Visual Art: Browse by Medium

Watercolor Pencil (CretaColor Aqua Monolith) is my favorite medium. I also enjoy graphite. Prismacolors frustrate the hell out of me, though they certainly have beautiful results. I used to work with a tablet quite a bit, but these days fibromyalgia makes that difficult. I did a lot of stuff in pen when I was younger, and most of it was crap, but these days I still combine pen with other media pretty frequently. I’ve experimented with a few other things such as pastel pencil, marker, and makeup.

Heretic’s Reward 22-25

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 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,” Katsu 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.”

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.

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.

For some author’s notes on chapters 21 and 22, see this Productivity Log; for chapter 23 and its interlude, this one; and for chapter 24, this one.


Heretic’s Reward 18-21

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 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 Ago

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.

>20 Interlude

Imau had been staring absently for several minutes before she realized what her eyes had fallen on: the letter she’d started to her family. Had it really been just three days ago? It felt like forever since her greatest personal concern had been the demands of her parents that she return to Elotica, when such petty things had seemed at all important.

I don’t know how long it will take to get this situation resolved, but I doubt it will be before New Year. A Misseihyou-New Year festival sounds wonderful, and a tournament sounds even better, but, as I said, I can’t leave Hokichi to finish this alone.

The meetings with the Encoutia Merchants’ Guild and the representative from Etoronai’s had proven even trickier than expected, and they were far from a solution to the problems that had come up while discussing terms. Imau’s peace-loving uncle obviously appreciated the presence of a princess willing to deal more sharply and relentlessly with the group he spent most of his time trying to placate; he clearly couldn’t spare her now. She should probably, as her father had suggested, be more informative about the differences in temperament that made them such a good team.

And at night…

How, she wondered, had Noru — whose full name was Shinorutei of family Tal’garou — made such a drastic difference in her plans? How, in only three nights’ time, could she feel her tactics had expanded beyond what she ever could have expected? One woman and three nights… how could so much have changed?

The truth was, she’d very foolishly never considered the potential benefit of having ‘the average citizen’ help her in this. She’d concocted a scheme she thought would work, and applied it without much further cogitation on the matter. Out of a desire to keep her goal a secret, she’d sought no outside advice, until a voice of reason had unexpectedly intruded on her private endeavor.

Noru had friends and acquintances all over Encoutia — sailors and tradesmen, mostly — and her straightforward good sense and frank humor allowed her to connect with them in a way Imau, disguised and distant from them, never could. Noru knew whom to entrust with the idea that the people needed to stand together against an anti-social menace. And they listened to her. Imau speculated that her presence, as well as Akemi’s, made a difference, helped to reassure those they interacted with that they had warriors on their side; but it was Noru’s influence that had won them numerous allies where Imau had never expected any.

The sailor had made it clear that, though she believed in encouraging the people of Encoutia to show united intolerance of pirates and their ways, she would only take part in this recruiting effort until her injury healed; her place was at sea. That left a few weeks during which she’d promised to meet with Imau as often as possible, but she would eventually board her father Ryuutei’s ship and sail away. She seemed to think the true answer lay there anyway.

The princess had her doubts, but simultaneously had been formulating a new plan. To combat the overwhelming numbers that were pirate ships’ primary advantage, a much more aggressive tactic than the political ones Hokichi had thus far adopted seemed necessary. Warriors, weapons, training… she revolved them all in her head, and had even begun jotting down ideas on paper. Of course she had only Akemi’s input on this for now, since she couldn’t approach her uncle with anything less than a fully developed proposal and hadn’t revealed to Noru how much influence she might have over policy, but Akemi was at least a royal knight for a reason.

Noru had her suspicions, though. She’d declared that first night that Imau (who’d been using the name Penka for her interactions with the woman) must be a noblewoman, and she’d left it at that; but the assessing looks she sometimes gave the princess, and certain remarks that seemed to carry quiet assumptions about her, agitated Imau somewhat. In fact they made her want to confess everything and seek Noru’s counsel on her ideas all the way up to the top.

Beyond a greater and more accomplished armed presence on merchant ships, they needed answers to crucial questions about the pirates themselves: was there any cooperation among them, and, if so, did they have leaders whose removal might weaken their overall effectiveness? What ports did they most frequently use, and in which areas or on which routes did they most frequently appear? To what extent did they terrorize ships from other nearby nations? These questions, as Noru had hinted, might best be answered at sea.

It seemed a special reconnaissance mission was in order, and Imau already had a ship and crew in mind to undertake it if they would accept the charge.

And at the same time, political measures should not be neglected; they simply needed to shift to a larger scale. Ayundome was in the middle of another power struggle, but could anything be accomplished working with their governing bodies? Gönst was Akomera’s biggest trade partner, and Hokichi might be able to put pressure on the Gönsting to throw in with active anti-pirate policies. Jo’onhkun, for all the strain in its relations with Akomera, might be of service too. Everything needed to escalate, and in quick but regulated manner.

Which meant Imau really did have only a few weeks to draft out a far more ambitious plan than she’d ever conceived before — certainly much greater in scope than her little project of prowling inns and taverns! — light a fire under her uncle so he would be willing to take more drastic steps, and convince Noru of the role she and her people must play. It might have been daunting, but in fact it made Imau feel more like a true princess than she ever had before.

Foreseeing herself as the spearhead of this effort, she tried to decide where her own talents would be the most useful. She’d come to Encoutia to train in swordsmanship with her uncle and his court, and, though she’d learned plenty about rulership as well, Hokichi’s kind-heartedly lackadaisical attitude toward government left something to be desired as an example. Would she do better, despite her state as a political beginner, to stay at his side as the constant galvanizing influence he needed; or to go to sea herself and come to grips with pirates as a model of fearlessness, defiance, and personal royal response for the people of this and other nations? Akemi would stand by her in either scenario, and, as Noru had said, the two of them were fair formidable.

Her thoughts kept returning to the Yujuui Nikamoru, the special mission she had in mind, and particularly the captain’s daughter. With Noru these last three nights, Imau had felt so alive, so much more effective. Noru hadn’t only impressed and inspired her; she’d changed Imau’s life. She’d spurred the princess to more dedicated and complex reflection and planning, to a greater sense of responsibility even than what Noru had recognized in her when they’d met. In Imau’s thoughts, Shinorutei shone and flashed like some kind of beacon.

She reached for the pen and ink. She must continue listing her ideas, setting them in order, before she spoke to Noru again tonight. Because she fully intended to put everything openly before the sailor and seek her advice in this paramount matter. But first she needed to finish her letter to her family.

…as I said, I can’t leave Hokichi to finish this alone.

As with her uncle, she believed it would be wisest not to get into detail until her plans were more completely formed. But she knew exactly what to say to placate her parents, to ensure she was allowed to remain in Encoutia as long as she needed to. Such a simple thing, not really a problem at all. Uncapping the ink bottle, she dipped the pen and set it to the paper without hesitation just after the last line she’d written so long ago.

Besides, she added easily, I think I’m in love.

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.

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.


Heretic’s Reward 15-17

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 15 – First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi

Megumi’s yellow gave him a headache. He supposed it was a cheerful color, especially as compared to Tomoe’s, but they’d so often used a harsh, eye-straining yellow rather than the soft pastel in which he usually saw the lady herself portrayed in paintings and the like… how could anyone live in these religious neighborhoods?

Today’s know-it-all was actually two know-it-alls, and Sano had quickly decided this was the best way to go about things. The old man, a doctor as were not a few followers of the lady of life, and his daughter of a more researching (if still medical) bent, were both reds and both extremely chatty; Sano could throw out a subject and get them talking, sit back and listen until the information he wanted came up, then insinuate another idea in order to send the conversation in a new direction.

He didn’t make it onto the plaza until late afternoon. The cheerful father-daughter combination took charge of his morning and lunch — which they insisted he eat with them and several others in a dining room in one of the devoted quarters — and didn’t get around to giving him much of a tour until they’d thoroughly worn out his ears with all sorts of information, useful and otherwise.

The woman — little more than a girl, really, even younger than Sano — explained enthusiastically about the work she was doing and the things she was learning and the results she and her mentor strove for in their research. If Sano was any judge, ‘mentor’ would not for very long describe what the other researcher was to her; and the father didn’t even seem upset at the idea of his daughter leaving the family at the age of seventeen.

As interesting as were the marital prospects of this complete stranger — and Sano really was interested (or at least more interested in that than in the largely incomprehensible medical-research talk) — it wasn’t what he was here for. Throughout the day and the various topics that had been discussed in his presence — not a few of them introduced by himself with a subtlety that rather pleased him — he’d gotten a pretty strong impression of what the general attitude was around here toward the kingdom’s new leadership, and he thought he could guess what the official stance was… but he wasn’t about to take a guess back to Hajime.

An afternoon bell had just rung, and Sano and his guides had been standing in silence on the plaza listening with varying degrees of respect to an elderly second-wash reciting a ritual prayer in the shadow of the great statue of Megumi that stood in the center of the pentagonal area. Sano was glad when the tedious kuumaruaya was finished, but, though he didn’t much like having to give the ritual response at the end as a good devoted must, he couldn’t say he regretted listening: the woman had said something in her prayer about ‘guidance toward the good of the kingdom,’ and Sano doubted any better opening for what he wanted to talk about was likely present itself.

“So…” He turned thoughtfully to his companions as if suddenly struck. “What is the official word from the bosses on ‘the good of the kingdom?’ On the new king, I mean?” He still didn’t much like having to ask directly, but at least this time he had some excuse.

At first, though, he feared he’d been too direct, when the young woman and her father exchanged a look he didn’t understand. But when the girl said, “Of course you wouldn’t have heard,” Sano decided he was probably fine.

“The official word is that it’s none of our business, and to carry on as usual,” the man told Sano in a low tone.

“But it’s hard to believe that’s really what they mean,” the girl added.

“Of course we do what they’ve officially told us to do,” said the father hastily.

“Of course,” agreed the girl. “But we’re still curious what’s their real opinion.”

“Why?” Sano broke in, knowing from the day’s prior experience that they might go on talking about this nonstop without providing that crucial detail.

“Shougo and Sayo,” the father answered, still in that hushed, gossipy tone. “The last I heard, nobody’s seen them this time for over a week.”

The girl said, “I heard it was going on two.”

