tumbled into Sano’s fumbling grasp, his head turned enough that Sano could see his expression — fear, pain… and determination. Maybe a touch of regret, but certainly no surprise. This was what he’d meant when he’d talked about meeting Tomoe. This was what he’d meant when he’d said, ‘so soon.’ He even made a brave attempt to smile now as he choked out, “Tomoe bless you, my friend.”

There wasn’t time for anything beyond that; just those five words, and he went limp. And Sano was left staggering backward under a suddenly dead weight and an oppressive purple sky.

Chapter 22 – Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers

“Fucking… how could he just do that?” It was the first thing Sano said after a long silence following the relation of the event itself. He should probably continue his account, but couldn’t help tangenting to express some of his extreme agitation. “Throw himself into the middle of something like that and fucking die smiling? Knowing he would die, for a complete stranger?? He was really hearing something, or thought he was, just like that fucking kid… are they all crazy? Or… I don’t know what to think! There must be something there… people don’t just… but if there’s really something, why would they let…”

“Maybe there is something there.” Hajime’s voice, utterly devoid of any emotion, was also, oddly enough, just a touch gentler than usual.

“You don’t believe in them either, though!”

Hajime shook his head minutely and said in the same somewhat blank tone, “But there’s no harm in believing something that helps you make sense of your world.”

“No harm??” Sano jumped up. “That man is dead because the voices in his head told him it was time to die!”

“And that was his choice. You said he was happy; who are you to question that?”

“I said he was smiling, not– what the fuck are you saying? Why are you taking their side?” Sano felt the usual fists forming out of his twitching hands, but in this instance wasn’t sure whether Hajime was the true object of his anger.

“Because while you’re confused about this, you’re likely to be less useful.” With this aloofly pragmatic statement, Hajime sounded more himself. “You need to resolve this and get past it.”

“And you think arguing some stupid devoted bullshit is the way to help?”

“What do you want me to say?” wondered Hajime irritably. “It’s a lot easier to prove something exists than to prove it doesn’t.”

“I want you to be less of a patronizing bastard! Don’t treat me like a little kid who can’t go to bed until daddy’s checked the cabinet for monsters! I’m not looking for an easy answer that might not be true but that’s all right to believe because it helps me cope!”

Hajime’s annoyance seemed suddenly tempered by surprise, and once again there was an unaccustomed gentleness to his tone as he asked, “Why do you think I have any answers at all?”

“I…” Sano retreated a few steps, then turned his back entirely and stared down at his own bed. “I don’t know.” He certainly wasn’t going to admit that he’d started to think of Hajime as one of the wisest people he knew. “Just because you’re here, I guess.”

“Then don’t blame me for offering the only thing I do have.” It was a cool reply, and something of a reprimand, but not unkind. Hajime obviously understood how much the events of the evening had shaken Sano.

“Thank you,” Sano said. It didn’t even come out grudgingly, for all he had no more answers now than when he’d entered the room.

Businesslike as ever, without acknowledging Sano’s thanks, Hajime returned to the events in Elotica by asking what had happened next.

With another deep breath, Sano resumed his previous place at the table and looked at his hands. One of the nails on the left had dried blood underneath, and he started picking at it as he spoke. “The assassin backed off a little and just stood there, staring at us. He didn’t expect Korucun to do that any more than I did, I guess, and since he did do it, it was like suddenly the assassin just couldn’t keep going. He probably could have killed me right then since I was so shocked, but he didn’t.”

“Interesting.”

“Then we both heard somebody coming, and the assassin just disappeared. I never saw anyone move like that. I couldn’t stand around holding this dead body, so I put him down and ran off too. I just put him down on the ground and… left him there…”

That utterly heartless and inhumane action on Sano’s part had bothered him almost as much as Korucun’s random sacrifice — but he’d had no choice! He, who had already attacked multiple devoted in order to impersonate them, an enemy of the current regime and the confederate of a man in hiding, simply could not be found by anyone holding a corpse in the street with no better explanation than ‘A mysterious hooded man did it and ran off before anybody but me saw him.’ But he’d just left him there in his own blood, like a sack of spilled goods, to be found without warning possibly by someone that had known and cared about him.

Yet again he took a deep breath and forced himself to go on. “It’s getting harder to pretend to be a devoted. By now everyone’s heard about the guy who knocked people over the head and stole their shiiyao, and a lot of them think that guy’s the assassin. Nobody I smacked got a good look at me, so they don’t know I’m that guy… but they all know I’m a new guy, and some of them have been asking questions about me…”

“And whoever this assassin is, he’s managed to gather enough information to come after you fairly effectively.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I can go as a devoted anymore. Even if I really wanted to.”

“You’re going to have to go back, though.”

“Yeah… yeah, I know. I shouldn’t even have come out here again so quick like I did.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“You could be a little more sympathetic.”

“Would that change things? I think you can handle this without it being sugar-coated.”

Sano looked over at him. “Do you really think that? Or are you just saying that to make sure I do go back right away?”

Hajime replied with a long, calculating look of his own. Finally he said, “Yes, I really do think that. You suffered the loss of your entire family when you were a child, and I think you knew even then that they were killed by bandits. I think you can handle this, no matter how much it’s bothering you.”

In a not insignificant amount of shock, Sano stared at the knight. That Hajime had, from the broken mentions of them Sano had made, pieced together the story of his family was not terribly surprising, but for Hajime to base on that circumstance any belief in Sano’s current ability to function under emotional stress was almost astonishing. Certainly Hajime had given no greater compliment or vote of confidence!

But Hajime himself had suffered some kind of pain in earlier life, hadn’t he? He’d been unable to deter some devoted from harming and taking advantage of a woman he loved — and ladies knew what had happened to her thereafter — and it disturbed him enough that he still dreamed about it to this day. His experience wasn’t remotely similar to Sano’s, but he must understand well the effect an emotional event would have on someone’s later abilities. Which made the fact that he still thought Sano capable of carrying on even more meaningful than it otherwise would have been.

Sano had no idea what to say next. That plenty remained to be said he felt deeply and intensely, but what it was or how to start he couldn’t determine. So he rose once more and began preparing for bed as if he had some illusory notion about lying down and getting a good night’s sleep. From behind him he heard Hajime resheathe the sword he’d drawn at Sano’s entrance, then sit down again on his own bed, and for several moments both men were wordless.

Finally, when Sano had removed his shoes and belts and was pulling his shiiya over his head, Hajime said, “From the way you described it, it sounds like that devoted saved your life.”

“Yeah…” Sano stilled for a moment, his vision entirely blocked by grey-blue cloth that looked colorless in the shadows, before resuming his disrobing. “Yeah, I think he did. That assassin’s got a way of moving that… I could probably fight him now, now I’ve seen it and know how much faster he is than you expect… but right at first… yeah, I probably would have died.”

“Do you regret not having died?”

“Of course I don’t!” On the surface it seemed like such a stupid question. Who wouldn’t rather be alive than dead? But as he considered further, after his initial growling outburst, doubts crept in — or, rather, doubts he’d already had solidified into an expressible form. “But… why should he be dead and not me?” Sano threw his shiiya to the floor, kicked it under the bed, and flopped down onto the latter facing the wall. He felt sick and cold, and was glad of the darkness that allowed him to avoid visual focus on anything.

“Because that’s what he chose.” This continued tolerance of the unproductive conversation did little to improve Sano’s mood, especially since Hajime had already admitted that his patience was aimed merely at trying to put Sano back into a frame of mind more useful for his own purposes.

“Only because he thought he had to. I mean…” Sano shook a fist that was as imperfectly formed as his uncertain thoughts. “He was terrified — he didn’t want to die — he was so surprised and… and… not happy that his stupid death reading told him he was going to die so soon… but he fucking did it anyway! It wasn’t like he knew me, or knew anything about what I was doing in town so he could think, ‘I gotta save this guy; this is totally worth dying for.’ If he didn’t already have this idea, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to die on Yumifyo 38,’ he wouldn’t ever have jumped in the middle of a fucking assassination!”

“He might have,” Hajime replied quietly. “He might have made the same choice.”

“But he wouldn’t have! Who would make a choice like that without any lady-damned reason for it? He really believed there was some good reason to get himself slashed and stabbed and bleed out on the street, or else he wouldn’t have fucking done it!”

“And you can’t allow him that belief?”

“I don’t want to!” Now Sano felt compelled to sit up again, staring across the space between the beds to where the shadowy figure of Hajime sat just opposite him staring back. “I don’t want him or anyone else to believe there’s something telling people they should die so someone else can survive! Why should I be the one who gets to live? What kind of monster would whisper that in someone’s ear?”

Hajime’s tone was quiet and dark, condemnatory of a distant evil, as he said, “I don’t want to believe something like that either.” He sounded very serious, his statement coming a bit more slowly, as he went on, “But when someone chooses to give up their life for someone else, that’s a choice you have to respect.”

“But it was a choice based on shitty information!”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he saved your life.”

“I know that! I just…” With his elbows on his knees, Sano hung his head and closed his eyes. There was such a maelstrom of emotions inside him — continued shock at what had happened, rage at the assassin as well as at the system that had been Korucun’s true murderer, sorrow that he hadn’t been able to prevent a pointless death, confusion about what others believed and how they could possibly do so, and even some loathing of himself under the circumstances — he feared he would never get it sorted out. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Neither do I.” Hajime sighed faintly, evidently annoyed — but Sano thought it was more frustration at his own helplessness in this situation than with Sano. “And we’ll never know what was going on in his head. But…” The sound of shifting, of weight leaving a mattress, made Sano look up just in time to see Hajime step over and place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t regret you’re alive.”

As Sano met his companion’s gaze, little of it as he could see in the dark room, and heard that somber tone, he was shaken for a few moments completely out of his dreary thoughts by the sudden startling realization that Hajime meant what he said on a level totally different from wanting Sano back to work as soon as possible. In fact there even seemed to be an unspoken “I don’t” appended to the previous statement. Hajime really wanted to help and comfort Sano on a personal level, and simply didn’t know exactly what to say — who, after all, would? And while Sano rather wished the knight would say that “I don’t” aloud and confirm its presence in his head, he was already almost stunned — and certainly very deeply touched — by what Hajime had offered.

“Thank you,” he said for a second time, hoarsely, staring Hajime in the eye unblinking for as long as the intense moment lasted before the knight removed his hand and turned back toward his side of the room. And Sano found that, when the previous maelstrom resumed, as if the eye of the storm had passed over him and gone, it was easier to deal with, seemed more likely to shift into perspective at some point. Slowly he turned and lay down on his side again, facing the wall, still glad of the darkness but now with an equally welcome image in it of Hajime’s eyes staring so intently into his.

“Will you be able to go back in the morning?” Of course Hajime would feel the need to return to this point… but at least Sano was certain he had returned to it after having left it for a moment of real camaraderie and goodwill.

“Yeah,” Sano said, more or less in a whisper. “Yeah, I should be fine.” For a given value of ‘fine.’

Hajime made no reply, and presently the sounds of his mattress and blanket shifting indicated that he too had lain down again, possibly even facing the wall and away from his companion just as his companion was.

Though motionless, Sano yet had a feeling of spinning, as if physically in the clutches of that storm he’d envisioned in his head and heart — perhaps as a reminder of how little control he could ever possibly have when people made insane choices they couldn’t take back based on a faith Sano would spend his last breath denying. He had the sense that he could do nothing more than hold on and wait this out… or, rather, since the spinning would never cease, he would simply have to adjust to it — as Hajime had said, resolve this and get past it.

And Hajime’s words really had helped. Despite the fact that nothing had been resolved, that Sano remained at square one trying to figure this shit out, the knight’s unexpected belief that he was strong enough to handle it, as well as his equally unexpected gladness that Sano had survived the attack, made all the difference in the world. Previously, Sano had doubted his ability to shoulder this burden, let alone get it straightened out in his mind; now, he was sure he could, given time.

He wondered what Hajime was thinking over there right now, if anything at all. It reminded him of lying here just a couple of nights ago pondering the dream he’d seen alongside the other man, wanting but feeling unable to ask, ignorant whether or not Hajime was awake just across from him.

An old saying kept coming to mind: Your wishes may be prayers, so make them wisely. The advice was not to spend a lot of effort longing for frivolities or things you shouldn’t have, since the ladies were always listening; aside from the embarrassment of their awareness of your shallow or inappropriate desires, what if they granted your wish as if you really had specifically asked them for it? Sano had never liked the adage, not merely because he didn’t pray and didn’t believe any supernatural force was taking a hand in his life and arranging events according to some cosmic plan or sense of irony, but also because supernatural forces that couldn’t distinguish between wishful thinking and actual requests were even less worthy of faith or worship. But he couldn’t help coming back now, again and again, to the idea that some caution was advisable in wishing intensely lest that wish be granted in some unpleasant way.

He’d wanted to be close enough to Hajime that they could discuss personal things, support each other through personal problems… He’d wished for it, he realized now, more fiercely than he’d had any idea even while lying right here thinking about the personal problem he thought he observed Hajime in the grip of. There had been a sort of ache inside him representing the want of that closeness.

And then something had happened to demonstrate that they already had it. Surely, therefore, Sano’s wish was granted; that particular ache was relieved. Yet the ‘something’ had shaken him deeply, saddened and confused him, replaced one ache with another and left him agitated and unable to sleep or foresee when he might next be content. Would he have wanted to know the degree to which Hajime was willing to engage with and comfort him if he’d known how he would come to know it?

And yet, just as being unable to figure out Korucun’s mindset didn’t change the fact that Korucun had saved his life, the fact that decidedly unpleasant circumstances had brought to light his closeness with Hajime didn’t change how much he’d wanted that closeness. He wouldn’t have wished — ‘prayed’ — for it to happen like this, but it meant so much to him that it had happened that he couldn’t really regret it. What was more, it gave him strength — or perhaps simply called on the strength Hajime had declared Sano already had — to lie quiet in the darkness and at least try to start making sense of his whirling thoughts about Korucun, about the divine ladies, about life and death, and how he himself fit into it all.

Chapter 23 – Wanted

Attempting to remain in the same spot long enough to get a good idea of the current setup at the gates while simultaneously blending in was proving ridiculously difficult. Sano found himself repeatedly forced to move along the line in one direction or the other when he saw someone apparently looking at him, which made it difficult not to reach the city entrance or get so far from it that he could no longer see anything useful.

It was obvious, at least, that everyone entering the capital was now being checked by the gate-guards. Exactly how thorough that examination was Sano had not yet been able to determine, thanks to the aforementioned difficulties getting information and refraining from standing out at the same time. He didn’t think they were searching carts and bags and pockets in detail — the line along the road would have been moving much more slowly in that case — but he simply couldn’t risk having his cache of one red devoted shiiya from each divine house discovered; honestly, he didn’t really want guards looking closely in his face and asking him what his business in the city was in any case. But would he be able to sneak in under the cover of some party or other? Were they checking that thoroughly? Three more slow instances of approaching Elotica’s high walls and then turning to go back as subtly as he could were required to determine that they were not.

He should have been well inside the capital by now seeking far more important information, but he supposed such obnoxious circumstances were inevitable whenever an anonymous assassin threatened high-profile targets and had now killed at least two people. Everyone in the crowd pressing along the road was a little on edge, and Sano rather doubted a cursory examination of persons and vehicles was likely to make anybody but whoever had ordered it feel any better. Hell, he knew more about the assassin than anyone else out here (most likely) — he was trying not to think about that — and he certainly wasn’t comforted by the checkpoint. Though his situation was a little different from that of all these workers trying to reach their jobs inside the city and deliverypeople trying to get their goods to the Elotica markets.

Without nearly as much consideration as he probably should have given it, he took the first opportunity that presented itself. A particularly long delay in the movement of the line had caused the driver of one wagon to hop down from his perch and move forward a bit trying to see around the bend in the road he’d nearly reached, and the people just behind him had gathered into a cluster at precisely that moment to discuss whether they shouldn’t try one of the other city entrances, as inconvenient a walk as that would be.

This left a tempting wagon bed unwatched for a brief period, without a driver to feel an additional weight added to it, and Sano jumped for it almost instinctively. It was full of — what else? — bushels of apples, but they sat atop a loosely placed tarp far larger than the floor it covered so it was bunched up in multiple places between the similarly loosely packed bushels. Shoving his backpack between tarp and wagon floor, within one of these folds so the new presence hopefully wouldn’t create an unusual bulge, and then worming his own way after it feet first was the work of less than a minute, and no outcry or approaching footsteps seemed to indicate he’d been spotted. If the guards made as desultory an examination of the interior of this wagon as they had those he’d noted the last time he’d been up near the gates, Sano should be able to slip through unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the presence of the tarp — or, rather, its shoddy placement with bushels stacked on top of it without its being smoothed out to accommodate them — should have told Sano something about the careless nature of the owner or driver of the wagon. The tarp served to separate the bushels from a surprisingly thick layer of grime that covered the floor of the wagon and was comprised, as far as Sano could tell (and he had some experience in this area) of the remains of rotted fruit. He could already feel the sticky goo penetrating his hair and clothing in various places before he was even fully settled, and the smell almost overpowered him. Lucky it was both that his face pointed toward the tented opening — though he didn’t dare stay too close, lest he be seen from without — and that he wouldn’t have to be here very long.

Of course he could only estimate, with this imperfect view of the world beyond the tarp, how close they drew to the city once the line started moving again in its broken fashion, and, misjudging, he didn’t start his agitated anticipation quite as soon as he otherwise would have. In fact it was the voices of the gate-guards that alerted him to how far they’d come, and then Sano, belatedly holding his breath, was startled at how smoothly the entry into the city went. As he’d somewhat expected but mostly hoped, it seemed the guards gave nothing more than a perfunctory glance into the bed of the wagon, not bothering to move the bushels or the tarp in any way; and evidently Sano’s presence under the latter presented no visual anomaly worth exploring or commenting on.

Before he knew it they were inside Elotica, and Sano was edging closer, within his reeking den, to the perimeter of the wagon’s bed where he could peer between the slats and try to gage when would be best to wriggle out of here. He didn’t want to get all the way to a market street where there would be a crowd, but at the same time preferred to wait as long as possible after passing through the gates. He also wanted a clear and immediate escape route before him when he disembarked.

Though he had these circumspect plans, once again he acted with little forethought when an opportunity arose. With no one immediately in sight (though admittedly his field of vision was severely limited), and with a narrow side-street — also apparently empty — coming into view, he made a break for it. Dragging his backpack behind him, he hauled himself free of the tarp (knocking two bushels askew or completely over in the process), and rather clumsily climbed the wagon’s side as quickly as he could. And this time his actions did not go unobserved.

“Hey!” He thought it was the wagon driver, who’d undoubtedly felt the shifting of Sano’s movements this time and turned. “What are you–” The man’s voice sounded so surprised, it was no wonder he couldn’t finish his sentence. Sano, though he didn’t look back as he pelted off with steps that stumbled at first after hitting the ground, had a confused idea that the wagon pulled up short and the horse protested. He couldn’t imagine the guy was likely to circle back to the gates and report that he’d apparently accidentally transported someone past the search, but he might mention it to others he encountered today; so Sano ducked his head and tried to put as much space as hastily as he could between the man and any details that could be noticed about the stowaway.

A couple of zig-zags down the network of alleys into which his chosen escape route had led, when it seemed no one was following and he was approaching another larger street, he slowed, ducked into a corner, and let his breathing settle as he looked around more carefully. Though it was larger, the street ahead wasn’t particularly busy — he’d drawn near the city wall, and this might be considered a back way — so he felt free to pause and consider what his plans for the day were. Of course first of all — he wished it could take place even before this cogitation — he needed to clean off the rancid fruit slime that coated him from head to toe, and that wasn’t going to be convenient, but thereafter he could decide where to seek information first.

Before he’d even finished these thoughts, however — and he certainly wasn’t accustomed, yet, to the smell that clogged his nostrils and only seemed to strengthen with every move he made — something just across the street from his corner caught his attention, and he was drawn almost inexorably, though not without scanning the area first to ensure his relative safety, to examine it.

The building on the other side of the larger street had a side-roof creating a little alcove that would doubtless have been used to shade sales stands if this particular area had been more advantageously placed for market purposes. As it was, only a stack of crates and a couple of barrels were tucked away there — but a number of public postings had been tacked onto the wall beneath the protective overhang as well, and one of these papers bore what appeared to be a very familiar face.

Sano became more and more convinced with every step that took him across to stand in the shadow of the roof and the crates and stare at the poster, until there could be no doubt. Under the large Wanted text at the top, around a portrait that held Sano’s eye far longer than it probably should have at the moment, the sign read, Royal knight Hajime – Chief of Prince Kenshin’s knights – Wanted for inciting rebellion and for the murder of Nenji, white devoted of Misao – Reward for capture or information regarding – Very dangerous: use caution.

As he read this, Sano gaped slightly. Hajime was wanted for what? They thought the assassin was Hajime? The idea was more than simply ludicrous. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hajime capable of moving and fighting with a silence and skill just as uncannily quiet and deadly as that of the assassin… but remembering that innocent Tomoe devoted choking on his own blood to wish Sano well as he died in his arms — something he was still trying not to think about — he found himself outraged on Hajime’s behalf. How could anyone believe Hajime was the assassin? It was absurd; it was insulting; it was… surprisingly painful. Someone so upstanding, someone so applied to righting wrongs — someone, in short, so good as Hajime was… it was preposterous.

Dragging narrowed eyes beneath lowered brows from that poster with an effort, fighting back the unexpected agitation the reading of it had caused, he forced himself to turn to the next one, which his peripheral vision had informed him might also be of interest. Again he was a little surprised at the accuracy of the face depicted; though it wasn’t exactly like gazing into a looking glass, he was pretty sure anyone that happened to walk by at the moment might look twice if they looked once at the man staring at his own image on a wanted poster.

Heretic Sanosuke – Rebel spy – May be disguised as a devoted of any house – Reward for capture or information regarding.

“‘Rebel spy?'” he muttered. “What the…” Well, technically, he supposed he was… It just seemed so overly dramatic when there wasn’t really, as far as he knew, a ‘rebellion’ yet. And he couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that, unlike Hajime, he wasn’t considered ‘very dangerous.’

The next thing he wondered was how whoever had printed these had gotten his name and the detail that he was a heretic and come up with such an accurate picture of him. It was actually fairly attractive, though his eyes had already wandered back to the one of Hajime (which was even more so). A few moments of consideration reminded him that the false knights he’d fought in Eloma would certainly have had the chance to make some mental notes, and have heard his name and probably his religious status from his neighbors. If that was where the information had come from, it surprised him a little at first that he saw no poster for Yahiko as well… but perhaps those guys hadn’t had the nerve to admit they’d been single-handedly defeated in that small town, and the single hand had belonged to a ten-year-old. Sano smirked at the thought, but the expression faded quickly.

He had no idea what to do now. These things were undoubtedly up all around town, and his picture was accurate enough that, even covered in smelly grime, even with hair far neater than it had been, even with what alterations he could make to his appearance in short order, he would be recognized almost immediately by average citizens in the street. How likely average citizens in the street would be to report his presence was debatable — though the word ‘reward’ did figure dismayingly on each poster — but the chance was better not taken. What to do instead, though…

The fact was that he just couldn’t count himself among the stealthiest people in all of Akomera. Though there had been some eavesdropping, most of his information-gathering had been conducted in a face-to-face manner with him merely being friendly and plausible — sometimes specifically helpful — in order to get what he needed out of people. And obviously that wouldn’t work anymore; a new plan was absolutely necessary. Should he abandon the efforts he’d made to get into the city today, go straight back to Enca, and discuss this development with Hajime? Or should he take advantage of his presence in Elotica to try to… accomplish something… while he could? Though the idea of returning to Hajime was immediately and almost overwhelmingly appealing, he forced himself to stay calm, stay still, and give the matter some reasoned thought.

It seemed he was destined never to finish thinking about what he would be doing today, however, as once again he was interrupted — this time by a quiet voice saying his name just to his right and a little behind. Nearly jumping out of his skin, Sano whirled, his hand going to his sword, his heart racing, but found only Katsu standing nearby.

“Fucking ladies’ tits!” he gasped out. “Give a guy some warning!”

“Somehow I didn’t think shouting out your name from across the street was a good idea,” replied Katsu in a low tone, tilting his head indicatively at the posters on the wall.

“Yeah… yeah…” Sano’s breathing was calming, but his heart still raced. “But, fuck, man.”

Katsu cast his dark eyes about to see if anyone was watching. “Come with me. There’s a place we can talk safely. What are you covered in?”

“I had to hide in a dirty-ass wagon to get through the gates.”

“For future reference–” now Katsu tried to repress a smile– “they’re only doing checks at the biggest two entrances. It’s just for show; they don’t have the manpower to waste on all eight.”

“Oh.” Thanks to his still-racing heart, Sano felt more bitter about this even than he might originally have done. “Fuck.”

“You can clean up a little when we get where we’re going, and we’ll see if we can’t find you something else to wear.” Katsu glanced around again, then unexpectedly pulled both wanted posters down from the wall in a quick movement that put little slits at the top edge of each where tacks had abruptly vacated the paper. After folding them and tucking them into a pocket somewhere, he gestured briefly and took off at a quick walk up the street.

Sano hastened after him. “Where are we going?” But Katsu, busy checking every corner carefully and obviously choosing the most back-street route he could find, did not answer.

Whether he was more tense or relieved during this circuitous walk, Sano couldn’t be sure. Katsu too might not have the most stealth in all of Akomera, but in that category — as well as in cautious forethought, and certainly in familiarity with the Elotica streets — he easily outranked Sano; and beyond that, his appearance at that precise moment, when Sano had been at a loss what to do, had been amazingly fortuitous. Perhaps, in fact, a little too fortuitous. As they made their especially cautious way to wherever they were going, Sano reflected not only on this phenomenal good luck, but also — perforce — on Hajime’s doubts regarding his friend. “Are you sure you can trust him?” the knight had asked… and then he’d let it go at Sano’s insistence… but the raised point hadn’t disappeared merely because Sano had resisted it.

How had Katsu managed to find Sano just when he had? Where were they going now? He had a feeling Katsu wouldn’t answer if he asked, and, at least while stealthily navigating the streets, he agreed that remaining as quiet as possible was wise — so he didn’t ask. But certain disloyal stirrings haunted him all the way there.

‘There’ was a grimy yard apparently belonging to a business of some kind, possibly an inn, that they entered via a small side-gate in another tiny back street. It did look like a fairly safe place to have a private conversation, since it sat right up against one of the high main city walls and there were no windows on this side of the building. Katsu evidently wanted even more privacy than only the relatively hidden space behind some of the stacked goods, though, and headed straight for a shed that stood near one of the corners of the yard. Sano, despite feeling this was maybe overkill, followed without question.

But Katsu did not enter the shed; rather, stopping to one side of it and reaching up into the space beneath the corner of its low-sloping roof, he manipulated something — something that creaked and turned and squeaked once — as Sano watched in curiosity and confusion. So intent was Sano, in fact, on this observation, that he didn’t at first notice the effect of his friend’s movement. When Katsu withdrew his hand and turned slightly, Sano finally caught sight of the purpose of all of this: an opening had appeared in the city wall nearby, a foot or so above the ground and totally black. And though it wasn’t enough to make him jump back in astonishment or anything, he did demand in some surprise to know what it was. But of course Katsu merely shook his head and gestured for Sano to follow him.

Down a grimy ladder into darkness Sano continued tailing his friend with only minimal hesitation, reflecting that whatever this clandestine place might be, it certainly seemed optimal for backstabbing. He felt comforted by the awareness, however, that there wasn’t much non-reward-related reason for anyone to do him harm at this point, and logistically it would be very troublesome to get him back out of here, up this ladder and through that smallish opening to somewhere a reward could be collected, either dead or under duress. This could possibly make a pretty decent prison, though…

“Chou, are you here?” Katsu’s voice echoed slightly beneath Sano, and covered up almost completely the sound of another crank working to close the opening above him. At that point it became obvious, as Sano reached the floor and turned away from the ladder, that the space wasn’t entirely dark, as flickering candlelight immediately approached around a corner in what appeared to be a multi-roomed space built into and under the great city wall.

Along with the candlelight came the protesting reply through the damp, musty air, “Not sure where else I’d be…” The speaker emerged around the corner, bringing the light with him, and stopped abruptly. “Who’s this?”

Even through the subsequent explanatory exchange, Sano stared bemusedly at the unexpected figure — at his impossibly erect hair, his loose pants and shiiya of blues and purples so bright they were clearly discernible even in the dimness, and at his stance that looked like a stationary swagger declaring his ownership of this… dirty underground place? …as if it were a royal treasure trove and Sano and Katsu supplicants before his throne.

“Chou,” Katsu was saying with an introductory gesture toward the stranger, “is a sword-thief–”

“Sword-collector,” the man, Chou, broke in.

Katsu went on as if he hadn’t heard him. “–a sword-thief who decided Kenshin’s empty sheath is a good target. With the king — and his sheath — a prisoner who-knows-where, Chou is a rebel by necessity for now.” He gave Chou a calculating look up and down. “I think he’s close enough to your size.”

They had all moved forward out of what must be considered the entry, so when Sano gave a convulsive shake of head and took a stumbling step back at Katsu’s words, still staring at Chou’s hair and the bright blue headband at its base, he found himself suddenly in the doorway near the ladder again. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Chou seemed to divine the exact cause of Sano’s chagrin, for he said with a pugnacious sneer, “You got a problem, stinky? How the fuck did you get like that, anyway? Ain’t you that heretic spy in the posters?” He turned from examining Sano toward Katsu. “Don’t tell me you want me to–”

A little impatiently, though not without some evident amusement, Katsu broke in. “He does have a problem; he is the spy from the posters, which is how he got like this; and, yes, I do.”

Chou’s pointed and very irritated stare dragged out as the artist looked placidly back in the flickering light, as if Chou thought Katsu might change his mind if he only squinted his left eye hard enough at him. Finally, though, clearly realizing he was getting nowhere, the sword-thief made a frustrated noise, turned abruptly, and disappeared. As he was holding the only light extant, this action plunged the room Katsu and Sano occupied into darkness except for the meandering glow from around the corner.

“Something with a hood!” Katsu called after.

“Fiiiine,” Chou replied petulantly.

In a lower, conspiratorial tone, Katsu explained, “He can’t say no to me since I bring him food.” And with as much confidence as if he were in his own home and knew every inch of it, he walked through the darkness. Presently the sound of a fire-starter clicked from the direction he’d gone, and a second candle provided some further illumination.

“What is this place?” With only a single light, even one more centrally placed than that which Chou had taken away, Sano couldn’t make out much more than before of the decent-sized room they stood in except that it held three long tables with attached benches and seemed to have as many gaping doorways into other, mostly blacker spaces.

It all made sense, though, when Katsu replied, “The old thieves’ guild headquarters.” He gestured around, sending strange blurry shadows up the walls behind him. “As you can see, it hasn’t been used for years.”

“I guess that weirdo found it for you, then?” Sano was still looking around, now in increasing curiosity and interest, little good though the action actually did him.

“I knew it was here,” Katsuo shrugged, “but he reminded me.”

“You already knew where the thieves’ guild was?”

“No, don’t come over here yet.” Katsu raised his hands in a warding gesture as Sano took a step forward. “Get out of those clothes and use that bucket.” He pointed to a squat shape barely visible in the darkness near the bench at one of the tables. “The water’s not that clean — I was using it on some stuff around this place — but it’s better than what you’ve got all over you now. I’d treat you better, but there aren’t many places I can take a wanted man.”

Sano hadn’t been sure what to expect from this day, and never had made any concrete plans… but he certainly hadn’t anticipated stripping off smelly goo-soaked clothing in a secret chamber hidden inside the city wall with only some incredibly haired eccentric and the longtime best friend whose trustworthiness he didn’t want to admit he might be questioning a little for company. But a ‘rebel spy’ had to take such things as they came, so for now he just obeyed Katsu’s injunction and started to get cleaned up.

>23 Interlude

Katsu’s gaze snapped back to the street after what had originally been intended as a quick, casual glance. Once he’d confirmed that his eyes really weren’t playing tricks on him, he allowed them to follow the walking figure that had caused his double-take. He didn’t worry about the rudeness of staring; this particular guy was used to it, as anyone that looked like that must be. Katsu had never seen a more creative (or bizarre) use of hair wax. Sweeping his charcoal sticks into their tin and carefully but quickly rolling up his drawing, he tucked it all under his arm and set off to follow the stranger.

Skyward hair wasn’t the only peculiarity. The lime-green shiiya the guy wore was translucent, displaying the dark aqua of his shirt, which matched his pants; these bright colors were stabilized somewhat by the black of long gloves, boots, and several belts and straps that held at least half a dozen swords. All together it was a strange and attention-grabbing ensemble, which was why Katsu followed. Curiosity would be the death of him one of these days; knowing more than most people did seemed only to heighten proportionally his desire to know even more.

The newcomer paused at a street intersection, shifting the large leather pack he wore on his shoulders somewhat impatiently as he consulted a sheet of paper and looked back and forth. Katsu nearly laughed aloud when he realized where the guy was headed. Surely this flamboyantly attired and highly obtrusive person didn’t consider himself a thief…!

Although the old thieves’ guild headquarters was still accessible, as it had always been, through the yard behind a relatively respectable tavern in the green district, Katsu didn’t think there were more than a handful of people left in the entire city that were aware of it, and certainly no one used it. The Elotica underworld was so disorganized these days, he suspected half the criminals in town didn’t even know what a thieves’ guild was. Socially this was a mixed blessing — but there really wasn’t time at the moment to ponder that topic if he wanted to continue trailing this guy.