Sano had picked up the mentioned names a few times that day, and was fairly certain he remembered correctly that Shougo and Sayo were brother and sister, and both golds; he didn’t dare ask for confirmation, though.

“Ever since the government change–” this was the polite term for ‘usurpation’ the wary had adopted– “they’ve been acting strange.”

“It started just then. We can’t believe it’s a coincidence.”

“They disappear for half a day, or even days at a time, and when they are around they’re distant and worried about something.”

“None of us–” it was clear from the accompanying gesture that this meant ‘none of us at the red and first-wash level’– “know what’s going on, but we’re all curious.”

“And worried! What if they’re trying to take part in some resistance or something right under Gensai’s nose?”

Sano couldn’t help asking, “Do you think they would?”

“I have no idea! To read the journals, you’d get the impression the whole house is pretty evenly divided, and there are some good points on both sides… but who knows what Shougo and Sayo think?”

“There was one journal — by Hanabi from Lotsu, I think — that made a very good point about the myths people commonly believe about heredity…”

“And that’s one thing,” Sano told Hajime, “that I had no idea Megumi people did: they write these journals. All of them are always writing journals, I guess, and then they tack them up in the buildings, and they all read them and talk about them. It’s weird.”

He’d managed to relay not quite so much unnecessary detail this time, and was disappointed to note that Hajime seemed less invested in the story. Was that because Sano’s sparser narrative had been less interesting, or in appropriate professional response to Sano’s appropriate professional terseness? There were still a lot of things about Hajime Sano just couldn’t figure out.

“Anyway,” he went on, “except for that thing about Shougo and Sayo, it felt just the same as all those people sitting around debating at the inn I was staying at: a lot of talk that’s never gonna go anywhere. It’s like they feel like they’ve done everything they need to as soon as they’ve written a journal about it, and then they can go back to whatever they were doing before.”

“Did you try to contact those two golds?” asked Hajime in a frowning tone.

“I thought about it…” By this time Sano had lain back down and was looking at the ceiling again. “But I thought, if they are part of some resistance or something, they’re doing a really shitty job keeping it secret, and I should probably stay away from them unless I have no other choice.”

A long moment of silence tempted Sano to sit up and see what expression might be on Hajime’s face, but he forced himself to remain as he was. He’d made a specific decision for reasons he thought were perfectly rational, and was ready to argue his point if Hajime wanted to condemn him. But eventually Hajime said, “We’ll keep them in mind, though.”

“Yeah.” Sano was more pleased than he could express at this unspoken approval, and his next statement, incongruously, came out sounding quite cheerful: “So word from Misao was pretty much the same…”

This was positively unbelievable. Sano had been assaulted with any number of new sights and experiences over the last few days, but this was by far the most astonishing of all of them. He could barely even begin to give credence to what he saw, and had to work to keep himself from shaking his head at regular intervals trying to get at the truth rather than this impossibility his eyes seemed to be presenting him.

Misao’s neighborhood looked nice.

It wasn’t just that they obviously didn’t mind using other colors as accents against that of their lady; it wasn’t just that, instead of slapping up any and every hue indiscriminately as paint availability allowed, as the devoted in the other religious districts seemed to have done, they had instead carefully combined variations on the color to the best possible effect; it wasn’t just that they avoided too much eye-straining use of the brighter, glowing end of that variability, keeping rather to more restful pastels and well-blended gradients for larger spaces and saving the more intense shades for drawing attention to details; it wasn’t just that they’d even occasionally allowed the building materials — usually stone, but sometimes a nicely-treated wood — to retain their natural hues instead of slathering paint all over every available surface to blare out their devotion to their lady…

It was all of this, and in addition the fact that they seemed to be better at it than anyone from Kaoru, Tomoe, or Megumi. Everything here had been done more adroitly, with a better eye to its effect and greater care for both its individual appearance and its coordination with other structures nearby. Sano would never have been able to believe it of orange; he’d been expecting this area of town to be the absolute worst. It was only after examining and admiring everything around him for more time than his overwrought brain could keep track of that he remembered Misao’s status as lady of the visual arts.

That she was also the lady of thievery he was reminded by being the victim of three pseudo-robberies before he even managed to have one real conversation with anyone.

The first pickpocket, a red about Sano’s age, got his attention by dropping a few coins into his hand with the statement, in a tone of greeting, “You’re a little too easy.” This remark (and its various possible interpretations) was so unexpected and strange, especially given that the speaker had essentially said it in passing, and when combined with the apparent gift of money out of nowhere so utterly bizarre, that Sano was more or less stunned for a few moments. It took several moments longer for him to realize the coins were his, and this, at least, prodded him out of his stupor. The pickpocket had returned exactly as much as he’d taken, Sano determined with a quick count, but how he’d gotten at Sano’s belt pouch without alerting him even in the slightest, Sano didn’t know.

What the second had to say was, “You’re making yourself a target, you know,” as she offered him his very own sword with a cheeky grin. Having thought he’d used all his capacity for astonishment today, what he felt at discovering someone had managed to unsheathe the weapon he wore without his beginning to notice overwhelmed him such that he was unable to say a word in reply. He just took the keonblade and stared as the first-wash winked at him and continued on her way.

“You must be new around here,” was the friendly, sympathetic comment of the third, a man perhaps ten years his senior, as he held up Sano’s entire belt-pouch in a gesture similar to what he might have used to return something Sano had accidentally dropped rather than something he’d somehow deliberately taken from him.

Trying not to gape at the man and probably failing, Sano accepted his belonging and struggled for words. Finally he managed, “Yes! And nobody did this back home!”

The red devoted laughed and clapped Sano on the back, disrupting for a moment the process of re-fastening the pouch at his waist. “You’d better get used to it; it’s tradition around here!” And thence he proceeded to make it obvious that he would be today’s know-it-all.

So interested was Sano in this bizarre tradition, and the nimbleness of finger that allowed the followers of Misao to carry it out, he didn’t feel the tiniest bit guilty about pursuing the topic with his new companion before he even started thinking about maneuvering the guy around to talking about Nenji, Misao’s white devoted, and what he and the other higher-wash might have had to say about Soujirou.

As fascinating as this had been to Sano, at the moment he decided Hajime didn’t need to hear about it, and restrained himself with great force of will from recounting it. All he said was, “They don’t officially care, and if they care underneath they’re pretending not to. But at Yumi I totally got lucky.”

Green was by far the most soothing of the five lady colors, and as such Yumi’s part of town looked better than anyone else’s except Misao’s. Which was not to say it looked good, just that there was a certain automatic benefit offered to the decor by the combination of coolness and relative brightness of the color. The devoted shiiyao, though, in their spectrum of red bleached to orange and warm yellow, did look rather jarring against it; still, he had to wear one.

To come across a red devoted in the proper state of solitude and apparent likelihood to recover well from a knock on the head had taken most of the day, so Sano hadn’t found his way into the green corner of the city until the sun had already sunk past the great walls and thrown everything into shadow; perhaps that skewed his opinion of the colors, but objective assessment of the decorating skills of the devoted was not what he was here for.

Knowing Yumi for the lady of love, Sano had somewhat expected to find her followers an unusually romantic lot, but just walking through her neighborhood didn’t give him any sign of this; there weren’t even any couples kissing in doorways or anything. But he did find that the unforeseen amount of music floating from down alleys, out of doorways, and off balconies, giving the entire walk a pleasant, cheerful feeling and reminding him that Yumi was also the lady of the performing arts, made up for this vague and not terribly important disappointment.

This neighborhood broke the trend by not supplying a know-it-all, but that might have been because Sano had wandered into it so late in the day… or perhaps merely because he ended up spending so little time there and not needing one at all. For as he was about to enter the plaza to see what kind of flower beds and statuary they had (and whether they might not, perhaps, have couples kissing in there), he happened to have his eye and ear caught by movement and conversation out around the side of the temple.

So, instead of going through the opening into the space surrounded by the great building, he followed the path that led to the left. He moved quietly at first, just in case this area was off-limits to reds or something, but soon saw it could not be: a wagon full of crates and packages of various shapes and sizes, which had been brought around to a side or back door of the temple, was being unloaded by a few legitimate reds while none other than the white devoted and one of her golds looked on.

Not yet having been in the capital very long, and having spent the entirety of his adult life in an orchard town some distance from the kingdom’s cultural hotspots, Sano had only a vague idea of what might or might not be in fashion at any given moment; he was pretty sure, in fact, that Eloma had always been at least five years behind the times when it came to shiiya cuts and sleeves and hoods. But even he could see that Yumi’s fourth-wash was about as fashionable as someone limited to a preselected religious outfit could be. From the ornament in her artfully-face-framing burgundy hair to the pointed bareness of her shapely legs to the interesting metallic spiral pattern on the otherwise black staff she held carelessly in one manicured hand, the word ‘chic’ seemed apropos — and that wasn’t a description Sano frequently employed. ‘Attractive,’ even — and he wasn’t generally attracted to women.

Busy in conversation, she didn’t even glance at Sano; but her third-wash companion, a short, bald, yellow-toothed man much less worth examining than his superior and a much less likely-looking follower of the lady of beauty, took immediate notice of him. Gesturing to the wagon he ordered, “Come on; give them a hand with this.”

Obeying, Sano at first had to stifle his annoyance at the apparent assumption on the old man’s part that he was either here for this purpose or at least had nothing else pressing to do; but this annoyance quickly faded as he realized he was suddenly in a uniquely advantageous position to eavesdrop on the white devoted’s relatively private discourse and hopefully find out what he needed to know without bothering about the type of circumspection he’d been wearying himself with in all the other divine neighborhoods.

So he quickly discovered where the items were being deposited, and thereafter dawdled as much as possible in retrieving new ones off the wagon in order to hear what he could of what the white had to say. The first partial statement he managed to catch was, “…have more important things to do than make sure all the little people are behaving themselves.”

“And you think I don’t?” The ugly man sounded rather grumpy about this.

Next was, “…need to be staying out of anything even a little bit political, all right?” Her somewhat low and gravelly voice had a pouty, almost teasing-sounding tone that it was no wonder her subordinate didn’t seem to be taking entirely seriously. “It’s none of our business.”

And the third statement, apparently in response to something perhaps somewhat rude from the gold, was, “…just the same thing from another angle! We won’t be making a commotion on either side of the issue, so of course I’ll do what…”

When Sano next emerged, it was to the sound of the gold’s surly complaint, “…at the palace as much as possible so you can socialize.”

“I think you’re jealous,” the white replied pertly; evidently taking direct criticism from her lower-wash didn’t bother her much. “And anyway that has nothing to do with it. Usurper or not, the Devoted Council was a fabulous idea.”

At that moment her eyes lighted on the package wrapped in paper and string that Sano had just extracted from the wagon. “Ah, there it is!” she cried in delight, and ran forward to take it from him; obviously she’d only been waiting around out here for this, and the conversation had probably been intended merely to pass the time until what she wanted from the delivery was unearthed.

As the object was quite heavy for its size, Sano warned, “You’re gonna need two hands for this.”

She gave him a smile that managed to be both condescending and flirtatious at once, and said, “You must be new.” Then she took the parcel lightly in her free hand, spun it deftly a couple of times on two fingers, winked at the now-gaping Sano, and turned with swaying hips to walk away.

Sano didn’t actually narrate quite to the end of this scene, since that last bit had been a little embarrassing and definitely not important. And anyway, Hajime broke in, this time sounding somewhat frustrated, when Sano reached the last item of interest Yumi’s gold had mentioned: “What is this ‘Devoted Council?'”

“Almost there,” Sano said in reply. “I saved the best for last. Well, it happened last, too. Since I pretty much had exactly what I wanted to know just from that, I went back to the inn instead of wandering Yumi’s neighborhood. And while I was sitting there eating supper…”

The low, tense chatter filling the common room was growing downright frustrating. After six nights of keeping his ears pricked for any signs of actual resistance against the usurper and hearing only a lot of directionless and often very ill-informed back-and-forth, Sano was sick of listening. He would be glad to leave Elotica in the morning, even if the part of his report regarding the types of things being discussed in the common room of a large inn would be obnoxiously disappointing.

The one thing that could be said for the ongoing intense discussion was that it allowed a stranger disinterested in interaction at this venue to sit at the bar in solitude and eat his supper without being accosted by anyone for whatever reason. Or, at least, it had up until now. A hand on his shoulder was the first indication anyone here was paying attention to him, and it came almost in conjunction with the quiet statement from behind him, “I knew I’d be running into you pretty soon here.”

Startled, very worried about who could possibly have recognized him in the capital so far from home, Sano turned swiftly to see whose hand might soon need to be broken if it didn’t immediately vacate his shoulder. Hopefully they’d mistaken him for a friend and could be quickly turned away. But his growling reply died in his throat when he saw who it was, and no other sound replaced it there for a long moment.

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.

>16 Interlude

Following the direction of Akemi’s gesture through the smoke of the low-lit common room, Imau looked toward a nearby table where a small group of sailors sat around a communal supper pot. The animation of their discussion had grown since Imau had last glanced in that direction, and some of it was becoming audible.

“–wouldn’t wait to raise the colors if mine was faster,” a disreputable-looking woman with cropped hair was saying. “Let them see the flag and waste their energy abouting to run; they’ll be that much less prepared for being grappled.”

Nodding to Akemi, who immediately slipped around to the other side of the table in question, Imau slid off her stool and approached even as one of the other sailors laughed and said, “But most pirates aren’t so bright.”

“And what would you do if I ran you through with my sword?” Imau had approached to immediately behind the short-haired woman, drawing her weapon a few inches so the hilt pressed into the sailor’s back.

“I think it would depend on where you ran me through.” The woman had stiffened, but her voice held no fear. The five others at the table were warily eyeing Imau — and Akemi, who had mimicked the princess’ movements on the other side. “Somewhere lethal, I’d probable just die. Anywhere else, I’d probable roll around on the floor crying and screaming.”

Imau couldn’t help but be slightly amused at this candid answer, not to mention a little thrown off: she wasn’t quite sure what to say next, and her pause gave the woman a chance to add, “Why are we running me through, now?”

This, in turn, created the opening Imau needed. “It’s no more than any pirate deserves,” she replied harshly.

Somewhat to her chagrin, all of the strangers began to laugh. A few, probably in response to the seriousness in Imau’s tone, attempted to restrain this reaction, or at least to conceal it behind their hands or by looking away. But the woman Imau had at swordpoint numbered among those openly showing her entertainment.

“Noru, that’s your fault for talking like that right out where anyone can hear you,” another at the table chuckled.

“You’re right, you’re right,” the woman called Noru admitted, her laughter calming. Tilting her head back slightly, she addressed Imau. “Mistre, I’m glad to see someone trying to do something about the pirate problem. But it’s not bad enough yet that you’ll find pirates open discussing piracy in public in an Encoutia inn.”

“Of course not,” Imau replied dryly. “Only honest sailors honestly discussing what they might do if ever they should happen to turn pirate… which could happen tomorrow or the next day, depending on when they next cross paths with a rich and underprotected vessel.”

This accusation brought most of the sailors in the blink of an eye from amused to annoyed. But while at least half of them were shifting in their seats, evidently ready at least for an argument if not for a fight, Noru remained perfectly still against the hilt of Imau’s sword. When she replied, however, her voice was quieter and more serious than it had been before. “I’m not going to take offense at that because it’s true that all this pirate activity late has made more and more ships that were honest decide it’s all right just to do a little pillaging on the side, because nobody’s like to notice it with real pirates about… but I think you should ask around about people you meet at inns before you go accusing them of things.”

“Well, then, we’ll see what the bartender has to say about you,” Imau replied, lightening neither her tone nor her grip, gesturing with her free hand at Akemi as she spoke. The knight nodded and withdrew, making her way across the room to find out what she could about this particular group of people.

“If we was pirates,” the man Akemi had been prodding in the back grumbled during the ensuing silence, “it’d be six on two. I can’t think what you misses are thinking.”

“We have no worries on that score,” Imau answered. “Six or sixty; it makes no difference.” This bravado far overstepped her actual personal policy — for, while she was reasonably certain she and Akemi together could handle six only moderately skilled opponents at once, she definitely didn’t want to… especially given the impossibility of knowing they were only moderately skilled. And sixty was out of the question.

This raised another laugh from nearly every throat at the table. Only Noru and the man across from her that had introduced the topic held their peace. The man was grizzled, probably in his forties, and had the typical leather-skinned look of a sailor for life; his expression was dour and sardonic.

Noru, on the other hand, though Imau couldn’t get a good look at her face at this angle, seemed only to be refraining from laughter out of prudence. She did, however, casually as if merely to pass the time until Akemi returned, make the comment, “And if we were pirates, and even if six on two is no problem for you, what good would it do threatening us? Even if you killed us all–” here her confederates shifted a little nervously, as if merely hearing these words would bring down the fate referred to upon them– “it wouldn’t help with the larger problem.”

Immediately Imau contradicted, “Every pirate’s death helps with the larger problem,” and hoped it didn’t show how very aware she was of the truth in the woman’s statement.

“And how many pirates have you killed so far?” Noru wondered.

“I haven’t counted.” Technically the truth — it wasn’t really necessary to count to zero.

Noru saw through her, it seemed. “When you do start counting,” she said softly, “my condolences.”

Imau didn’t like the atmosphere; she got the feeling that she, who was doing the threatening and should have this situation completely under her personal control, was being talked down to. But before she could demand to know what Noru meant by that remark or come up with some statement calculated to remind the woman of her current position, the princess caught sight of her knight returning through the crowd. Akemi noticed Imau watching her, and shook her head.

Stifling a sigh, Imau turned back to the table. Pressing the hilt in her hand more firmly into Noru’s back just for a moment, she said harshly, “Just hope you’re not in that count.” Then she let her weapon slide completely into its sheath and stepped away.

Akemi joined her at another table not three paces from the sailors. This one stood near the wall, and both women put their backs to the latter in order to face the group they’d been harassing. They must make sure they didn’t appear to be retreating, and that the group knew it was still under surveillance.

“The innkeeper happened to be down just when I went over there,” Akemi informed quietly. “Both she and the bartender vouched for them. They’re all from a ship called Yujuui Nikamoru under a captain named Ryuutei. The innkeeper even mentioned his family, but I’ve already forgotten it.”

The sailors had been glancing somewhat uneasily at Imau and Akemi from time to time — all but Noru, who would have needed to turn completely around in her chair to do so — and now one of them rose abruptly as if to make a hasty exit. Noru reached out a hand to touch her companion’s forearm and said something that induced the other sailor to resume her seat.

Again Imau shook her head. “It’s not important.” And now she let free the sigh she’d been restraining. “She was right… we’re not going to find any real pirates this way.”

“But it’s like you said,” reassured Akemi: “with encounters like this, word will get around that pirates are in disfavor. We don’t necessarily need to find any, as long as they realize they’re being hunted.”

“But will that accomplish anything other than sending them into hiding?” Imau murmured. She’d noticed something she’d missed before, and stared at it thoughtfully as she spoke: the shady-looking Noru had one of her legs, bootless, bandaged from the knee down.

“I thought that was the point — not to actually fight pirates. Or are you having second thoughts?”

Imau tore her eyes from where they’d been absently running over and over the shadowy form of the crutch that lay beneath Noru’s chair and table, glancing at her friend with a smile. “You’d prefer to be at home in bed, wouldn’t you?”

Akemi returned the smile with a broader one. “Well, there is that… but if you think I regret this chance to wear something other than a royal knight’s shiiya in public, you’re mistaken.”

With a chuckle, Imau put her hands behind her head and leaned back against the wall. “I should have known.”

Silence followed as they both watched not only Noru’s group but the rest of the room as well. The impression of having failed rather pathetically expanded moment by moment in Imau’s consciousness, however, and eventually she was forced to comment on it. “They weren’t intimidated.”

“No, I don’t think they were.” Akemi, whose eyes had been squinting somewhat as they traversed the bar across the room, fixed her gaze once again on the nearby sailors. “They don’t seem like fighters, most of them… why should they be so confident?”

With a wan smile, “Confident in their honesty, I suppose,” Imau remarked. She thought it helped that Noru, who seemed to be a leader or at least someone with considerable influence among them, was obviously of a firm, calm temperament. “I don’t know that it’ll be any use to us even if they do bother to tell anyone about this.”