The stranger’s written instructions seemed to be correct, for he was heading exactly the right direction — without any apparent attempt to make himself less conspicuous or disguise where he was going. That would make sense if he was aware that nobody really remembered the thieves’ guild headquarters anymore — but if he knew that, why would he go there? Any number of logical reasons came to mind, but none of them seemed to be the case. So Katsu just kept following quietly.

It wasn’t difficult, given that the stranger didn’t seem to care about pursuit, never looked behind him, only walked along with an energetic, almost cocky step that yet seemed somehow impatient or even angry. Katsu didn’t think he was actively angry, but still got an overwhelming impression of that emotion from the guy’s bearing. Interesting.

Once they reached the Green Apple, Katsu had to fall back some distance: no matter how oblivious the other appeared, he was sure to notice someone practically treading on his heels down the little-used alley on the tavern’s north side and thence into the yard behind it. Even from the main street, however, the listening Katsu caught the sound of rusty hinges as the gate into the yard screeched open. Surely the stranger must be clued in by that… if thieves still used this place, there was not a chance they would leave such a noisy piece of metal unattended nearby. It was useful to Katsu, though, as it told him the guy had entered the yard. After counting to fifteen, he stepped into the alley after him.

He took note of the high, windowless wall of the building to his left, and that there was another way into (or out of) the alley: a narrow lane between that building and the even higher main city wall that was the rear of this space. The latter was rendered quite shadowy by all these walls, mid-afternoon and cloudless though it was. In the lowest wall, to his right, that of the tavern’s yard, the iron gate stood open. Why had the stranger left it standing like that? For a quick getaway?

Katsu edged to the opening and looked cautiously in. He caught a glimpse of a somewhat dirty enclosure mostly full of crates in neatly-stacked rows, some of them covered with tarps; what looked like a shed nestled right up against the city wall at the back of the yard; and a privy near one of two doors into the establishment. There was no chance to take in details, however, as almost immediately a gloved hand seized his shiiya, pulled him roughly through the open gate, and slammed him into the wall.

Breathless, he found himself facing the stranger’s glower, drawn sword, and abrupt demand, “Why the fuck are you following me?”

Though he was more concerned for the objects that had been knocked from his grasp to the dirty pavement than that the other would actually harm him, Katsu was at first too startled to speak. He examined the stranger’s face wordlessly, his mind momentarily blank.

The newcomer appeared to be a few years his senior, with features he could not exactly call handsome but that might be pleasant without the scowl and the squint they wore. The eye whose color Katsu could see was grey-brown, and the high blonde hair was even more astonishing up close.

Finally, getting hold of himself, he realized what he needed to say. “Orange skies’ blessings be on you, cousin.”

The grip on his shiiya relaxed, and the tip of the sword left his neck. The stranger didn’t sheathe the weapon yet, but he did step back. “Shit,” he was remarking, “you guys actually say that here?”

“Not so much anymore,” Katsu replied, bending to gather his fallen supplies, “but it was better than getting stabbed.”

“Aw, I wouldn’t have stabbed you.” The other was consulting his directions again, and said this somewhat absently. He seemed attentive enough, though, when he pursued, “So why were you following me? Keeping an eye on the new guy?”

“Something like that.” Katsu had located what they needed with a quick glance around, and now pointed. “It’s there, up in the shed eaves next to the wall.”

The man, who had been frowning darkly at the paper in his hand, looked up and then along Katsu’s extended arm. “Well, I sure as hell am glad you know.” He crumpled his instructions and shoved the crackling wad into a pocket, putting his sword away as he did so. Stalking to the shed, he twisted head and neck to look into the eaves where the low end of the roof met the city wall. Katsu, who only had a vague idea of what to expect here, watched with interest as the stranger’s face lit up at whatever he saw. The artist took a step closer when the newcomer reached into the recess and began, apparently, turning a crank of some sort — to judge by the motion and the horrible screeching sound that ensued.

In the brief space of city wall that stretched between the shed and the yard wall, a dark opening appeared, a low rectangle that had previously seemed just another of the large bricks. It ground backward and down, a subdued grating sound joining the shriek of rusted metal, bits of dirt raining down into the darkness from the widening cracks, and finally stopped.

The stranger bent and peered into the shadows. “What, do they think we’re all midgets?” he demanded.

“It had to look like the bricks,” Katsu supplied.

The other turned toward him as if he’d forgotten he was not alone. “I’m Chou, by the way.”

“You’re from Gönst… by way of Etoronai?” the artist wondered, rather than stating his own name.

Chou had turned back to the opening and inserted his head, so his reply was somewhat distorted by muffling stone and a slight echo: “Nah, I just talk like it.”

Ignoring this bit of bullshit, Katsu watched as Chou extracted his head and, turning, began to descend what was apparently a ladder leading into the lightless space below. Once the blonde plume had disappeared from sight, Katsu followed. Before he’d even reached the floor ten feet below, he heard Chou exclaiming, “The fuck…?”

The light from outside was quite limited, even after Katsu left the ladder and stood out of its way, so only the first room was dimly visible — but the shadows could not hide the fact that the place was completely empty. Some trash lay in one corner, cobwebs stretched across others, and a thick coating of dust or light dirt covered the floor everywhere their feet hadn’t touched. The doorway into the next room, devoid even of a door, was a yawning portal of darkness.

Chou rounded on Katsu, demanding, “What’s with this place?”

“It hasn’t been used for years,” replied Katsu.

For a second time the artist found himself slammed up against the wall with one of Chou’s swords to his neck; he realized with some amusement that this was not so much because Chou really felt the need to threaten him as that Chou really liked to swing his swords around. “Your behavior is striking me as pretty damn suspicious,” the other growled along the drawn blade. “If nobody uses this place, why the fuck did you follow me here and come down with me?”

“I’d never seen it before,” answered Katsu, calm and honest, “and I was curious. Besides, how else would you have gotten your questions answered?”

Again Chou released him, then swished the sword in his hand in an impatient pattern through the air before resheathing it. Katsu, smoothing out his now rather crumpled shiiya, noticed it was a different sword than the one he’d previously been threatened with. “Well, then, you better have some good answers,” Chou grumbled. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Katsu.” The latter held up the drawing he’d been working on earlier, still rolled up though it was, and added, “I’m an artist.”

“An artist?” echoed Chou incredulously. “No wonder this place don’t get used, if any old artist person knows it’s here.”

“Actually, almost nobody knows it’s here,” Katsu explained conversationally as he moved forward toward the black doorway. Free hand outstretched, counting on knowing what obstacles were in the next room before he ran into them, he walked slowly on.

“Wait…” Chou had also come to the door, but (naturally) didn’t have Katsu’s confidence in a pitch-black unknown space. “If you’re just an artist, how’d you know the thief greeting?”

Katsu rolled his eyes at being referred to as ‘just an artist,’ and didn’t answer the question. Rather, as he made his way around the old wooden tables that still stood in this large chamber, he narrated what he was realizing as it came to him — as much for his own entertainment as for the edification of the newcomer. “That room there is the entry; there’d have been a guard there just in case anyone made it down who wasn’t supposed to. Anyone coming down the ladder would be an easy target if they didn’t know the password. This is the common room here…”

His voice echoed as he approached another doorway into a third empty space. “And back here is where the thief princes did their private business.” He didn’t enter — too many spiders — but recrossed the common room to the final chamber. “And in here they used to practice knife-fighting and pocket-picking and wrestling. It still smells like sweat,” he added in mild distaste — “old sweat. And the sewer… that must be next door…

“They had doors in the doorways back then,” he went on, waving a hand in front of his face in a futile attempt to ward off the smell of the back room, “but those were stolen not long after the guild was scattered. That figures, doesn’t it? Nobody bothered to take the tables because they weren’t in the best condition and it would have been a pain in the ass to get them out the entrance. ” By now he’d come full circle, and with his last statement, “Though I’d think that would apply to the doors too…” was face to face with Chou in the entry once again.

Chou’s squinting eye had loosened, and on his face was an expression of bemusement. “All right,” he said, “who the hell are you really?”

Katsu chuckled again. “Just a guy who knows a lot of trivia. Really. Who are you really? You don’t much fit my image of a thief.”

“‘Cause I ain’t. I’m a sword-collector.” Chou patted one of the numerous items in question.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“Well, I needed a… Why are you asking? You a guard in disguise?”

Katsu raised a brow. “If I say no, are you going to believe me?”

With a shrug Chou replied, “Why not? I could kill you up if I had to.”

“Good reasoning,” agreed the artist. “No, I’m not a guard in disguise. I really am ‘just’ an artist. A curious artist.”

“Well, I needed a thief to help me get into the palace and steal that sheath the king supposedly wears, so I got a thief friend back home to give me directions to this place. Too bad he ain’t been in town for forty years or some shit… He warned me he’d heard things had slowed down a lot around here, but obviously he didn’t know it was like this. It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought now.”

There were so many interesting aspects to this explanation that Katsu didn’t know where to begin. Finally he decided to hit as many as he could in a single reply. “Stealing the king’s sheath, which isn’t a sword, would make you a thief, and it’ll be a lot harder than you thought for more reasons than you think.” He was rather proud of this all-encompassing statement once he’d made it, actually.

This seemed to confuse Chou for a moment, but his eventual response proved he’d unraveled it. “Nah, I ain’t a thief. Just ’cause some of my swords are stolen don’t make me a thief.” This utterly nonsensical declaration baffled Katsu to such an extent that Chou was able to continue uninterrupted. “And I know the king’s sheath ain’t a sword, but I figure it’ll make a great addition to my collection anyway. I like things with some history. Why else is it gonna be hard?”

With a laugh and a shake of his head, Katsu opted to ignore entirely the ‘not a thief’ issue. At least for now. Additionally, he chose not to mention the fact that the sheath the king wore was less than four decades old. “It’s always fun relating big news someone doesn’t know…” was what he decided to say. “You must have just arrived in town if you haven’t heard yet.”

“Big news usually doesn’t mean shit to me,” Chou shrugged. “Unless,” he added hopefully, “we’re going to war?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Katsu chuckled, “but I wouldn’t be surprised, at this rate. No, it’s just that Kenshin’s been usurped. He’s being held prisoner by the ‘new king,’ Soujirou, assuming he’s not dead, and nobody knows where.” Not even I know, he didn’t add.

Chou’s eye went wide, and again the other loosened somewhat (though it still did not open). “Shit!” he cried. “He got himself captured and took my nice sheath with him??”

Yet again Katsu was forced to laugh. It wasn’t, he thought, that this Chou had no common sense so much as that he deliberately chose to ignore it. “Yes, so it seems.”

With a long, irritated exhalation, the sword-collector rolled his head from side to side, stretched his arms, and unexpectedly shed his pack onto the floor. “Well, fuck this,” he grumbled. “Now I don’t know what to do.” And, kicking the pack against one of the walls, he threw himself down to lean against that same structure with the abused object between his angled back and the stone. “Had a great plan and everything, and now…” Placing his finger-laced hands behind his head, he proceeded to look darkly contemplative.

As far as Katsu could tell, Chou’s great plan had been to stroll casually into an unfamiliar thieves’ guild, give the thief’s greeting while claiming he wasn’t a thief, and (if he lived that long) request someone’s assistance on an impossible and rather pointless venture whose details he didn’t himself have in the least worked out. Now his plan seemed to be to sit around in the dark of an abandoned underground room and decide what to do since his first great plan had gone awry through no fault of his own. Katsu wasn’t even quite sure what to say.

“Well,” he remarked at last, “it’s going to get very dark down here after I leave and close the door. Are you planning on staying?”

Chou shrugged. “I ain’t afraid of the dark.”

“Not that it’s any more of my business than any of the rest of this has been,” Katsu pursued, “but why are you sitting there? If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about and some thief or other might actually show up here… well, I can’t really say anything that’ll convince you, but…”

“Truth is, I been walking all day,” Chou admitted, “and I’m dead tired. I was counting on some rest and food when I got here, and now this…” He crossed his legs as he looked up at Katsu and finished, “I don’t have any money for an inn, so this is as good a place to settle as any.”

“You… don’t have any money.”

With another shrug, Chou declined to answer this pseudo-question. Katsu got a sudden mental image of the very important orange and yellow shiiya with tassels that Chou had been unable to resist in Enca that had depleted his funds, and stifled another laugh. Shaking his head, he moved toward the ladder and the light. Then he turned again, thoughtful. “I might be coming back here,” he stated. “Don’t get startled and stab me, all right?”

Both of Chou’s eyes were closed. “Why?” he wondered. “What’s here for you?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Katsu admitted truthfully, “but it’s an interesting place. I may clean it up a little in case I want to use it for something later.” Because somehow he got the feeling — not any actual foreknowledge, just an impression — that it would be useful later. And so would Chou. “If you’re lucky, I’ll bring you some lunch.”

Chou’s right eye cracked open again. “Not that I’m complaining of that idea, but why would you do that?”

“Well, you’re interesting too,” was the artist’s candid answer.

“Is that your way of saying I’m hot?” The eye had opened a bit further, and was now accompanied by a crooked smile.

“Keep dreaming,” Katsu grinned, and, turning, began to climb the ladder.

Chapter 24 – Playing Thieves Guild

“So how long have I been a wanted man?” Sano was trying to figure out the best way to remove sticky clothing without getting the actual substance on skin underneath that, though tainted by strike-through, wasn’t nearly as actively dirty as the garments.

“Probably for a while, officially, but the posters just went up yesterday.” Katsu sat down on a bench near where the candle stood on one of the tables, leaned an elbow against the latter, and pulled the confiscated documents from his pocket. “They look good, don’t they?”

“Well… I guess…” Sano replied skeptically.

The artist smoothed out first one and then the other of the folded papers in the light of the small flickering flame. “I made them.”

Sano’s shiiya hit the floor with a wet plopping sound that would have been more disgusting if it hadn’t been mostly overridden by his demand, “What??”

“I work for the printmaker, remember?” Katsu didn’t lift his eyes from where — even in the shadows Sano could tell — they roved critically over the posters. “And we didn’t get paid for this job, by the way. Well, not for labor — just for the supplies, and less than full value at that. I guess we should be grateful the new regime was willing to pay even that much.”

Sano simply couldn’t help a resurgence — now stronger than before — of the mistrust he’d been trying not to feel earlier. Katsu had made a wanted posted with his face on it. No matter what mild complaints he might have about financial considerations and the courtesy of the new governing body, that was disturbing. Sano struggled not to let discomfort render his movements awkward and give him away. He was working to assess, with some difficulty in the low light and with dirty hands, the status of his shirt and whether he could retain it and keep from having to wear one in bright green or whatever other crazy color Chou eventually showed up with out of the other room.

Katsu evidently had no idea what was going through his friend’s head; in fact he didn’t even look at him, but ran his fingers over the printed version of that friend’s face on the table in front of him. “I probably should have made yours less accurate, since supposedly I’ve never seen you — they gave us a written description — but I got a little carried away…”

This statement certainly didn’t help with what Sano was thinking.

The artist’s hand drifted to the other poster, and for some reason Sano found himself stiffening in even greater uneasiness than before, pausing in the act of unthreading his belts, as he watched Katsu trace over Hajime’s face with a light fingertip. “We still had the blocks I made for the tournament advertisement posters a few months ago, so we just reused those for this one.”

This was ridiculous. In some annoyance Sano pulled the first of his belts free of its loops in a gesture far too quick that ended up splattering fruit goo in all directions. Katsu had brought him to a safe place and was providing him with things he very much needed (even if the clothing would technically be coming from Chou). Katsu had loaned him money to help continue paying the bill at the Enca Inn North. Katsu had been working with him to recruit malcontents toward some kind of actual rebellion so Sano could be a proper ‘rebel spy.’ And it wasn’t as if he could have refused to make these posters if he wanted to stay out of jail, most likely. What was Sano doing with this mistrust of his oldest friend? Just because Katsu had voluntarily printed those awful things about Hajime…

Well, that, at least, Sano could begin to express aloud. “I can’t believe that stuff on there about Hajime! It’s a bunch of bullshit! Do they really think he murdered that Misao guy?”

“Whoever ‘they’ are,” Katsu speculated, “they probably murdered ‘that Misao guy’ themselves for their own reasons. But you must see the importance of making Hajime look bad.”

In some confusion Sano replied, “Not… more than anyone else… no…” He stepped out of his pants and started examining his drawers. With shiiya, pants, and belts between them and the fruit goo, they were mostly untouched; it was the best news he’d had all day.

“Haven’t you heard the rumors of his daring escape from Soujirou and his men?”

In fact Sano had seen Hajime’s daring escape from Soujirou and his men, via the knight’s memories back at Seijuurou’s house. Obviously he wasn’t about to say this aloud, but now he thought about it, that kind of adventurous exploit — which certainly wouldn’t have diminished in the retelling — would be pretty exciting to the general public, wouldn’t it?

“Just months after he was the champion of the king’s tournament,” Katsu went on, “those rumors were enough to make him larger than life. Hajime would be a perfect rallying point for Kenshin’s supporters, if they could find him, so of course Soujirou’s people are going to do whatever they can to tear down his image. They’d like it even better if they could get their hands on him.”

Sano stilled in dismay, and said softly, “Shit…”

Finally Katsu looked up from the posters. “You’re working with him, aren’t you?”

“How did you know?” Sano tried not to frown. If Katsu was up to something not entirely in line with Hajime’s goals — and the idea of some unknown private motivations and plans was as far as Sano was willing to go even in his head; he refused to believe the artist was aligned with the usurper — it could be potentially disastrous that Katsu had figured this out.

Katsu smiled wryly. “That one’s pretty obvious.”

Well, the secret was out now; there was nothing to be done about it, except to keep going as he had, keep his eyes peeled for any signs of treachery. He hated even the thought, but this was what things had come to. “I need to get back to him,” he said, “and let him know about this ‘Wanted’ shit. We already knew I couldn’t pretend to be a devoted anymore, but now I can’t even keep wandering around the city looking for information, so we’re gonna have to make another plan.”

“Are the posters going to be a problem for him?”

“I hope not.” Sano bit his lip. “We tried pretty hard not to let anyone see his face… and I know he’s careful.” That didn’t lessen, however, the worry that sat like a dense stone at the bottom of Sano’s gut. Still, he wasn’t going to give Katsu any details he didn’t have to about Hajime’s current situation. Katsu would probably guess them anyway.

Whatever he did or did not conjecture, the artist seemed to realize that everything to be said on this topic had been. “Well, don’t forget we have meetings the next few nights.”

Sano had, in fact, entirely forgotten how near was the date of the first gathering of those from the red district that might be interested in opposing Soujirou’s rule, and wasn’t even sure how he could reach that gathering in the current climate. He stepped away from his discarded clothing and squatted down beside the bucket, examining its contents that were his only current options for ablution. Then neither man said anything for several moments — Katsu pensive, possibly considering, as Sano had just been, how they were to get a wanted man to a meeting that was already supposed to be a careful secret; Sano still trying to avoid contemplating the suspicions about Katsu that had arisen in the last hour.

Finally, with an effort, he made an attempt at a more light-hearted comment in order to send his thoughts in a less unpleasant direction. “I don’t think you and me ever did in Encoutia, but after I finally started playing with the other kids in Eloma, we used to love to play thieves’ guild.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Despite never having taken part in this game with his friend, Katsu sounded reminiscent, as if fondly recalling more general memories of the young Sanosuke and their time together.

“Yeah, we’d set a place to be the thieves’ guild, and try to sneak around and steal shit and then get back there and ‘sell’ it.” Sano started swabbing mess from his body, beginning with the arms that had been bare and therefore the most susceptible.

Katsu’s smile widened. “I bet you weren’t very good at it.”

“No, not very.” Ruefully Sano returned the grin as he looked away from his sticky limbs. “But it’s kinda fun to be in a real thieves’ guild, even if it’s completely abandoned.”

“I’m glad you like it…” Katsu’s tone was now as rueful as Sano’s expression. “Because it’s probably the best place for you to stay while you’re in the city.”

“I was afraid of that.” Sano cast another look around, specifically at the hard, dirty floors. “But it might not be a bad place for more people than just us, you know?”

Katsu put a pensive hand to his chin. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m not sure. I’ve been cleaning it up a little for that exact reason, but… how many people in the city know about this place? Doesn’t it seem like a very obvious meeting-place? If Soujirou’s people get wind of meetings taking place anywhere, aren’t they likely to check here first?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true…” The wet cloth Katsu had been using for aforementioned purpose ran next over Sano’s head, trying to get the worst of the stuff out of his hair. “But that means it’s just as dangerous for me — and you, and that other guy — as it would be for a bigger group of people.”

Katsu nodded. “My point is that it may not be the best idea to bring Hajime here.”

Sano didn’t want to talk about Hajime any more right now. If, after all, Katsu’s knowledge of his association with the knight did turn out to be dangerous, there was little Sano could do to counter that danger, so it was better not to think about it. It seemed he had far too many things he was trying not to think about lately. And it was also somewhat disconcerting, maybe even worrisome, the way Katsu had immediately picked up on the idea in the back of Sano’s mind — to get Hajime out of that inn to somewhere less public (and less expensive). Of course in this place the poor guy would only be able to read by eye-straining candlelight, wouldn’t even have a window to look out of to stave off boredom, and would have to put up with that Chou person, but it seemed safer in some ways. Except that Katsu did have a point.

Still trying not to think about it, “Well,” he requested, “tell me all the news… about the Devoted Club and shit.”

“The Devoted Council haven’t officially publicized their discussions, but they haven’t made much effort to keep them secret either, so what we have to go on is the rumors from people working in the palace. Apparently they started out with a lot of insignificant proposed changes to the divine houses and the way they run, but then it got bigger. They’ve talked about legalizing kereme… an entire rethinking of the criminal trial system… opening the country up to Essentialists… legalizing brother-sister incest… I think that’s all the big stuff. Whoever has Soujirou’s ear seems to have built up quite a list of things they wanted to change, and they’ve gotten right on it.”

“Wait…” The wrinkling of Sano’s nose in distaste arose not entirely from the lack of clarity in the water he was using to bathe. “The brother-sister thing… is that common enough for anybody to care…? Do that many people really want to get with their own family members?”

“Or,” Katsu said, pointedly enough to indicate this was more than blind guessing, “is there someone in an influential position who would appreciate it being legalized?”

“Like who, though?”

“Like a Megumi third-wash who just showed up after yet another extended absence with her brother, mysteriously pregnant?”

“Shit…” Sano recalled what he’d heard about Shougou and Sayo and their disappearances, and the prevailing thought that, if they were part of a resistance of any sort, they were terrible at keeping it any kind of secret. That the secret might be completely unrelated — if still not very well kept — Sano had not considered; but evidently others had.

“As you say, I don’t think there are enough people in the general population that this change in law would benefit to make it seem like anyone but those two Megumi golds are the specific beneficiaries. Though I’m sure,” Katsu added thoughtfully, “some people would appreciate the stigma lessening in cases like adopted siblings or distant cousins. But I doubt that would change with the law — at least not for a long time.”

Whether the stigma against male-female incest was fair or unreasonable in whatever case, it was certainly an attitude Sano had never questioned throughout his life. The whole topic made him uncomfortable — what was with this day and things he didn’t want to think about??

“So I wonder where the push came from,” Katsu went on, either oblivious or indifferent to Sano’s discomfort. “The rumors don’t say who suggested what, or what arguments were made in favor or against it… was it Gensai trying to keep his golds out of trouble, or was it one of the other houses trying to get Megumi’s devoted on their side or in their debt?”

It was a good point. As Katsu had said, it seemed unlikely the proposal had been made in any light besides as a specific aid to Shougou and Sayo — but who had made it, and what were their motives in so doing? “Hajime’ll know,” Sano muttered when he found he couldn’t decide on his own. “He figures everything out just by hearing about it.”

“Oh, is he a damn know-it-all too?”

Though Sano wasn’t looking at Katsu, he could hear the grin in his tone. And he couldn’t help returning it as he answered, “Well… yeah.” He might have elaborated on other things Hajime was if he hadn’t been so reluctant to discuss the knight with his supposed friend. “So what else do I need to know?” he asked instead.

Katsu sighed faintly. “Just that they’re trying to outlaw heresy.”

“What??” In his surprise and anger, Sano dropped the cloth that by now he was using on his legs. It didn’t even manage to fall into the bucket, but hit the floor with a wet plopping sound similar to that of his shiiya earlier. “They’re gonna force people to– how do they think they’re even gonna do that?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like a very enforceable law.”

“It’s bullshit, is what it is!” Sano bent, seized the cloth, and thrust it into the bucket with a vigor that splashed dirty water over the wooden edge and onto the floor. He wrung it out with just as much energy before returning to his task. “Why don’t these people try going through what some of us have been through and then say they have to pretend to believe in the fucking ladies?”

Sympathetically Katsu shook his head. “Even Kenshin was never that bad. He’s always been very open about his devotion to Kaoru, to the point where some of us thought he must be exaggerating for show, but he never had anything to say against non-believers.”

“Not like we got any respect anyway,” Sano grumbled.

“Not getting respect and getting throw in jail on sight — or worse — are totally different things. If you weren’t already wanted specifically, I’d tell you to keep your head down now people know you’re a heretic.”

The words ‘you’re a heretic’ seemed to echo strangely in Sano’s ears, and it occurred to him that, in all the years he and Katsu had corresponded, he had never once thought to ask… “And what about you? What do you believe?”

“I follow Misao.” This answer was so quick and decisive, so unexpectedly passionate, that Sano was startled into looking over at where Katsu stared down again, with a small but intense frown as if of concentration, at the posters he’d made. And Sano found his heart sinking.

Katsu had probably never brought this up before because he he’d seen how determined in heresy Sano was becoming — during the same years Katsu himself had been developing this determination toward Misao? — and didn’t want to start an argument a friendship maintained via letter might not be hardy enough to withstand. But for Sano to be hit with this revelation just when he’d already been beginning to doubt Katsu…! He wasn’t about to deny that he categorically and probably often unfairly mistrusted those that professed strong religious conviction, and that made this particularly bad timing for such a strong statement from his friend about the supposed patroness of artists and the like.

Still, he had been the one to ask.

“I can’t disbelieve in Misao,” Katsu reiterated, more quietly but essentially with the same passion as before. “But I reserve judgment on the other ladies. And as for the rest… the whole church and all its prayers and shrines and writ…” He shrugged and sighed. “I’m more than a little dubious. So I’d probably keep you company in jail.”

This admission of lack of knowledge in some areas and skepticism in others did little to comfort Sano after the completely confident declaration of belief in Misao, and it was all he could do to make his reply, “Or on the block,” more sardonic than a totally serious expression of his unhappiness.

“We may both end up there anyway.” Katsu too, in his attempt at relative lightness, sounded bleak.

They both fell silent again, perhaps in greater darkness but no less pensiveness than before. Nothing had improved during the course of this conversation; even the cleanup work Sano was doing on himself had accomplished not so much the removal of the fragrant slime as its fairly even redistribution, so he felt slightly sticky all over instead of intensely so in certain spots. He was about as clean as he was going to get for the moment, however, so he dropped the loathsome cloth and came to sit beside Katsu.

Katsu looked him over in the faint light. “Better,” he said, though his unenthusiastic tone indicated his recognition of the mere redistribution and the lingering scent.

“Yeah, thanks for the…” Sano gestured vaguely in the direction of the bucket. He found he didn’t want to meet Katsu’s eyes right now, either because it disturbed him or because he didn’t want Katsu to guess at any potential change in their relationship — maybe both — so he wasn’t surprised when his gaze locked onto the printed version of Hajime’s face lying on the table. Katsu was right; he really had done well on the portrait. Even if the text was complete and painful bullshit. With a deep breath and an effort but without looking up from an image that, unexpectedly, seemed to give him strength, Sano asked, “So how am I gonna get to the meetings and back without getting arrested or whatever?”

“I think it’s going to be a matter of hiding in plain sight.”

“How?”

Before Katsu could elaborate, the answer came in a different fashion. The light increased as Chou reappeared from the other room, finally — tardy no doubt due to deliberate sluggishness rather than because his task had legitimately taken that long — carrying a candle in one hand, as before, and a couple of folded garments on his other arm. In the glow of two separate flames, especially as Chou drew nearer, Sano could make out powder blue and bright salmon-orange, and with a lump in his throat thought he saw Katsu’s point: sheer audacity might take him wherever he needed to go, since nobody with any sense would ever believe a ‘rebel spy’ would parade around in clothing so ridiculously eye-catching.

Chou stopped in front of Sano and, in a pained movement, extended the arm over which the articles were draped, looking abruptly away as if he couldn’t stand to see Sano take them. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” he grumbled loudly in the direction of Katsu, toward whom his face now pointed.

Half tempted to look away in a very similar motion, Sano reached out a reluctant hand for the just-as-reluctantly offered garments, and couldn’t help replying, “I totally agree.”

For some author’s notes on chapter 23 and its interlude, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 24 notes, see this one.


Rainbow Love Explosion!!

Even in a series where I’m open to lots of potential pairing arrangements, I still have an optimal lineup of couples that provides me with the greatest possible satisfaction at one time. My favorite arrangement of Rurouni Kenshin characters is as follows:

Saitou and Sano
Kaoru and Kenshin
Chou and Kamatari
Aoshi and Soujirou
Hiko and Megumi
Enishi and Misao
Shishio and Yumi

This leaves some characters I’m fond of — Katsu, Tomoe, and Gein, for example — without romantic partners. In combination with the lineup above, I tend to prefer Katsu with practically OC Tokio, Tomoe as Kenshin’s ex (probably dead, poor thing), and Gein as all the single ladies put your hands up.

Interestingly, I’ve never actually written a story or series of stories wherein I’ve hit every single one of these pairings. HoH is going to come close, but Enishi’s dead before the series starts and Misao and Tokio are cats. Katsu’s romantic fate is still up in the air… maybe he will become part of the first cross-fandom pairing and hook up with a Gundam Wing character? We’ll see, I suppose.

Anyway, my point is that, for a pairing that’s part of my optimal lineup, I don’t give Chou and Kamatari nearly enough love. They’re just so freaking adorable together. So I drew a picture of them in their canon outfits (and with Kamatari’s anime hair color, which I am fond of but which tends to revert to manga red for just about every story I write that mentions it). It took me, like, three months to draw on account of being busy, but whatevs! Yay Chou and Kamatari!!

First Kiss

Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Why did Saitou kiss Sano on their way into Shishio’s fortress? Can Sano figure it out now Saitou is dead?


Two steps earlier and Kenshin would have seen. Two steps later and Yumi would have. Two seconds shorter and Sano wouldn’t have been quite shocked enough to keep quiet; two seconds longer and, again, Yumi would have seen.

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

This wasn’t Sano’s only thought on the matter, but it was one of the more prevalent. The universe seemed to have handed Saitou that moment, that perfect opportunity, to surprise and confuse the hell out of Sano, and Saitou had not been remiss in accepting.

And now he was dead.

How long he’d been awake Sano couldn’t be sure; dream and waking thought tended to blend rather uncomfortably when you were wounded. Had he been dreaming about Saitou and was now consciously thinking about him? Or had he been awake, contemplating, and slipped into a dream that still gripped him? Honestly it didn’t matter much; such metaphysical questions paled in comparison with the greater query, Why had Saitou kissed him?

Sano sighed (a gesture that, he thought, indicated fairly well he was awake). He could recall the exact feeling of Saitou’s lips on his, the racing of his heart, the shock that had suffused his entire body, the taste and the smell… but why? Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Saitou was an asshole. This Sano’s logic told him with alarming frequency while these reflections meandered through his head. Saitou was an asshole, and why he’d done anything he’d done during his lifetime could not be a question worth asking. Nor Saitou, the asshole, worth pursuing, nor the feel of his kiss a sensation worth dwelling on. But Saitou was also intelligent and persistent and honorable. Not to mention attractive as hell, but what did that matter? The guy was dead.

The ability to predict and plan for the moment of his own death was something Sano would not put past Saitou’s impressive skill, so perhaps it had been a sort of goodbye. The concept of a ‘goodbye kiss’ was not unusual, after all… just totally bizarre in this context. Because why a kiss? From Saitou? Though it didn’t seem too out of character for Saitou to have left Sano with an insoluble mystery in an aggravating memory just to drive him crazy after he was dead…

And Sano couldn’t regret it. After all, apology, proposition, or farewell, it was the only one he’d gotten.

He’d felt for some time that Saitou’s disliking of him, strongly expressed though it was, really didn’t exceed Saitou’s disliking of anyone else… that Saitou might, perhaps, not even dislike him much at all. It had been a significantly shorter time since he’d started thinking his disliking of Saitou might not be as intense as he’d all along believed. Was that merely because he felt bad about Saitou’s death? Was he cutting him slack because they’d fought side by side and Saitou had eventually given his life for the cause? Sano couldn’t be certain it was only this and not something more, because he’d never bothered attempting to analyze his feelings before.

That analysis was not proving very successful now. His hands ached, his head ached, his entire body ached, and he was operating in a state of perpetual weariness; the mental fatigue that came with this topic clouded the issue further, until he could barely think straight. And wasn’t it a moot point in any case? With Saitou dead, did it really matter how Sano had felt about him?

As little able as he was to distinguish sleep from waking at any given moment of this contemplation — he knew he’d had some real sleep since coming back from the fortress, and acknowledged vaguely that it was now the next day, but more details than this eluded him — he felt it was about time for another long attempt at some real rest… the kind that didn’t involve surreal memories of Saitou’s hand gripping his jaw, holding him in place for precisely four and a half seconds, and what the hell that meant. Afterward, maybe seeing how everyone else was doing and getting a more coherent version than they’d had on their return of what had happened in their absence would distract him from what he’d been thinking about ever since that return.