“Shall we find someone else to threaten?” Akemi suggested. “Another place, maybe?”

The acquiescence halted on Imau’s lips when she saw Noru rise slowly and turn toward them. Even the short walk between one table and the next was evidently an inconvenience in the sailor’s current state, but Noru didn’t bother to retrieve her crutch for such a negligible distance. She stopped, all her weight poised on her good foot, just before them, surveying them with a neutral expression. “May I join you?”

Taking her first good look at Noru’s face straight on, Imau didn’t immediately reply. The sailor was younger than she’d thought, less weather-beaten than she’d expected, and a good deal prettier than she could have imagined any sailor likely to be. Finally the princess nodded.

“I’d like to know what you’re up to here,” Noru explained as she settled onto the bench across from Imau. “You can’t serious think you’re going to do any good threatening random people.”

Akemi’s glance at Imau was subtle; she was evidently not entirely sure they could trust this woman, the reassurances of the bartender and innkeeper notwithstanding. Imau, however, had an odd feeling about this Noru, growing gradually as her previous sensation of failure had — for some reason she couldn’t pinpoint, she found she shared the confidence she’d mentioned before: that this was an honest person. Whether it was a good idea to believe in this inexplicable instinct she wasn’t sure, however… still, she had to say something

A few moments’ respite were granted her as a barmaid appeared at the table. All offers of refreshment had been turned away since Imau and Akemi had bought their obligatory drinks shortly after entering; not having seen this particular girl tonight, Imau assumed she was just starting her shift and therefore unaware that they didn’t need anything.

Or did they? The moment the impulse arose, she acted on it. “Shall I buy you a drink?” she asked Noru. “As my apology?”

Noru had a finely-shaped pair of lips the color of a fading sunset, and these moved slightly for a moment, as if indecisive, before curving into a smile. “I wouldn’t say no to a suts’giru,” she replied.

Though not much of a drinker herself and not terribly happy with Noru’s choice, Imau turned to the barmaid with the order, “Two sutsugiruou, if you please.”

Barely sparing Imau a glance in favor of the apparently much more interesting Akemi, the barmaid confirmed this order. “And what’ll you be having?” The girl’s tone and expression, especially when combined with the unnecessarily sharp angle at which she bent past Imau and Noru to address the shapely, muscular knight, made the direction of her thoughts all too evident.

Akemi, however, was disinterested in women to the point of being completely oblivious to their advances, and requested the house specialty without even appearing to notice the not-unattractive cleavage the girl had gone out of her way to display. The barmaid, with the characteristic resilience of her profession, departed to fetch their order seeming undiscouraged.

With the barmaid gone, Imau could once again see Noru’s companions at their table without craning her neck, and couldn’t help noticing that the sailors seemed to be watching this table avidly — a few occasionally trying to pretend they weren’t, but most unabashedly staring.

“Your people aren’t happy,” Imau said to Noru in a low tone.

Noru threw a stern glance over her shoulder before answering. “I’m in dry dock for the moment until I’m on both my feet again,” she explained. “They’re sure I’m going to overdo things and buy myself some extra time on land.”

“You don’t seem terribly reckless to me,” Imau remarked.

“I certain don’t go around threatening to run innocent strangers through with a sword.”

Imau had to smile at this, and easily made the decision she’d been putting off before; it wasn’t as if her objective on these nighttime treks must be kept strictly secret at any rate. “I’m afraid piracy is beginning to be recognized as a legitimate profession,” she began seriously, “the same way thievery has been in the past. If pirates get that kind of foothold among the working class, they’ll be five times as difficult to get rid of. I’m not here to fight pirates; I’m here to fight the idea that pirates are welcome in public establishments, that piracy will be tolerated by the average citizen. My goal is just to get the word spread, nothing more.”

Noru had listened with an expression of growing skepticism, though not necessarily of displeasure. After Imau finished, she sat silently for a moment before demanding, “Who are you? ‘The working class?’ ‘The average citizen?’ You talk like a noblewoman.”

Resisting the paranoid urge to check the bandanna she wore beneath her hood as added protection against anyone recognizing her by the color of her hair, Imau shook her head slightly. “It’s not really important.”

Noru studied her with calculating brown eyes. “But now you’ve made me curious,” she admitted. “Are you a noblewoman? Or some merchant whose shipping business is suffering?” She raised a hand to rub thoughtfully at her jawbone with two fingers.

Imau allowed her to guess, answering only with a slight laugh that she did not extend because it sounded a little too nervous for her tastes.

“I’ve dealt with all the big merchants in town,” Noru went on, “but I haven’t seen you before, and I’d remember a face like yours.”

Finding herself blushing slightly at this, Imau pushed away the urge to ask whether that was supposed to be a compliment, and still said nothing.

“The smaller companies are suffering even more than the big ones, though,” mused the sailor, “and you might–” But here the barmaid returned with their drinks.

“Suts’giru for you mistres,” she announced in an exaggerated fashion, setting down the cups; then, instead of leaning past the two of them again, she circumnavigated Noru and stood directly across the table from Akemi. “And for the fine warrior, house angiruou.” She put one foot up on the bench, allowing her shiiya to slide backward along her thigh a few inches. Leaning on the pretty bare knee that showed thus above the level of the table, she bent forward and added the cleavage that had been so blithely ignored on her previous visit to the alluring picture. “Anything else for you, mistress?” she enunciated pointedly.

And still Akemi didn’t notice. “Nothing for me. You two need anything else? What’s so funny?” For she’d turned to her two companions and noticed that something seemed to be amusing them unaccountably.

“No, nothing else right now,” Imau said, shooting a sympathetic look at the barmaid. The latter, straightening, appeared more annoyed than disappointed, and, smoothing out her shiiya, turned abruptly and left them without a word.

“Back to the topic at hand.” Noru removed her skeptically amused eyes from Akemi and fixed them on her drink. Imau didn’t have long to wonder whether the topic at hand was her identity or how to deal with piracy, for Noru continued with the simple statement, “I like this idea of yours. Everyone helps as they can, right? We sailors fight off the pirates as we have to, if we can, and keep from turning to it ourselves… merchants buy only from verified dealers… and the nobility up at the palace do… whatever it is they do to try to solve problems in the city… but what about everyone else? You seem to have found the solution.”

Not sure whether to smile at this apt summary of the situation or frown at the slight implication that she and the other ‘nobility up at the palace’ were doing very little to help at the moment, Imau did at least nod.

“But how many of you are there at this? You and your subujinsh’wai here seem fair formidable, but with only two of you…”

Prior to this, Akemi’s eyes had been turned away from the two of them, still surveying the rest of the room; she had undoubtedly been listening to the exchange, but had deferentially given no indication thereof. Now she turned her gaze, somewhere between skeptical and startled, on Noru. “How ever did you figure that?”

Noru chuckled. Imau refrained from laughing aloud at her bodyguard, and instead, disregarding Akemi’s confusion, answered Noru’s question. “Unfortunately, it is only the two of us. I came up with this plan, and my friend agreed to take part it in with me, but that’s as far as it goes.”

The sailor seemed to ponder over a pull at her drink. Finally she remarked, “Have you tried recruiting?”

Uncomfortably Imau admitted, “No. Anyone doing this has to be able to hold their own in a fight if things go wrong, so that eliminates many potential allies.”

“Not necessary.” Noru glanced over at the other table. “My crewmates, for example, are fair fighters — just sailors’ skills, mind — and as a group could undoubted take on most threats to be found in public places. Some of them even enjoy a good brawl,” she added with a sardonic smile.

“Are you volunteering to suggest this to them?” the princess wondered, trying to remain calm and diplomatic but in reality surprised and excited.

“I think I am.”

In a measured tone, Imau replied, “I appreciate that. But may I ask why you’re willing to help me when you’ve only just learned about this?”

Noru leaned forward and looked into Imau’s face. Her shapely eyes ran up and down the royal features, and Imau found herself blushing again. She wondered if Noru recognized the cosmetics she wore to darken her brows and lashes. She wondered what else Noru saw there.

“Seems like,” Noru said at last, “you feel some responsibility to do this. I respect that, and I admire your consideration for people who can’t fight. I figure ‘the average citizen’ has a responsibility too, and that’s me.”

“Then it looks like I’m not the only one here worthy of respect and admiration.” This came out somewhat breathless as Imau stared into the brown eyes opposite her.

Noru chuckled. “You’re a noblewoman; no doubt about that.” And when Imau had no response to this besides a slightly deeper blush, she went on. “I’d like to see you in action instead of from the other side of your sword. Let me talk to my people, and then let me join you to wherever you go next.”

Here Akemi put in, “You’re incapacitated,” and Imau had regretfully to agree.

“I’ll stand back and watch.” Noru spoke as if everything were settled, and began clumsily to rise and shift her way off the bench. “But let me have that conversation first.”

Imau and Akemi watched her head back to her companions. Quietly, doubtfully, Akemi wondered, “Are we really going to take her with us?”

“It looks like it,” Imau replied in the same tone. She hadn’t expected this tonight, or any night.

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…”


Pattern


Saitou removed his gloves, briefly massaged one of his temples, lit a new cigarette, and settled in for another perusal of this seemingly random collection of evidence. It was his fourth cigarette and his sixth perusal; when each was spent, and he richer by no significant insight, he sighed and slumped a bit.

Rustling sounded behind him, and presently Sano’s strong warm hands slid down over his collarbones. As the young man’s body pressed against his from behind, as closely as possible with the back of the chair between them, Sano half yawned in his ear, “I shoulda known better than to expect you any time soon.”

Saitou let his head fall against Sano’s shoulder with another exhalation. He’d been concentrating so hard that the unrelated rest of the world had gone out of focus, and now Sano’s warmth against him restored his awareness abruptly. He hadn’t even realized how long he’d been sitting here; it was probably three in the morning by now.

Sano’s hands roved slowly across his chest in an almost massaging motion, and now he was leaning forward to look at the desk. “You’re not even actually doing anything, are you? Just going through those same notes.”

“There has to be a pattern,” Saitou muttered, sitting up straight again and forcing his eyes back onto the papers in front of him.

“No, there doesn’t,” replied Sano flatly. “There isn’t always a connection between shit like this.”

“There is here,” Saitou stated. But the notes on the desk were blurring.