Just as he was lying back down, however, from the seated position in which he’d been dully looking around the room he’d been occupying in what remained of the functional chambers of the damaged inn, there came a knock at the door. Most likely, he thought, here was that hyperactive girl trying to find anyone to talk at when everyone was as busy resting as she should be after the ordeals of the last few days, but he retracted this speculation when the knock was not repeated.

Despite its probably being someone else, then, he considered not answering, pretending to be asleep — but only for a moment. He might as well see what whoever it was wanted. Something interesting (distracting) might be going on that would be even better than rest for him at present, since if he actually managed to fall asleep he couldn’t be at all certain what type of dreams he would have (or continue to have). So he called for the unknown to enter.

It was one of the two Oniwaban guys, Kuro or Shiro (visually they were perfectly distinct, but Sano sure as hell couldn’t remember which name went with which man), and all he’d come for, he explained apologetically when he saw Sano lying down, was to bring up a note that had just been delivered to the Aoiya. Thinking he’d been right not to pretend to be asleep, Sano thanked the guy and accepted the folded paper, though he didn’t open it until he was again alone.

Its purport was merely that he should come immediately to a certain room of a certain inn, and the unfamiliar handwriting, strong but neat, had a dictatorial slant to it that matched the style of the language.

What was this? Whom was it from, and what did it mean? The writer had put Sano’s full name on the outside, so it certainly hadn’t been misdelivered, but they sure hadn’t bothered to put their own name at the end of the message. With the conflict over and Shishio dead, what kind of meeting would someone feel the need to summon him to at this point?

None of this mattered much, he reflected as he rose from his futon and looked around for something to wear. Pursuing this mystery would be an engrossing pastime, and in that light the note was little less than a godsend.

Given how imperiously it ordered him to come, Sano thought its writer might at least have provided directions to the area of town where his destination was located. He intended to go, and go immediately as instructed, but there was no guarantee, in this unfamiliar city, he would be there anytime soon. That was fine with him — a relaxing walk with thoughts of this unknown communicator to keep him from what he’d been agonizing about was exactly what he needed — but how the sender of the note would feel about his probable lateness he couldn’t guess.

It had rained significantly sometime while Sano had been unconscious, in pain, deliberating, and analyzing, and the brisk wet air under the silver cover of clouds made Kyoto feel like a different world than the one he’d walked through with Kenshin and Saitou to reach the path to the shrine. Of course, that one of those men was dead had an impact on the scene as well. Every death made the world a different place; Sano wasn’t sure why this one should make so much more of a difference than most. Maybe because it had been preceded by that damned inexplicable kiss.

But he really must stop thinking about that. Whatever secretive and dangerous circumstances he was preparing to put himself in would not be improved by thoughts of the taste of Saitou’s breath through barely parted lips, and wasn’t the entire point of going to force his mind away from that topic? Firmly Sano started running through names of potential senders of the note and potential reasons for their having sent it.

Though he’d come up with a few scenarios whose pieces more or less fit together, though sometimes only roughly, by the time (after having separately asked three people for directions that had turned out to conflict in various aspects) he found the stupid inn he was looking for approximately ten thousand miles away from his starting point, nothing he’d thought of seemed terribly likely. This wasn’t terribly important, since the distraction had been unobjectionable, and now he was finally here he could concentrate on what this situation actually turned out to be rather than his speculations about it.

The place looked normal enough, Sano considered as his gaze swept across the second-floor windows, all of them in perfectly natural and innocuous positions, where the room he needed must be located. Of course an enemy could be waiting up there to attempt to kill him silently, or possibly the entire inn was in on the ambush or whatever it was… Sano couldn’t think what enemy it was likely or even possible to be, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, he didn’t really mind walking into ambushes; one against many was his specialty. He would have preferred to be less tired and incapacitated, but everyone needed a handicap now and then, right?

When the employee inside, upon hearing of Sano’s errand (just that he was supposed to meet someone, not that he anticipated an attack), merely directed him politely as if this was expected, Sano’s suspicions intensified. He saw no one all the way up the stairs, and the second-floor corridor was empty, but he listened hard at every step for anybody that might burst out of one of these rooms or try to sneak up behind him. And when he reached the door he needed, after double-checking the note he then thrust into his pocket so as to have his hands completely free, he tensed for action before knocking. He couldn’t help hoping there might be a really fun fight waiting for him in here, and he could lose himself in those good old emotions and forget about everything else for a while.

The door opened, and Sano found himself staring up into narrow golden eyes.

“I sent that message over two hours ago. What could possibly have taken you that long?”

Sano could have told him to fuck off, that Saitou was not entitled to his presence in a timely or even an untimely fashion, that Saitou should feel damn lucky Sano had bothered to respond at all to an anonymous note mysteriously ordering him around, that he might have been in the middle of something and had taken his sweet time responding. He might even have told the truth, admitted he was unfamiliar with the layout of Kyoto and had made one or two wrong turns on the lengthy trip over. But he actually said nothing, at least at first.

For the world seemed to go simultaneously unnaturally sharp at all edges and blurred in the middle, while the saturation of every color fluctuated wildly. A sudden pressure in his head combined with an erratic jumping of his heart made him feel as if he was suspended by the latter in a haze of surprise and other, less definable emotions above an unknown abyss.

The first he knew he was swaying was when Saitou caught him. The feel of the man’s hands on his arms, hot and alive, jolted him out of his momentary syncope. And when the officer said with unexpectedly warm sarcasm, “That happy to see me, are you?” it worked further to bring reality back.

“You asshole,” Sano gasped, and, neither content to leave it at that nor able, just yet, to articulate anything more meaningful, repeated himself in a stronger tone. Finally, after what seemed at least an entire minute during which Saitou had drawn him into the room, guided him to a seated position on the mat, and dropped down beside him, he felt up to continuing. “You survived. You fucking survived, and let me think you died.”

To this there was no response, and Sano needed none to know the rebuke was unjust. Everything around him signified this was almost the earliest possible moment he could have been called here: near the futon not far off were indications of a doctor’s having been in attendance until recently; a thoroughly consumed meal’s empty dishes, though neatly stacked, had not yet been removed; and a packet of what looked like official paperwork had not yet been untied or attended to… indeed, that Saitou was here at an inn at all, rather than already back at a police station plugging away again, seemed meaningful.

And the very instant Sano’s brain had finished up these thoughts, he was overcome once again with the abrupt memory of Saitou turning suddenly toward him, gripping his chin, and kissing him firmly for four and a half seconds. From the cold and light-headed whiteness it had undoubtedly attained during his brief weakness, Sano’s face transitioned instantly to a burning heat that was probably brilliant red. Was that why Saitou had brought him here? To explain his strange behavior? And what would Sano say when he did? He never had figured out how he felt about it.

He opened his mouth to demand to know why Saitou had kissed him, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself (indeed, didn’t even really know how) to tread such vastly alien territory. What emerged instead was, “So how did you get out of there? Seemed like there wasn’t even much ‘there’ to get out of when we were leaving.” The words sounded surprisingly rational, considering how different they were from what he really wanted to say, what he really meant.

“There was a second exit on the other side of the canyon,” Saitou replied, “though it did take some work to get to.”

“Shit! Did you have to climb burning wreckage and stuff?” Though Sano was legitimately alarmed by the mental image of that escape, what he meant by the question was, ‘Why the hell did you kiss me?’

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

Impressed rather in spite of himself, the younger man gave the older a more thorough visual examination than before. Like Sano, Saitou had abandoned for the moment the ensemble, now rather the worse for blood and battle damage, he generally favored; he wore a more traditional kimono and hakama from under which bandages peeked in bright contrast to the outfit’s dark grey and black. And like Sano, Saitou had about him the kind of passive pained weariness that comes after the first long rest following injury and exhaustion. But in general, remarkably, “You don’t even look all that much more hurt than you were when we left.”

Saitou’s lips lifted at one corner as if he could tell this near-praise was delivered almost against Sano’s will, but he probably couldn’t tell that what Sano would rather say was, ‘So why’d you kiss me?’ At any rate, his reply was, “It looks like you managed to stumble back without hurting yourself too much more as well.”

“Excuse me, dickface,” Sano retorted, instead of asking why Saitou had kissed him, “I am capable of walking across town without fucking dying.”

“But apparently not without taking two hours.” It was irritating how attractive those thin lips could be even when arranged in such a mocking expression.

“You know, you’re lucky I came at all. An unsigned note telling me to come to some strange place for some reason it didn’t bother to mention?” Sano was pleased to make one of the points he hadn’t been able to when he’d first arrived, even if the point behind that point was, “And now you’re going to tell me why you kissed me, right?”

“Certainly nobody with an iota of sense would have come in response to a note like that,” Saitou agreed with mock solemnity. “I was counting on that.”

“Bite me,” Sano growled. “Or at least goddamn explain why you kissed me yesterday.” Yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday? He felt like he’d been dwelling on it for a lifetime. With an effort he forced himself to ask, “Why the hell did you even call me here, anyway?”

“I thought you might want to know I was still alive.”

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

Rather than point out that, just minutes before, Sano had grown faint at the revelation and then profanely reprimanded Saitou for not telling him sooner, the officer merely said, “I thought it might at least be interesting to you.”

“You know you could have said that in the note, though, right?” Annoyed that he had reacted so dramatically, whether or not Saitou had called him on the discrepancy, Sano sounded more surly than he actually felt. “I didn’t have to come all the way across town when you could have just written, Hey, I’m still alive, and actually signed it.”

“But I couldn’t kiss you from all the way across town.”

Having gone so long without bringing it up and then made inroads away from the topic, then giving this statement so blandly, Saitou took Sano completely and shockingly by surprise, and he’d leaned in and almost connected with Sano’s lips before the stunned young man could react to the words or the gesture. As in the previous instance, Saitou’s nearness and intoxicating smell overwhelmed him, and Sano was for an instant entirely paralyzed.

And then, jumping as if stung, he jerked back and raised a hand to block access to his mouth. “Fucking–” he gasped. “No, just– stop that!”

Though the time that passed between this broken admonishment and Sano’s subsequent words was the span of a breath and no longer, it was enough to observe, interpret, react, and feel a great deal. For Sano thought he read in Saitou’s slight straightening movement toward his previous position some disappointment and resignation, and just that was enough to provide a few answers or at least conjectures to similar effect.

Saitou had summoned him here not merely to let Sano know he was still alive, but to reiterate the overture he’d made at the gates of the fortress… and in that brief moment before Sano explained himself, Saitou interpreted Sano’s impetuous reactive words as a rejection, and was disheartened by it. This was simultaneously, even in that fraction of a second, empowering, pathetic, and irritating to Sano.

He could never have predicted that, having (or perhaps being) something Saitou wanted, he would be able to hold over Saitou’s head his ability to deny him that desire. The lightning-fast realization that he didn’t want to deny Saitou that desire didn’t change the fact that, with this unexpected influence in mind, they were on much more equal footing than they’d ever been before. Much more equal footing was much more solid footing, and Sano felt abruptly much more sure of what to say, much more able to deal with this scenario.

And even that merest hint of disappointment he thought he saw in Saitou made him feel bad for the man. Who hadn’t, after all, experienced fear of rejection, fear of losing or even entirely failing to gain a desired prize? Saitou had too much pride to display anything beyond just that faint hint that couldn’t be hidden, but just that faint hint had been enough to make Sano pity him and feel more disposed toward his cause.

And this was annoying. A normal person, someone not intolerably arrogant and overconfident in their own powers, would perhaps say words to the effect of, ‘I like you; let’s have a romance.’ There might be presents involved, or at least pleasant conversation or other signs of friendship preceding the declaration. But not Saitou Hajime. Saitou would kiss a guy out of the blue, unsolicited, unwarned-for, unexplained, then allow his victim to suffer agonies of indecision and confusion, then try to repeat the performance without ever giving any other overt signs of interest or even good will… and then make a grippingly pathetic display of his manfully repressed sorrow at the apparent failure of his scheme. What a marvelous jerk.

And yet Sano didn’t want to say no, and did feel something in response to Saitou’s disappointment.

He might have tried to play with that power he suddenly felt he had over the other man, but couldn’t quite bring himself to evoke a possibly even stronger dismayed reaction in Saitou. Though Saitou would certainly deserve that, it might get Sano thrown out on his ass before he could admit he was just messing around, making the whole situation much more difficult and uncomfortable. Also, he maybe wanted to hasten, as best he could, the moment when Saitou would kiss him again.

So he lowered his hand, leaving his lips unguarded, and said loftily, “We need some First Kiss rules before you can do that.”

Saitou’s lean toward Sano disappeared completely as he sat straight again, eyebrow raised. “And the previous kiss doesn’t count why?”

Sano’s glare was one of righteous indignation. “Because you didn’t explain anything — like why the hell you did it — and then you went off and died.”

Any and all signs of unhappiness had vanished from Saitou’s demeanor, and the skeptical expression on his face took on a touch of amusement. “Setting aside the fact that neither of those things makes this our first kiss, are those the rules you want? ‘Tell you why I’m kissing you,’ and ‘don’t die afterwards?'”

Pensively Sano replied, “Also you have to promise you’re not just fucking with my head — because you’ve pretty much been nothing but a complete bastard all along to me, so it’s hard to believe you kissed me except to mess with me.”

“Is that all?” Saitou asked with an exaggerated air of patience.

“Um, no, also–”

“These are a lot of rules for something that’s only going to happen once.”

“Well, yeah, but a First Kiss is important!” Sano too was impatient to get on with this thing, but he meant what he said. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot — it sort of sets up how everything’s going to go from then on!”

“All right.”

“So when you beat me up outside Katsu’s place, you were saying…”

Saitou’s brows both rose as Sano proceeded to elaborate the fourth rule. Presently, with a slight sound of frustration that might have been his forbearance snapping, he leaned forward again and cut Sano’s words off entirely by kissing him.

As Sano’s lips worked slowly against Saitou’s, opening gradually at the advancement of a tongue that tasted more of soba and green tea and less of cigarettes than he would have expected, every nerve in his body seemed to intensify in its receptiveness so his injuries throbbed like his heart. He felt sensitized and dizzy and overwhelmed, and he clutched at Saitou with painful hands as the man pushed him slightly backward with the fervor of their connection.

This was Saitou being an tyrannical asshole again, but Sano could not have complained even if he’d had breath and opportunity to do so. As a First Kiss it was acceptable, even superior, and as a representation of the rest of their relationship, whatever that turned out to be, Saitou muscling past any preexisting animosity to startle and incapacitate Sano with something new and shockingly wonderful seemed neither inaccurate nor undesirable.

When after some time they divided like a chemical bond breaking, forming two entities from what had previously been one, Sano was panting heavily and almost painfully and watching little darting, sparkling dots at the edges of his vision. He was definitely in no physical condition, at the moment, for kisses that passionate; if he had been, he would probably have flung himself on top of Saitou at this point and demanded more… never mind that Saitou’s physical condition seemed even worse than his.

“I did that,” Saitou said somewhat breathlessly, “because I like you. And I have no intention of dying any time soon. And if this weren’t such a bad time for it, I would drag you onto that futon over there and prove that I’m not just fucking with your head.”

The rush of hot blood mobilizing through Sano’s body at these words and at the look in Saitou’s eyes, making him feel all over again as if he might faint, only served to reiterate what he’d just been thinking and Saitou had essentially just said: that, despite how much both of them would love to continue this experiment, this was not a good moment for it. All the interesting possibilities that had arisen between them must be put off until another time.

“I might drag myself onto that futon over there and take a nap,” Sano muttered.

“No. I have paperwork to do, and I can’t have that temptation lying there the whole time.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at what was essentially a compliment no matter how coolly Saitou had delivered it, but he was concurrently annoyed. “You want me to walk all the way back across town again?”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to.” Saitou threw a look half regretful and half irritated at the bundle of papers.

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

Saitou’s gaze returned to him, the quirk of his lips and the narrowness of his eyes now clearly teasing. “Think you can manage it in less than two hours this time?”

“Probably not. I know the way better, but I’m in worse shape now — which is your fault, by the way.”

Without responding to the accusation, Saitou just said, “You’d better get going as soon as possible, then.”

“Fine!” Only Saitou would start something like this and then dismiss his partner like that. Sano climbed laboriously to his feet, somehow managing not to reel once fully upright, and stuck out his tongue at the smirking policeman. Then he turned toward the door. When he’d opened it, before actually leaving the room, he glanced back briefly, perhaps to offer a goodbye, though whether it would be friendly or belligerent he couldn’t be quite sure.

His breath caught, however, and he found himself incapable of speech of any kind when he observed Saitou smiling at him as Sano had never seen him smile before — with a look of fondness, of genuine pleasure, of satisfaction untouched by mockery. In the face of this interesting unknown he’d somehow unlocked, Sano clutched at the doorframe in an unexpected repeat of his earlier imbalance as he blushed madly… but he did manage a return smile before departing.

He made his way back to the Aoiya in continued dizziness and a mixture of buoyancy and discomfort. His injuries hurt more severely than before, and he was far more exhausted than he should have been after a mere two leisurely walks (even with an earth-shattering kiss between them), but his fluttering heart seemed to keep him half-hovering off the ground, and his emotions, though not significantly more coherent than they had been earlier, were now such a pleasant tangle as to give a vigor he could not otherwise have expected to his steps.

By the time he’d reached the blue roofs, some of them even more damaged than he was, and let himself in and found his way back up to his room as quietly as possible, he was happily, fuzzily contemplating both the general future with its bizarrely unexpected pleasures and the very immediate prospect of some thorough rest and recuperation almost this very moment. Though famished and still curious about what his friends were and had been up to, he must consider sleep his absolute first priority; with one contact of lips, Saitou had managed to enforce that.

Sano thought he understood, now, the meaning of the original kiss that had so baffled him at the time. It had been neither apology nor goodbye, as he’d speculated (though there had probably been in it some smugness at the thought of how much it would puzzle and annoy Sano until it could be explained); it had been no declaration of deepest affection, nor yet a meaningless whim; in fact it had been nothing more nor less than a suggestion of something they might try and see how they liked it. Which meant Sano didn’t need to figure out how he felt about Saitou, since the experiment was not over; actually it had just begun.

Currently he felt pretty damn positive about him, despite how much Saitou had annoyed him even during the pleasant parts of their conversation. Currently he felt pretty damn positive about everything. Getting some proper sleep was going to be a lot easier now.

For a second time, however, just as he was lying down and preparing to rest, in this instance far less worried about (indeed, rather looking forward to!) the type of dreams he might have when he did, there was a knock at the door. Also for a second time he speculated it was probably Misao, and also for a second time was proven wrong.

It was the other of the two Oniwaban guys, Shiro or Kuro, and the déjà vu of debating over appellations augmented that of seeing the note just delivered to the Aoiya. That it had arrived directly on Sano’s heels reiterated one of yesterday’s startling points: what an uncannily good sense of timing Saitou had. And Sano’s full name on the outside of the folded paper was so identical to the first, he had to pull the other out for comparison before he could believe there actually were two notes. Then, once again having waited until he was alone, he opened the message.

I thought about it, and that one may not have qualified either. We had better discuss your other rules and try again tomorrow. Come by at around lunch time.

Sano lay back down in triumph and weariness, hugging the refolded note to his chest. That was right; that was exactly right. Saitou recognized his First Kiss requirements, that they hadn’t all been elaborated upon, and that another attempt must be made at meeting them. And if he and Sano didn’t manage it tomorrow, they could easily give it another shot the next day. Eventually, when wounds had started to heal and bodies had regained some stamina (and perhaps when paperwork had diminished a trifle), they could try more than once in a day. His standards were fairly high on this point, after all; the number of attempts it might require could not really be fathomed at this juncture.

He plunged toward sleep happily anticipating something he would not previously have considered a matter of question, something he would have taken entirely for granted before yesterday: the probability that he would never have a proper First Kiss with Saitou.


This fic is dedicated to liveonanon and W. Solstice for the explosion of joy they had recently caused in my life at time of writing.

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This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


He Can Be Taught (2/3)

He Can Be Taught



“You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”


Before Sano confesses his love to Kenshin, he needs to get his attention and impress him, and therefore appeals to Saitou to teach him defense… but Saitou may teach him more than that.





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

1
2
3


That wasn’t the last time Sano spent the night at Saitou’s house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the last time Sano spent the entire day and then the night at Saitou’s house. The routine developed quickly, almost enforcedly: wake up, usually with a throbbing skull and aching body that was bizarrely more encouraging than dismaying; do the chores, which became easier and quicker as he developed a viable pattern, but never seemed like less overall work; practice whatever Saitou had ordered, by which he was reminded of Yahiko’s ten thousand repetitions of some move or other at Kaoru’s bidding; eat dinner, often with Saitou, who hadn’t shown himself nearly as averse to feeding Sano on a daily basis as Sano had expected him to; and then spar in a somewhat one-sided, vigorous and edifying manner until he passed out and was able to rest for the next day’s fresh start.

In one corner of his mind, he’d rather expected that Saitou wouldn’t be willing to maintain this arrangement for very long. They still annoyed each other, after all, and now Saitou was not only giving up time and energy to Sano’s goals, he was also giving up food (also known as money) to Sano’s admittedly rapacious stomach. He even, despite what he’d said the first evening, allowed Sano the very occasional cigarette. And he got his house cleaned and his laundry and dishes washed, sure, but still he was probably doing this only out of a passing interest in beating Sano up routinely for a while, and must eventually get tired of it. Either that or he wouldn’t trouble himself too much about the teaching, and that aforementioned beating up of Sano would be the full extent of their training together.

But this, Sano found, was not the case. Saitou might not be the most personable teacher ever to harass a student, but he knew very well what he was doing. His criticism, though irritating, was always accurate and comprehensible. He showed Sano how better to balance his weight so as to be ready to receive attacks as well as deal them out; he helped Sano recognize subtle changes in an enemy’s stance so he might have some chance at knowing what was coming. He gave cogent explanations and practical demonstrations, and even refrained from taking too great an advantage, with those iron fists of his, when Sano entirely failed to predict and properly react to the next incoming blow. They hadn’t yet progressed to a point where Saitou was ready to draw his sword, but that Sano was making progress was clear, and Saitou didn’t seem to be tiring of the pastime.

It was only after almost three weeks of this that Sano realized he hadn’t seen his friends, or even Tokyo in general, in quite some time. And though he was more than a little pleased at how things were going, how his plan was maturing, he felt all of a sudden like a hermit. His scummier friends probably thought he’d finally lost his life by picking a fight too tough for him (which, in a way, was true), and surely Kenshin must have noticed his absence this time. So he made a special effort to rise early one morning, got the chores done as quickly as possible, and left the house in an anticipatory mood heading for the Kamiya Dojo.

It was odd, but with all the work he was doing these days — cleaning, practicing, and dealing with Saitou — he’d hardly given Kenshin a thought lately. Not that the rurouni had never crossed Sano’s mind, but there hadn’t been nearly as much leisure to dwell on him, and Sano hadn’t once… well… imagined him as he had during those days in jail. He hadn’t dreamed about him much either, but that might have been because ‘sleep’ and ‘unconsciousness from too many blows to the head’ were difficult to distinguish one from the other nearly every night. But since the whole rigmarole was aimed at eventually getting Kenshin’s attention, that goal could easily take the place of obsessive thought.

Presently he caught sight of a familiar figure not far ahead of him, she having just turned from another street onto the one he was taking, perhaps heading the same place he was. As quietly as he could, he ran up behind her and slipped his hands over her eyes with a sly, “Guess who!” But he withdrew his arms quickly the next moment as he felt his fingers grow slick with moisture.

Megumi gave him a furtive glance like a wounded animal even as she began hastily wiping her eyes dry with a sleeve of her doctor’s smock. “Oh, Sanosuke,” she acknowledged. And that was all. No real greeting, no pointing out that he was the only person impudent enough to play that childish game with her and therefore she had no need to guess who it was, no inquiry as to where he’d been for the last couple of weeks, and no explanation of her tears.

“What’s wrong with you?” he wondered. And though he didn’t say it without sympathy or concern, perhaps he could have worded it a bit better.

She turned away from him and resumed her walk. “It’s nothing,” she replied as he jumped to follow.

“Someone like you doesn’t cry about just nothing,” he prodded.

“Even you should realize I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what? Seriously, what’s wrong?”

To his surprise, her face screwed into a tight and fairly futile effort to control a terrible pain. “I knew you were a jerk,” she spat at him, “but I didn’t think you’d go this far.”

“Look, I’m trying to be nice here.” Sano’s brief concern was gradually giving way to anger. “You don’t have to get all bitchy on me!”

She threw him a look of skepticism and disgust. “If you really haven’t been paying attention all this time… if you really don’t know how I…” Her expression hardened. “Or are you just taunting me? I thought some things were beneath even you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Why the hell would I… taunt you… about what? I really truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Very convincing. Maybe you are just that clueless.” Megumi quickened her pace. “There’s no need for you to walk with me any further.” And the tears never ceased their steady trail down her cheeks as she left a confused and very angry Sano behind.

He stared after her until she disappeared around another corner, then muttered, “What the fuck was that…?” He looked around for a stone to kick, but, not finding one, just kicked at the ground instead. Here his first sojourn out of his new little life was already turning out weird and unpleasant.

Well. Kenshin would cheer him up. The rurouni might even know what was bothering Megumi, which might help Sano eventually patch things up with her. Maybe. Not that he cared. Clueless about what?

The first thing he noticed as the familiar outer walls of Kaoru’s property came into sight was a dejected-looking Yahiko sitting in a little ball outside the doors. Glancing up at the high sun and down at the glum boy, Sano was puzzled; shouldn’t Yahiko be practicing about now? He usually was at this time of day, and it took some serious distraction on Kaoru’s part for him to get out of it. Of course, Sano was truanting on his own practice time at the moment, so he couldn’t really accuse.

“Sano!” Yahiko yelled, jumping to his feet and running to meet him. “Where have you fucking been?”

“You better watch that mouth,” Sano grinned. “You’re starting to sound like me, Yahiko-chan.”

“Oh, you–” Yahiko cut himself off without bothering to vent his frustration at the honorific. “Never mind. Where have you been? You haven’t been around here for so long, you haven’t heard the news!”

Stopping just outside the doors, Sano looked at Yahiko askance. He couldn’t quite tell what the expression on the kid’s face meant. Was it unhappy? Frightened? It was definitely agitated. Agitating news, then… and Megumi was crying somewhere across town, and had expected Sano to know what was wrong with her. He suddenly gripped Yahiko’s shoulders and demanded, “What’s happened?”

“Calm down,” Yahiko protested, trying to shrug the heavy hands from him. “It’s not like something happened, exactly…”

There was a touch of resignation to Yahiko’s demeanor in addition to the agitation. Sano didn’t understand. “Well?”

“All it is is that Kenshin and Kaoru are getting married.”

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

“Ittaai, Sano! Get your hands off me! Hello?! Sano! Let go!”

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

Feeling somewhat dizzy all of a sudden, Sano finally released the grip that had been mercilessly squeezing poor Yahiko’s shoulders. He straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets, where they immediately clenched into fists. His teeth were grinding, which was perhaps the reason for the sudden painful pounding in his head. It didn’t explain the painful pounding in his chest, but you had to start somewhere.

“Sano?” Yahiko’s voice sounded tentative now. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, kid; it’s just a surprise, that’s all; nothing’s wrong.” Sano knew he was speaking a little too quickly, that his voice was just a tone too high-pitched, but it was the best he could do. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the balls.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not recently… So, when’s the wedding?” His attempt at sounding casual failed miserably, and Yahiko’s head was practically starting to smoke with frustrated curiosity. Smoke… Sano suddenly wished for Saitou’s presence, just so he could beg a cigarette off him.

“Something like three months,” Yahiko said, still staring at Sano’s face with his jaw thrust out contemplatively. “I don’t know the exact date.”

Sano was just reaching down to ruffle Yahiko’s hair and thank him, then turn and walk away to find a wall somewhere to pound his head against in an attempt to beat away the pain and perhaps improve his equilibrium. But at that moment a voice called from inside the dojo grounds: “Yahiko? Yahiko, where are you?”

“Coming, Kenshin!” the kid replied as he glanced in that direction. This gave Sano the chance he needed to escape. He heard Yahiko behind him wondering where he was going, but the query faded as Sano pelted away as fast as he thought he’d ever left the Kamiya Dojo before.

He could probably run forever. The pounding of his feet seemed to mix with his heartbeat in a drumming rhythm that punctuated his shock and despair: Kenshin! and Kaoru! Kenshin! and Kaoru!

So she had won. And Sano hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

This was what he got for acting slowly, for putting things off, for living a lifestyle that left him little recourse for the plan he’d conceptualized and the end he wanted to achieve, for being a lazy good-for-nothing, a pathetic little boy with no talents, no future, no personality. He deserved to lose Kenshin… but was Kaoru any fitter to win him? He decided to keep running forever… or at least until he came to an ocean, where he could end it all like the miserable bottom-dweller he was.

He had not yet reached an ocean, however, when he changed his mind and headed for a bar instead.

***

Saitou ate slowly, occasionally scowling but trying not to. He really shouldn’t, he kept telling himself, be annoyed at Sano’s absence. It was obvious just by looking around that the young man had done the chores, and any time he chose to spend away from Saitou’s house thereafter could only hurt his own cause, not do any damage to anything Saitou cared about. And it was only natural that he should want a break after eighteen days of the rigorous routine they’d fallen into. But it would have been polite to inform Saitou of such a plan before carrying it out, so that Saitou could make his own plans for the evening.

Not that Saitou would have. If he wasn’t required to stay late at work or go out on some spying venture after dark, he cherished his evenings as the only time he could relax and think about something other than the state of the country. Well, he never really stopped thinking about the state of the country, but at home he could at least allow other considerations to take center stage. And perhaps he’d grown more accustomed to having company over and after supper than he’d realized, and didn’t appreciate being abandoned. He left the dishes for Sano.

Probably because he’d developed a new habit of exercising just before bed, Saitou found himself very restless — far too restless to sit quietly reading. He stalked back into the great room and went through some light moves, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the same. Glowering, he returned to the study.

Paperwork, though nothing he particularly relished, at least usually had the power of seizing his full attention since it reflected the pursuits to which he was devoted, but even this, tonight, was insufficient to occupy him. He decided in his frustration that he might as well just go to bed early. As he stripped down to nothing in his bedroom, he couldn’t help feeling a little confused about his own state of mind. When had he ever been so bound to a routine that he couldn’t function if it was disrupted? This was stupid.

It seemed he’d barely fallen asleep when his instincts warned him of someone standing outside at the front door. Footsteps sounded loud and clumsy on the porch, and there was a fumbling at the latch. With a soundless dexterity inversely proportional to that of the unknown party, Saitou rose, slipped into yesterday’s pants, took sword in hand, and moved toward the hall. The intruder had the way unlocked by now, but seemed to be having difficulty getting through it. Sliding the bedroom door open a fraction, Saitou peered through into the faint light that was cast from outside.

Then he dispensed with secrecy, flinging the door fully open with an impatient gesture and stepping out. “Ahou, what are you doing here?”

The figure dimly silhouetted by starlight in the doorway reeled in startlement, clutching at the frame as Saitou’s sharp voice assaulted him. After a moment, appearing to remember who Saitou was and where they both were, he slurred out in reply, “Wz comin’ to do th’ chorzz.”

Saitou moved toward Sano, grimacing as he caught the remarkably strong smell of sake. Reaching out a bare arm, he seized Sano’s gi and yanked him inside, tossing him carelessly to the floor as he closed the door with his other hand. “Get your drunken ass in here before you wake up the neighbors. Do you know what time it is?”

Not bothering to pick himself up, Sano whined something unintelligible in as miserable-sounding a tone as Saitou had ever heard from him. The officer stalked past him into the great room and lit a lamp, waiting for the moron to get to his feet and follow. Eventually the moron did, unsteadily and with his head hanging, and, staggering into the middle of the room, collapsed again into a heap.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Saitou said, looking down at him, “that this is how you choose to spend a night off. Attack any walls this time?”

From where he’d buried his face in his arms, Sano made another wretched sound, and Saitou was a little startled to realize that the young man was actually crying.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, moving a bit nearer.

Sano looked up, eyes clouded and tears streaming down his face, and almost wailed, “Ke’shin’s ge’ing married!”

His annoyance suddenly tempered by amusement and perhaps even some pity, Saitou knelt down. He reached out to punch Sano’s shoulder, though the blow and his subsequent tone were a little softer than usual. “That was inevitable, ahou. Even you must have seen it coming.”

Without warning, Sano broke down entirely, sobbing his heart out. More surprising still, he threw himself forward onto the other man, burying his face once again in his arms, but this time in Saitou’s lap. Though taken aback, Saitou made no move to forbid Sano his little drunken bout of self-pity. In fact, he had to combat a sudden extremely unexpected desire to stroke the spiky locks close beneath his hands that had risen in his initial surprise. The gesture probably wouldn’t have helped to comfort Sano in any case.

When Sano’s wailing eventually subsided, his sobs shaking less of his body and his state more propitious for hearing anything said to him, Saitou asked him calmly, “When is the wedding?”

“I dunno,” came Sano’s muffled voice. “Yah-Yahiko sayziz in three monsur sothin.”

“Then all this does is give you a deadline,” was Saitou’s businesslike reply, “and an incentive to work harder.”