“Sure there is.” Sano pressed closer against him. “Guy gets assigned boring criminal shit whenever he’s not investigating dirty politicians, and he usually gets through it about twice as fast as the other cops because he’s some kind of crazy genius or something. So obviously this guy’s gonna want to get all his cases done twice as fast so everyone keeps thinking he’s some kind of crazy genius or something.”

Saitou gave a brief, dry laugh and murmured, “Ahou.”

“What?” protested Sano. “It makes perfect sense!”

“There are other reasons I might want to wrap up a case quickly. Don’t assume I’m as frivolous as you.”

I don’t think trying to keep up your reputation is frivolous.”

“No, I’m sure you don’t.”

“And I know this is an Aku Soku Zan thing too,” Sano went on in a more serious tone, “but you gotta sleep sometime.” Saitou looked down at his papers again, but Sano persisted before he could speak. “Come on, man, it’s not a murder case! Sure, these guys are all organized and getting away with expensive shit, but it’s not like anyone’s dead.”

“You’ve been reading my notes,” Saitou remarked in some surprise.

“I gotta find something to do while you’re busy,” shrugged Sano.

“There are quite a few more useful things you could be doing.” But Saitou couldn’t help smiling as he made this remonstrance. He stood, pushing the chair aside and turning into Sano’s embrace.

After a warm, leisurely kiss Sano said, “Here, let me help you,” and attacked the buttons of Saitou’s jacket.

Helping Sano ‘help’ him, Saitou chucked low in his throat. “And here’s the real point of all your persuasion. Don’t you ever think about anything else?”

“Hey!” Sano gave him a (mostly) facetious glare. “I’m looking out for you, trying to make sure you don’t work yourself to death, and you make me sound like some horny kid!”

“I’m afraid you’re going to work me to death one of these nights,” Saitou smirked.

“That would be a way better way to go.”

Saitou had to agree.

Sometimes all he really needed in order to solve a problem was to step back and think about something else for a while. Sometimes he forgot this in his single-minded pursuit of evil. Sano’s intervention might not have done much to compel Saitou to rest, since dawn found him again seated at his desk in full uniform, but now as he looked at the collected information all the pieces of the pattern were falling into place almost without effort.

As he gathered up his things, ready to head to the station and initiate a plan of action he’d been miles away from even forming just hours before, he threw a fond smile over at his sleeping lover. His involvement with Sano had more benefits than merely his own perpetual happiness.


This fic is dedicated to TsukiNekoSama, an old friend from DeviantArt that used to like this pairing too.

I’ve rated this story . Short and sweet.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


You Won’t Regret It 11-15


Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?


Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.



A loud pounding on the outer door of the quarters in the middle of the night startled a good half of the sleeping slaves awake, including Katsu. Anyone that remained asleep was probably awakened by the subsequent discussion; even through the wall Katsu could hear every word.

“What the hell do you want?” This was the quarter-warden; she had absolutely no qualms being incredibly rude to the guards if she thought the situation warranted it. Apparently being dragged out of bed at some dark hour of early morning warranted it.

“This one’s yours, isn’t he?” This guard was familiar enough to Katsu, his voice rough and annoyed. A thudding sound accompanied the question.

“Yeah; what’d he do?”

“We found him hanging around an empty barracks room. Trying to avoid earning his keep; who knows how much he’s been doing it lately?”

Katsu had a sudden sinking feeling that he knew who ‘he’ was.

“He’s been out a lot lately,” the warden said in disgust, and by this time Katsu had rolled from his cot and crept to the doorway between the two rooms.

“Don’t let him out anymore unless one of us comes for him,” the guard was saying as Katsu peered around the doorframe. It was as he’d feared: Sano, red spots of recent blows on his face and redder spots of blood on his shoulder, crouched or knelt on the floor as if he’d been thrown there. Half bent over and motionless in the incomplete light from the door of the warden’s room, he looked almost dead.

Even as Katsu’s eyes fell on him, the guard that had brought him gave him a hard kick. “You hear me?”

At once Sano answered in a dull tone, “Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll be by for you tomorrow night when I’m not on patrol. I’m not done teaching you your lesson yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Sano repeated, and Katsu found himself shuddering. That tone, that repetition…

The guard gave Sano a parting shove before turning to leave; Sano fell forward onto all fours and remained there. With a snort, the warden turned her disgusted gaze from him to where Katsu stood watching, as if she already knew she would find him. “Get him to bed,” she ordered. “Clean him up first if you want, but if I hear one sound out of any of you you’ll be scrubbing this place until your fingers fall off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Katsu murmured, hastening forward. The presence of Soujirou at his side briefly startled but did not really surprise him. The newcomer couldn’t assist much in raising Sano, given that only one of the latter’s shoulders was a workable support, but his willingness to be of service was comforting.

Another, deeper shudder chilled Katsu as they got into the bathroom and full light. Sano stood still, swaying slightly, exactly where he was placed, gaze angled downward and shoulders slumped. He didn’t seem to feel the pain of his reopened injury or the blows he’d evidently taken to other parts of his body, and he didn’t say a word as Katsu pulled the loose shoulder of his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was.

It wasn’t as dire as Katsu had feared — well, as far as he could tell; admittedly his medical knowledge was next to nonexistent — and he hoped that, once the blood was cleaned off and the bandages retightened, Sano might not suffer too much.

“What happened?” Soujirou asked, hovering to one side.

For a moment Sano did not even seem to have heard the question, but finally he stirred a little — though still staring blankly at the floor — and murmured, “I should have closed the door.”

At first Katsu couldn’t think what his friend meant by this, and silently continued wiping the blood away from Sano’s shoulder with a wad of toilet paper. As he threw the latter into the garbage, however, he guessed, “Of the room that guard found you in?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied in the same quiet, listless tone. He didn’t wince as Katsu yanked the bandages back into place and fastened them in a tight knot. But he did look up, meeting his friend’s gaze, as he added, “His room.”

Katsu drew in a sudden rough breath and took an inadvertent step back as a painful, desperate panic whirled through him. “Sano…!” The word had the tone of a shout but was as quiet as a whisper. His hands reached out, clutching tightly at his friend’s shoulders as he moved back toward him. “Sano!” he said again, shaking him.

“That hurts,” Sano replied vaguely, pulling away from Katsu’s grip and moving past him. “I’m going to bed.” And without another word he left the room.

Katsu stumbled blindly to the nearest hard surface and, without even thinking what he did, pounded a fist against it. A muffled gasp told him he’d found the door between the two bathrooms and startled someone on the other side, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care whether whoever it was alerted the warden and he got in trouble. How could this be happening? How could this be happening??

Soujirou’s hand was on his shoulder. “Katsu, what’s wrong?” The worry in the tone seemed born more of confusion than sympathy.

But how could Katsu answer? How could he possibly explain to someone as carefree as Soujirou, someone without a history of being mistreated, someone that had not lived his life among the most miserable members of the human race, that the dullness he had seen in Sano’s eyes was the first downward step on the path to utter soullessness? And how could he admit the secret belief he’d cherished all along that he would be the first to break? That he would never have to deal with Sano breaking because he would almost certainly go first? That he wasn’t ready for this?

But Soujirou’s hand was still on him, gripping him tightly, silently expressing a desire to know and to help… as if there were anything he could do to help… Katsu had to say something.

He leaned his forehead against the cold wall and squeezed his eyes closed. “This is how it starts. I know the signs.” His tone was hoarse, almost harsh. “That’s how they act when they’re starting to break. If he keeps going like that, he won’t be Sano anymore. He won’t be anyone anymore.”

Soujirou drew in a deep breath, and Katsu held his own. He’d chosen his words carefully — as carefully as he could in this frame of mind — because he didn’t think he could stand it if Soujirou argued with him; he simply could not handle a debate at this point. But what the other finally said, quietly and slowly, was, “If that’s true, then it’s even more important now not to give up hope.”

It sounded so trite, so meaningless in the face of what Katsu couldn’t help regarding was something like the end of his world… and yet somehow, when he stood straight and looked over at Soujirou and saw the sad smile on his lips, he felt, if not exactly reassured, at least steadied: aware that he wasn’t alone. Still, his tone was unmistakably bitter as he replied, “You and your optimism.” After which he found Soujirou’s arms around him — strong arms, stronger than he’d really been aware before — holding him tightly as if to say that, while Soujirou might not entirely understand, still he would not let go. And if Katsu’s reciprocal gesture was more of a clinging grasp than a return embrace, neither of them much cared.

The amount of sleep Katsu got for the rest of that night was phenomenally low, if not actually nonexistent. When he wasn’t staring at Sano’s motionless back in the next cot, he was tossing and turning with his eyes squeezed shut, unable to fight off a parade of cruelly dismal thoughts about the future. And every once in a while, when he was turned that direction, he would catch sight of Soujirou on his other side watching him in the darkness with expressionless eyes.

Katsu felt somewhat comforted that he was not the only sleepless worrier… but also got the impression, though he could not have explained why, that Soujirou was just as much keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t do anything impetuous as offering moral support. He remembered the suspicions he’d formulated about his would-be lover… but at the moment couldn’t bring himself to give that matter much thought.

The morning came with some consolation. Although Katsu could still barely get a word out of Sano before they went their separate ways, Sano’s blankness seemed to reflect contemplation rather than true absence of mind. Katsu should have known better than to think Sano would go all at once… but it was only a slight relief, given that the genesis had unmistakably taken place even if Sano was fighting it.

As for Sano, he could only hazily remember what had happened after his disastrous visit to that empty room last night. As a matter of fact, except for certain repetitive trains of thought that seemed to have him in an unshakeable taloned grip, everything was a little hazy in his head. The world seemed simplified somehow… he was confused, he was unhappy, but beyond that he didn’t seem to care about — or, to a certain extent, even recognize — anything.

It was not so much any sort of external inhibition of his senses as an internal disinclination or even inability to rouse himself to any particularly complex thoughts or emotions. And he found he couldn’t really object. There was pain and confusion; here was relative peace. If he could just not care for a while, things would undoubtedly work out.

The dullness made the day drag, each load of laundry seeming to take an hour just to get into the washing machine and the muscular impulses required to accomplish this task unusually difficult — but the apathy rendered him indifferent. The increased pain in his shoulder from the beating he’d taken last night, augmented by the work of the day, could not rouse him; even the memory that he was in disfavor with the quarter-warden and had what would probably be an unusually unpleasant barracks-call tonight could not rouse him.