Sano sat up, gazing somewhat lopsidedly at him. “Harder?” he echoed. “I’m nafuckin ge’ing anywhere!” His lip trembled. “I’m nalernin; I’m jussa stupid kid; I’m…”

“While I would have to agree that you are a stupid kid,” Saitou interrupted, “you’re wrong if you think you’re not learning. You’ve come much farther since we started than I could have expected.”

The brown eyes widened, and perhaps grew a shade less bleary. “Serious?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied with conviction. “Now go to sleep.” He leaned forward and pushed Sano hard, easily sending him to the floor. Standing, he moved to the hearth where the folded blanket Sano used for sleeping on Saitou’s floor generally stayed, and threw it at him. “Since I know you’re the kind of idiot that never gives up, I know you’ll show your usual resilience and get back to work tomorrow.”

“Buh Saitou…” Sano clutched at the blanket like a child with an indispensable toy, looking up at the wolf despairingly.

“Shut up and sleep,” Saitou commanded as he moved toward the lamp to put it out. Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was almost kind; it surprised even him. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” Certainly Sano wasn’t, to bury his face in Saitou’s lap!

Sano’s compliance was evinced by the silence, but for sniffling and a slight shuffling of blanket, that accompanied the click of the lamp’s snuffing, and Saitou returned to his bedroom in relative peace.

***

All right, he’d now been awake for twenty seconds at the most, and had already done a lightning-speed search of his memory in order to confirm that this was the worst hangover he’d ever had.

Yes – it – was.

How the hell much had he drunk last night? And why the hell had he gotten that drunk? He didn’t dare move for fear of making it worse, or open his eyes to what felt through his lids like the light of mid-afternoon. He wasn’t even sure where he was, couldn’t remember a thing about the entirety of yesterday. His head was far worse than usual after a spell even of heavy drinking, his bladder felt swollen to twice its usual size, and his stomach threatened to do what it never did and actually regurgitate something. Also, where was he, and what had happened last night?

Well, the surface beneath him seemed to be a hard floor, and the blanket atop him smelled clean and felt soft. These combined clues led him to believe he was at Saitou’s house. Why did he have a gladiatorial hangover at Saitou’s house? Saitou wouldn’t have allowed a drunken Sano into his house, would he? Ah, but Sano had a key. So that explained how he’d gotten in… but what time had that been?

He didn’t remember training yesterday, and the pain in his head wasn’t the type that usually came from Saitou’s fists. Some extremely blurry images of wandering around town becoming increasingly drunk were beginning to trickle back. People he’d talked to… acquaintances he’d had drinks with… in bar after bar after bar… after bar… why?

Then there’d been Megumi, right? She’d been crying and wouldn’t tell him why. And Yahiko, who’d been sitting outside the dojo for some reason, and…

“Shit!”

In a single rapid, jerky movement he sat up, his eyes springing open as he remembered, and immediately fell back to the floor with a loud groan, pulling the blanket over his face.

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

Well, the multiple jugs of sake might have had something to do with it.

So he’d been so miserable yesterday after hearing the news that he’d run off and gotten drunker than he’d ever been, then somehow found his way back to Saitou’s house for no reason he could comprehend in a more sober state, and collapsed here. Saitou must have been irate. Nothing later than about the fifth bar could Sano remember, but he’d be willing to wager he was in for a more intense beating than usual later. He’d better get the chores done quickly… especially if it was, as he’d guessed upon first awakening, mid-afternoon; he could probably start now and still not be quite finished before Saitou came home.

But he seriously didn’t want to get up. Wow, this one was bad. And he doubted Saitou had any of the ingredients for his usual remedy.

But if he didn’t get up soon, there was no chance he’d be done in time, and Saitou might refuse to train with him. Since Sano was already probably in trouble for skipping out last night and then barging in drunk at whatever wee hour, he doubted the wisdom of further angering the officer. As much of a bother as it was, it seemed he would have to act like a responsible adult, get up, and do his job.

The great room was cruelly bright despite the shouji not letting in any more light than usual, which was yet insufficient preparation for actual daylight; making his way to the necessary facilities outside was a tortuous process. Even once he was back inside, he still squinted hard as he shuffled into the kitchen to see if anything might be lying around that he could make half a breakfast of. It must actually be half a lunch he was seeking by now, but he didn’t care what the meal was called as long as it was edible. Saitou usually left at least some rice around…

What he didn’t usually leave around was a single cigarette atop a box of matches in the cupboard next to the tea jar.

Sano stared at the thing for what were probably minutes, though he wasn’t keeping track of time in his efforts to fight his overall discomfort and make sense of what he was seeing. The thought that finally sluggishly struck him was this: Saitou never took a cigarette out of the package without smoking it. And he kept his matches in a desk drawer in the other room. There was just no reason in the world for the presence of this solitary cigarette and box of matches in this cupboard at this time… unless Saitou had intended Sano to find them there. And there wasn’t any reason for that either.

He tried to tell himself that Saitou had meant to smoke this after breakfast, or that there was some other unfathomable rationale behind its being here like this, but he knew the officer’s habits too well by now to think he would ever put one cigarette and some matches in the cupboard like a portent… or a present. There was obviously nothing for it but to smoke the thing.

So did this mean Saitou wasn’t mad at him? It was working wonders for his hangover, anyway. Maybe Sano had explained about Kenshin’s engagement, and Saitou was just being… who the hell did he think he was kidding? Saitou just being sympathetic? Just being a decent person? Just proactively trying to comfort Sano? The idea was beyond nonsensical.

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

Later, having finished washing up after what appeared to be last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast, reentering from dumping the dirty dish-water, he could tell by the fresh scent of tobacco that Saitou was home. Unsure what to expect, he hung around fidgeting by the back door until the officer returned to the great room, then tried his hardest to sound casual as he greeted him.

Saitou eyed him, said nothing, and moved into the kitchen to start making supper.

Shit. Maybe Sano was in trouble after all. “Sorry for ditching practice last night,” he tried.

Still the officer remained silent.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Was that a touch of panic in Sano’s tone? He fought it off as he continued, “That was just how things worked out.”

Finally, more or less easily, Saitou broke his silence. “Considering the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven.”

A pressing feeling of concern suddenly eased out of Sano’s chest, and he realized that his smile was the first he’d worn all day. “Seriously? I thought you were going to kill me!”

Saitou’s tone was one of extreme amusement as he replied, “I thought about it at first, but after your little crying fit I didn’t have the heart.”

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

Saitou turned his head just enough for Sano to see the mockery on his face. “You don’t remember?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

Saitou merely laughed, obviously enjoying this. But Sano wasn’t. Just how drunk had he been? ‘Fit’ might be a malicious exaggeration, but he didn’t think even Saitou would invent such an episode wholesale; some tears must have been involved. In front of this guy, of all people? What potentially embarrassing things might Sano have let slip during such a lapse in control?

“What did I say?” he asked before he could think of a more diplomatic way of finding out.

“You confessed your own stupidity, among other things.”

What other things?”

“Just some pathetic wailing about Himura, I believe. It was rather late,” Saitou added pointedly; “I can’t be expected to remember your every word.”

Wondering what to say next (and certainly not about to say, “But I bet you do, you bastard”), Sano remained silent for a moment. He still wasn’t sure whether Saitou was mad at him or just having fun being a jerk as usual, nor what should be done to allay the man’s possible ire. Finally, “Well, sorry about that,” he decided on.

Saitou made no reply.

Glancing at the tofu that waited on the counter to be worked into tonight’s meal, Sano volunteered, “Why don’t I help you make supper?”

“I think I prefer my kitchen in one piece.”

Sano bristled, forgetting that he was trying for penitence. “Hey, jerk, I can cook just as good as you can!” When the only response was a skeptical sound, Sano strode forward and seized a knife, turning toward the tofu.

“Careful with that,” the officer cautioned. “It’s called a ‘knife,’ and one of the edges will hurt if you touch yourself with it.”

“Very funny, asshole.”

Saitou grinned and made a conciliatory gesture. “If you think you can mange it, ahou, go ahead.”

A little later, when they sat down at the table, instead of starting right in on the meal, Sano watched intently as his companion did so. He was confident that Saitou would confess what an excellent cook Sano was and admit he couldn’t possibly be upset with him any longer, and then everything would be fine. But Saitou merely continued eating without a word or any change in demeanor.

Finally Sano couldn’t stand it. “Well?”

With a mildly dubious expression Saitou said, “Outside. I should think you’d know where it is by now.”

“I mean the food,” Sano growled. “I’m a good cook, huh?”

Saitou looked down at his supper with a soft, “Hn.”

“What the hell ‘Hn?’ What do you think of it?”

“I think…” Saitou continued to stare pensively at the food in front of him. “I think I will add making supper to your list of chores.”

Sano’s jaw dropped. That was not the commendation he’d had in mind.

The corners of Saitou’s lips twitched, but he prevented the expression from becoming a full-blown smirk by taking another bite. Then he said in an admonitory tone, “You’d better eat, ahou. We have a lot for you to learn tonight, considering how much time you’ve got left.”

Oh, yeah… he had a deadline now, didn’t he? He had to win Kenshin away from Kaoru before they could get married and ruin Kenshin’s life forever! He had to work harder.

It occurred to him to wonder why he wasn’t as depressed about this as he’d obviously been yesterday. Had drinking really made him feel better? That would be… unprecedented. Something had made him feel better, though. As he thought about it, his hand slowed in bringing his chopsticks to his mouth and eventually hovered just short of it. Was he merely thinking wishfully, or did he hazily start to remember Saitou saying something… something nice… about him… last night?

He took his bite and chewed, still struggling to remember. Finally he felt he had to ask. “So how am I doing, anyway? Think I’ll beat you any time soon?”

“No,” Saitou answered immediately and bluntly. “But you’re not hopeless.”

“Guess that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” Sano said wryly. In actuality it was a pretty meaningful concession, but he wasn’t going to say so.

“Probably. Your friend’s wedding is set for July the 22nd, by the way.”

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

“Sometimes, ahou, if you ask someone something, they tell you.”

“Who’d you ask?”

With the customary raised brow Saitou said, “Battousai?”

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou just nodded.

Sano was still eating when Saitou, who’d had a head start, laid down his chopsticks and sat back, as he usually did after supper, to light up while he drank the remainder of his tea. This, of course, reminded Sano of something he didn’t really want to mention (in case he’d been wrong) but felt like he must. Fixing his eyes on the contents of his bowl he said, “Oh, and thanks for that cigarette this morning.”

Saitou’s tone was easy as he replied, “Don’t mention it.”

***

Things progressed for the next few weeks much as they had for the first few, save that now Sano was working doubly hard to meet Saitou’s increasingly harsh demands. He’d decided that July 15th would be the big day — the day he would tell Kenshin his feelings — and that sometime before that he must, obviously, take Kenshin out somewhere and get into a fight in order to set things in motion by making a solid bid for the rurouni’s attention and admiration.

But he felt that, before he could do this, he needed to get a move past Saitou. He had to. Though this wasn’t a line he’d deliberately set for himself — at least not consciously — it had popped up from somewhere, and he saw it as an undismissible marker of progress, one he must reach before he could stop this relentless training. He’d hit Saitou before, of course, but only ever on his own terms. He wanted to get in a decent shot by Saitou’s rules. And he felt like he was running out of time awfully quickly.

It was frustrating, therefore, when Saitou told him one night that they wouldn’t be able to train the next evening, as he was expected to attend a party that would probably run late. Observing that Saitou didn’t seem much more pleased at the prospect than Sano was at the disappointing news, the young man inquired about the details. Apparently the officer would be officially representing the police at the inauguration of a respectable Kyoto manufacturer’s new branch of operations in Tokyo, but his real objective was to try to sniff out any connection between this manufacturer and a recent increase in modern weaponry on the streets.

Though he’d asked, Sano was a little surprised that Saitou had answered so openly — and perhaps a little pleased as well at this sign of trust. And seeing the importance of trying to control the presence of firearms throughout the country, he tried to stifle his annoyance at having to miss another training session. At least this would give him a chance to go remind his friends that he still existed and see, once again, whether or not Kenshin had missed him.

But his trip to the dojo was brought to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it was more of a fight-picking attitude. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano was still fuming in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t really been available, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat was unfeasible… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. The worst part was that it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to a degree that was a bit unusual; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all. It wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy home.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the fact that he wore no belt and the pants were sagging just slightly, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say that Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been gathering around him, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a small scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed,” Sano grumbled.

“Poor ahou,” Saitou chuckled. “Always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me,” was Sano’s angry protest. “Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This galvanized Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” It was so overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept that Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around it. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone was back as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this could not relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted that Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could ever be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it was totally understandable that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the specific person they were discussing. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. It was funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have thought that was possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected question. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on seducing Himura?”

“Yeah…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to seduce him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be rather pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response that was involved. Saitou, on the other hand, just stood there motionless. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters falsified.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision just had to provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light was hitting their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. It was no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories that were crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well-built his body and how well-suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that was still making him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he might as well avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano was lying back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment was: how could he feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time?

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself that he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment it was fair to say that he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face was at the moment more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He had been in here for a long time; he’d really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated that their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, that was because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he was so good at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident that he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Somewhat relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the obvious next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip was audible in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked,” the officer said.

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old pervert,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions were pushed firmly to the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised did not worry him. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou wasn’t going to ask plainly Sano wasn’t going to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place, which was clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou was going to have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano was going to have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking his companion seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company was completely unappealing to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize that there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing was going to help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given that there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. It was a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once he was fairly sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t really what he wanted to talk about. It was time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; it was time for some smooth self-promotion. “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him once again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was completely impossible, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though he was sure there was no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind was still on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on the same subject. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief that they were abandoning the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are worried about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

Sano wasn’t sure how he endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too certain. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He had shamelessly been sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing that its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding was approaching fast, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though it was a hot night, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he was vaguely aware of a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores; every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion was gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things were not turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table just didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he was grudgingly satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he was actually enjoying this exchange, and definitely enjoying having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he really was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze was crossing the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”


He Can Be Taught (1/3)

He Can Be Taught



“You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”


Before Sano confesses his love to Kenshin, he needs to get his attention and impress him, and therefore appeals to Saitou to teach him defense… but Saitou may teach him more than that.





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

1
2
3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

And then one day they let him go. He was asleep, actually, as wasn’t infrequently the case where there was so little else to do, dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the fact that Saitou was standing there cooking food he might be able to eat in a few minutes kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m kidding!” Sano was able to laugh since Saitou’s threatening statement had restored an atmosphere between them that he was more accustomed to. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

He was whistling as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he was going to be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them didn’t occupy his thoughts for long, though, as he was beginning to remember, while he walked, the dreams he’d been having last night: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heretic’s Reward 16-20

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 16 – Nine Years Later

“Katsu?!” He said it overloudly, but he didn’t care. He’d jumped from his stool at last and seized both of his old friend’s shoulders in his pleasure and sudden surprise. “Holy fuck! What are you doing here?”

Katsu, who looked so much like an older version of what Sano specifically remembered that it was almost comical, gave him the same serious smile he’d always used to. “I’ve been living in Elotica almost two years now,” he said. “If you weren’t such a poor correspondent, you’d know that, but I haven’t had a letter from you since before I left Encoutia! A better question is: what are you doing here?”

This better question was enough to remind Sano forcibly of his situation; he glanced about in some concern to see whether he’d attracted any attention. It didn’t seem he had; excited reunions of old friends were probably tolerably common around here. Trying to think how to answer, he cleared his throat.

“I see that’s not a better question.” Katsu’s tone had dropped as he followed Sano’s somewhat paranoid gaze around the room. “Anyway, I have a letter for you.”

This recaptured Sano’s full attention. “What..?”

Katsu released Sano’s shoulder and slid onto the stool beside his. As Sano retook his abandoned place before his cooling supper, Katsu was pulling a small scroll from his sleeve; Sano accepted it in growing confusion.

For Sano, care of Katsuhiro the printmaker’s apprentice, was the cramped direction. Sano looked up from it to Katsu with knitted brows. “You’re a printmaker’s apprentice now?” It was a stupid thing to ask first, but at the moment he was torn inside between continued pleasure at seeing his friend again and wonder at the circumstances attending it. “But who could have possibly known we’d run into each other…?”

“It was delivered yesterday by a letter carrier,” Katsu answered; the look on his face seemed to convey much the same frame of mind as Sano’s. “I’ve been dying of curiosity ever since. Oh, and, yes,” he added as a sort of aside, “I am the printmaker’s apprentice. Though I think I’ve learned more than he ever knew, and it’s about time for me to move on.”

Sano wasted no more time in opening and reading the message. The handwriting inside, though a little crowded on the small paper, was neat enough — certainly neater than his own — and something about it, from the very beginning, struck him as familiar, though he knew he’d never seen it before. When he realized almost immediately whom the scroll was from, he thought he understood this impression, and he read with increasing wonder.

I’m sorry I I apologize for running off, but you have to understand how I was sure it was going to end up. What was I supposed to do? The ladies don’t take sides in politics, so should I really? I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, but it’s too bad you don’t believe in the ladies. They can help you a lot. They comfort you, like I told you, and they tell you things you need to know — like where to send a letter — and they warn you of danger and stuff. But it’s not my job to convince you, I guess. I hope I see you again sometime when you’re not with that jerk anymore and not working on stuff I shouldn’t be involved with. Stay safe. –Yahiko

Preceding the words ‘that jerk’ there was a fairly neat round blotch, as if Yahiko had started to write Hajime’s name, realized this could potentially put him and Sano in danger, and completely eradicated what characters he’d already formed. Sano rather thought Yahiko must think him the bigger jerk, in any case — and the forgiveness in this message, only implied though it was, meant more to him than he would have expected.

Katsu, invoking a privilege of friendship that, even after all these years apart, Sano did not begrudge him, had moved around to look over Sano’s shoulder and read the letter at the same time he did. Now he wondered quietly, “Who in the world is this?”

Slowly Sano dragged his eyes away and looked his friend over. Really, it was almost unbelievable how little Katsu had changed, at least visually, in the last nine years. His face and body were those of an adult now, of course, and a touch more angular, but he still had his hair cut the same way, and a gaze just as dark and serious as ever. It was as if he’d already been, back then, what he intended to be for the rest of his life, and had no reason thereafter for any alteration.

“Well, sit down, and I’ll tell you,” Sano commanded. And as Katsu obeyed, Sano began his tale in the quietest tone Katsu would still be able to hear. “Back home — in Eloma, you know — I was on my way home from somewhere, through the forest, and I ran into this kid…”

Having no idea who might overhear him despite his efforts at quiet, he decided reluctantly that, just for the moment, he probably shouldn’t mention Hajime even obliquely, nor the real reason he’d come to Elotica and what he was doing here. So he made Yahiko the focus of his story, didn’t specify the identity of the attackers the kid had helped him fight off, gave the impression that the journey to Elotica had been started on a whim or perhaps in response to his annoyance at Seijuurou’s attitudes, and generally managed to give an account with more holes than actual substance, finishing up with, “…and this is the first I’ve heard from him since.”

Katsu was shaking his head slowly and gravely. “Poor kid,” he remarked.

“‘Poor kid?'” echoed Sano in some irritation. He didn’t like withholding so much from his friend, but would quickly get over it if Katsu continued making comments like that. “He’s a little brat who hears voices and messes with people’s heads!”

With a wan smile Katsu said gently, “Sano, whether you believe in the ladies or not, it’s obvious from your story — and that letter! — that the kid has some real power. You can’t just ignore that.”

“That’s what we–” Quickly Sano caught himself, remembering there shouldn’t be any ‘we’ involved in his narrative at this point. “Well, but it doesn’t make up for…” But Yahiko hadn’t ever really done anything wrong, except as far as clinging to the traditional brainwashing of a naïve and repressive religion counted — which, to Sano, had always been quite a bit… Yahiko, however, was a little different. He hadn’t tried to force anything on Sano, and, in fact, had seemed pleased that Sano had real reasons for what he did and didn’t believe. He’d been reasonable about the church, too. Sano sighed.

“You thought you’d found somebody just like you, didn’t you? Some orphan who’d lost faith at the same age you had.” Katsu sounded sympathetic, and annoyingly certain of his speculation. “That’s why this bugs you so much; you thought you’d found a kindred spirit, and then it turned out he was actually almost the opposite.”

“You’re way too fucking smart for your own good, you know that?” Sano turned fully to face his friend with a skeptical and not entirely happy smile.

“Yeah, I know,” said Katsu dismissively. “Now think how the kid must feel.”

“You’re just standing up for him because his mom sounds exactly like yours,” Sano grumbled.

“Well, that might be a coincidence, and it might not. But, no, that’s not why I’m standing up for him. Think about it. All that stuff he said to you — I’m sure it’s true: people who are different always have a hard time. No wonder he lied to you when he realized you were a heretic! He’s probably taken every kind of abuse you can imagine since his dad died; how was he supposed to know you wouldn’t treat him even worse because of what he was and what you were?”

“Ladies, don’t lecture me, Katsu!” In some frustration Sano leaned his face on his hand. Why had he thought Katsu might be on his side? Hell, why had he thought he had a side? Were there sides in this? Why should there be sides? It was just a matter of being driven apart from someone he might have cared about by their drastically different beliefs. “I’m not really mad at him or nothing,” he admitted with another sigh. “But…” He tried to put into words one of the many things that had been bothering him about Yahiko. “If he’s so powerful, why would he let anyone treat him bad? If I could fight like that when I was his age, nobody would’ve ever kicked me around.”

Now Katsu grinned nostalgically. “I can only imagine,” he said with a slight laugh. “Not that I can remember anyone ever kicking you around, back in Encoutia, at least.” He sobered again as he continued. “But people are different, you know? You might have had the courage to use power like that whenever you wanted, if you’d had it, but it seems like he’s afraid of everyone. He hasn’t been able to trust anyone since his parents, so all he knows how to do is run away. He’ll learn one of these days he can’t keep running his whole life, and then he won’t get kicked around anymore either.”

Weakly, helplessly, Sano smiled. “You’re still a damn know-it-all. I barely told you about this kid and now you’re analyzing his deepest fears and everything…”

Katsu shrugged with a faint smile of his own, and turned his attention toward his drink.

Unrolling the little letter again, Sano reread it. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, it said. And he couldn’t help wondering whether if he hadn’t once had a brother Yahiko’s age he would have cared quite so much.

Not wanting to think about Yahiko anymore, “So how about this new king business?” Sano asked at length.

Katsu didn’t look up from his cup, but his sigh was audible and Sano could see the lowering of his brows. In as quiet a tone as Sano had used for his potentially dangerous story, he said, “Kenshin was never a strong enough king for my tastes, but he at least tried. The only reason to seize power from him would be to make certain immediate changes to the bureaucracy. Soujirou’s not doing anything of the sort… he has no reason for what he’s doing, as far as I can tell.”

Sano tried to move unobtrusively, casually, as he edged toward the left side of his stool and leaned a little closer to Katsu. “You think there’s someone behind him, right?”

Katsu nodded.

“But not Gontamei.”

Finally Katsu looked over at him, appearing surprised and pleased. “Sano, I’m proud of you! I never thought I’d see you paying attention to politics. No, not Gontamei… someone in one of the divine houses. Or someones in some of the divine houses.”

“Not Kaoru, though.”

Katsu returned his attention to his mostly empty drink. “Don’t be too sure of that… those girls’ loyalty to Kenshin could be for show.”

“Well, you seem to know a lot.”

Again Katsu nodded.

“Anything interesting?” There was no way for Sano to keep his tone casual; Katsu was bound to pick up that he had a stake in this beyond simple curiosity.

Whether or not Katsu did, he seemed ready enough to share what he knew. “Have you heard what our new king’s first official act was?” At Sano’s shake of head he went on, “He started this thing he calls the Devoted Council… It’s just like it sounds: a devoted from each house sit council to the king. Supposedly it’s ‘to ensure the king’s decisions are in keeping with the will of the ladies,’ but obviously it really comes from whoever in the divine houses is backing him — to make sure they have a say in the rule of the country. Probably a damn big say.”

“Shit.” Sano tried not to look too dark or pensive at this, but knew he was failing. “Thanks for that news.”

“I’m not going to ask questions you don’t want to answer, Sano,” said Katsu carefully, “but if you need any help, let me know, all right?”

“So that pretty much confirms it’s the divine houses behind this, doesn’t it?” was how Sano finished this account of his reunion with Katsu. Including so much detail hadn’t bothered him this time, not only because he’d been so pleased with the circumstance but because Katsu had given him so much useful information. Honestly he wished he’d run into him a lot sooner during his trip into the city.

“It is another good indicator,” Hajime agreed.

“And having Katsu around will be useful.”

“Are you sure you can trust him?”

Sano had sat up abruptly in response to Hajime’s statements so many times during this conversation that now he decided just to stay upright. “What do you mean?” he demanded as he slid until his back touched the wall. “This guy’s my best friend!”

Hajime threw a slightly skeptical look a Sano’s legs, which now protruded into space off the edge of the bed. “Your best friend whom you haven’t seen in nine years.”

“Hey, I wrote to him!” Sano protested.

“Only occasionally, from what you just said.”

“Yeah, well…” Even a hint that he might not be able to trust Katsu disturbed him, and Sano couldn’t help being annoyed at Hajime for suggesting it. That idea was, however, perfectly reasonable, and one that needed to be suggested at this point. Sano had fallen into such easy camaraderie with his old friend, just as if they’d never been separated, he’d almost automatically begun thinking of him as he had before: as someone with whom he could share anything, someone that would have his back in any scenario… but the truth was he didn’t really know Katsu anymore, and couldn’t say with any surety that Katsu would be on his side in any given situation.

Hajime seemed to recognize Sano’s understanding, for he only said, “Just be careful.”

Glumly Sano nodded.

After he’d allowed Sano to stew for a minute or two in doubt, Hajime remarked pensively, “This Devoted Council…”

Responding to the disapproval in the brief phrase, Sano said, “Yeah, as if the church needed more say in people’s lives.”

“Politically it’s a good move. It gives an impression of piety and tractability… and it will make people wonder why Kenshin never did something like it.”

“Yeah, but, seriously… more religious influence?”

Hajime shook his head.

With a frustrated sigh Sano tried to recall what was left of his report. “Royal knights,” he remembered. And at the attentiveness with which Hajime immediately looked at him, Sano felt a little bad having to admit, “I’ve got practically nothing. I heard some talk about you — pretty admiring talk, too, you should be glad to know — and I think at least one of the others is dead–”

“Who?”

Sano gave a gesture of helplessness. “Problem is, Soujirou’s got a lot of guys running around who he’s calling royal knights now, so just listening in to conversations is really confusing because you never know who they mean when they say ‘royal knight.’ And that’s already assuming people know what they’re talking about in the first place. But the rumors I heard most said three knights ran off and one was dead; nothing on the last guy.”

Who?” Hajime muttered intensely, clearly not expecting Sano to answer this time.

Honestly Sano wished he could… these were Hajime’s companions they were discussing, possible allies in the present cause, and maybe even the knight’s friends (if such a word could apply to any relationship of Hajime’s); it was only natural he would want to know what had become of them specifically. Unfortunately, Sano had never felt safe asking direct questions of anyone he thought might actually have the information; the rumors he’d already relayed were the best he could provide.

“Sorry,” he found himself saying, rather unexpectedly. “Maybe there’ll be better stuff later.”

“And I assume if you weren’t able to find out much about the royal knights, you found out even less about Kenshin.”

“Nothing,” Sano confirmed. “Lots of people are wondering where he is, but of course if anyone knew, they probably wouldn’t have been saying it where some random guy like me listening in could hear it.”

Appearing simultaneously annoyed and as if this was exactly what he’d been expecting, Hajime nodded again. “So,” he said darkly, “we still know next to nothing about what’s actually going on, and we have no advantage.”

“Hey–” Sano was a little stung by his demeanor and its implications– “that’s not my fault!”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“Yeah, well, you looked it.”

Hajime mostly ignored this. “We do know we should focus more on the divine houses than the royal families, and that’s a beginning, at least.”

“A beginning,” Sano repeated. “Sure.” It was a grumble, but there was the dullness of weary disappointment to it as well. He should have known even so many days of effort with no reward and possibly in constant danger, definitely bored and annoyed much of the time, still wouldn’t impress or even satisfy the chief of the royal knights.

But it didn’t really matter, he reminded himself. His reason for coming, for doing what he’d been doing, had been to assist in his patriotic duty and get some of his own back against Soujirou, not to impress Hajime. Well, maybe it had been a little of all three. Not necessarily in that order.

“A beginning is more than we had before,” Hajime admitted, to Sano’s minor gratification. “But you’ll have to go back tomorrow.”

Sharply Sano nodded. “And I can get a little more specific on everything. Drop the royal families, find out more about Shougo and Sayo, that sort of thing.”

With an assessing glance, perhaps somewhat pleased, Hajime also nodded.

“And for now, I can relax for a while. What is there to do around here for a guy who’s not busy spying out shit in the city?”

At this, Hajime turned slowly from him with a sigh and looked out the window again.

Chapter 17 – Second Report

“If Katsu isn’t on our side, he’s going pretty far to make it seem like he is.” This was the beginning of Sano’s second report on returning to the Enca inn, but it wasn’t the first thing he’d said on entering the room. First there had been an awkward greeting during which they’d both, apparently, tried to hide how pleased they were to see each other; and then an argument over how economical it might be to order a meal from the inn staff just then, since Sano hadn’t had breakfast but Hajime would prefer to conserve funds and simply wait until supper.

“Based on what you know of him, can you think of any reason for him to pretend to help you?”

Sano still didn’t like to consider the possibility of Katsu betraying him, didn’t really appreciate Hajime bringing it up again, and was already a little annoyed (and hungry) after the previous argument — but at the same time, Hajime was absolutely right to question everything at this point, especially such a convenient reunion with an old friend. So Sano struggled not to lash out and to give the matter some rational thought.

Finally he said, “I can think of a reason someone in his position might. We’ve been talking to people at a few different inns, trying to get a group together who might actually want to do something instead of just chattering about it over drinks, and we’ve got some people interested. If we got a resistance going and meeting somewhere, and then somebody reported it to Soujirou, that somebody might get a big reward… money or political favor or both or more; I don’t know. Thing is, I just don’t think Katsu’s that kind of person. He watches what’s going on, yeah, but he’s never shown any interest in getting involved until now. I just don’t think he cares that much; he’s way more interested in… art… and… making stuff.”

He thought he’d presented a fairly well rounded picture with this statement — though admittedly his knowledge of Katsu was still based more on the letters they’d exchanged over the last nine years than any newly discovered or rediscovered traits. In any case, he was pleased to see Hajime nodding slowly in a manner suggesting he would accept this perspective for now. “Keep your eyes open, though,” the knight said at last. “I know you don’t want to think so, but he may still have his own agenda.” And that was all it took to keep Sano from getting angry: an acknowledgment that Katsu was his friend and it distressed Sano to think of him as a possible enemy; Hajime was capable of being considerate when he bothered.

In response to this consideration, Sano decided to give Hajime what he’d brought him now instead of later. Despite this being a very natural reaction, however, he couldn’t help sounding a little awkward as he announced, “Hey, I brought you these.” Neither gift-giving nor a lot of interpersonal thoughtfulness had been typical of their relationship thus far, after all.

“Why?” Hajime wondered, perhaps just a little suspicious as he accepted the two books Sano had fished from his backpack.

“I dunno…” Sano looked away immediately, shrugging. “I thought you’d like them.”

“But how much did you spend on them?”

Reassured that the financial aspect of this exchange was Hajime’s source of concern, Sano replied in some relief, “Oh, they’re Katsu’s.”

But evidently the other aspects of this exchange were also on Hajime’s mind. “So you specifically asked him if you could borrow books for me?”

“Yeah… well… just it seemed like last time you were going a little stir-crazy in here. Or maybe more than a little.”

“That’s no reason to be giving out dangerous information.”

Reflecting that he should have known better than to expect thanks, Sano reassured him somewhat indignantly, “I haven’t told anyone about you — not even Katsu! He thinks I have to hide out a lot and it gets boring.”

“Does he really think that, I wonder…?”

“Well, even if he doesn’t believe that story,” Sano protested, “there’s no reason for him to think I wanted them for you.”

“He probably also has no reason to believe you’ve really gotten involved in the conflict against Soujirou purely out of your own interests and motives. And the fact you’re working with him to try to get a resistant group together will tell him you don’t have a group elsewhere. Therefore, it would be logical for him to assume, when you ask for books you’re really not the type to read on your own, that you want them for a fugitive you’re harboring somewhere. And if you happen to have mentioned my name even one time more than the name of anyone else involved in this affair, it’s a good bet he knows who you’re working with when you’re not working with him.”

“Ladies’ fucking tits!” Sano had jumped up from the bed where he’d previously been sitting, and was gaping angrily at Hajime. “Why don’t you just say I can’t read at all and I’m obviously too stupid to be handling any of this and too unprincipled to care about it anyway?!”

“As much as I would enjoy saying that,” replied Hajime coolly, though with a teasing glint in his eye, “it would be straying from the point. I’m not even trying to insult you at the moment; I’m trying to remind you you need to be careful. If your friend is really on our side, it’s fine for him to know about me… but if he’s playing his own game throughout all of this, it may be very dangerous.” He sounded somewhat bitter as he finished, “I can’t do much from here, so practically our entire cause is in your hands.”