His senses were dulled along with his thoughts: he didn’t really hear the murmur of the other slaves in the mess hall, nor taste his supper, and saw his friends only as if from far away, their faces unusually featureless. If they held any conversation while they ate, he didn’t notice.

The one event of the entire day that threatened to shake him was when Katsu very deliberately kissed Soujirou as the newcomer rose to leave the room once he’d finished eating… but even that was not quite enough. Why worry about a situation for which there was no help? Besides, Sano’s mind felt like it had shrunken past the point of holding anything but the unpleasant reflections, now hazy, that had plagued him since yesterday. Eventually, he thought, even those must fade.

He hardly noticed the quarter-warden’s disdainful insults when he came in after supper, and once again the dull time passed smoothly away before his uncaring eyes as he waited for the guard that was going to ‘finish teaching him his lesson’ tonight.

The crispness of the man’s grey uniform, freshly-laundered today, was something of a jolt, but the guard lacked the leanness of figure and precision of movement that would have really bothered Sano. At another time, in another frame of mind, that expression combining lust and anger might have worried Sano… but not tonight. This was just another thing he had to do; it meant nothing. So, though Katsu gave him a stricken look as the guard led him out and the others appeared no less grim, Sano didn’t feel there was any real need for worry.

He was right. Rough, almost brutal, though the guard was with him, Sano found it even easier, as the day progressed toward its end, not to care. It was just another task, and if he could get through it he could sleep. And the simplest way of getting through it was not caring.

He didn’t care how thoroughly or painfully the guard wore him out. He didn’t care that the man then made him sleep on the floor. He didn’t care that his shoulder and ass were bleeding. He didn’t care that the doctor was tired of seeing him and might get him in trouble when he went to her in the morning. He didn’t care that he was going to be in even greater pain as he worked tomorrow.

Abstractly he wondered why he hadn’t ever tried this before. Life would have been so much easier, could have moved so much more quickly and smoothly toward its end like this. He wasn’t entirely certain yet whether or not he wanted to remain thus indefinitely, but at the moment it didn’t seem a half-bad idea. Forget yellow-eyes and the confusion he’d induced, forget the idea of a better way of living, and just not care.

For tonight at the very least, in any case, he planned on staying in this peaceful, hazy place, and it was unlikely there was anything in his little world that could possibly drag him out of it.


The alarm siren was pounding through his brain like a stake driven by a mallet as he and Katsu hid in the trees, shaking, clutching at each other in terror — fear that was all the worse for being unusual and unconquerable. They wouldn’t have been afraid at all if it hadn’t been for the desperate, hopeless tone in Souzou’s voice as he ordered them away. “You’re too young to die,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.” They knew now what he’d known all along: that the approaching footsteps were armed guards out for the kill.

Sano awoke in outright tears, curled up on the floor clutching at his chest as if he could pull himself into a tighter ball and thereby avoid notice, as if he were still that frightened child of ten years prior.

Weapons at the ready, the grey-clad enforcers appeared all at once from practically every direction. Obviously by prearrangement, they did not speak or otherwise allow for confrontation. They merely opened fire.

This was what he got for trying not to care, for thinking nothing in the world could rouse him.

Sano would have liked to look away or close his eyes, would have liked to run to avoid the stray bullets that tore the air around him and splintered the tree trunk behind him… but he couldn’t… he couldn’t move or even blink as the slaves before him — all of them good men and women that had been kind to him during his brief time in this awful place — were mercilessly slaughtered in a shower of gunfire and blood. As he watched Souzou fall, he screamed.

This could always rouse him, no matter what else he’d suffered, no matter how he felt. The day the memory of Souzou’s horrific, pointless, glorious sacrifice failed to move him was the day he truly lost his humanity.

After a few moments, silence fell over the gory scene, broken only by the weeping of two young slaves — boys that, a moment later, were spared their companions’ fate only because they were too young and too pretty to kill.

Fighting viciously to subdue the fear and misery that kept him from functioning correctly, it took Sano a moment to recognize what had caused him to dream of that distant scenario: outside, the alarm siren was blaring for perhaps the first time he could remember since that tragic night.

The guard was gone, apparently having run out in a hurry to see what the alarm was about, leaving the door half-open. Sano had managed to pull himself off the floor and had just located his shoes when the shooting began.

Against the backdrop of the alarm siren, it was almost too painfully similar to the events of his dream for him to bear, and he was tempted to curl up on the bed and squeeze the pillow around his ears until it was all over. But he was braver than that, so he put his head cautiously through the door.

Looking out from the south side of the building on the first floor, he was facing the slave quarters and facilities. Guards were running here and there in a pattern he only recognized very vaguely: the complex seemed to be going into lockdown in response to the shooting, which was coming from up the hill to the north in the vicinity of the staff buildings and the main entrance. He left the room and headed around the corner.

He didn’t feel like himself. He wasn’t sure what “feeling like himself” was anymore, but he didn’t feel like it. The pain of which he’d been barely conscious last night was present, the thoughts he’d pushed aside all day yesterday were audible in his head, and yet this awareness was different from the usual: the current situation, whatever it was — the sounds of the siren and the guns, the memory that was so inextricably connected with them — superceded everything else. He was himself, but it was more the self of years ago than the self of today or the day before yesterday.

“Sano!”

He looked up to see Katsu running toward him from the direction of the slave quarters, looking haggard and desperate. It was no surprise that Katsu had felt the need to seek Sano out in the midst of what must be for him just as emotionally chaotic as it was for Sano, but the latter doubted it was a good idea.

Reaching him, Katsu took him by his good shoulder and met his eyes, panting. The look on Katsu’s face showed plainly that he’d been awakened in the exact same manner Sano had, but also that he hadn’t forgotten how Sano had been acting yesterday and wasn’t sure now in what state he would find his friend. Sano was sorry for that. At least he was able to convey with a single glance that he had returned, though it did little to alleviate the pain in Katsu’s gaze.

“What’s going on?” Katsu asked unsteadily.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, reaching up to take hold of and squeeze the arm with which Katsu was gripping his shoulder — as much for his own comfort as to reassure Katsu.

The latter pushed his messy, unbound hair out of his face, and together they turned to look toward the noises. They could still see nothing through the trees that separated the sprawling barracks from the staff buildings, but they could hear that the gunfire hadn’t lessened.

“Hey, you two!” A guard startled them in their watch by turning the corner and almost running into them. “What the hell are you doing standing around here? Are you fucking deaf? Get in–”

Sano and Katsu, turning, saw it where the guard could not, and their mutual expressions of surprise were not in time to warn him, even had that been their intention. His eyes went as wide as theirs before closing as he slumped forward to the ground. They stepped back to avoid his falling figure, staring, and Sano was sure Katsu was wondering, just as he was, whether the man was still even alive.

“You left so fast,” Soujirou greeted Katsu with his usual smile, lowering the hand that had felled the guard, “I almost couldn’t figure out where you went!”

“I… had to find Sano…” Katsu was shaking his head disbelievingly. “Did you… is he dead?”

Sano sympathized with his friend’s evident inability to grasp what was going on, but thought he understood better than Katsu could. Had he not questioned — in almost those same words, even — a similar action performed by another newcomer only days before? The same mysterious motion, the same fortuitous timing… Sense was suddenly blossoming out of confusion… and, with it, anger.

You’re part of all of this too, aren’t you?” he demanded, stepping toward Soujirou without minding that he trod on the arm of the fallen guard. “You could have answered my questions all along, and you fucking pretended to be just like us!”

Soujirou raised a hand as if to stave off further recrimination or even physical retaliation, though Sano hadn’t planned on the latter. “I’ll explain on the way; we need to get back to the quarters.”

“Like hell we do.” Sano stood his ground, growling. “What the fuck is going on? Who are you, or what are you, or whatever? Where is… where’s that guy? That guard?”

“Sano, what the hell are you talking about?” Katsu was demanding at about the same moment.

“He’s probably in the middle of the shooting,” Soujirou answered Sano’s question. “You’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

Turning immediately, Sano tried again to guess via sound where exactly the aforesaid middle of the shooting was likely to be. Behind him Katsu gave a shaky sigh and remarked, “With as long as you’ve been here, I should think you’d know Sano better than that.”

Glancing back, Sano saw that Soujirou’s smile was wry, probably because he’d realized that actually answering the question had been a mistake of sorts. “If you go over there and get yourself shot, he’ll be angry,” he told Sano.

“He fucking shot me already,” Sano replied flatly. “I’m going to find him.”

“Sano…”

Sano almost couldn’t bear to face Katsu, nor could he help reflecting that there were a lot of diverse and fascinating ways to be a complete dick to someone. He had no idea what his friend must think of him by now, after all the stupid and crazy things he’d been doing lately, after everything he’d put him through, after yesterday… but this, he hoped, would be the end. The end of everything.

Why it was so imperative for him to brave the crossfire and chaos that was presumably going on over there was more difficult to say… but he felt he was being drawn, impelled, so that every moment he spent standing still here for whatever reason was almost painful to him. There was no way he could make Katsu understand this, however, so he remained silent.

He might have had more faith in his friend. True, it was only uncertainly and decidedly unhappily that Katsu smiled at him and spoke, but his words were just, “Be careful, OK? Stay in the trees or something.” And whether this was more akin to his saying, You’re an idiot, or, I forgive you, Sano seemed to sense a certain weight lifting off his heart. Honestly he didn’t feel entirely justified in going on this suicidal pursuit, leaving his friends at this critical moment, especially when he knew Katsu — like himself — must still be feeling the awful burn of memory, but the fact that he had to, and that Katsu understood, made the necessity easier.

“By now,” Soujirou said slowly, “he may be in the staff buildings… but I can’t be sure.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded. And after looking Katsu in the eye one last time, he turned and ran off, heading for the end of everything.

As Katsu watched his friend depart, fully aware that he might never see him again (alive), his heart was clenching tighter and tighter with compounded worry and grief. And he couldn’t decide whether this conscious, feeling, still-obsessed Sano was better than yesterday’s Sano slipping toward oblivion.

However, he had very little time to consider this before Soujirou was tugging at his arm. And as he looked at the smiling, agitated other, Katsu’s eyes seemed to focus or lock onto Soujirou as if he’d forgotten he was there. As if he’d forgotten that he’d been right, that there had been something suspect about Soujirou all along, that there were more strange situations in the complex than just Sano’s.

He gave Sano’s disappearing form another glance before turning to follow Soujirou. However foolish it might be — even more so than Sano going in the first place — Katsu wanted to follow his friend, die with him if need be. He wanted all of this to end. But he also desired, with a fervor only secondary to the aforementioned, to find out who and what Soujirou really was and what was going on. And somebody needed to check on the other slaves. Katsu wasn’t entirely ready to abandon Kaoru and Yahiko just yet.

“So explain,” he commanded tersely as he fell into step beside Soujirou.

“We’re vigilantes,” replied Soujirou promptly. “Or terrorists, depending on which news stations you watch — fighting for human rights that aren’t available to people by law. Our goal on this mission is to completely destroy Ketterect Labor and relocate all slaves to safe locations throughout the three countries.”

Involuntarily Katsu drew in a hissing breath at the ambitiousness of this project. On the surface, in fact, it seemed impossible, except perhaps by the power of a very large, well-funded organization. Given that Soujirou did not seem to be joking or exaggerating, Katsu had to believe that such was the situation, had to take this seriously… but still it was almost too much to wrap his brain around. It meant the total annihilation of his entire world, however he felt about that.

Their swift pace had allowed them to reach the quarters after only so many words and reflections, but when Soujirou went to open the door Katsu held him back. “I assume you’ve taken care of any guards inside already.” He was a little surprised at how bitter his tone already was when he hadn’t even neared the bitter part of his discourse yet.

Soujirou nodded.

“Then we have a minute.”

Although Soujirou threw what might be called a calculating (if still smiling) glance at the door, on looking back at Katsu he seemed to read the seriousness in the latter’s expression. “All right,” he said.

“I knew you were hiding something,” Katsu began, “but this I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Soujirou nodded without saying anything; he was watching carefully all around them, although he did not seem tense.

“All that talk about laws and public opinion wasn’t just talk,” Katsu went on at a murmur. Still Soujirou did not seem inclined to reply, at least not until Katsu continued pointedly, “But the rest of it was.”

“The rest of it?”

“‘I really do like you,'” Katsu quoted harshly. “‘We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.'”

“That wasn’t just talk.” Soujirou actually seemed a little startled at the accusation. “I do like you.”

“So much that you’d take advantage of me and lie to get what you wanted from me.” Outwardly Katsu was a good deal calmer than inwardly, but he didn’t think there was a tone that could have expressed just how betrayed he felt at this point.

“I had to lie.” Soujirou, too, was calm — almost agonizingly so. “Those were my orders.”

“Your orders,” Katsu said very dryly, “were to find a slave you liked and seduce him?” For all he didn’t actually believe Soujirou’s orders had been anything of the sort, still he felt as if the entire time he’d been nothing more than an objective… a quota…

Now Soujirou’s smile was gone, and tone and expression were entirely serious. “My orders were to make friends with slaves, find out information, and steer them away from anything that might lead them to guess something was going on.”

“You did it to distract me, then?” If anything, this was an even cheaper excuse than the previous, and Katsu was almost inclined to discontinue the conversation. On top of everything else, this was simply too painful.

“I did it because I like you,” said Soujirou quietly. “If I didn’t like you, there were other ways I could have distracted you.”

“But you preferred playing games and feeding me lines.”

“Katsu, they weren’t lines; it wasn’t a game.” Soujirou shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t have taken it as far as Akamatsu made us go, but I really have been sincere.”

Katsu also shook his head, protesting, almost in denial of this situation. “Didn’t you ever think that my feelings might be different if I knew what was going on?” he demanded. “Maybe I’d like to know I really do have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love? That I might actually have a choice?” He was finally starting to sound angry now, the hot, upset emotion breaking at last through the shock and confusion. “That my new option isn’t like everyone else, and neither is the situation?”

In response to Katsu’s tone, Soujirou looked away and said quietly, “I thought… you liked me…”

Katsu stared at him. How could someone so intelligent still be so clueless? Because it was clear that Soujirou simply did not understand the magnitude of what he’d done. And seeing finally that the mistake arose not from callousness but from genuine (if completely unexpected) naivete, Katsu couldn’t help feeling just a little less betrayed.

“People get into relationships with different attitudes,” he explained with a sigh. Soujirou looked up at him again immediately, hopefully, at the apparent abatement of anger. “If you’re assuming it’s going to be brief,” Katsu went on, “or if you get into it with the idea that this is the only option when you happen to be horny, it’s not going to be the same as if you know you have a choice, both about the person and how long you’re going to be with them. It’s going to be a totally different relationship; it won’t mean as much.”

Now Soujirou was staring, and his smile had returned — but it was a sad, wan expression. “How is it that you’re an expert on this too?” he murmured, seeming a little confused. “How do you know so much about everything when…”

Flatly Katsu finished the question for him. “When I’m a slave? I’m only a slave when people treat me like one… keeping me in a place like this, or raping me four times a week… or letting me think that I have no choice but to like them or stay lonely. I can still keep my eyes and ears open and learn whatever I can.”

Soujirou bowed his head again, now as if in defeat, his smile even sadder. “You really are like him…”

If Katsu hadn’t already had Souzou on his mind — admittedly in the background, behind the separate dramas of Soujirou and Sano — he might not have realized what Soujirou meant. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling, as he had the last time Soujirou had compared him to his late role model, a little gratified. As such, his tone was gentler than it had yet been during this conversation as he asked, “Does it bother you that a slave might know more about relationships than you do?”

“Only a little…” Again Soujirou raised his head and gave Katsu a forlorn smile. “I’ve always known I’m hopeless in that area. It just makes me like you more, knowing how impressive you really are.”

Although this seemed honest and still a bit sad, there was more than a hint of pleading ingratiation about the words. Katsu had no doubt that Soujirou really did like him… but all that did was make the situation more complicated and more potentially painful. Here all over again was the dilemma he’d faced when he’d started suspecting Soujirou, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the right moment to puzzle through his own heart and what he could or could not forgive; they really couldn’t afford to spend any more time standing around out here. Still, looking into the almost hopeless face turned up toward him, Katsu couldn’t bring himself to be too harsh just yet.

“Maybe if you get me out of here alive,” he said, “we can start over.”



On entering the slave quarters ahead of the watchful Soujirou, Katsu halted in shock when he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a familiar gun. The quarter-warden had always been rather proud of her weapon, and had been given, periodically, to sitting in a comfortable chair just outside her rooms cleaning it ostentatiously with the nervous slaves looking on in silence. But now the quarter-warden was nowhere in sight, and was certainly not the one leveling the gun at the door.

Katsu stared, blank, unblinking, almost unbreathing at the rigid form of Kaoru, who lowered the weapon when she saw who he was. Her other hand held a second gun; this one looked like it probably belonged (had belonged) to a guard. Although tears ran down in two unbroken trails, her face was of better color than he’d seen for weeks, even months; her bearing was upright and steady; her voice was like iron — hard, strong, white-hot — as she met his astonished gaze and said calmly, “Katsu… I’m going to see Kenshin again.”

Until that moment, Katsu hadn’t really felt anything in regard to the current situation — his reaction to Soujirou’s revelation had overridden it. But now it rushed in at him all at once like a whirlpool, and his entire body seemed suddenly weak. Freedom… Not just for himself, but for all of them. Everyone he loved and every last hopeless, miserable person in this hopeless, miserable place. Ten years of nightmare would end at last.

His somewhat inane agreement came out nearly a whisper: “Yes… yes, you are.”

How much longer he might have stood still in the doorway, staring at Kaoru’s unshaking hands holding those guns as if fully confident of her willingness and ability to use them, Katsu could not have guessed. But Soujirou’s hand on his shoulder reminded him that they were supposed to be entering the quarters in order to take cover. Mutely he moved out of the way.

A confused noise arose among the other slaves at the sight of Soujirou; it sounded very much like it wanted to be a cheer. God knew slaves weren’t very practiced at that particular sound, but it shook Katsu out of his shock to some extent.

With a modest nod, Soujirou turned to Kaoru and reached out. Once she’d given him the second gun, she had a hand free to wipe the tears from her face — a futile gesture, since they just kept coming.

“You’ll dehydrate yourself like that,” Soujirou smiled, then offered the gun to Katsu.

The latter’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never–”

“It’s very simple,” Soujirou assured him. “Just point and pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t hit a damn thing!” Katsu took a step backward.

Soujirou moved closer and, with that uncanny speed and dexterity of his, took Katsu’s hand, pressed the gun into it, curled Katsu’s fingers around it, and stepped back again.

“But… what about you?” Katsu stared uncomfortably at his own hand, which had the gun pointed resolutely downward and held it only loosely.

“I don’t need one,” Soujirou smiled.

Before Katsu could protest further, a new voice broke into the conversation with a demand both energetic and uncertain: “Where’s Sano?” It proved an adequate distraction, since not only did it send Katsu’s thoughts flying immediately to his friend, it also called his attention to Yahiko, who’d joined them and asked the question.

Wondering if Sano was even still alive at this point, Katsu shook his head.

Kaoru drew in a startled breath. “He’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Katsu quickly. “He went off after that same guard again.”

“What?” Kaoru looked and sounded incredulous and almost angry. Yahiko, who’d edged to her side, appeared horrified.

“The guard’s part of this too,” was Katsu’s helpless reply. “God knows how many others there are.”

“Almost fifty,” Soujirou smiled. “Apart from the people who stayed outside who’re attacking now, there were three ‘guards,’ and at least one ‘slave’ in every quarters building. Our assignment at this point is to keep all of you inside until someone comes for us. And take care of any guards that might show up, of course. That could happen any time, if things are going our way up the hill; they might come running down this way to try and hide in one of these buildings or take slaves hostage. So,” he added, still smiling somewhat unnervingly, “keep your eyes on the door.”

Kaoru nodded.

Soujirou had done it again, Katsu noted wearily as he turned, like Kaoru, to face the door: neatly diverted their attention from a troubling issue — this time perhaps to keep them on task, prevent excessive worry about Sano, or stave off further questions… Katsu couldn’t be sure. He wasn’t sure of anything at the moment, and in order to avoid catching Soujirou’s eye he watched the door very steadfastly and listened hard.