Sano’s ire, and as a result his glare, had lost some of its intensity as Hajime said this. Problematically, Hajime’s rude bluntness was so often perfectly accurate. Sano really wasn’t much a reader of books, and probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, on his own, in the matter of who ruled the kingdom… and any potential carelessness on his part could get Hajime killed.

“Besides,” Hajime added as Sano stared across the room at him with this equivocal attitude, “I don’t doubt your principles.” Breaking eye contact with Sano so as to look down at the books again, he continued, “Your motives are always good. It’s your methods I doubt.”

Once again, though it rankled to be doubted, Sano couldn’t logically protest; Hajime had every right to worry about the performance of the man on whom his personal safety and possibly the future of the king he served rested. Besides that, it was unexpectedly gratifying, even mollifying, to have his principles recognized by this royal knight. So he took a deep breath and, instead of arguing, started trying to ease Hajime’s doubts regarding his methods.

There was a certain type of blind loyalist they didn’t want — people that, without a great deal of comprehension of what was going on or what had gone before, yet professed strong support for Kenshin. Of course any support was welcome, but people that had actually given the matter some thought, had some reason for their loyalty, were likely to be more reliable.

The woman they were watching tonight, for example, had established during her supper talk that, while she felt little in relation to Kenshin in specific, she was pretty passionate about changing things via the proper methods — and usurpation and abduction did not strike her as proper. Katsu and Sano had been particularly pleased with the way she’d worded it to the friend she was discussing the matter with: “If someone doesn’t like the way you handle your business, and thinks he could sell baked goods better than you do, is he allowed to lock you up in a back room somewhere and just step in and take over your shop?”

They’d decided she seemed more Sano’s type than Katsu’s. Whether or not she was Sano’s type (and, he being interested only in men, this was unlikely) didn’t really matter; it just needed to seem logical, at a glance, that someone like Sano might try to draw her aside for a private conversation.

Of course this way they risked exposure, but that risk could not be erased, and they had to do something. They could only gage people’s sincerity as best they were able, and hope any spies sent by Soujirou’s people to prevent exactly what they were trying to do would present the sort of supposedly raging loyalty they were already avoiding.

This particular woman didn’t give Sano any convenient opportunity to talk to her inside the inn, which meant he had to follow her out. He didn’t much like having to do that, since it made him come across as an overly eager creeper — not a good way to get someone to trust or want to talk to him. Still, once again, there was no other option if he wanted to try her at all tonight.

Katsu elbowed him conspicuously in the ribs in a ‘Go for it!’ sort of gesture. It was part of the act, but Sano hadn’t been expecting it, and therefore reacted very naturally by choking on his drink and jumping abruptly away from his seat in an attempt not to spill it all over himself. Then he shot Katsu a dirty look, left him to pay the tab, and headed toward the door after the woman.

This time he got lucky: nobody else was hanging out around the inn’s entrance, which meant he could approach her immediately instead of trying to stalk her to a point where nobody would overhear them. He still started things out in accordance with the deception, however, just in case. “Hey, wait up!”

She complied, turning to look at him, her expression curious and slightly skeptical as she glanced up and down his figure. “Yeah?”

“I, uh…” He glanced back at the inn’s door, probably giving a good impression of bashfulness but actually just to double-check that no one else was close by. “I was listening to you inside, and I was wondering if you might want to–” he lowered his voice– “team up with some other people who’re trying to get our old king back on the throne.”

After a pronounced blink of eyes, she stared at him in silence. Clearly he’d played his part well, for she looked completely taken by surprise. Finally she said, in as low a tone as his, “You really just walk up to people and ask them that?”

“If you can think of a better way to do it,” Sano replied with a rueful grin, “I’d love to hear it.”

Her return smile looked as if it was delivered almost against her will. “Let’s walk this way,” she said with a gesture. Sano nodded and fell into step beside her, ready to bolt if she gave any indication of turning on him. But as they walked she went on, “I might be interested in… what you suggested… if I thought it had a reasonable chance of success.”

“Gets more reasonable with every person who joins us.”

“And how many people is that?”

“Not enough yet.”

She nodded, and that she’d accepted this answer was another good sign. “I’m not any kind of fighter, mind you — a little self-defense for the streets is all. If flour will help you, I’m a good source, but if you’re looking for someone who can hold a sword, look somewhere else.”

“We’re just looking for lots of people,” Sano assured her. “The first step is to prove that lots of people don’t like this, right? There may be fighting eventually; I don’t know. You don’t have to commit to anything right now. We’re gonna meet in a week — a couple of weeks, I mean–” Damn the five-day week and that he was used to the ten– “to see just how many people we’ve managed to scrape up and what they all can do. We’ll talk about some ideas then.”

Again she nodded. “Sounds like the beginning of a plan. Where and when is this meeting?”

“If you come back here in nine days — Mis’hyou after next — we’ll tell you.”

She stopped walking and looked him over again, brows slightly lowered. “You’re taking a big personal risk here.”

Sano shrugged. “Like you said, you can’t just lock someone up in a back room and then take over their business.”

With a serious smile, she raised a hand to her forehead in a gesture of courtesy and respect. “I’ll see you a week from Mis’hyou, then.” Then she turned and hurried away down the street.

Once again Hajime was nodding with seemingly reluctant approbation. It was clear he wouldn’t concede verbally in regard to Sano’s methods, nor praise his progress, but there was definitely a relenting tone to his subsequent statement, “All right. So we may have a growing number of allies in town, with a date set to find out for sure, and your friend seems like a useful asset for now, whatever he may do later. What else did you find out?”

“Let’s see… knights.”

At this, Hajime looked quickly over at him with an expression of piercing interest.

“The ones who got away were Sanosuke and Soujirou. You didn’t tell me you had knights with the same names as me and the new fake king.”

“That didn’t seem a point worth mentioning.” Hajime was, however, evidently very pleased to hear which of his subordinates had escaped. “Besides, you’ve never mentioned that ‘Sano’ wasn’t your full name.”

“Oh. Well. Anyway, yeah, those two apparently escaped. I still don’t know about the other two, though; people keep saying they’re either dead or joined Soujirou.”

“Well, keep your ears open for where any of them might be.”

Sano nodded. “Still no real idea where Kenshin is, either. The good thing is, I figure if Soujirou had had him killed, I’d have heard about it. Some people wonder if Kenshin might be dead, but nobody’s claiming that he definitely is.”

“I doubt he’ll have Kenshin killed; he has no excuse to. Claiming he’s just trying to improve the kingdom will only work for him as long as he doesn’t demonstrate a personal grudge. Executing the previous king for nothing would lose him a lot of support.”

“Yeah, well,” said Sano darkly, “we better hope he sticks to that idea. Some people are worried he’ll come up with some fake crime Kenshin’s committed so he will have an excuse.”

Hajime looked grim, but said nothing.

Shaking his head to drive away the unpleasant possibilities for now, Sano went on. “I found out some stuff about most of the divine houses; that’s where I spent most of my time during the day. It’s actually mostly gossip, but that’s about all I can get at this point. There’s nothing really new about Shougo and Sayo; they haven’t stopped acting weird, and they still aren’t bothering to hide it at all, so that hasn’t changed, except that the Megumi people are starting to say what I already thought: if those two are in some resistance, they’re terrible at it.”

Hajime smirked faintly at this assessment.

“None of the divine houses have had any new announcements about Soujirou, and they’re still doing that Devoted Council thing every week. Five-day week. Gossip comes from the servants in the palace about what they’ve been talking about, and I don’t know how true it is, but it seems like the Kaoru girls are serious about not supporting Soujirou’s bullshit, since apparently everything Kaoru has to suggest at the Council gets completely ignored.”

“That’s useful to know,” Hajime said thoughtfully.

“Yeah. It makes it seem like, if a divine house is behind all of this, it really isn’t Kaoru.”

Hajime nodded.

“After I heard that, I decided not to spend any more time in Kaoru’s corner of town unless I had to. So the next interesting thing I noticed was Kamatari kissing someone on a balcony over in Yumi’s. I mean serious kissing: hands were going places, and some clothes were already off, and it looked like more clothes were about to come off; they were really into it. This other person didn’t have a shiiya on, and the light made it hard to see details, so I don’t know who it was… but the first one was definitely Kamatari.” Yumi’s fourth-wash had been interesting enough (and had embarrassed Sano enough at their first meeting) that he’d easily recognized her again.

“It may have been Makoto, one of Yumi’s golds,” Hajime provided, repeating one piece of gossip he’d already shared during their walk to Enca. “But given Kamatari’s reputation, it could have been anyone, inside Yumi’s house or out of it. According to everything I’ve heard, Kamatari is a very sexual person.”

It wasn’t a point of great significance at the moment, but Sano couldn’t help reflecting briefly on the complete lack of any sort of condemnation in Hajime’s voice.

One of many reasons religious folk were such damn hypocrites was that they held themselves to different standards of behavior, particularly when it came to sexuality, than the secular populace; the latter tended to be extremely repressive and prudish about extramarital sex and multiple partners, sometimes even when referring to the devoted among whom such behavior was allowed. To hear a non-devoted speaking without any negativity of a ‘very sexual person’ (in a tone of understatement, no less) was refreshing. Sano hadn’t forgotten the look Hajime had given him on discovering he’d been sleeping with Seijuurou, but, in light of what seemed to be optimistic new information on Hajime’s attitudes, Sano thought now the knight had probably been questioning his taste rather than his morals.

Of course this wasn’t the time to discuss such things, and even thinking about it, pleasant as it was, had to wait, since they were in the middle of a conversation. “Yeah,” Sano said, more or less smoothly in response to Hajime’s last statement, “the only reason this was even interesting is that people are starting to say Kamatari’s sleeping with Soujirou now too… but I’m pretty sure this person on the balcony wasn’t Soujirou. He wouldn’t have been on an open balcony where just anyone could assassinate him, for one thing.”

Hajime made a pensive sound and put a thoughtful hand to his face, obviously struck. When Sano inquired, the knight said slowly, “You’re right. It is interesting. Kamatari gets away with plenty of sex with people outside the church because everyone is willing to look the other way to a certain extent — but the king is too high-profile to ignore. If Kamatari is sleeping with Soujirou, we can expect to see serious repercussions of one type or another eventually.”

“And if we don’t…”

Hajime nodded. “Listen for anyone complaining about that; it may be useful to know which house objects most strongly.”

“Right. All right, so, Misao… there was nothing new, actually, around Misao’s place. At least I didn’t get robbed as much this time, though.” Sano shook his head. “They’re all so used to stealing shit, they probably didn’t think anything of Soujirou stealing the throne. Anyway, nobody seemed like they were thinking about it at all this week.”

Hajime snorted. “It’s no wonder the country’s in such a state, when the religious leaders people look to for guidance are so indifferent to the government.”

Sano could do nothing but agree. Then he cast about for any other news he hadn’t yet relayed and finally, a little reluctantly, brought up what he’d saved for last. “And Tomoe… Tomoe’s people…”

“What?”

Sano had to force the word out. “Kereme.”

“What about it?” Hajime didn’t seem to have much patience for Sano’s reluctance to speak, and Sano wasn’t sure he would have any more patience once the story was told.

“Well…”

Chapter 18 – The K

What he sought at this point was what would under other circumstances have been considered purely social interaction: the opportunity to discuss whatever came up (whatever he could induce to come up) with whomever he met. He hadn’t run into his acquaintance Toki so as to have her direct him to the best places for such interaction, so he searched for them on his own.

The problem with this was that Toki had seemed so pious, not at all the type to enjoy socializing in casual and only moderately religious settings, that Sano doubted he was likely to find the sort of interaction he needed based on what she’d shown him. As such, he mostly wandered blindly through Tomoe’s part of town poking his nose into corners where it looked like chatty people might be inclined to congregate (and hopefully share political thoughts and updates with newcomers).

Really, it was pure luck that a first-wash, whose name Sano didn’t remember but whom he recognized by the guy’s frizzy hair as someone to whom Toki had introduced him, happened to notice him poking around and hailed him in a tone of friendly secrecy by the false name he’d been using.

“Glad I saw you, buddy,” he said. “I was just checking the street, about to lock up.”

“Sounds like I’m just in time for something,” Sano replied, having no idea what that something might be but playing along and speaking in the same tone of subdued, clandestine excitement.

“You sure are.” The frizzy-haired devoted’s voice dropped. “We’re all hitting the K tonight, since we just finished a whole batch of shiiyao and made sure we had plenty left. Figured you might want to see how we do it here in the city.”

The bright-eyed anticipation — actually, the somewhat disconcertingly wide-eyed, pointed, almost twitching anticipation in the man’s face would have been impossible to miss, but Sano was so far from any idea what he meant that, though he followed him into the building from which he’d come, it must be inconceivable to play along any further than that.

Immediately inside the door frizz-hair was now locking stood another first-wash Sano vaguely recognized, and this man too greeted him with an obvious excitement whose source Sano could not place. Though he’d successfully stumbled upon a gathering, he was beginning to think it wasn’t the type likely to be exchanging political opinions. What it might actually be he couldn’t guess.

“Look who I found on the street,” said the first devoted.

“It’s Sometarou, isn’t it?” said the second, whose best identifying feature was a large mole on his jaw on the left.

“That’s right,” Sano replied, trying to sound easy and ready for anything.

“Good timing! But I bet you were probably looking around for it anyway, right?”

Evidently Sano’s total lack of understanding was glaringly apparent, for the mole-faced devoted burst out laughing. “Oh, man… I heard small-towners didn’t do it much, but, seriously…”

Frizz-hair clapped Sano on the back with a friendly hand that lingered there a few seconds too long for perfect comfort. “You really did come just in time,” he said, sounding pleased. “You’ll have your first taste of kereme in style.”

Kereme… that sounded familiar… but no matter how Sano wracked his brains, he couldn’t think where he’d heard the word before, or what it might be. So, wondering what the hell these people were on about, and distinctly uneasy about whatever was about to happen to him, he allowed himself to be led down the corridor by the two devoted. The latter moved quickly and quietly, looking around with practiced wariness that did little to make Sano feel any better about any of this.

“We’ve got another first-timer here too,” said frizz-hair as they entered an antechamber of some sort and there seemed to be security to speak more freely. “So we two’ll be keeping a watch all night so you’ll be cozy and safe for your fist time.”

Safe? Keeping a watch? What was this?

“Don’t look like that, master newcomer,” mole-face laughed quietly. “There’s no way for us to explain it; you just have to experience it yourself.”

“You’ll be closer to Tomoe than you’ve ever been before,” said the first devoted, with a decidedly un-pious grin on his face.

Sure, Sano remarked silently. ‘Cause that’s exactly where I wanna be. Especially given that ‘closer to the lady of death’ might be a euphemism for more than just religious experience. “All… right…” he finally forced himself to say aloud. “Is it against the rules or something?”

“Oh, man, I can’t believe you don’t know any of this. It’s against the law… but if that doesn’t stop Enishi, why should it stop us?”

“Enishi? He does this thing too?”

They’d entered another room past the antechamber by now, and those already present had evidently caught the tail-end of this conversation. “Does it?” one of them said. “He practically lives off the stuff. Gein and Akira complain nonstop about how often they have to cover for him when he’s out.”

“‘Out?'” Sano echoed.

“All right, enough questions.” Mole-face was still laughing at Sano’s ignorance, though it wasn’t a particularly unkind laugh — more anticipatory than anything, really, as if he sincerely looked forward to introducing Sano to this thing. “You’ll get it soon enough,” he went on, and gestured to the set of lounge cushions where those present were already seated or sprawled as if ready for a nap. “Just sit there; we’ve gotta check if everything’s safe.”

Trying simultaneously not to show his reluctance and to decide whether he would go through with this or back out now while he still seemed to have the chance, Sano obeyed. Frizz-hair and mole-face left the room, evidently heading a different direction than that from which they’d come, presumably to ensure doors were locked and no authority figures present — though if the head of this entire branch of the church partook of this entertainment, how much danger could any of them really be in here tonight?

In a confidential tone, “It’s my first time too,” said the red devoted seated on Sano’s left. She didn’t sound nearly as uncertain as Sano felt, probably because she actually knew what they would be doing.

The middle-aged man on the other side of the young woman leaned forward and addressed both her and Sano. “You guys are going to love this.” Sano was starting to recognize the bright-eyed excitement surrounding this activity. “I’ve done it a few times already, and they say eventually you can actually remember what you saw the next morning.”

“So it’s like being drunk?” If that was the case, Sano thought, it probably wouldn’t be too bad. He also logged away the fact that an overnight stay was the expected aftermath.

“Hmm, a little.” The older man’s thoughtful expression turned to a grin. “Better, though. Much better.”

“All right, well, that sounds good.” Silently Sano added, Maybe.

They’d barely gotten through introductions — the woman was called Lioda, the man Korucun; Sano had not really paid any attention to what other information, such as their family names and what they did around here, they’d given him — before the other two came back.

“All clear,” announced frizz-hair, dropping down at Sano’s side opposite Lioda. He held a tray containing a plethora of small cups and two stoppered ceramic bottles very much like the ones Seijuurou made (only, Sano thought with the loyalty of distance from his annoying former master, not quite as well constructed or elegant-looking). The reminder of Seijuurou and the promise of a drink of some sort eased Sano’s concerns about this process.

Mole-face took the last lounge cushion, on frizz-hair’s far side, and passed toward the latter a plain wooden box with waxed paper protruding from under its lid such as might be used to hold cosmetics or medicines. Frizz-hair accepted the container and set it down next to the bottles before unstoppering one of the latter and carefully opening the former. As Sano had expected, the small box contained powder: pale pink, appearing uniform in texture, clumped somewhat in spots, and topped by a miniature cup on a handle.

Though not eager to continue displaying his ignorance, “What is that?” Sano couldn’t help asking.

“Leftover dye,” frizz-hair replied, and began pouring out water into cups.

“Left over because we made too much,” mole-face grinned.

“We’ll start the newcomers on one portion,” said frizz-hair next, carefully lifting some powder from the box and doling out exactly one scoop each to two of the water-filled cups. “Korucun has graduated to two.” He’d set the cups into a line that matched the line of people on cushions, and now he put two scoops of powder into the one on the end. “And the rest of it for the rest of us.” He gave a matched number of scoops to the remaining two cups, then lifted the paper lining of the box to tip the last of it into what was presumably his own.

“You gotta start small,” mole-face explained as Sano watched in mystification, “but you’ll get up to our level eventually.”

“Right!” said Lioda breathlessly. Her excitement about doing this was a little creepy.

The small cups on the tray numbered twelve, and Sano wondered, as he watched frizz-hair fill five more of them from the second bottle, whether they’d expected another person or just grabbed the whole matching set without concern. This second liquid, by its smell, was hard liquor, and one helping went next to each of the previously readied cups to make five pairs.

“One drink of kereme,” frizz-hair instructed as he began distributing the cups, “one drink of ab’giru. Try to keep them even. Don’t gulp.”

“Keeps your mouth from turning bright red,” mole-face elaborated. And without further ado, he set the example.

Sano accepted his cups with mixed feelings. It was probably too late to back out now, but by this point he was curious in addition to a little concerned. This might be strange and illegal, but he wanted to know what its effect would be, so he didn’t mind giving it a try.

He took his first alternating sips.

The water, into which the powder had dissolved completely, had an unpleasantly bitter, plant-like taste that made Sano assume the dye was derived from some flower leaf or something. The abigiruou was good — he’d always been fond of this potent potato-based drink, but hadn’t always been able to afford it — and hopefully did its job of washing the dye-suffused water into his throat so it didn’t sit around coloring his gums. But that was the extent of the experience until about two thirds of the way down the cups.

They all imbibed in silence except for the sound of Lioda giggling; perhaps she was more of a lightweight than Sano, who was only just beginning to feel something. He concentrated on the sensation as he made his way through his last few drinks.

He was starting to feel very easy, very comfortable. This cushion was extremely nice to sit on. And yet there was a lightness to his frame, a floatiness, that suggested he could jump up at any time, that he was ready for any sort of physical exertion. Yes, there was a bit of buzz in his head and warmth suffusing him, but did that come from the kereme or the abigiruou? He didn’t really care.

By the time he’d emptied his cups, he found himself disappointed there was nothing left. Simultaneously, though, to sit here with good friends and feel so light and dreamy was very nice. Lioda’s laughter fell melodically from her lips, and the two first-wash had struck up a conversation in pleasant voices. Sano was quite content.

And then, as if he’d been wading into the ocean and suddenly reached the dropoff into deep water, everything around him seemed to fade and swish and change. Had it been a room made of wood? He wasn’t sure, and wasn’t sure he cared. Brimful of energy and yet incredibly relaxed, he explored, not quite walking but neither flying; in some manner between the two he moved along, brushing past soft, gentle veils of sweet pastel colors as if he were skimming just above the ground. At the same time he felt as if he were lying down comfortably, both asleep and aware. He smiled lazily.

Faces peeked from the weave of the veils, nice faces that changed and disappeared and reappeared as if playing hide-and-seek with him. They might have been the source of the gentle voices that filled the air with friendly murmurings, and they might not. Sano didn’t really care.

In that type of sudden, comfortable, heavy gust of warm wind that ruffled his hair and made the long ends of his bandanna snap out joyfully behind him, the veils whipped about as if parting just for him as he advanced at an even greater speed, almost carried by the buoyant air. And through the translucent cloth that seemed to sparkle as it fluttered away from him, he saw an unexpected figure. Unexpected, but far from unwelcome.

What was Hajime doing here? Sano wondered. And Hajime, stretching his lean body languidly where he lounged on the cushions, told him not to be stupid, that of course he was waiting here for Sano. What had taken so long? He reached out a strong hand, beckoning.

Hajime was warm and smooth and handsome, and it was lucky and convenient that no rough, troublesome clothing lay between them. Sano couldn’t say what had taken him so long, but he was sure he made some very insolent reply to the question as he floated into Hajime’s arms and into ecstasy.

He awoke with a muffled start, as if he really was quite startled but didn’t have the capacity, at the moment, to feel it as he should. Groggy and hazy-headed, he lay in what he came gradually to realize wasn’t a very comfortable position with someone using his thighs as a pillow and his entire upper half lying on the bare floor, and tried to figure out where the hell he was and why.

His breathing came in uncomfortable wheezes through a congested nose and an incredibly dry mouth, so much that he couldn’t even tell whether or not the air had a flavor to it — which was probably for the best. All his senses seemed dulled, as if each was set apart from the others in thick packing material. And he felt as if he’d had very little actual sleep during his period of unconsciousness. Plenty of time had passed, he believed, but what had gone on during it was a complete blank.

He had on a few occasions (mostly thanks to Seijuurou’s encouragement) been so drunk he’d had a difficult or even impossible time remembering in the morning what he had done the night before, and this was like that in certain respects… The physical symptoms weren’t terribly similar to those of a hangover, but the disorientation, complete lack of recollection of how he’d come to be here, and creeping horror of waking up were.

Traces of sex, he was starting slowly to note, lingered on his nerves, but he couldn’t remember a damn thing about what had happened last night. Presumably whoever clung to the bare skin of his legs had been part of it, and his imperfect hearing seemed to be picking up the sounds of someone else snoring nearby. And were there voices somewhere close? Not too close… indistinct… in another room? How many people had he slept with last night?

Actually, what, in general, had happened last night? What day was today? What had he been working on, and what should he be thinking — worrying — about now? Trying not to panic, he forced himself to lie still and give his best effort to remembering.

At first what he’d been doing during the entirety of yesterday — what he assumed had been yesterday, anyway — was vague and disorganized in his head, but he managed more or less to force it into some kind of focus and meaningful order with strenuous thinking. He recalled wandering around Tomoe’s corner looking for people to talk to… he recalled finding people… but they hadn’t wanted to talk, exactly, had they?

The closer he got to recalling the kereme itself, the more of an empty page his mind was. He remembered some of what had been said about it beforehand, he thought he remembered that the actual substance had been a drink of some sort, and… he’d… enjoyed the experience, hadn’t he? He couldn’t be quite sure, but he thought he had.

Finally he struggled to look around, finding the room unlit rather than that anything was wrong with his vision. His eyes did adjust gradually to some light from another room — candleflame, he believed, not daylight; wasn’t this an interior chamber? — and he was able to make out the shapes around him: a woman, her clothing in great disarray and hardly covering anything, was out cold on the next lounge cushion over, except for her head and shoulders that were haphazardly pillowed on Sano’s lower half; and a man, almost completely naked, lay close to him on the other side, snoring. Sano’s own state of dress looked about as bad: his pants, including his belts and sword, were down around his ankles, his stolen Tomoe shiiya nowhere to be seen (though he assumed it was in the room somewhere); and his shirt had actually been torn down the left side so it sat sadly bunched around his right arm, leaving his chest entirely bare.

Though not as uptight about casual sex as many people, yet he liked at least to know who someone was before he fucked them. Some manner of introduction had taken place last night, but he didn’t remember a word of it now, so that didn’t count. Beyond this, he didn’t have any idea which of the four people he was fairly sure had been there with him he’d actually had relations with. It didn’t bother him that the one he was most certain about was a woman — though he usually didn’t go in for that, whatever you enjoyed at the time, right? — but it did bother him that there were three other strangers that might have taken part, possibly all at once, and he couldn’t remember a minute of it. And hadn’t that frizz-haired devoted looked at him with… a lot of interest?

Actually, the frizz-haired devoted was probably the source of one of the voices coming from the next room, given that he and mole-face had seemed to be the experienced parties and therefore had probably awakened in greater clarity and sense than anyone else. Sano really didn’t relish the thought of confronting those two, of facing their laughing references to last night and how fun it had been when he couldn’t remember it and whether he’d done anything horribly embarrassing. Somebody needed to confront those two with the admonishment that ‘first-timers’ should be warned they might be headed for a night of unrecollected sex upon swallowing that stupid dye stuff, but Sano wouldn’t be the one to do it. It was about time to untangle himself from this pile, from this highly embarrassing situation, find his missing things, and sneak out of here. Sneak out of here and never look back.

“Kereme,” Sano said.

“What about it?” Hajime demanded impatiently.

“Well…”

And all at once, Sano realized there was no way in hell he planned to tell Hajime any of that. There was just no need for the knight to know; ladies could only guess what Hajime would think of him. Even after the indication Hajime had given a few minutes ago of not being nearly so prudish about sexual matters as Sano had expected to find him, he couldn’t imagine admitting he might have had a bit of an orgy but knew neither the details nor, for certain, whether it had happened at all. It was too damned embarrassing. Sano didn’t think he would even be capable of looking Hajime in the eye and saying it aloud.

So what he finally decided on was, “It’s pretty big in Tomoe’s corner, and it seems like her white’s whole life revolves around the stuff.”

Hajime nodded. If he’d noticed Sano had just omitted a huge part of his story, he said nothing about it — which probably meant he hadn’t noticed, since Sano couldn’t imagine him not insisting on hearing it all if he had. “It’s typical for any high-ranking devoted to be suspected of using kereme,” the knight said, “but Enishi always did seem the type more than the rest.”

“Yeah.” Sano was immensely relieved at having successfully evaded discussing his little kereme ‘outing,’ and quickly volunteered more information not related to himself in order to hasten past that uncomfortable topic. “Apparently sometimes it even gets in the way of his duties, and his golds have to cover for him. I guess it just figures, for a guy named after a city.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“From some of the Tomoe lower-wash.” Sano tried not to blush or otherwise signal there was more to it than just that. He also tried to reassure himself there was no way Hajime suspected the truth, since Hajime would absolutely say something if he did. And it wasn’t as if Sano owed Hajime that kind of personal detail, or owed Hajime any kind of restraint of his sexual behavior.

Hajime nodded. “I wonder if it’s true.”

Interest caught, Sano was distracted from his discomfort and wondered, “Why might it not be?”

“A rumor like that could provide excellent cover for any number of other activities. If Enishi and his golds are up to something — they’ve been secretly supporting or guiding Soujirou’s takeover all along, for example — people are less likely to suspect it if they believe Enishi is out of his mind on kereme half the time and his golds are busy trying to cover it up.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered. “You’re right.” He might have thought of that point himself if he hadn’t been so absorbed in other aspects of his own experience. “Sounds like I should try to find out whether Enishi really uses the stuff or not.”

Again Hajime nodded. “I’m not entirely familiar with how kereme works, but the impression I have is that the more someone uses it, the more they need it. If Enishi uses at all, that makes it seem less likely the rumor is just a cover story for something else.”

Sano sincerely hoped this growing need of kereme didn’t take any kind of firm hold after only a single instance, but of course said nothing to that effect. He was trying to put the entirety of that night out of his mind, even if he would have to make inquiries about the stuff the next time he was back in the city, and to this end felt they must stop talking about it as soon as possible. So he nodded his understand and said, “I’ll see what I can find out. I guess I’ll head back in the morning.”

As he’d hoped, this redirected Hajime’s thoughts toward plan-making and what they didn’t know yet. And though that did involve, again, some at least implied reproof of Sano and disregard for his abilities, that was significantly the lesser of two conversational evils at this point.

Chapter 19 – Tangles

Though there was no doubt that Hajime, impatient for news from the capital and unable to seek it on his own behalf, would not allow Sano to sleep far past the time he arose himself, Hajime hadn’t needed to shake or prod Sano awake even once at this inn. Here, something about Hajime being awake had, in turn, awakened Sano even when he might not normally have been inclined to alertness just yet.

So it was this morning: upon opening his eyes and stretching upward from his prone position, Sano noted Hajime too sitting up and looking as if he’d been awake for a short time already. Only the palest of pre-dawn light framed the closed shutters from outside, and the room was very dim, so when Hajime turned toward Sano, his eyes as he faced away from the window were barely visible beneath his brows.

Unable though Sano was to remember exactly what he’d been dreaming, yet he was pretty sure Hajime had been there. It couldn’t have been too terribly unpleasant, either, since Sano found himself in a reasonably good mood upon awakening — much better than last night when, even after distracting unrelated conversation and Hajime leaving the room for a while to take a bath, Sano had still bedded down with a worried and embarrassed feeling about what he’d omitted from his report.

And now he’d gone and thought about that again as pretty much his first reflection of the day.

“Morning,” he said as he pushed the blanket from his naked upper half and swiveled so his legs slid out from under it and off the bed. As a distraction from his unwanted thoughts he added, “Hot water been by yet?”

“Do you see any hot water in this room?” Hajime replied as he rose and went to open the window.

“Well, no, but…” Sano’s words degenerated into a yawn, and he didn’t bother to resume them. Instead he looked around for where he’d dropped last night’s shiiya, which turned out to be on the floor in such a spot that it had been kicked mostly under the bed. He picked it up, but decided not to put it on just yet; he wanted to wash up a little first.

Suddenly, making Sano start, “What happened to your shirt?” Hajime wondered from where Sano had believed him to be looking down into the yard.

Sano had made sure to get ready for bed last night while Hajime was out of the room so as to hide the damaged state of his shirt from the knight’s shrewd eyes, then crumpled the garment up and shoved it into his backpack… but obviously those eyes were even shrewder than he’d realized. Either that or Hajime had noted the unusual circumstance of Sano sleeping entirely bare-chested and was simply curious. No more than simple curiosity sounded in his voice, really, and Sano should probably stop being so paranoid. What, after all, was the worst that could happen if Hajime found out?

Still, he tried for absolute casualness as he answered, “Oh, it’s been threatening to fall apart for months,” and just hoped Hajime had never paid too close attention to the actual state of his shirt. There was no reason he should have.

Hajime’s skeptical expression was visible now in the growing light from the window, but if he intended to say anything, he evidently changed his mind when from outside in the hallway came the call — quiet enough not to be too disturbing to sleepers, but firm enough to be audible to anyone listening for it — of, “Hot water!”

After this Sano was safe, since he could tease Hajime about feeling the need to wash his face even though he’d had a bath mere hours before, respond to Hajime’s return tease about his own personal hygiene that Hajime had no idea when Sano was or wasn’t bathing in town, thank you very much, and generally get ready for the day without further worry. The process overall succeeded fairly well at driving what Sano didn’t want to think about out of his mind, at least for now.

Of course the conversation, as it so often did, shifted gradually to a reiteration of everything they still needed to know that Sano was trying to figure out in town, and, despite the usual apparent lack of confidence on Hajime’s part, it was an acceptable topic. Having pretty thoroughly covered any new ideas yesterday after Sano’s report, they had no fresh ground to tread, and the familiarity of everything they came up with to say actually, oddly, made the subject more or less comfortable.

But Sano noticed, while smoothing out his hair as best he could with his fingers and some of the water that had by now settled into tepidity, that Hajime seemed annoyed. Given that the knight not infrequently seemed annoyed about something or other, this didn’t immediately strike Sano; but after observing it over the course of the next several comments back and forth between them, he began to wonder why it should be the case now. They weren’t discussing anything particularly provoking — no more provoking than it usually was, anyway. And eventually so much of Sano’s attention was bent toward trying to figure out what was bothering Hajime that it caught Hajime’s attention. He broke off what he was saying to ask, “What are you making faces about?”

Abandoning subtlety and settling for asking directly, Sano retorted, “What are you making faces about? What’s got you so annoyed?”

“You think I need a reason beyond your mere presence?” It was the type of exaggerated sarcasm too over the top to be even a little cutting.

“I might not think so,” replied Sano, rolling his eyes, “if you always made that kind of face every time I was around… but these are new annoyed faces today. I can’t believe it’s just me.”

With a twitch of lips Hajime admitted, “It’s your stupid hair that’s annoying.” And his audible reluctance seemed somewhat at odds with the straightforward insult. The mismatch of sound and statement was so palpable, in fact, that Sano couldn’t even get annoyed himself; he was too busy trying, now more intensely than ever, to figure out what was really bothering his companion.

Hajime, to a certain extent, explained. “Your scraggly hair is too attention-grabbing, and we should have done something about it before the first time you ever went into the city.”

Reflecting hard, adding together the reluctant tone and an irritation that couldn’t possibly be centered on this alone, Sano stared at Hajime — at his hair, long and unbound, clean and still damp but lacking the sleek evenness that had marked it before.

“Combs aren’t expensive,” Hajime went on. “We should have bought one the first day here and taken care of your stupid look. It would have made you stand out far less.”

Reaching a conclusion at last, Sano shook his head. “No, this isn’t about my hair, is it?” he said pensively. “At least mostly not. This is about your hair.” And though Hajime’s instant scowl said, “Don’t be stupid,” his voice said nothing, so Sano’s confidence in the idea increased. “I seriously never figured you for the vain type–” he was grinning now– “but I guess if I had hair like yours I might be pretty happy with it too — and maybe want to comb it with an actual comb every once in a while!”

Perhaps he was merely grasping at what evidence he could of the correctness of his hypothesis (since the knight obviously wasn’t going to speak up and offer any verbally), but he thought there was a touch of redness to the irked darkening of Hajime’s face. Impetuously he stood, grin undiminished. “So obviously the answer is to run to the market and buy you a comb. I can grab some stuff to mend my shirt at the same time.”

Hajime too got to his feet, and this time he really did say, “Don’t be stupid. You need to get back into Elotica.”

“This won’t set me back more than an hour, and an hour’s not going to hurt anything.”

“Something so frivolous isn’t worth even an hour,” Hajime insisted irritably.

Sano wasn’t sure why, but he was overcome with a giddy impulse to have his own way in this. Maybe he’d been dedicating himself too completely to following Hajime’s orders lately and needed to strike out on his own, however minor the activity. Or maybe he just liked the thought of buying Hajime a present, however insignificant. In any case, he laughed as he reached for the door. “I’ll be able to make my hair look more respectable, and you’ll have something else to entertain you while I’m in town.”

“I do not entertain myself by combing my hair!” was Hajime’s final argument, sounding by now rather exasperated by the absurdity of the situation — and his own protest — than truly irritated. He preferred not to be seen outside the inn room more than necessary, though, and certainly wouldn’t draw attention to himself by staging a conflict in the hall, so this was as far as he could go.

Sano too appreciated the absurdity, and was laughing again as he waved a cheeky goodbye to the scowling face watching him through the crack of the door and turned to head toward the stairs. His steps were buoyant as he left the building.

Though Hajime hadn’t actually confirmed Sano’s guess, neither had he openly denied it, which was as good as a confession to Sano. And there was something unexpectedly endearing about Hajime longing to give his neglected hair a good combing. Sano loved it when Hajime offered such proofs that he wasn’t merely a royal knight dedicated at the expense of everything else to the restoration of Kenshin’s throne, but also a normal person with some interests and desires that might be, in his own words, frivolous. And admittedly some really nice hair that probably deserved more attention than he’d been able to give it lately.

In a town this size, the markets tended to get going quite early, as Sano had already noticed when he’d passed through on his way to and from Elotica. He was certain, as he made his way into the busy, chattering crowd around the various stands lining the streets, that it wouldn’t take long — or too extravagantly much money — to get exactly what he needed here. He should have told Hajime half an hour.

He’d become so accustomed, over the last couple of weeks, to listening carefully whenever he was in a group for any even remotely interesting or useful snippet of informative conversation or gossip that he’d started doing it without conscious thought. Only when certain provocative words lodged in his brain too firmly for him not to give them complete and intense attention did he start deliberately listening, and then his attitude changed swiftly from the unaccustomed but welcome cheer of the morning’s silliness to one far more somber and intent. He was back to the inn in under an hour, but he brought more than what he’d set out to retrieve.

Perhaps Hajime hadn’t believed Sano’s time estimate and had anticipated a longer wait, for he was reading when Sano entered the room. Or maybe the book was just that engrossing, and Hajime couldn’t wait to return to it. Sano, not being much of a reader, couldn’t guess, and it didn’t matter. The instant the door was closed and Sano advancing across the small room, he said in a low tone, “The market’s going crazy with news from town. Misao’s white’s been murdered.”

“What?” Hajime looked up and around with an expression of sudden concern — not, Sano thought, for the murdered devoted personally, but for what the event implied and what the political ramifications might be. “By whom?”

“Nobody knows! They can’t even agree whether it was one person or a group or a man or a woman or what. All the whites were attacked, people are saying, but all of them are fine except Nenji. And I guess the attacker got away every time.”

“Any more details than that?”

“No. Not floating around the market, anyway.” Sano took the last step forward and set the comb he’d bought down on the table.

Hajime, his expression very serious, did not reach for it. “And we can’t even guess how this may change things. You’ll have to be even more careful in town than before.”

“You think so?” Sano retreated to his bed and sat. “I bet everyone’ll be talking about it; it won’t be a problem for me to ask straight out.”

Swiveling on his stool to face Sano completely, Hajime did not lighten his sober look. “I mean you’ll have to be careful about wandering around in a devoted shiiya when there’s an assassin loose who’s targeting devoted.”

At the concerned sound of the statement, Sano was surprised. “What, you think this guy’s gonna come after me? When I’m dressed as a red? Why?”

Hajime shook his head as if he either had no concrete reason for his concern or simply didn’t want to voice it — neither of which seemed much like him — and finally moved to exchange the book in his hand for the comb on the table. Abruptly he stood from the stool and nudged it forward with one foot. “Come sit here,” he ordered.

“You’re really going to comb my hair?” Sano wondered skeptically. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had performed that service for him, but had an idea it might have been his mother back before she’d died. As such, it felt a little odd to think of Hajime doing the same.

“It’s more important than ever now that you don’t stand out too much,” the knight replied, gesturing to the stool.

Figuring he might as well, Sano obeyed. “You really think there’s a threat to me,” he said as he took the seat in front of Hajime.

“I think it’s a possibility we would be foolish to ignore.”

“I guess…”

Hajime’s fingers working at the knot of Sano’s bandanna startled the younger man for only a moment, but then he accepted the loosened red tie and held it on his lap as Hajime began combing. It started out, and remained, a difficult process.

“When was the last time you took an actual comb to this?” Hajime muttered presently.

“Uh… before I left Eloma, I think. Maybe at Seijuurou’s house…”

“No wonder, then…”

The weird feeling of having set Hajime parallel to his mother in his thoughts faded as the gulf of difference between the two experiences rapidly expanded. As a child with attentive parents, Sano had worn his hair as smooth as Hajime’s normally was, and the act of combing it had been a soothing morning and bedtime ritual. As an adult with defiantly untamed locks, he found the taming thereof an uncomfortable and wearisomely lengthy business.

At least Hajime knew what he was doing, starting from the ends and working the tangles out with sure, patient movements. Sano actually wondered a bit what he would look like when the process was finished, but there was no looking glass in the room to consult on the subject and he doubted Hajime would be accurately descriptive.

After a fairly lengthy silence that was surprisingly free of awkwardness, Hajime returned to their previous topic by asking, “When did the attacks take place?”

“Yesterday, I think.” Sano was continually trying not to grimace at the tugging of his hair. “Maybe the night before? Over the last couple of days, I guess… you know how gossip like that is; nobody knew for sure, and people make shit up when they want to be the first person to tell the news.”

“Hmm.”

“Why? What are you thinking?”

“You were out in public yesterday and the day before. If any of the attacks took place on those days, why did you only hear about it today?”

“That’s… true…” Sano said slowly. “What does that mean?”

Hajime also spoke slowly, pensively, as his hand holding the comb continued to move over Sano’s head. “If all the attacks occurred at the same time, it would make sense to hear about them all at once as well. It would also indicate a group of enemies able to coordinate their attacks. But if the attacks really did take place over the last couple of days, it could have been the same attacker or attackers every time — someone talented enough to get at whites wherever they were and escape without leaving much information — which is worrisome, but probably less worrisome than a larger group with those same skills. But why, in that case, would we only have heard about it today?”

“Maybe,” Sano suggested, “the other whites besides Nenji just didn’t bother mentioning they were attacked? They’re mostly warriors, or they’ve got warriors around to keep them safe… maybe they just didn’t take it very seriously until someone actually died?”

“That sounds like how you might respond in that situation,” said Hajime dryly. “But all of the current white devoted must be aware of their political importance, especially in the current climate, and wouldn’t let an attempt on their lives go unremarked. I think it’s more likely that the news came out only when it could no longer be suppressed; or that the gossips are simply wrong about the time frame, and all the attacks happened at about the same time.”

“Which doesn’t help us at all,” Sano grumbled.

Darkly Hajime agreed. “Nor,” he added, “do we have any idea what this assassin is after or whose side they’re on.”

“So add ‘anything I can find out about the assassin’ to my list of shit to look for.”

“Yes. I think, however…” It seemed clear that Hajime didn’t want to say this. “It might be wise if you didn’t go back into Elotica immediately.”

Again Sano was startled. “Why?”

“Even if you are dressed as only a red, we know for a fact that devoted have been attacked. Besides, you’re a newcomer who’s been asking questions and possibly making people suspicious even if they haven’t been showing it to your face. It’s probably best if you don’t show up again until this news has had time to fade a bit from everyone’s mind.”

Though Sano grasped Hajime’s meaning, he almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Not even that long ago you were complaining about me taking a whole hour to go buy shit we needed before I headed into town! Now you’re saying I should wait — how long?”

Hajime sighed in frustration. “I don’t like it. But I think you — and our cause — will be safer if we give it a day or two before people start noticing you again.”

Sano did not miss the placement of his safety before that of the cause — or, indeed, that the two were listed separately at all — but that wasn’t the aspect of Hajime’s statement he felt the immediate need to comment on. “So today and tomorrow? I know this is going to sound weird from me to you, but do you have the patience for that?”

Hajime chuckled faintly, darkly. “Even longer would be safer, I think, but, no, I probably wouldn’t have the patience for that. This is the best compromise I can come up with.”

And that the single-minded royal knight was willing to compromise at all in this matter that seemed to mean the entire world to him was… significant, Sano thought. Hajime’s hands had stilled, and the tugging at his hair had ceased, so Sano twisted where he sat to look up at the other man. He couldn’t quite read his expression, except to observe that it was very serious and not very happy.

Abruptly Sano stood and held out a hand. “So obviously it’s pointless for you to be messing with my hair right now.” He shook his head, feeling an unusually smooth swishing sensation against his chin and neck, and grinned. “Here, let me do yours instead.”

Hajime raised his brows not so much in his usual disdainful skepticism as in genuine, straightforward surprise. Drawing back he said simply, “Why?”

“Well, you said earlier that combing your hair doesn’t entertain you or whatever, but it obviously needs to be done, and now it turns out I don’t have anywhere to be anytime soon. So give it here.”

Hajime’s hand holding the comb had pulled back so far now that it actually lay against his chest, and on the man’s face was a frown. There was also, however, a discernible touch of reluctant, dubious amusement to demeanor and expression. “I don’t believe you even know how to comb hair.”

“That’s… fair…” Sano admitted. “But we’ve got a lot of hours ahead of us that you’re not allowed to spend sitting by the window reading books and ignoring me. And, yeah, I’ve got a shirt to fix, but that’s not going to take all that long — even if I have to pull all the stitches out halfway through because they suck and start over. So we can spend a little while seeing if I’m any good at combing hair, and if I’m balls at it, there’s plenty of time for you to teach me how to do it right.”

Sano still believed the theory he’d concocted earlier — that Hajime was discontented with the state of his hair and would be happier after a good combing — and for some reason wanted to be part of that… especially now that he wasn’t going to be able, any time soon, to contribute to easing the uptight knight’s mind with his usual method of searching out information in the capital.

Whatever Hajime’s real thoughts and source of discontentment, by the end of Sano’s defiant statement he was smiling with just one corner of his mouth, as if against his will — as if, in fact, he genuinely couldn’t believe he found this funny, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that he did. But at last he held out the comb, and when Sano took it moved forward to sit down on the stool Sano had vacated. “I suppose if you make a hopeless mess of my hair, you can always go back to the market for a pair of shears and some more gossip.” His sarcasm took a darker turn as he added, “Brace yourself, though… you don’t have any idea just how boring it gets around here during the day.”

Chapter 20 – Thirteen Years Later

Despite Hajime’s warning, the first day of waiting wasn’t terribly bad to get through. Yes, they argued on and off throughout its extent, but Sano had reached a point where arguing with Hajime felt about the same as having less combative conversations with him, so that didn’t matter much.

He managed to wheedle Hajime into telling him what was so special about the book he was reading, and, though it didn’t sound like anything Sano would be even a little interested in reading for himself, he had to admit (not aloud) to a surprising level of enjoyment and interest at hearing Hajime talk about it. However annoying Hajime could be at times, he was also insightful to an impressive degree about a lot of things, and there was an unexpected passion about him — which perhaps shouldn’t have been so unexpected, given Hajime’s behavior in relation to the usurpation — that Sano found very engrossing; besides that, Hajime’s sarcasm made his descriptions endlessly interesting. Sano thought he could have listened to Hajime talk about any number of otherwise-boring-sounding books.

That did not, of course, stop Hajime from making snide comments about Sano’s level of literacy and ability to comprehend what he was saying. Which didn’t necessarily bother Sano, just led him to retaliate with unflattering suggestions about Hajime’s ability to make friends neither fictional nor historical.

As Sano set about mending his torn shirt and Hajime watched with eyes that expressed skepticism about the younger man’s needle skills but no verbal comment on the subject, they considered whether Sano should head back into the market and see if he could hear anything else useful. Sano marveled a little at the way they could turn a discussion without sides into an argument when they both expressed the idea that to seek more information tomorrow — whether through another trip into the market during a second day of lying low here in Enca, or through the usual methods in Elotica — would be wiser than to possibly draw attention to himself with a second trip in on the same day that wouldn’t end with any purchase as an excuse for his presence. How, he wondered, could they conjure confrontation, this tension between them, when agreeing on something? Sometimes there was no word for their conversations other than ‘silly.’

When supper time eventually rolled around, Hajime again gave Sano his sweetbun, and it occurred to Sano to ask what Hajime did with the things — which seemed to be a regular fixture of the meal included in the price of the room — when Sano was not present. And when Hajime grudgingly admitted that he ate them himself under those circumstances, Sano was led to a further set of questions about what meals were like at the royal palace. Did some comparatively spectacular dessert item there render the meager sweetbuns of the Enca Inn North more of a chore than a treat?

So then Hajime maintained, with an air of perfect disdainful seriousness, that a small-towner like Sano must obviously have no taste whatsoever, and it would be a waste of breath to discuss capitol cuisine with him. Which Sano interpreted (aloud) to mean that there was some dessert concocted by the palace chefs that Hajime was embarrassed to admit his excessive liking for. And Hajime reiterated that Sano, with his penchant for excessive sweetness that led him to actually enjoy the buns at this inn, would not understand the subtle appeal of finer cooking. To which Sano protested that Hajime too had been eating the inn’s sweetbuns when Sano wasn’t around. And Hajime informed him almost primly that, yes, this was true, but he scraped that overpowering glaze off them first. Then Sano had his really good laugh for the day while Hajime tried to look stern in the wake of that conversation.

At several moments throughout this downtime, but at greatest length just before bed, their talk came back to the assassin. This was never particularly useful, no matter the length of the conversation, since they’d already touched on every point they could based on what little they knew. Clearly Hajime was torn, longing for more data but worrying about the potential outcome of sending Sano to seek it. Sano continued to feel surprise that Hajime was so worried, but couldn’t honestly object to this day of relaxation, nor the one Hajime grudgingly decided he really must take tomorrow as well. So they went to their beds in a strange mixture of emotions and thoughts regarding the future. Or at least Sano did.

It was a long, long, high, steep hill, but what he couldn’t quite figure out was whether they were at the top or the bottom. They had to get to the other end — they would, inevitably, get to the other end — but would that prove a helpless careen or a wearying climb? He supposed it didn’t really matter much; they would see everyone along the way in either case. The idea of houses and businesses lined each side of the road and, like some cog-driven mechanism, it was clear that the people would emerge from each of these as Sano and Hajime passed their places of dwelling or employ.

In fact, the first had already appeared from the small home that was as neat as he could keep it in his near poverty. He was an old man, and clearly defeated. He’d worked hard and honestly all his long life only to receive proof at this late stage that other means might yield greater rewards. He looked at them with dull eyes and said, “I’m ruined.”

The next, stepping from the door of a boarding house, was a middle-aged woman with a number of responsibilities destined now to be more difficult than ever. She looked at them with weary bitterness and said, “We all trusted him.”

The next, coming from where he still lived with his parents, was a young man — very young; a boy, really — too young, maybe, for romance of any kind, and certainly for coupling with someone much older than himself. He looked at Sano and Hajime with embarrassment and perhaps some shame and said, “I thought I was something special to him.”

The next was a fellow city guard, as characteristic a citizen of Emairi as could be imagined. He looked at them with anger and said, “It was my entire savings.”

The next was a draftsman, the leader of a group of builders from Elotica. She looked at them in frustration and said, “He promised us work.”

On they plodded, up the difficult grade that was almost a climb, lungs and muscles burning. On they plunged, precipitously down the steep decline, loath to see and hear more but unable to stop.

“His plan sounded like such a good idea.”

“I thought he really wanted to help.”

“We trusted him with everything.”

“He really seemed like he loved me…”

The faces blurred together and the voices blended. They were, after all, conveying the same emotions, speaking the same ideas. Every one of these people — these allies, these relative innocents — had suffered the same thing. They’d committed time and effort and money to a plausible, desirable project; they’d given trust and love to a man that had promised improvements and services and, in some cases, his love in return. And they’d all been burned when the project had turned out to be a con, the man a fraud, the promises lies.

Sano felt he could hardly lift his feet to walk further up the tiring slope, so heavily weighed down was he by pity and despair. Simultaneously a burning and growing rage drove him onward, throwing him down the clifflike path as if he were weightless. Besides that, Hajime was obviously desperate to find something — to find someone. None of these people was unimportant — they had all suffered — but none of them was the specific victim Hajime needed to reach.

It was no surprise that their road ended with that specific victim, that she waited at the top or the bottom of the long hill. This house sat squarely, centrally at the cessation of the pavement, bringing their journey to an abrupt and decisive halt. There was something familiar about it — the kind of deep, aching familiarity that marks an old home under new ownership — and at the same time a discomfort, almost a horror, that grew as they drew closer. They would find only further suffering inside.

And she, like the old man that had been their first encounter, was utterly defeated.

“He made me think I was the only one.”

Unlike the previous victims, she was cool and calm. She assessed rather than lamenting.

“I can see now he made everyone feel that way — like they were the most important contributor, or the one he’d come to care about most.”

Her strength was remarkable, deeply admirable. She focused on analysis and planning rather than the hurt and betrayal.

“That’s how he got everyone to give just a little bit more… of whatever they were giving.”

Yet she had been hurt. Somehow, even in her placidity, the pain and the resulting bitterness came across even more clearly and intensely than it had from any previous interviewee. Only her strength made it endurable to witness, and that only barely.

“He acted his part well, but I should have seen through him sooner.”

Hajime was reaching out to touch her, to embrace her… but his hand never quite made contact with her form. He didn’t know how to offer comfort, or feared his efforts might be inadequate, in the face of this disaster.

“I should have realized that his willingness to be with someone outside the church as a second-wash indicated a disregard for the church’s policies and prioritization of his own desires.”

Hajime’s despair and anger at not being able to do even the slightest thing to help in this situation was almost as palpable as the woman’s sorrow and sense of betrayal; the calmness that nevertheless somehow expressed these emotions was shared between them.

“I should have seen what he was; then I could have helped prevent all of this.”

She put a hand to her belly, where an outward curve was just starting to show even beneath her shiiya.

“But love really is blind.”

Sano blinked awake as abruptly as if he’d been physically shaken. And though it wasn’t the irrational fear-heat of nightmare, still he felt overwarm from his emotional reactions to the dream. His fingers curled into fists in the bedding, but, tempted though he was to throw it off to cool down, he forced himself to remain still and silent.

As in every dream he’d shared with Hajime since the knight’s coma, sensory details had been unclear: the woman’s face had not been distinctly delineated, and Sano probably wouldn’t know her if he saw her again; the ideas of her calmness, her hurt and bitterness, had been far more present than any specific sound to her voice conveying them; and the mere knowledge of her progressing pregnancy had confirmed the fact better than any hazy visual indicator. The concepts inherent in the dream had been its strongest feature, and those concepts were what stayed with Sano now, firing his emotions.

He had no way of knowing, in the completely dark and noiseless room, whether Hajime had also awakened, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss this with him right away… or ever. He never had been able, after all, to determine to what extent these dreams were a shared experience — mostly because he’d always felt too embarrassed to ask — and if it turned out that Hajime wasn’t aware of Sano’s continued window into his head at night, this particular dream seemed like a bad place to start. Because this one had felt so personal.

No wonder Hajime disliked the church so much! Reading that dream as a sort of abstract memory or summation of actual events — and Sano didn’t know how else to interpret it — it became clear that some church official had at some point hurt and taken advantage of Hajime’s entire community, including someone he particularly cared about. That might even have been a cornerstone to his heresy, since it had happened so long ago.

Thirteen years. That this had all occurred thirteen years in the past had been a sense present throughout the dream as well, as if the number was of special significance… or perhaps as if the dreamer was pointedly aware of every year that had gone by since then. Was Hajime deliberately holding onto the bitterness he’d taken from that experience, never wanting to forget? What had happened to that woman he’d loved, who’d been conned and heartbroken? What had happened to that devoted, who had deceived her along with so many others? Had justice ever caught up with him? Had any member of the community besides Hajime ever acknowledged that a religious system full of people like that was both logistically flawed and no indication of a divine guiding hand?

And why, Sano wondered almost more than anything else, was Hajime dreaming about this now? Did that vision come to him intermittently, and this just happened to be the first time Sano had been present for it? Or was there some reason — beyond Sano’s current power to guess — that it had arisen tonight? He wanted to sit up and ask, to wake Hajime if necessary and ask why he’d had that dream, what it had meant, and whether there was anything Sano could…

But he couldn’t ask. He’d asked Hajime about his parents, he’d talked to him about religious beliefs, he’d discussed his own sex life; hell, he’d combed Hajime’s hair… but somehow he couldn’t pry into the details of an event that had so hurt someone Hajime loved and damaged his community, that Hajime was still carrying with him to this day.

He felt his fingers clench even more tightly into the bedding, his jaw clench against the pillow. He wanted to be able to ask. Sure, he’d come on this venture to help get Kenshin back onto the throne, to do legwork for Hajime in a (thus far) covert political struggle… but it wasn’t unreasonable to want to help Hajime with something a little more personal, was it? After all, Sano and Hajime were both heretics; they should stick together, right?

Of course if he were to question Hajime on such a subject, to offer good wishes and sympathy, Hajime would probably just snipe at him and refuse to answer straightforwardly. And with this hypothetical reaction in mind, Sano, scowling, wondered why he was interested in asking.

Yet they were both heretics. Sano certainly knew what it was like to be bitter about the church, if not for exactly the same reasons. Surely there was scope for discussion, for close understanding of each other here. Sano felt that, for some reason or other, he would… like that.

But Hajime probably wouldn’t. So Sano would just stick to the job he’d come to do.

As such, he felt an abrupt surge of impatience to get back into Elotica, to get on with things. Who was this assassin, this new player that had emerged onto the scene, and whose side were they on? Was Sano really likely to become a target, as Hajime so bizarrely thought possible?

Some answers — or at least further information that might suggest some — might be uncovered tomorrow when he went gossip-hunting at the Enca market again. More answers might be forthcoming when he went back into Elotica the day after. But none of those answers would be about Hajime and that woman he’d loved. Unless Sano could bring himself to ask that personal question, to pry into a matter it was possible he should never have become acquainted with at all, he should probably resign himself to ignorance.

And that might make tomorrow a good deal more difficult to get through than he’d been anticipating after the relative success of today.

This old picture wasn’t actually drawn for the drug trip scene, but the effect I believe I intended as rain back then does make it a little surreal, so here it is.


Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK…”

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

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time of death?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I fucking hate vampires.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when are you in town?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

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

“No. Come on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

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

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

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

“Do as you please.”

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

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

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

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

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

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

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

I nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

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

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

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

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

“What did he see?”

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

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

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

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

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

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

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

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” I said at last.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

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

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

“No clue.”

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

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

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

“I know,” she replies quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heretic’s Reward 5-8

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 5 – Warrior’s Coma

Sano had managed successful meditative communication perhaps twice before, and each time had been so pleased and excited at getting it right, he’d spoiled his own concentration and broken the connection. So he had only an imprecise idea of what it was like — but that idea yet allowed him to recognize where he was now.

Well, not ‘where.’ He was nowhere, and if he tried to focus on the nonexistent background that seemed to be comprised of pure mood, he felt everything around him start to waver as if his attention threatened the very existence of the universe. Physical sensations were vague too. The feelings of walking, of breathing, of an itch on his face and the pull of gravity, were washed out and seemed to fade somewhat whenever he didn’t specifically think about them. If he remembered correctly from Seijuurou’s lectures, this was due to his mind fabricating them to accompany the false physicality of his spiritual manifestation; he wasn’t actually experiencing anything of the sort.

Beneath these fake sensations were the real ones, the ones his body actually felt: he could just barely make out the hard floor of Seijuurou’s house, the somewhat uncomfortable position in which he lay on it, and the soreness in the back of his skull. But he knew if he sought after that too energetically, he would wake himself up. Instead, he looked around for his trainer and the knight. And the moment he did, their voices reached him.

“Who are you? Where’s the boy?”

“The boy is somewhere about, probably. He’s incapable of maintaining a meditative state, so he put you in more qualified hands.”

Once Sano had heard them, it was simple enough to locate the visual aspect of their manifestations. Seijuurou appeared mostly as he did in life, with just a touch of greater presence, shinier musculature where his skin showed, and more eye-grabbing beauty here than there to set this manifestation apart from reality. The stranger wore his royal knight’s shiiya again, implying that his membership in that organization was a crucial part of his identity — crucial enough to overcome the knowledge Seijuurou and Sano had that he was currently topless, which would otherwise have forced him to appear here as they knew he did in outer life.

“The real question is, who are you?” Seijuurou was asking. “And what quest was so important you had to drive yourself into a coma for it?”

The knight seemed suspicious and a little irritated. “Why should I answer your questions when I have no idea who you are?”

At this point Sano broke into the conversation with, “Hey, what’s the big fucking idea hitting me on the head like that?”

Seijuurou barely turned to look at him with the comment, “There you are.” His succinct answer to the question was, “The off chance it would get you here, of course.”

“‘The off chance??'” echoed Sano, irate.

“I wanted to see this anomaly for myself,” Seijuurou explained placidly. “I knew your energy runs wild when you’re unconscious, but even I couldn’t have predicted this.”

The knight, who had been studying Sano with a somewhat skeptical expression, now gestured to him and asked Seijuurou, “Who is this idiot?”

Anger transferring immediately from his master to the knight, Sano raised a fist at the man and said, “‘This idiot’ just saved your life, you ungrateful asshole!”

“You didn’t save his life,” Seijuurou corrected him. “People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas. This idiot,” he went on, turning back to the knight and mimicking the latter’s gesture toward Sano, “is my latest worthless student. I assume my previous worthless student sent you to find me because he’s messed things up again.”

“Then you are Seijuurou,” stated the knight.

“Obviously.” Seijuurou’s eyes sparkled as he said this, something more than a figure of speech when the eyes in question were no more than a manifestation of a very arrogant spirit.

Sano rolled his own eyes. “Sounds like you two are gonna get along.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will.” Seijuurou flashed a suggestive smile at the knight, who looked away in annoyance. The keonmaster’s face returned to its previous serious expression as he went on to ask, “So what kind of foolishness is going on in Elotica?”

“The king has been usurped,” replied the knight, still not looking at Seijuurou.

The latter folded his arms and said flatly, “Predictable. By whom?”

Sano snorted quietly at the implication that Seijuurou had seen this coming. If the country were to be overrun by giant hedgehogs for whose nourishment worms began raining from the sky, Seijuurou would claim he’d seen it coming.

The knight, unfamiliar with Seijuurou’s ways, simply answered the question seriously. “A prince of Gontamei, of course. We knew there was some sort of conspiracy, but we hadn’t been able to pinpoint the powers behind it, and the king didn’t want random arrests.”

“He always has been too soft,” Seijuurou nodded. Sano, despite having just been reflecting on his master’s pretense of omniscience, was a little startled at the knowing tone. Was it possible Seijuurou really was familiar with the king? “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…” he’d said before. Did that mean…?

“Yes,” the knight was agreeing a little helplessly. “The best I could do was stay at his side as much as possible and keep my eyes open. That wasn’t enough, but at least I was present when it happened.” He shifted slightly, and all of a sudden Sano was seeing his memories.

The knight had been sitting in some room in the royal palace — a sunlit, mural-decorated chamber larger than Sano’s entire house — in a carved chair probably worth more than everything Sano owned put together, reading something. From the awareness in the memory Sano got the vague impression that the room’s original purpose had been as a sort of morning lounge, for a great, intricately-worked bay window looked east over a fine courtyard, but these days it was used as an office. Shelves full of books and papers lined the walls, hiding great chunks of the murals, and much of the remaining floor space was occupied by a large table at which the king sat.

Sano had never seen the king, nor, as he cared little about him, wondered what he might look like, but couldn’t help some surprise at the image the memory presented: he seemed remarkably short and small, though his arms where the sleeves of his shining royal shiiya fell from them were tan and toned. His hair was strikingly red, unusual among Akomerashou, the scar on his left cheek nearly the same color.

King Kenshin and his knight had evidently just finished a brief conversation and fallen silent, and now footsteps could be heard outside in the hallway. The knight seemed to tense at the sound, but before he could do more than rise from his seat, the doors had burst open. Several men entered, carrying drawn swords and clad in royal knight shiiyao that bore the crest of the other royal family, Gontamei.

When six of them had fallen into lines of three on either side of a path from the door to Kenshin’s table, another person appeared. Like the king he wore a shining royal shiiya, and he was followed by two more armed men. By this time, the king’s knight had, of course, approached to stand protectively beside his liege, keon sword drawn and the energy blade bright and long.

The Gontamei prince, who looked to be no older than Sano, raised a hand in a cheerful wave as he stopped in front of Kenshin’s table, and, smiling brightly, said, “Good morning, highness!”

“Good morning, Soujirou,” replied the king, who still held the papers he’d been drawing up as if this were nothing more than a temporary interruption. “From the looks of things, you have grown tired of waiting.”

Soujirou, still smiling, placed a hand on the table and leaned forward to peer at what the king was working on. “I do beg your pardon,” he said. “But you must be aware of what a weak king you are… this was inevitable.”

“Well,” replied Kenshin, tapping the stack of papers against the desk to straighten them and then setting them down on a nearby pile, “that may be true. Will you be killing me, then?”

“Oh, no!” Soujirou protested, raising his hands as if to ward off the suggestion. “Kill a prince of Baranor’mei? No!” He almost seemed to be laughing at the idea. “You will be my honored guest until I decide where to send you.”

Kenshin nodded, pushed back his chair, and stood. “Then I will surrender for now.”

At a gesture from the prince, Soujirou’s men began making their way around the table to lay hands on the king; at the same time, Kenshin turned to the knight at his side and said something so brief and quiet that, despite this being the knight’s own memory and the knight presumably having understood the words, Sano didn’t catch it. Then the scene abruptly faded.

Sano shook his head to clear the lingering images of the memory from his vision, and demanded as soon as he could, “What was that? He surrendered without even a fight?? There were two of you! And isn’t the king supposed to be this great swordsman?”

The knight also shook his head. “Ever since the Refugee Issue,” he explained, “the king only wears an empty sheath. It’s supposed to be a symbol of peace. He probably didn’t want to risk my life by essentially asking me to take on all nine of them by myself.”

“Thereby rendering your presence there entirely purposeless,” remarked Seijuurou.

“Or maybe he has something in mind that I can’t guess.” The knight sounded confused and perhaps a little bitter as he added, “All he said was, ‘Find Seijuurou.'”

“I can’t imagine why,” Seijuurou said.

The knight definitely sounded bitter as he muttered, “I’m beginning to agree with you.”

“How did you know where to find him?” Sano asked.

“The king has mentioned his mentor to me many times, as well as where he lives,” said the knight with a slight sigh. “But since there was a good chance others in the court knew as well, I thought it would be best to come as soon as possible.”

“And put yourself into a coma,” Seijuurou added critically.

Annoyed and possibly somewhat discouraged, the knight again looked away for a moment before continuing. “Soujirou sent half of his men away with the king; I have no idea where they might have gone. Then he tried to convince me to join him. I think my reply was more eloquent than his offer.”

Sano got a brief image of the knight kicking the entire large, heavy, book-and-paper-covered table over in Soujirou’s face, then jumping through the glass of the bay window into one of the trees in the courtyard below, and couldn’t help being rather amused and somewhat impressed at the drama and decisiveness of the knight’s ‘reply.’ That explained all the little cuts on his arms, too.

“They weren’t able to pursue me immediately,” the knight went on, “and Soujirou doesn’t know about the King’s Flight, so escape from the palace wasn’t difficult. Getting out of the city wasn’t either, though Soujirou’s takeover seems to have been coordinated across Elotica and many areas were already openly under his control.”

“Yeah, sounds like it was all real easy,” Sano said sarcastically, then asked in genuine curiosity, “What’s a King’s Flight?”

The knight showed him a quick memory of a long, narrow spiral staircase, completely dark but for the light of the energy on his keonblade, as he answered, “The hidden exit from the palace.”

“When did this all happen?” asked Seijuurou.

Pensively the knight said, “What day is it now?”

“Kahyou.” Seijuurou, for all he lived like a country hermit, always used the terms of the new calendar… which was probably for the best when talking to a knight from the capital.

“Three days ago, then,” the knight said.

“Three days?” Sano repeated in loud incredulity. “How in Kaoru’s name did you get up here so fast?”

“Soujirou sent at least two groups of men after me, so I didn’t feel I could afford to stop anywhere for long. I was able to change horses a few times along the way, so I traveled almost without rest.” A string of very brief images flashed past Sano’s awareness as the knight spoke. It seemed he had lost his pursuers, then been overtaken by them, twice, and blows had been exchanged both times. In the second instance, when the forest landscape surrounding him in the memory had become quite familiar to Sano, he had been unseated and wounded and had barely escaped.

“Which is why you’re now in a coma,” Seijuurou finished for him.

“A fact I don’t need to be reminded of again,” said the knight tightly.

“‘At least two groups?'” wondered Sano. “You must be pretty damn import–” And abruptly he cut his own words short as a thought occurred to him. “Wait… how far did they follow you? Did they know where you were going?”

“It’s not unlikely; I lost them on Torosa.”

Of course; otherwise the knight wouldn’t have been able to make it as far as that crossroads before collapsing after being wounded. That was why that last remembered image had looked so familiar to Sano. He swore, suddenly tense. “They’re gonna come looking for you in Eloma and hear I had you there last night!”

“Even if they track him here, are you really worried?” Seijuurou wondered skeptically.

“Not about us,” was Sano’s impatient reply. “What they might do over there if they can’t find him!” He gestured wildly, probably in entirely the wrong direction, trying to indicate his village and his friends that might even now be in danger. In this communicative unreality, he was undoubtedly projecting images of Eloma and the people there far better than he could indicate those concepts even in words.

“And what do you think there is to be done about that?” The knight’s tone was as skeptical as Seijuurou’s, but with a touch more derision. “Aren’t you unconscious?”

Sano rounded on him angrily. “At least I’m gonna wake up sometime!”

“To the world’s great benefit, I’m sure,” the knight responded dryly.

With a snort, Sano turned back to his master. “Seijuurou! Wake me up already!” he commanded, reaching out to pull at a long lock of Seijuurou’s shining black hair to make absolutely certain he had his attention.

“And how do you propose I do that?” Seijuurou said disinterestedly as he disengaged Sano’s hand and smoothed his hair back into place.

“I don’t care; just do it!” Sano insisted.

Seijuurou gave a brief smirk that had an unpleasantly suggestive edge to it, then abruptly vanished from the mindscape. Sano barely had time to notice the different aura the non-place took on once Seijuurou’s presence and mood were removed from it before he felt… something else. It was a real sensation, something happening to his actual body out there in the real world, not one of these things his head was supplying to add verisimilitude to the experience of manifesting via spiritual energy. As Sano realized exactly what it was, his eyes went wide and he felt a blush creeping over his face. Seijuurou was really unbelievable. With this knight here and everything!

But at least it worked. It wasn’t a sensation he could easily ignore, after all. The skeptical look the knight was giving him, as well as the knight himself and all lingering images from the memories they’d shared, were fading abruptly as Sano found himself racing toward consciousness again.

>5 Interlude

“You didn’t save his life. People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas.”

It wasn’t the kindest way to break to someone that he was dying, especially given that the statement hadn’t even been directed at him. Still, the manner of revelation didn’t make much difference, in the long run, to the dying man. It did say something, and not something particularly complimentary, about the speaker; at least he’d found him, though.

Seijuurou, to judge by the image manifested by his spiritual energy, seemed every bit as strong and effective as Kenshin believed, but Hajime wasn’t sure how much help he was actually going to be. At the very least, the man had little sympathy for Kenshin’s plight… or for Kenshin in general, it appeared. The king had always spoken of his former master fondly… and Hajime had always known that Kenshin was entirely too lenient with people he was attached to.

But the king had given an order — possibly his final order in that position, certainly his final order to Hajime — so the knight had obeyed. Obeyed to the point of suicide, which wasn’t an idea he balked at but also wasn’t something he’d anticipated. That type of loyalty to one’s king was perfectly appropriate, but he’d assumed either to see his death coming before it came and to prepare for it, or to die suddenly and unexpectedly. This was neither here nor there.

He’d never even heard of a “warrior’s coma” until Seijuurou explained it to him at needless length. Hajime had always known he had an exceptional level of control over his spiritual energy — there was a reason he’d become the chief of the king’s knights so quickly, after all — and his current state, apparently, was just further proof of that. How consoling Seijuurou expected it to be that Hajime’s strength of spirit had actually caused his current dilemma, Hajime wasn’t certain.

It was very much like being half-asleep, and aware that he was half-asleep: if he concentrated, he could ‘awaken.’ Unlike a typical awakening, however, this was merely a more complete awareness, not an actual change in circumstances. Still, as there was something vaguely, paradoxically agitating about the drifting state, that greater awareness was a definite improvement. And having someone else around, having something specific to concentrate on helped.

He wondered if concentrating would speed up or slow down his death. He also wondered when and if he would feel the answer to that question. At the moment he didn’t feel like he was dying, despite the pain (now relatively quiet with assimilation) that still throbbed at him from whatever connection he retained to his body. But simultaneously he couldn’t really sense the passage of time, so not only had he no concept of how long it had been since he’d collapsed on the forest road, he also couldn’t guess how swiftly or slowly he might be approaching the end of his energy. And when he reached that end… would he be snuffed out like a candle, or ebb like spilled water?

Seijuurou hadn’t mentioned quite a few details like that. Of course, Hajime didn’t know if, even in a spiritual state, he could have stomached any more of Seijuurou’s pompous details, pedantic and interspersed among pointlessly suggestive comments as they had been. Even that boy’s ignorant ranting would be better.

They’d both gone now, the boy running off to his village in a panic and Seijuurou ‘to try some things,’ so Hajime was alone again in this haze that felt like a dream but wasn’t.

Dreams… That was a topic he kept coming back to, despite the fact that his approaching demise really ought to have been more engrossing. But those dreams…

Exactly how much had come from his own subconscious and how much had been a product of the boy’s he didn’t know. Possibly because of Hajime’s disorientation, the boy’s influence had certainly been strong, especially at first — strong and sensory. Hajime could remember the smell of the inexplicably calm ocean water among the stepping stones, the chill claustrophobia of the spiral tower’s interior. He very rarely had dreams so rich in that sort of detail.

Only because of this comparison, in fact, was he now aware of just how surreal his own dreams usually were… a permeating sensibility or an understood concept to which any physical events portrayed were secondary. Normally what his body was feeling at this time would manifest itself almost preclusively in his dreams, so that if someone asked, “What did you dream about?” the answer would simply be, “Pain.”

Whereas, connected to that strange boy, it manifested rather as chains of blood growing from the wound and entwining him like hot, strangling vines. And the urgency that would normally, for him, have been simply an omnipresent mood, and that mood the core and substance of the dream, instead took physical shape… a straight hallway, a specific pillared lane to be followed, and forbidding darkness beyond the path’s boundaries.

Whether the fact that Hajime hadn’t technically been asleep made a difference, he didn’t know; what effect came of his attempts at talking to the boy, rather than just letting the dreams play out, he didn’t know. It was an entirely incomprehensible situation, from beginning to end, brought about by a strange and unanticipated link. He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that sudden, uncanny intimacy with a complete stranger, but it certainly had been the most unusual experience he could remember.

Given that spiritual energy was turned entirely inward during sleep, he’d never heard of keonmasters — even the strongest, which the boy quite obviously wasn’t — communicating via dreams… Hajime’s current state was anomalous, of course, which could account for any number of things… but, he felt, still couldn’t explain the boy.

Well, really, for all the mysterious facets of the situation, the boy was unimportant, and irritating in any event. But the fact remained that the bizarreness of unexpectedly sharing dreams with someone hadn’t really improved Hajime’s mental condition, nor put him in an appropriate state of mind to learn that he wasn’t going to wake up again. And the continued agitation called up by the memory of it wasn’t doing much to help him accept his fate.

The truth was, he felt about as cheerless and helpless right now as he possibly could. And any such sensations always inevitably reminded him of the last time he’d felt so completely ineffectual and unhappy. But that, even as his end approached, he preferred not to recall. Dreams or death or a quest unfulfilled — anything was a better topic than that.

He wasn’t afraid of dying. Actually, his thoughts on the subject had always been something of a blank, and in this disjointed reality they were even less substantial. But dying like this, slowly, vaguely, alone… not to mention dying while his mission was incomplete… that wasn’t his ideal way to go.

Kenshin’s two-word order hadn’t conveyed much information: whether the king believed Seijuurou would be willing to assist in this matter; what he might be able to do if he did; or even whether Hajime was actually supposed to be finding him to help or for some entirely different purpose. Hajime had made the assumption he thought the most logical and acted upon it, and now feared that all his effort might have been for nothing. That his death might be for nothing.

For Seijuurou certainly didn’t seem overly eager to help. Given that what he did seem was entirely content to sit around on the same mountain he’d apparently occupied for the last twenty years teaching some inept orchard-hand how to have sensory dreams rather than meditate, and making licentious comments at dying knights, Hajime didn’t have much hope for spurring him into action on anyone’s behalf… least of all someone Seijuurou referred to as his ‘previous worthless student.’

And, given what Hajime had observed of the man’s personality beyond those facts, Seijuurou wasn’t really someone he would have chosen to have by his side as he died, either.

Well, if he had a choice, he wouldn’t die at all.

Still, since he had to, he couldn’t quite decide whether the idea of expiring alone in this inbetween place or without fulfilling the king’s last request was bothering him more. If only he could get through to someone else — anyone else — he might be able to convey a warning about the state of things in Elotica to someone that might be able to do something about it. The multiple mights in that statement might be worrisome… but it didn’t matter, since he couldn’t do it. He’d already tried.

Normally — conscious, that is — the method by which he used his spiritual energy to contact someone was to hone that energy through meditation and reach out toward the other person. It only worked if they were expecting it and in a similar meditative state; their energy would meet his, and conversation could ensue. Right now, however, rather than feeling the energy inside him like blood in his veins ready to be tapped, taken control of, and shaped to his will, he felt as if he were submerged in a sea of it — he could just as easily take the actual ocean in his hands as direct this ubiquitous force.

Seijuurou had been able to reach out to him easily enough, it seemed; but Hajime was simply and completely unable to do the same. Even if, by some impossible chance, there were someone (besides Seijuurou) in a meditative state to whose energy he might have been able to connect, it was a moot point as he couldn’t even reach out in the first place.

If he had been able to, that boy and his bizarre dreams would probably have blocked him anyway.

What was that boy — besides unfathomable and intractable? What qualified him as the student of a man that had trained one of the greatest warriors Hajime had ever met? Was Seijuurou just bored? Going senile, perhaps? Or was the training the privilege of a lover? Hajime had gotten that feeling from them, to a certain extent… but he’d also gotten the feeling that Seijuurou wasn’t exactly the righteously monogamous type. He couldn’t really bring himself to trust most of the impressions he’d formed since falling unconscious, however, and the matter wasn’t exactly consequential.

The impressions he did trust — his general concepts of Seijuurou and the boy — were bleak enough: that both of his new acquaintances would, very likely, prove useless. The former was a sophomoric grouch, the latter all emotion and little purpose or thought.

Still… it might have been weakness, or it might have been completely natural — he didn’t know; he’d never died before — despite the master’s self-important disparagement and the latest worthless student’s defiant stupidity… Hajime wished they would come back.

Chapter 6 – The Defense of Eloma

Sano didn’t think he’d ever made such good time between Seijuurou’s house and his own, but running nearly the entire way rendered him almost useless by the time he reached the village. This was fortuitous, as he was forced to slow down about when crossing the irrigation bridge into Eloma; he hadn’t been thinking very clearly most of the way over, and would probably have flung himself immediately, sword drawn, at anyone he didn’t recognize once he arrived, so being compelled to ease up for a few minutes and be rational was undoubtedly for the best.

He took the same back route he had last night, avoiding the center of town, toward his house, letting his lungs and various muscles stop burning as he proceeded a little more slowly and carefully. This path provided him no sight of outsiders or anything dangerous, but as he approached his home from behind, he heard quite clearly a dismaying crashing noise within.

From around in front someone said loudly, “There’s nobody here!”

Quietly Sano moved to the corner of his residence and peered out to where exactly what he’d feared was evidently going on. The angry speaker wore what he’d seen on the men in the memories: the white shiiya of a royal knight with the blue-green ocean wave symbol of Gontamei in the diamond on the chest. And the object of his ire was the father of one of Sano’s friends, a grey-bearded man that appeared, at the moment, rather distressed. Even as Sano watched, the Gontamei knight took the man by the front of his shiiya and pulled him roughly closer.

“Have you been lying to me, old man,” he demanded, “or are you just blind and stupid?”

“No, master,” replied Genji’s father a little unsteadily, struggling as the other pulled him off balance, “I saw him come home last night carrying someone on his back! It must have been who you’re looking for.”

“Well, they’re not here now. If someone here’s hiding them…” The knight gave Genji’s father a threatening shake.

“He may have left again when nobody was looking,” suggested the old man helplessly.

Abruptly, in a motion almost more a shove, the knight released the old man so the latter fell hard to the ground. Turning to someone Sano couldn’t see, he gestured widely and angrily. “They can’t have gone far if Hajime had to be carried. Search every house! Search the orchards! And be thorough about it!”

Judging by the crash he’d heard as he’d approached, this last command implied free destruction throughout the village. And since the person they sought definitely wasn’t here, it probably wouldn’t end after only a few houses.

Genji’s father must also have realized this, for from his seat on the ground he said, hasty and desperate, “Please, master, I swear we don’t know where they are! The boy comes and goes on his own–”

But Sano had a better way of keeping the false knights from doing any more damage — at least to the property of those uninvolved. Stepping forward, drawing his sword, he interrupted the old man loudly, “Fucking right I do.”

The knight that had been giving the orders whirled to face him. He reached for his sword, but never managed to pull it more than a few inches free of its sheath. Sano’s energy blade, full and bright now with the strength of his rage, cut a long red line into the man’s arm, and Sano had brought the thick, round pommel down on the man’s head and knocked him senseless before the knight could even raise his other hand to clutch at the new wound.

Eager for another target, he turned, but what he saw made him pause even in his anger. Previously hidden from his view by the house, perhaps ten more men in Gontamei royal knights’ shiiyao were gathering slowly into a tighter group from where they’d probably been dispersing to follow orders. They all stared at him, evidently surprised by how quickly and easily he’d taken care of their leader.

On seeing just how many of them there were, Sano’s immediate reflection was, Seriously, how important is this Hajime guy? He didn’t really have time to think about it, however, since the men were drawing their weapons and eyeing him darkly. Instead, determined to make the first move, he pressed forward, sword flashing.

On the rare occasion when not annoyed with Seijuurou, Sano was willing to admit he hadn’t learned nothing from the man. True, he was still about as far from keonmastery as he had been before meeting Seijuurou, but his general swordsmanship skills had increased quite a bit. And if this hadn’t been the case, he would have gone down almost immediately in this situation.

Of course, ten on one was still pretty bad. Seijuurou could have taken them with no problem, but Sano found himself slowly forced into retreat, and would soon have his back to the wall of his own house, or possibly worse. Probably worse. In fact, worse was definitely about to come to worst in the form of one of the Gontamei knights charging Sano with sword raised while Sano was busy blocking a strike from another.

This attack, however, was turned away by the haft of an axe placed fortuitously in its path by Genji, who joined the fight at just this moment. Almost simultaneously, in the corner of his opposite eye, Sano noted the appearance of his other friend Tomo with what looked like the pole of a long lopper — which didn’t seem like a very comfortable thing to have slammed into the side of your head, if the way one of the false knights went down was any indication.

Sano kicked out at his primary opponent and sent him staggering back, then took a step backward himself to stand more firmly between his two friends. They had a momentary breather as the knights regrouped, glaring at him and his newly-arrived allies, and Genji leaned toward Sano a bit (rather than actually turning his direction), and demanded, “Sano, what the hell is going on? I swear to Yumi, if this is your fault…”

“I have practically nothing to do with this!” Sano protested.

“‘Practically?'” echoed Tomo.

Clutching at his sword with one hand and a cut in his shoulder with the other, one of the knights called out, “You country boys need to mind your own business!”

“Anyone else notice these guys are assholes?” Tomo said conversationally.

I noticed when they threw my dad on the ground,” replied Genji.

“Yeah, apparently their boss usurped the king or some shit,” said Sano.

“Guess it’s really not your fault, then,” Tomo allowed, backing up against Sano as the knights began closing in again.

“That explains the shiiyao,” Genji remarked, doing much the same.

The fighting resumed, and was even more chaotic than before now the numbers had changed. However, neither Genji nor Tomo was terribly proficient in combat, and when their weapons were designed to cut wood and prune trees they simply couldn’t hold out. Even Sano’s keonblade would fail here eventually, as soon as the anger settled a bit. He experienced a fresh burst of this emotion at seeing both of his friends fall — not dead, he thought, and hopefully not even too badly injured, but very distinctly defeated — but that circumstance also freed up more of the knights to attack him. He couldn’t last much longer.

And that was when he caught sight of a nearby figure bending slowly to retrieve from the grass the weapon of one of the fallen knights. Sano lost track of the battle for half an instant of intense surprise, and was lucky he didn’t die right then.

It was Yahiko.

With a pensive frown, the boy straightened, holding a sword almost as long as he was tall. He seemed to be muttering something to himself. Then, in a movement so fast Sano barely even saw it, he darted forward, lifting the weapon. There came a rushing like heavy wind, a great deal of motion, startled and pained cries all around, and then it was over as quickly as it had begun.

What had taken only a few moments to accomplish took at least twice as long for Sano’s brain to assimilate. He felt his arm drop limp, pointing his sword at the ground. The latter was strewn with what had been his opponents, most of them now in various states of bleeding pain or unconsciousness. Just before him, almost at his feet, one of them sat staring at the ruined remains of his shattered sword, while beside him another lay unmoving. As Sano looked haltingly around, he saw the man whose swordtip had been at Genji’s throat clutching now at a long cut across his chest, and the one that had been keeping Tomo at bay not only weaponless but in fact without a hand — the appendage, still uselessly holding the hilt of a sword, lay on the ground behind him.

Sano turned again to stare at Yahiko, who returned the gaze with a sad, determined look while his sword dripped blood onto the grass.

“Yahiko?” Sano faltered at last.

Yahiko nodded slowly. “What’s going on?”

Baffled, Sano shook his head, trying and failing to get a better mental grasp of the situation. “No,” he finally managed, “what’s going on with you? How the fuck did you just do that?”

With a frown, Yahiko drove the red point of the sword he held into the dirt, perhaps as an excuse to break eye contact with Sano, and released the weapon. “We should make sure your friends are all right,” he said evasively.

Sano couldn’t decide whether he was more afflicted by annoyance at not having his question answered or the amazement at what he had just witnessed. So for the moment he simply did as Yahiko suggested; resheathing his sword, he walked over to Genji. The knights he passed did nothing to stop him; some of them were getting slowly to their feet, and amid the groans of pain from those that were wounded, a muttering had begun.

“You all right?” Sano asked as he reached down to help his friend.

“Nothing a little explanation won’t fix,” Genji replied, accepting the hand up.

His father had approached, doubtless to see that Genji was all right, and now said to Sano, “It was you I saw last night, wasn’t it?”

Sano tried not to look guilty.

“Fuck, Sano,” said Tomo as he also drew near, “this is your fault?”

Three distinct groups were beginning to form of the various people involved in or watching the fight: first, Sano, Yahiko, Tomo, Genji and his father, and a couple of other villagers that had been nearby, clustered together to discuss the matter; second, the knights, gathering into a little knot to give what treatment they could to the worst wounded and decide what to do next; lastly, what looked like the entire remainder of the village, which had undoubtedly been so permeated by the sounds of clashing steel and shouting as to leave nobody peacefully ignorant.

“Look,” Sano began in response to Tomo’s comment, “there’s some kind of bullshit going on in Elotica.”

“Those guys don’t look too happy,” Genji’s father remarked uneasily, eyeing the huddled knights.

Sano also threw a glance in that direction, and thought he caught the words ‘demon child’ from one of the strangers.

Genji, who’d evidently also heard it, asked, “Who the hell is this kid?”

“I’m–” Yahiko began, but Sano interrupted him impatiently, still wanting to explain himself:

“Listen, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I guess the king’s been overthrown, and these are the new guy’s men. If he’s anything like them, we’re all in for some rough times.”

Tomo made a gesture of helpless exasperation. “You know, honestly, Sano, I don’t care what’s going on in Elotica. What the hell are we supposed to do now? We’ve got a whole bunch of knights or something here that we’ve managed to piss off, and–”

“I don’t know, all right?” Sano broke in, stung. “I told you I don’t really get what’s going on; I just came rushing back here because I thought there might be someone here making trouble and you guys might need a hand.”

“And started a completely unnecessary fight,” said Genji’s father severely.

Sano turned his wrath on the man. “Uh, maybe you forgot, but that guy was right in the middle of pushing you around when I showed up. Oh, yeah, and you were right in the middle of selling me out.”

“Hey–” said Yahiko.

“I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted!” the old man protested, scowling.

“Oh, so you just figured it’d be fine to send them to my house.”

“They’re looking for someone else… some royal knight… I thought they would just ask you the same things they asked me.” Genji’s father really didn’t seem to think he’d been in the wrong.

“Sano–” said Yahiko.

“And what if I was really hiding the guy, huh?” Sano took an irate step toward the old man, fists clenched. “Did you think of what they might do then?”

Here Genji jumped to his father’s defense. “Ladies, Sano, cut it out. He didn’t mean you any harm.” One of his own fists was clenched as he threw out an arm to stop Sano’s forward progress.

“Not much good, either,” Sano growled at him. “Nobody cares what happens to the town heretic, do they?” This accusation, admittedly rather unfair, caused the others all to speak at once:

Genji’s father said hotly, “That had nothing to do with it. You know we’ve never cared about that.”

Tomo groaned, “Oh, seas, Sano, don’t drag that into it.”

And Genji said, “You can’t blame him for trying to get guys like that off his back. It had nothing to do with you personally!”

Sano was drawing breath for another angry retort, when suddenly Yahiko said, “Hey!!” in a tone so loud and carrying that everyone in the group looked down at him, startled. He appeared anxious and unhappy, and glanced around with that same skittishness Sano had observed in him when they’d first met. He said, “Sano, I think you and I should leave here right now.”

Surprised, Sano said, “What? Why?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” murmured Genji’s father.

“Because,” said Yahiko firmly, “those guys are going to want to start fighting again pretty soon, and I really don’t want to have to kill anyone.” He gestured over at the knights, still grouped tightly a few yards off. “Besides, they’re after somebody you’ve got hidden somewhere else, right?”

Sano’s brows rose in continued surprise. “You pick up shit pretty fast.”

“They’ll leave the town alone once they know he’s not here, won’t they?” Yahiko prompted.

Sano turned toward the Gontamei knights, who were throwing dark glances over their shoulders at everyone else — especially at Yahiko — and still evidently discussing what to do next. The other villagers, none of them appearing terribly happy with what had happened here today, were doing the same. Sano thought very little of the way they looked at him in particular. He realized suddenly that if the rest of Eloma felt the way Tomo did — that Sano had just helped to make them the enemies of a group of royal knights or whatever they were from the capital — none of them were likely to feel very sympathetic toward him at the moment.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he finally said somewhat reluctantly. He turned back to his friends. “Sorry about the trouble, guys.”

They all stared at him, uncertain and unhappy. After a long, hesitant moment, Genji’s father cleared his throat and said, “It’s probably best if you don’t come back.”

“Somehow I figured you’d say that,” Sano muttered. Despite this having been the case, actually hearing the words seemed to drop a cold weight onto his heart that he didn’t know when or if he would be able to shake off. After so many years, even relatively happy years, in this town, after everything that had happened to him here, he must say goodbye to Eloma.

He turned abruptly and began to walk away.

“Sano…” said Genji sadly behind him.

“Sano–” said Tomo, almost desperately.

Sano didn’t look back. Yahiko had joined him, and together they moved away from the now-nearly-silent people of the village. Nobody else called after him, and his friends had nothing else to say.

At the point in his path closest to the huddled knights, Sano stopped briefly. Without looking over at them, he announced loudly, “You guys are looking for that knight Hajiwhatever, right? Well, he’s not here. Follow us if you want to die.” At the moment these words were not just bravado; Sano was so angry, he was absolutely certain of his own powers at least to make these men sorry they’d ever laid eyes on him — and that was before taking into account Yahiko’s presence. Still, as the purpose of the statement was to draw the knights away from the village, he corrected himself. “I mean, if you want to find him.”

Then he and Yahiko continued wordlessly away from Sano’s house and out of town.

Chapter 7 – Alleged Miracles

In an attempt at distracting himself from just having been essentially banished from his home of nearly a decade, and in light of the fact that the knights didn’t follow them out of the town, Sano turned his entire attention on Yahiko as they walked up the mountain road. The boy, however, seemed disinclined for conversation and wouldn’t answer any of Sano’s questions. So Sano was even more frustrated than before by the time they reached his master’s home.

Seijuurou waited in the second room beside the bed, drinking, and looked over immediately when Sano entered with Yahiko in tow. His eyes fell from Sano’s unhappy face to Yahiko’s, and his brows rose. “Oh, was this all you could save?” he asked.

“Yeah, very funny,” Sano growled, closing the door behind them. “This is Yahiko; he helped me fight off some guards or knights or something that trashed my house and were threatening to do more if somebody didn’t tell them where me and that knight were.”

“Well, you need to get ‘that knight’ out of here,” Seijuurou said, gesturing with his bottle before raising it to his lips again. “He’s no good in my bed in his current state,” he added before taking another drink.

“Yeah, sure,” said Sano vaguely. “First, though, Yahiko keeps avoiding my questions.” He turned toward the boy, sank into a crouch, and put his hands on Yahiko’s shoulders. “Yahiko, seriously, how in Tomoe’s name can you fight like that?”

Yahiko avoided his gaze, staring instead at the door through which they’d just come. “I told you I learned from my dad,” he mumbled.

“Not that you didn’t,” insisted Sano. “Not at your age. I never saw anyone fight like that. I bet you could even beat Seijuurou here.”

At this Seijuurou looked quickly over, his true attention finally procured. “What was that?”

Sano rolled his eyes, though this was about what he’d expected. “Yeah, now you’re interested. You shoulda seen him.” He stood, addressing his next few earnest statements to Seijuurou, who’d gotten to his feet, set down his bottle, and come into the front room. “It was fucking amazing. He beat something like ten guys in maybe five seconds. I swear I’m not exaggerating.”

Seijuurou looked down at Yahiko for a long moment, and finally said simply, “Well?” And while Yahiko might have resisted Sano’s questioning, it took some serious backbone to stand before the mountainous bulk of keonmaster Seijuurou and be anything but totally honest.

“…Kaoru…” Yahiko said almost inaudibly.

“Speak up,” Seijuurou urged. “What about Kaoru?” His tone indicated unequivocally that the kid had better not be swearing randomly.

Finally Yahiko’s face rose, and he met Seijuurou’s eyes with that suddenly defiant manner Sano had seen him display once or twice before. “I prayed for power to fight and I got it,” he said clearly.

Violently Sano started. “I thought you said you’re a heretic!” he burst out before Seijuurou could say anything.

Yahiko glanced at him sidelong. “I lied.”

“And I think you’re still lying,” said Seijuurou, crossing his arms and continuing to look down critically from his great height on Yahiko. “Or at least not telling the whole truth.”

“The divine ladies talk to me,” Yahiko replied, a little wearily.

“The divine ladies talk to anyone who’ll listen, child,” was Seijuurou’s impatient reply.

His defiance returning, Yahiko elaborated, “I mean they all talk to me. I can pray to any of them and get whatever blessings I need, as much as I need.”

“That’s quite a claim.”

Sano snorted. “No shit.” And he stalked into the other room.

After the day he’d had, this latest revelation was more of a blow than it might otherwise have been, but in no case would he have liked it. He’d felt so sympathetic toward Yahiko; he’d compared him to his dead brother, for Yumi’s sake! And now to discover Yahiko was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be… of what Sano was… Well, no wonder he hadn’t stuck around last week.

Seijuurou’s admonishing voice spoke to him from the doorway between the two rooms: “Don’t be petty. Didn’t he help you?”

“Whatever,” Sano growled.

A long period of quiet followed, and Sano got the feeling both Seijuurou and Yahiko were looking at him, waiting for him to turn and face them. He didn’t feel like it, though; instead, he let his eyes fall to the unconscious knight on the bed. The man’s form remained perfectly still but for the very slight movement of his chest occasioned by his shallow breathing, and his face bore an expression of pain.

Sano stared down at him while the silence mounted, thinking vaguely about Eloma and how he could never go back there. Finally, these disheartening thoughts becoming just a little too much for him, he forced himself to say something aloud to change the subject. “So what do we do with His Knightliness here?” It came out sounding almost angry, which was really no surprise.

“Hajime,” Seijuurou informed him, coming to stand beside the bed again and look down. “Apparently he’s the leader of Kenshin’s knights.”

“Right, whatever,” Sano grunted. “What do we do with him?”

“‘We?'” Seijuurou raised a brow. “He’s your problem. But I plan on sleeping in this bed tonight.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with him?” demanded Sano impatiently.

“I’ve never heard of someone waking up from a warrior’s coma,” Seijuurou remarked, rubbing at his chin contemplatively with one hand. “Though nobody in a warrior’s coma prior to this has ever had me around…”

“Yeah, maybe he just needs your cock,” Sano muttered, rolling his eyes.

Seijuurou smirked faintly. “Maybe he does.”

Again they fell silent, staring down, Sano considering the situation morosely while Seijuurou resumed drinking. However unpleasant it was to be banished, Sano was reflecting, it beat having your life slowly ebb away in a state somewhere between waking and death that yet was not sleep.

“Is he really just gonna die?” he finally asked quietly.

“If he can’t wake up, he’ll starve to death, or worse,” was the grim reply. “You might as well get a pyre ready. Unconsciousness seems to be an unusually stable way for you to connect your energy with his, so, if you want, I can knock you out again and you can find out if he has any last words.”

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do… we can’t just stand around waiting for him to die…” It seemed such a sorry way to go. Sano didn’t much like what he’d seen of the knight so far, but the man surely deserved better than that.

“You could just burn him now,” Seijuurou suggested with dry facetiousness. “That would be faster.”

“It’s not funny!” said Sano hotly. “He came all the way out here to find you, and now you can’t do anything for him?”

Seijuurou shook his head. “I can’t. It’s unfortunate, but every great once in a while even I encounter something that can’t be defeated. While you were gone I tried everything I could think of to wake him up, and nothing worked. It would probably be kindest to end it quickly for him.” He lifted the bottle to his mouth again as he added, “But not in my bed.”

“I can’t accept that!” Sano insisted. Because he would be damned if he couldn’t get something to go his way today.

“You’ll have to,” Seijuurou said once he’d lowered his angiruou. “Stubbornness won’t wake him up. It was his choice to push himself beyond what his body could handle out of loyalty to that foolish king of his; now he’s paying for it.”

“But–” Sano began. He stopped abruptly, however, when Yahiko moved forward.

The kid’s voice was hesitant as he said, “Hey…” but it was enough to seize Seijuurou’s attention as well. He looked up at them nervously, then took another step between them, toward the bed.

Wordlessly and with mirrored expressions of surprise, the two men stood back a pace as Yahiko moved forward and reached out to place an uncertain hand on the knight’s bare chest. The boy did not look at them again, so he didn’t see Sano’s disparaging skepticism or Seijuurou’s interested curiosity; instead, he closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly.

“Megumi, lady of life,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, “please use my hand to heal this man and wake him up.” Then he went silent and motionless.

Hajime opened his eyes. His face smoothed out somewhat from its previous expression of pain, but only for a moment; then his brows drew together again in confusion. He lifted a hand to touch his side where the injury had been, then ran one arm slowly over the other, along smooth skin that had mere seconds before been covered in small cuts. Finally he sat up.

Yahiko had by this time stepped back a few paces, putting himself behind Sano and Seijuurou, and would not meet Sano’s eye. Seijuurou, on the other hand, had drawn a step closer and was again fingering his chin thoughtfully, this time with a slight smile. “Well, well, well…”

Hajime looked at each of them in turn, then spoke. “How…” But he faltered in amazement after that single word.

Sano gestured. “Yahiko here healed you with his magic powers.”

Slowly Hajime swung his legs over the edge of the bed, taking a deep breath, and looked where Sano indicated.

“It’s not magic!” Yahiko was protesting. “I told you–”

“Right,” interrupted Sano a little bitterly. “Just like you beating a whole group of knights almost by yourself wasn’t magic either. The divine ladies all talk to you and give you whatever the fuck you want.”

Appearing hurt and agitated, Yahiko turned abruptly and went into the other room. Hajime watched him go, then gave his attention again to his own chest and side. He began untying the frayed strips of cloth that had served him up until now as bandages. Sano watched in silent wonder, noting not even a trace of blood on these.

Finally Hajime glanced up once more, this time at Sano. “You did this?” he asked.

“Yeah. You kinda collapsed in the forest, and I didn’t have anything else.” More quietly and mostly to himself Sano added, “That reminds me I left my backpack buried out there somewhere…”

Hajime finished removing the bandages and bunched them in his hand, staring down at them with a slight frown. To Sano it was understandable that, having gone from the edge of death to what seemed like perfect health in a moment, the knight would be somewhat disoriented.

Seijuurou did not seem nearly so understanding. “So, are you staying in my bed all night?”

Sano gave his master a look part skeptical and part angry. “Fucking Yumi, man, he’s been awake all of half a minute! He probably can’t even get up yet.”

But all Hajime said was, “No,” possibly contradicting both of them, as he then got up. He moved slowly at first, perhaps uncertain of his balance, but soon was walking purposefully out of the room.

“Thank you for healing me,” Sano heard him say to Yahiko.

During the silence that followed, Sano too made his way into the next room, where he saw Yahiko touching the front door as if he was, or had been, about to leave. Even as Sano appeared, though, the kid dropped his hand and turned to face Hajime. “You’re welcome,” he said quietly, with a faint smile.

A little stung, Sano demanded of the knight, “What, I don’t get a ‘thank you’ for bandaging you up and dragging your ass all over the place?”

Hajime turned toward him, but, though his yellow eyes flashed analytically over Sano from head to toe, he said nothing in response. Instead, he looked past Sano to where Seijuurou stood in the doorway between the two rooms. “And now, master Seijuurou,” he began somewhat acridly, “if you don’t mind having me in your house a little longer–”

“You misunderstood my question if you thought I minded,” interrupted Seijuurou easily.

Sano rolled his eyes.

“–I need to make plans for getting back to Elotica,” Hajime finished. And, after a quick glance around the room, he moved toward the table and pulled out a chair.

Sano mimicked him, seating himself near the knight and studying him with interest. Despite having been healed, Hajime still looked exhausted; Sano supposed the whole coma thing hadn’t been anything like a proper rest, which essentially meant Hajime hadn’t slept in, what? four days?

“So you’re just gonna head back right away?” he asked.

Hajime shook his head. “Not into Elotica immediately, no. I can’t just walk back into the capital; I’m too well known there.”

“At the palace and shit, sure,” Sano allowed, “but would normal people on the street recognize you?”

Drumming his fingers briefly on the tabletop, Hajime gave a sigh of annoyance. “Probably, since the king’s tournament a few months ago.”

“Tournament…” Seijuurou snorted in quiet contempt.

“Oh, I remember hearing about that,” Sano said in great interest. “I thought about going over there and joining, even, but…” Well, the truth was that he’d daydreamed of entering with a keonblade, but had known perfectly well he wasn’t up to the task. “I didn’t feel like walking that far,” he finished somewhat weakly.

“You?” Both of Hajime’s brows rose in obvious doubt.

“Hey, I’da done great!” Sano said hotly, in spite of what he’d just been recalling about the situation.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Hajime flatly, and moved on before Sano could protest further. “Anyway, I’ll need to find out exactly how things stand before I know what to do next.”

Distracted from his annoyance, Sano wondered, “What’s to find out?”

“Soujirou is a follower, not a leader. He has provided good service to the king in the past, and is an excellent swordsman, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing he could or would do on his own. Someone is standing behind him giving orders, or at least suggestions, and that’s going to be my real enemy.”

“Any ideas who it is?”

“Several. Which is what I need to investigate.”

By this time Sano had made up his mind, and now stated it decisively. “Well, I’ll come with you.”

Hajime’s brows shot up again, this time more honestly disbelieving than derisive.

“No need to look like that about it, asshole.” Sano scowled at him. “I didn’t fight in your stupid tournament, so nobody knows me in the capital. I can get information a lot easier than you can.” Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go, now…

Again Hajime’s tone went entirely flat as he declared, “I am not taking you anywhere.”

“He might as well go with you,” Seijuurou put in unexpectedly. “I’m certainly not.”

Turning quickly toward him, Hajime asked, “Why not?”

Disinterestedly Seijuurou explained. “For Kenshin to run off and deliberately ignore my advice is his own business, but he cannot expect me to come to his rescue every time what I told him not to do gets him into trouble.”

“And what was it you told him not to do?”

“Rule the country, of course. He isn’t right for it. He’s too soft, too easily influenced by the appearance of suffering — but at the same time has an unfortunate tendency to believe that every idea in his head is his own and absolutely right. It’s a bad combination for a king.”

Thin lips pursed, Hajime looked at the table, appearing very displeased but evidently unable to argue. The question of who Seijuurou believed should rule Akomera went unasked, probably because of the knight’s discomfort.

“I see you’re aware of his flaws,” said Seijuurou with a sharp nod. He leaned against the doorframe again and crossed his arms. “Well, do what you like to put him back on the throne; that’s your job, after all. But I see no reason to rush to his assistance.”

“You would disobey a direct order from the king, then?” Hajime seemed somewhat irritated, but simultaneously closer to resigned than Sano would have expected.

“My authority over him predates his over me,” Seijuurou shrugged. “Besides, he hasn’t ordered me to do anything. All he did was tell you to find me.”

I’ll help you,” Sano put in emphatically. “That Soujirou guy has it coming for what his men did in Eloma!”

Hajime looked at him, this time with less scorn and more straightforward appraisal. “What did they do?”

“They were pushing people around and threatening to destroy shit if they didn’t tell where I was — since they knew I’d hidden you somewhere — and now I’m kinda… kicked out… because of it…” The weighty awareness of that fact, which he’d successfully pushed from his mind in the light of other interesting topics, came abruptly and heavily back down onto him, and he found himself frowning more deeply than before.

“Predictable…” Seijuurou murmured.

“Anyway…” Sano struggled to pull himself together and finish what he had to say. “Yahiko and I had to fight ’em off.” He gestured again to the kid, who had at some point during this discussion drifted over to the corner formed by the fireplace and wall, seated himself in silence, and commenced listening.

Hajime glanced dubiously from Sano to Yahiko and back, and asked, “And how much good do you think you’ll do me — a boy in training who can’t even meditate and needs help from a kid to defend his hometown?”

“Who gives a fuck about meditation?” Slamming a fist down on the table, Sano insisted, “I can fight well enough! I woulda done fine without Yahiko even!”

“You would not,” said Yahiko quietly.

Sano jumped up, knocking the chair over in his haste, and drew his sword. The blade flashed out, translucent, bright, and long, as he glared at the knight across from him.

“You know what will happen if you damage my furniture,” was Seijuurou’s warning murmur from across the room.

But Hajime rolled his eyes. “Put that away; you’re not proving anything.” And as if to show just how little he cared for Sano’s wordless challenge, he stood, turning away from him, and moved toward Yahiko. “But you…”

The kid looked up at him wordlessly.

“I’m curious about this power of yours,” Hajime went on. “What exactly can you do?”

A little uncomfortably, Yahiko answered, “I dunno… whatever… I ask the ladies for whatever I need…”

“Show me,” commanded Hajime.

Yahiko appeared even more uncomfortable at this, and nestled back farther into his corner. “It… doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “I can’t do it just to show off.”

“I see,” said Hajime thoughtfully.

Sano broke in, impatient and somewhat irritated that his drawn weapon had been so coolly ignored. “He already healed you from some coma you weren’t supposed to wake up from. Isn’t that enough?”

Yahiko turned toward him an expression half defiant and half surprised. “You say that like you believe me or something.” He sounded faintly surly.

“Well, you obviously have some kind of power,” Sano allowed. “I never saw anybody kick ass like you did; no way can I not believe in that.”

Hajime nodded decisively. “Which is why he’s coming with me.”

“What??” This surprised outcry came from Sano and Yahiko both.

“I’m sure there’s at least one divine house involved in this,” Hajime explained, returning wearily to his chair. “Soujirou has been close to several of the high-level devoted for years. And if I know anything about the people of this kingdom, and Elotica in particular, neither side of this struggle will get much support from the population until somebody has told them what to think. Which means, sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming Soujirou’s claim to the throne in order to buy the loyalty of the flock.” He glanced at Yahiko again. “Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

“I just told you it doesn’t work like that!” Yahiko protested. “I’m not a circus act!”

Hajime’s eyes were very serious as they narrowed slightly at the kid. “There’s a real need for your power here,” he said slowly. “Are you going to run away from that?”

Yahiko frowned, and didn’t seem to know what to say.

“He’s right, you know, boy.” It was the first time Seijuurou had spoken for a while, and his tone was as somber as Hajime’s. “You may have been brought here just now for a purpose.”

“Purpose…” Sano put in under his breath. “Not your cock, I hope…”

Hajime threw him a somewhat confused sidelong glance, but said nothing.

“I’ll… think about it…” Yahiko finally answered, staring down at his crossed legs in apparent agitation.

“Think quickly,” Hajime said imperiously. “I’m leaving soon.”

“And I’m coming with you,” Sano declared.

Yet again Hajime gave him an assessing look that seemed more than half scornful. Sano scowled defiantly back. Finally Hajime’s gaze flicked away from him in a movement that was almost a roll of eyes, but all he said was, “Fine.”

In some triumph and some irritation, Sano also looked away, and found Seijuurou staring at him with what seemed to be mild interest. Staring, more precisely, at the sword Sano still held. And with a start Sano realized why: somehow, even through the parts of the conversation that hadn’t angered him, Sano had managed to keep the energy blade firmly in place. Was it because of all the fighting he’d done earlier? There really was no way to tell. In any case, he didn’t need it at the moment, so he put it away.

At that motion, Seijuurou stood straight and sighed somewhat theatrically. “I suppose this means you’ll all be sleeping in my house tonight.”

>7 Interlude

Slowly opening the bottle in his hand, Seijuurou watched the tiny points of light brighten in the deepening blue-black beyond the edge of the roof. The space between the latter and the tops of the trees that hemmed his property was narrow, but what he could see was as satisfying as if the entire sky were open to his view. Parts of some constellations were already visible, and only becoming sharper.

After settling where and how his guests were to sleep, he’d come out for some quiet thought to his usual spot before the light had entirely faded; now he sat on the bench among the shelves in near-complete darkness. Early autumn evenings were always pleasantly warm, especially in this fine weather, even in the shadows, and it might be a while before he went back inside; but, then, it might have been a while before he went back inside even if it had been dead winter or a rainstorm. His clarity of thought was not dependent on any particular circumstance, but there was no shame in wanting to enjoy his angiruou in peace.

And the stars reminded him…

There were some things that just didn’t change — not in twenty-three years, nor, he thought, forever. Fortunately, one of those was the taste of alcohol and its effect on melancholy memories. He smiled faintly as he took and savored a long drink, tracing nonexistent lines between the stars just as he had back then, and remembering the remarks that had been made at that point.

Unfortunately, the remarks that had been made this evening were more present and of greater concern to him at the moment, less interesting though they were. Kenshin was in trouble again, and Seijuurou couldn’t help feeling a sort of vaguely paternal interest in Kenshin’s welfare. He’d given the king the warnings he had, back when they’d parted after nearly seven years of training, to guard against just such a circumstance. Kenshin, however, had too high an opinion of his own mental and moral resources to think much of the advice of others. Admittedly he always meant well… he just didn’t always choose well.

Such a man could do nothing better, if he was indeed bent on trying to rule a country, than to surround himself with equally well-meaning but more clear-headed people whose influence, if not overt, would still be significant. He could undoubtedly have benefited from Seijuurou’s presence in the capital long before this… but Seijuurou did not fancy living in Elotica and dealing with people in Elotica and being constantly reminded of his younger days in Elotica. And as for uprooting at a moment’s notice to run off to Elotica and rescue Kenshin from what might after all turn out to be a very transient threat…

That single-minded knight seemed effective enough for the purpose, at any rate, and, if Sano’s assessment of the little boy’s power was accurate, the child would be helpful too. As for Sano himself… Well, Sano was fairly good at filling Seijuurou’s shopping list every week… and at sex… and presumably at picking apples and oranges and whatnot… but at keonmastery he was still a near-complete failure, almost in proportion to his desire not to be. And then there was his propensity to champion unpopular attitudes as brazenly as possible…

Until he got over his heretic phase, Sano was likely to find most people even more ready than the inhabitants of Eloma to ostracize him or worse, because the general populace wasn’t capable of leaving well enough alone and allowing someone to believe stupid things in peace. Of course, there were multiple sides to every issue; if Seijuurou knew Sano at all, the latter had gone charging into that town attacking the guards without any strategy or even thought, giving the villagers little choice but to turn him out or appear antagonistic toward the new regime… the whole thing was undoubtedly a mess.

Still, a mess didn’t seem a good enough reason to hasten from home. Indeed, the result of Sano’s poor planning (and, hypothetical though his theory was, Seijuurou didn’t doubt that was what had taken place) was an even greater recommendation for rational forethought.

Just then Seijuurou looked around, broken from his thoughts. What sounded like a party of horsemen was approaching up the road. He couldn’t see them yet, but the noise of hooves and tack and muted voices was already audible. With the educated guess that this must be the guards defeated by the little boy earlier, he sat back, continuing to sip at his liquor, and waited calmly.

The glow of a lantern through the trees was the first visible sign of their approach, and eventually its light broke onto the clearing in which Seijuurou’s house stood and showed select details of the group behind the man that held it. The usurper, Seijuurou noted, had at least managed to get his followers looking like real knights; in the swaying light, their white-clad torsos seemed to float disembodied over their black trousers and boots, and the symbol of Gontamei was green on each chest. He wondered whether that prince had actually knighted them all or simply dressed them up for the occasion.

They’d certainly taken their time finding the place; Sano had come back from the village hours ago, and he’d been on foot. Given the bandages most of these men were wearing, they’d evidently had concerns other than following immediately, but still Seijuurou couldn’t think they took their mission terribly seriously. Though perhaps the supposed miracle had genuinely frightened them.

Two could ride abreast on the narrower way up the mountain from the crossroads, and now only the first couple of pairs filed off the road onto Seijuurou’s property before they all reined up. Seijuurou could sense, however, that there were ten or more of them all told, and wondered for the first time just how important this Hajime knight was (or was thought to be) down at the palace.

The newcomers looked around at the house, the kiln, and at Seijuurou himself in a mixture of anger and wariness. It was a mark of some sort of decent training that they saw him at all in the darkness under the roof, but his general impression of their abilities wasn’t terribly favorable. Finally one — in the forefront, but not the man with the lantern — rode forward a pace and addressed Seijuurou without dismounting: “Good evening, master!” His tone, however, was not nearly as polite as his words.

“Evening,” Seijuurou replied.

The man didn’t waste time. “We’re looking for some people. Have you seen either a royal knight in the Barenor’mei dress or a young man in red with brown hair?”

“They’re both inside,” Seijuurou confirmed with a gesture.

Either the frankness of the answer startled the stranger, or the latter hadn’t really been expecting to find what they were looking for here. It seemed to take him a moment of blank staring, after his initial start, to grasp the meaning of what Seijuurou had said. Then he dismounted, gesturing at the lantern-bearer beside him, and moved forward, hand on hilt.

“You haven’t had enough fighting today?” wondered Seijuurou mildly. “With that injury to your sword-arm, I doubt you can hold your weapon up for very long.”

Looking sourly at him, “That’s beside the point,” the leader said. It seemed evident he would much rather reply that, yes, they had — and possibly that, no, he couldn’t. “They’re wanted criminals, and we have a duty to do.”

“How patriotic of you,” Seijuurou replied, stoppering his bottle and setting it down beside him on the bench. “Our new king must be a generous man. But, no–” and here, leisurely, he finally stood– “I meant, haven’t the eleven of you had enough of getting beaten within an inch of your lives by a single person today?” And in a movement very much like a stretch, he took one of the swords that hung from hooks on the wall and slowly drew it.

The group shifted, clearly nervous. Ordinarily such a seemingly foolhardy challenge would be met with skepticism at the very least; that here it was not seemed to confirm Sano’s story about the fight in the village. Finally the leader asked in a tellingly shrill attempt at bravado, “Are you in league with that demon child?”

“I don’t know any demon child,” Seijuurou replied, “but I have heard about your defeat earlier. It’s going to be embarrassing enough, I think, reporting that to that king of yours; a second defeat in the same day may mean the end of your careers. But that’s up to you, of course.” He raised his sword slightly into the earliest suggestion of a combative position, his overall demeanor still relatively casual.

The guards shifted further, looking indecisively at each other in the uneasy lantern-light.

Not long after, Seijuurou was again seated on his bench, alone, sipping angiruou and watching the stars. No, he really couldn’t take this great threat to the kingdom terribly seriously.

Chapter 8 – Departure

The high walls were built of orangewood, and a citrusy scent hung in the air as Sano and Hajime made their way down the short corridors and around the many corners of the maze. By now Sano hadn’t the faintest idea where they were, or how far they might be from the exit, but they had to keep going; they had to get through this.

He was fairly certain others had done so, as a faint murmuring of voices came from somewhere… Sano couldn’t quite tell if it was far or near, and the direction in which it lay was equally ambiguous, since it seemed somehow just around the corner no matter how far or which way they walked. But he couldn’t help thinking of it as a hopeful sign.

Hajime remained wordless at his side, not so much in contemplation or concentration as in a seeming attempt to ignore Sano completely. This was rather irritating, but they moved so quickly through the convoluted hallways that Sano didn’t really have time to comment. But then they emerged into a more open space whence at least five separate paths led, and were forced to stop and consider their path more carefully.

The voices seemed distinctly louder from a narrow opening just to Sano’s right; he leaned slightly that direction, trying to hear them more clearly, and nodded. “This way,” he said with certainty.

Hajime barely glanced at him. “Why in Kaoru’s name would I take advice from you?” he wondered disdainfully, and headed immediately toward the opening he’d been examining to his left.

“Fine!” Sano glared at him. Determined, however, that they should not be separated, after a moment he jogged to catch up. “Asshole,” he muttered as they plunged back into the depths of the maze.

Sano awoke on a hard surface looking up at Seijuurou’s ceiling, and was at first rather disoriented. The ceiling was nothing unusual, but the hard surface was. Then, glancing around, he remembered: he hadn’t felt comfortable taking his usual place in the bed — and Seijuurou had been so annoyed anyway — and therefore had stretched out on the floor in the front room beside Yahiko. The latter was curled up to Sano’s right, the only one of them with a blanket over him, and to his right lay Hajime on his side. Sano, evidently the first to awaken, sat up.

Across the room — which, when full-length figures occupied a third of its width, wasn’t very far — Seijuurou stood arranging something or things on the table.

Curiously Sano asked, “What’s that?”

Seijuurou’s head twitched only slightly in Sano’s direction — just as Hajime’s had done in that dream just now — and he didn’t answer the question, so Sano got to his feet and went to see. The motion by which he picked up the first item to hand, which turned out to be one of Seijuurou’s spare shiiyao, turned into a stretch; Sano found himself rather stiff from having slept on the hard floor, especially given that, the night before last, all the sleep he’d gotten had occurred in a sitting position. Then he held out the old-fashioned, blue-grey garment at arm’s length, examining it.

Seijuurou finally deigned to offer an explanation. “You’re going to need to wear something other than that target you call a shiiya,” he said brusquely, “and your friend over there needs something, period.” Evidently he wasn’t entirely recovered from his annoyance of last night.

Looking over the remaining array of objects on the table, Sano felt his brows lower in some confusion. Besides the shiiya he now held, there was another, as Seijuurou had implied; a decent collection of food — mostly orchard fare, but a loaf of bread as well, which would leave Seijuurou with practically nothing; one of the larger, sturdier ceramic bottles Seijuurou made, corked and ready to go; a box Sano recognized as having come from the cabinet across from the fireplace and containing bandages; and, more to Sano’s shock than anything else, a small pouch of money. For someone claiming to be disinterested in the fate of — and upset with! — the king, Seijuurou certainly was doing a lot to help the people setting out to help Kenshin.

“Why–” Sano began, but was immediately overridden by his trainer:

“Why don’t you go retrieve your backpack from the forest?” It was a tone that would not be gainsaid, especially accompanied by Seijuurou’s folded arms, solid stance, and expression not simply guarded but visibly ready for all-out siege.

“Yeah…” This didn’t stop Sano from eyeing him suspiciously. “Why don’t I.”

From the crossroads, it took some thinking just to come up with a vague idea of the direction he’d taken to get Hajime away… was that two days ago now? At any rate, Sano wasn’t even remotely certain until he actually found the spot where he’d left his backpack that he would be able to locate it again. And the entire way, his head went around and around with bitter reflections about the entire situation and all of his companions:

How the hell did I get into this? I’m not even sure why I want to go with this Hajiguy on this quest or whatever it is. He’s a jerk. Hell, I might not even bother going if I had anywhere else to go… or anything better to do… Something about this is bothering Seijuurou, too… I wonder if he would’ve eventually agreed to go if I hadn’t volunteered so quick. And what’s with the kid? Someone who lies about being a heretic can’t be a very good follower of the damn pretend ladies…

Backpack rediscovered and retrieved with far less aimless wandering in the general vicinity than he’d expected, he turned to go back. He only encountered one other human on the road: a horsewoman, appearing totally local and totally innocent, nodded politely at him as she passed, and therefore didn’t worry him much. So he returned to Seijuurou’s house in good time, and reentered in the middle of a conversation.

“–for the three of you, a couple of days,” Seijuurou was saying. “You’ll have to stock up at Egato, dangerous as it may be to let anyone see any of you.”

Sano glanced from Hajime, who was combing out his unbound hair and evidently the main recipient of Seijuurou’s remark, to Yahiko, who sat motionless on the floor where he’d slept. “The three of us? So you’re coming, Yahiko?”

“Yeah, I guess…” Yahiko shrugged.

“And a sword?” Hajime was asking, putting his hair back up with a practiced hand.

“Outside,” said Seijuurou, and headed for the door. Hajime, following him, set the comb on the table and seized in exchange one of the shiiyao Seijuurou had laid out for them. Whether by chance or choice, he took the black one.

Sano put his backpack down and pulled from it the bottles he’d intended to fill for Seijuurou as usual come next weekend. Seijuurou would have to go into town himself to do his own shopping now, something he seemed to dislike intensely, and the thought made Sano grin a little. He started packing the things his master had provided for them, and eventually could ignore the remaining shiiya no longer.

As his eyes fell on it and his hands stilled after dropping the last orange into his backpack, Sano’s lips pursed. He touched the device on his chest and stared at the blue cloth on the table. The thought of taking off his red shiiya and leaving it here, of being no longer recognizable as a proud heretic to anyone that saw him, didn’t strike his fancy. After all, he’d had this one made specifically so people would know exactly what he was, that he wasn’t like them, that he didn’t believe all that nonsense they did and didn’t live by the same silly rules — that, if they were inclined to treat him badly for it, they might as well start immediately they met him. Leaving that behind would be… well, it would be a little like leaving a part of himself behind.

But Seijuurou was right, damn him… they were heading out on a sort of secret mission here, and the red shiiya with its great white empty teardrop did rather stand out (that was the point). And it wasn’t as if relinquishing it would force him to acknowledge any sort of belief in the nonsense or start following the silly rules. And he could always get it back later. With a grimace, he pulled the shiiya off and exchanged it for the one on the table.

Next he looked around, somewhat disconsolate at the flashes of grey-blue in the corners of his eyes from his own shoulders. Yahiko, he saw, had stood up and was standing uncertainly almost in the corner.

“Hey,” Sano said, pointing, “bring those blankets over here.

Yahiko glanced down at his feet, at the one blanket that had covered him and the other that had been spread out beneath the three of them. “He didn’t say anything about these…”

Sano snorted. “Guy can spare his extra blankets.”

Protesting no further, Yahiko did as he was told, and Sano stuffed the blankets into his backpack. It was a tight fit with all the other things in there, but at least the overall load wasn’t too miserably heavy — though he would probably think differently after a day’s walk with it on his back.

“Wouldn’t it be better to fold them?” wondered Yahiko.

“Why?” Sano looked at him in some surprise. “We’d just have to unfold them later anyway.”

Yahiko shrugged.

“All right,” said Sano, hefting the bulging backpack onto his shoulders, “are you–” But as his eyes fell again on the boy, he frowned. Yahiko was still barefoot, still wearing that disreputable-looking, overlarge shiiya with just the one sleeve. “Uh, didn’t Seijuurou have anything for you?”

Yahiko appeared a little uncomfortable as he answered, “I’m fine.”

“If you say so,” Sano shrugged, settling the backpack more snugly as he did so. “Let’s go.”

Outside they found Hajime, now clad entirely in black, examining one of the longswords Seijuurou kept around for practice. Just as Sano and Yahiko emerged from the house, he was remarking, “This will do,” and returning the weapon to its sheath. The latter he then threaded onto his belt in place of the empty keonblade sheath he’d been wearing since Sano found him. Finally, apparently ready to depart, he threw a pointed glance at Seijuurou and said, “And we should go, if that’s the end of master Seijuurou’s magnanimous assistance on behalf of king and country.”

Turning away from him so abruptly that his hair whirled out behind him in a shining wave, Seijuurou said haughtily, “You’re welcome.” He didn’t walk away, though; he’d only turned toward the wall beneath the roof to take down another of the swords that hung there. “And Sano, remember–” he began.

Sano cut him off with a roll of eyes that was part sarcasm and part teasing; this was goodbye, after all. “What, your cock? Sure, fine.” And he grinned just slightly.

Seijuurou’s eyes narrowed as his glance flicked toward his erstwhile student and he returned the faint grin. “As if you could possibly forget that.” Then he held out the sword in his hand. “No, remember that a weapon you can’t master will do you more harm than good. Take this.”

“What?” Sano half yelped. “No!” Hands raised to ward off the offering, he backed away angrily. “I don’t need that! Why are you so sure I can’t–”

“Never mind, then.” This time Seijuurou’s scornful swivel away from them was more decisive and had an air of finality to it. “Get going, all of you.”

“Ladies, way to just kick us out,” Sano grumbled, watching his trainer head back into the house.

Seijuurou’s official farewell, without even a wave, was, “And tell Kenshin, if you see him, that I told him so.”

“Right…” Sano waited until the door had closed, then shook his head as he moved to join Hajime and Yahiko in walking away toward the road.

There was silence among them for some time as they went down the mountain. Sano was thinking how strange it seemed that he didn’t feel worse about leaving home like this, saying goodbye to Seijuurou and practically everything else he knew. He’d never been farther than Egato in his adult life, after all, and never to the capital; he’d certainly been unhappy last night about the prospect of never seeing Eloma again; and he’d expected to be at least a little moved by his parting with Seijuurou.

But he found now he was rather more excited than anything to be heading for Elotica; it would be so interesting to see the great stone city he’d always heard about, and (hopefully) to meet the king. Beyond that, that Soujirou bastard really did have it coming; doing something about him would be very satisfying. And as for Seijuurou… well, to be perfectly honest, Sano had never really liked him all that much. It would be nice not to have to do chores for him anymore, or put up with that grating I’m practically divine attitude of his.

Sano grinned. He discovered he was, in fact, not at all unhappy to be starting this journey now. He was even a good deal less upset with Yahiko than he had been last night, no matter what the kid claimed to hear — so much that, as Sano watched him walking there by his side, he felt prompted to resume their last topic of discussion.

“Seijuurou really didn’t have another shiiya you could use?”

“Yeah, he did,” Yahiko said, very reluctantly, tugging at the wide collar of his ragged outer garment, “but…”

“‘Cause anything’s better than that thing you’re wearing,” Sano added.

Finally Yahiko confessed, “It was just too creepy that he had clothes my size hanging around.”

On Yahiko’s other side, Hajime lifted one of the sleeves of the shiiya he wore. “Judging by the style of what he gave us, they’re probably his clothes from the Age of Knights.” Cuffs such as the one now pinched between Hajime’s fingers were long since out of fashion, as were the attached hoods that both his and Sano’s shiiyao bore.

“Yeah,” Yahiko agreed with a grimace, “and that’s creepy too.”

“Misao,” Sano chortled, “he probably is that old…” Because no matter how Sano had asked, Seijuurou had never been willing to confide his age. The Age of Knights, however, had ended seventy-three years ago, and Sano was thoroughly pleased at the implications of Hajime’s sarcastic statement.

“Incidentally,” Hajime wondered, looking sidelong at the laughing Sano, “what was all that about his… cock?”

Sano turned his eyes abruptly away, pointlessly scanning the trees to his right, mostly ironwood and oak, as they slowly passed. “The stupidest inside… thing… you never wanted to know.”

“I see,” said Hajime in a tone of understanding. “You two are lovers.”

“Not… exactly…” Sano shrugged. “That’s just how I pay him for the training.” He still did not turn his eyes back toward his companions, and fought to keep down a hard blush. However, the silence to his left stretched on so long that eventually he had to look. He found both of them staring at him with an expression he only ever saw on the faces of those raised in a society that didn’t look kindly on sexual relations between the unmarried.

“What?” Sano demanded hotly, feeling the blush rising despite his best efforts. “Something wrong with that? Not like I’m gonna accept charity even if he was nice enough to train me for free. I ain’t a beggar! I make good money! Just… not enough to afford a keonmaster.” He knew making such a fuss would have the opposite of its desired effect, and cursed himself and the situation silently. He didn’t want to be embarrassed about it, since he thought that particular rule was a load of bullshit invented and enforced by hypocritical church officials, but he’d never quite been able to escape some of the attitudes absorbed during childhood.

“Somehow,” Hajime murmured, “I think whatever you made would never be quite enough.”

“What do you mean by–” Although Sano was genuinely curious about the statement, which hadn’t been at all what he’d expected, it occurred to him belatedly that what he would most like was a complete change in subject. So he cut his question off abruptly and asked instead, “Hey, is this really something we should be discussing in front of a kid?”

“I’m not a kid,” said Yahiko at once.

“I wonder…” Hajime said thoughtfully.

Evidently under the impression that this had been in response to his declaration, Yahiko insisted more loudly, “I’m not!”

Hajime ignored his protest. “The king studied with Seijuurou when he was younger,” he said, still in that thoughtful tone, casting a meaningful glance over Yahiko’s head at Sano. “I wonder if…”

Sano immediately understood. “What?” he laughed. “No way! That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard! You should ask him!”

You’re welcome to,” Hajime told him with a roll of eyes, “if, as I suspect, you enjoy making a fool of yourself.”

Not at all put off, Sano cried, “I will! Soon’s I see him, that’s the first thing I’m gonna say: ‘Did Seijuurou get your royal ass in exchange for training?'”

Apparently having altered his stance on whether or not he was a kid — or at least on what he wanted discussed in front of him — Yahiko said in a low, sardonic tone, “Yeah, you guys could change the subject any time.”

Sano thought he saw Hajime hide a slight smile behind a raised hand, and triumphed in the revelation that this allegiant royal knight was willing to talk about his king in such a fashion. However, instead of pursuing it, he complied with Yahiko’s wishes and found a new topic of conversation. “Soooo…. you said you think one of the divine houses is behind all this trouble?”

Any trace of amusement immediately fled Hajime’s face as he answered. “There’s more of society and politics than religion about how the heads of the houses interact with the nobility in Elotica. Soujirou has been close to most of them for as long as he’s been at Kenshin’s court. But to say I think one of the houses is behind this is going too far. Whenever Barenor’mei is in power, there’s always someone in Gontamei who thinks the rulership should go back to the original ruling family.”

“So what you’re really saying,” Sano summarized for him, “is you have no idea.”

Hajime hesitated a moment in apparent discontentment before answering briefly, “Yes.”

“Good thing I’m coming with you, then!” Sano grinned.

“Yes,” Hajime replied very dryly. “Good thing.” And almost imperceptibly he quickened his pace.

Although Sano hadn’t traveled very far, he had traveled fairly often, and knew the road to Egato quite well. He’d gone there probably every third week or so for the last several years, since running such errands for his fellow villagers quelled the restlessness that often afflicted him and rendered more bearable a rather dull routine of daily orchard-work. (Was he really going to miss Eloma? it occurred to him to wonder as he thought back on this.)

Currently they moved at a slower walk than Sano by himself usually did, to accommodate Yahiko’s shorter stride, but every step of the way was still familiar enough that Sano knew exactly where they were when evening fell; he didn’t need the old battered sign at a small crossroad to know Egato was 8ni down the left-hand way. He also knew of a good camping spot just off the road not far from the crossing, and there he suggested they stop for the night.

Hajime at first wanted to continue while there was any light left, but Sano eventually managed to convince him not only that they wouldn’t find a better spot to camp in that amount of time and should take advantage of this one while they could, but that, with only the one break they’d taken earlier for lunch, they’d made good time so far and could afford to turn in a little early. So they went aside into the trees where Sano indicated, and soon had come to a halt in a little clearing around a well used fire pit in the gathering darkness.

This palace mural, obviously, depicts Tomoe, the divine lady of death, who is often referred to as “the veiled one” or “she of hidden intent” because of the mystery that death represents to humans.

Divine lady Kaoru. As you can see, the symbol used to represent her is an erupting volcano, since she is (among other things) the lady of righteous wrath. Here’s the full-color version as well:

Imau (an original character) is Kenshin’s mother and the former queen of Akomera.


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


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This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Clinical Treatment

“Ahou, think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.”

Unaware that its entire purpose is to get his attention, Saitou has become rather tired of Sano’s reckless behavior.