The room was not quiet. True, the uneasy conversations behind him were conducted at the lowest possible volume, but since it seemed that everyone in the room was talking, it added up. It did not, however, mask the sounds of gunfire outside that were drawing nearer by the moment. This wasn’t the same gunfire as before, though; it was far more diffuse. Katsu guessed that whatever primary assault had been carried out by Soujirou’s ‘people who stayed outside’ had ended in a rout of the defenders, who were now being pursued into and through the complex. Soujirou was right; they might be seeing guards seeking sanctuary inside the building any time now. Little as he felt qualified for it, Katsu finally tightened his grip on the gun in his hand.

Beside him, Kaoru still stood solid and unshaken, still crying and still with that brilliant light in her face. She hadn’t been seduced by a terrorist. She didn’t have to worry how she felt about Soujirou. She hadn’t seen what another member of this mysterious group had done to Sano. To be quite honest, she didn’t care as much about Sano as Katsu did. Not that she didn’t care at all… but at the moment, Katsu was certain, all she did care about was the prospect of seeing Kenshin again. And who could blame her? When love was as straightforward as that — she loved him, she missed him, she would do anything to be reunited with him — why seek out unnecessary complications?

It was a question he might well ask himself. Of course he was worried about Sano and perturbed about Soujirou, but why did he find himself so unbearably, increasingly agitated about the situation itself? It was, after all, no more complicated than Kaoru’s: he was a slave, he would prefer not to be, and soon he would have his freedom — something he’d dreamed about every night and planned for every day for a decade. Why should he be standing here in utter turmoil, not knowing what to think or how to feel?

He knew why. It had nothing to do with the potential dangers of frantic guards or stray bullets. It was in response to a single looming question: once he was free… what then?

He was not worried about the technical aspects of it — whether or not this breakout would achieve the social and legal revolution Soujirou had mentioned so hopefully, whether he would remain free. There was no doubt in his mind that a group capable of orchestrating an operation like this could keep him safe and hidden until the proper time.

No, though he would not have liked to admit it, what really concerned him was freedom itself. Concerned him? It downright terrified him. Of course they’d always talked about escape, and had even attempted it once or twice… but had they ever really thought past that? Thought past what it meant to give up a life that, while fairly miserable, at least offered a measure of certainty? In the countries beyond, there were laws he didn’t know, social customs he didn’t know, work he didn’t know, human nature he didn’t know, life he simply did not know. Would he even be capable of living as a free man?

He wondered whether, and to what extent, Soujirou’s organization had taken this into account. Because it occurred to Katsu at that moment, with this overwhelming realization in mind, that not all slaves were likely to want to be freed.

But he wanted it. When it came right down to it, the fear and uncertainty were nothing compared to his boundless desire to leave this life behind. He wanted to work honestly for his own sake, to get paid for it, to go where he pleased and do as he chose. He wanted his friends around him, no guards, and no guns. And whether he liked it or not, he wanted Soujirou with him.

Still unready to think about that, however, he shifted into a more solid stance and once again directed his eyes at the door.

The morning’s emotional turmoil had been no less severe for Sano than it had been for his friend, though the components were different. For one thing, there was a dead body in the foliage in front of him, and his heart simply would not stop racing.

It wasn’t just that he’d been agitated by the memory of Souzou; it wasn’t just the sight of figures, some in the grey uniform of guards and some in foresty camouflage, running and shooting; it wasn’t just the danger to himself or the worry about his friends… it was the fact that soon he would have answers. Finally. His confusion and turmoil would end. It was this that kept him on his feet and kept the blood rushing so frantically through his veins.

Well, and it was all that other shit too.

He’d never moved so fast in his life, he thought: around the barracks and up the hill in what felt like an instant. Only when he’d reached the staff buildings and the gunfire had seemed to explode practically in his ears had he remembered Katsu’s admonition. He’d plunged into some trees, the last cover available before the main entrance, paused to get his bearings — and, if possible, calm his racing heart — and was now ducked down low in the bushes.

The guard’s body that sprawled beneath another bush almost within arm’s reach was a nerve-wracking indicator that Sano wasn’t the first to take cover in this particular spot. However, he thought the danger had passed from this immediate vicinity; most of the movement he could see was past the corner of the nearest building, and the noises of gunshots and shouting were loudest from that direction.

The gates of the complex lay to his left, but it would take several paces through the trees to see them clearly; he didn’t think he could hear any gunfire thence, but it was difficult to tell. From his current position he could see most of the staff buildings, however, and he had a good view to the right and down the hill. Whether because neither of the combative groups intended the actual slaves any harm or purely by luck, Sano seemed to have made his way straight through the midst of several small firefights; the turmoil appeared now to have spread out all the way down past the guard barracks.

This is stupid and I didn’t think it through, he was reflecting. The same fluttery nervousness that kept him from looking too closely at the nearby corpse was whispering, with a franticness to match his pulse, that he should go back to his quarters before he got himself killed — killed for no good goddamn reason, killed without ever seeing his friends again or even knowing what had become of them — or at the very least flatten himself onto the ground and wait this out.

But the thought that yellow-eyes was around here somewhere, that the answers he wanted were so close, coupled with the fact that he’d gotten this far, aroused in Sano a stubborn unwillingness to retreat. He did, however, wish he’d asked Soujirou just a few more questions about what was going on, where people were likely to be and to go, and whether or not they were likely to kill him on sight.

If he could just get into that closest building, surely he would be safe. Safer, at least, than he was here. He could probably sprint to the door on this side before anyone was likely to notice or try to shoot him. Circumnavigating the dead body, he moved to the very edge of the trees and peered to the left and right. Nobody seemed to be nearby, nor did anyone within his range of vision seem to be looking his direction. This was the moment.

He sprang forward, and, as predicted, reached the door two seconds later. However, within that span of time, the crack of a shot sounded just above him. It was so startling, acting on his already-pounding heart and strained nerves almost as severely as if the bullet had actually struck him, that his last two steps were a stumble and his hands could barely manage the door that was his object.

Inside, he immediately took the staircase that lay just past the small entry, and put his back to the wall so he could face both the stairs he’d just practically jumped down and the continuing descent. It wasn’t the most tactically strategic position, but he had to give himself a few seconds to calm down. He was shaking, and at the moment he thought only the wall against which he leaned was keeping him upright.

How could he have forgotten?? The staff buildings, unlike all the other buildings in the complex, had windows — windows that opened (or could be broken) and therefore through which people could easily shoot at anything that approached. And just because Soujirou had said yellow-eyes would probably be in the staff buildings by now didn’t mean he was guaranteed to be in this one or that all the staff buildings would be safe to enter!

I really didn’t think this through. Sano drew an unsteady arm across his face as this reflection heralded a wave of giddy amusement, of all things. Stability was returning, and he thought he would soon be able to move again — but perhaps before that, he should give some serious consideration to what the hell he was doing.

He didn’t have time for that, however, as he heard footsteps on the stairs above his head, coming down from the second floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and stood straight. Yes, his legs would do what he told them to now. He told them to run.

The basement contained a short corridor with a door to either side and at the far end. It was very dark, but the light switch didn’t have any effect when Sano turned it; he guessed that the whoever-they-were’s had disabled the complex’s power. It would probably be more difficult to find or shoot him in the dark, anyway, if that was the intention of his presumed pursuer.

Panic began to take hold of him once again when he found the first door locked and the second leading only to a small office in which (as far as he could tell in the limited light) it would be impossible effectively to hide. The third door, however, opened onto a large storage room that seemed to fill the entire remaining basement space.

He couldn’t see a thing once the door was closed, and he fumbled with outstretched arms for anything large enough to conceal him from sight. What it was that he eventually found he couldn’t identify, but it was solid and tall enough to duck behind; after that he concentrated on holding still and controlling his breathing. The latter wasn’t exactly coming out in gasps, but it wasn’t exactly unobtrusively quiet, either.

Strain his ears how he might, though, he couldn’t hear a thing. This was almost, he thought, more disconcerting than distant sounds of gunfire. The building — or at least this room — must be well-insulated. Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the lack of footsteps from the hall he’d just left. Was it possible that whoever had been coming down the stairs hadn’t been looking for him after all? Or had they realized they’d set him to flight and quieted? And if nobody appeared, what then? At least he’d have time to give this situation a little more thought.

Not that he really had any idea what he’d do if someone did appear.

Then he heard it: the slight click of the doorknob turning, though unaccompanied by any sounds of human movement. A low grey light, filtered down the stairs and the hallway and through the opening, vaguely illuminated a few dim shapes out past whatever Sano was hiding behind. It shifted slightly, growing, distorting, shrinking, and then disappeared entirely. The door clicked shut. Complete silence fell as Sano held his breath and his movement in rigorous check.

Someone was there.

Sano had never been so still or silent in his entire life. His lungs felt likely to explode, his legs were cramped from crouching, his entire body was tense almost beyond endurance ready to run again, and the only thing going through his head was the continued reiteration of his own stupidity and utter, suicidal lack of forethought.

Another, unexpected light appeared suddenly — this one the brief orange flare of a match, sending strange, unidentifiable shapes jumping into view for half a second and then dying down again. The sound of its striking was accompanied by that of an indrawn breath, and was followed by a calm statement that pierced the darkness as effectively as the light had:

“There’s no need to hide from me.”

Sano knew that voice.


“Y-you…!” He gasped the word out along with the breath he’d been holding. “God fucking damn you, you scared the shit out of me!” His burning legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor, raising his hands to clutch as his hair as almost the only way he could express his relief and the abrupt withdrawal of adrenaline from his system.

The man chuckled, and this time Sano could clearly hear his footsteps approaching; apparently he only moved silently when he felt the specific need. “Making your way up here in the middle of a firefight doesn’t scare you, but this does?” Sano could tell when the man had neared him, not only by sound but by the sight of a small point of orange light in the darkness. The scent of cigarette smoke informed him what this must be. “I should have known you wouldn’t stay safely in the slave quarters until this was over. I suppose Soujirou told you where to find me?”

“He… I…” It would take too many words to explain, and Sano felt that he was really the one that was owed an explanation here. Because suddenly he was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a very, very long time — perhaps his entire life. What right had this man to treat him the way he had, then walk in here and scare him half to death and laugh at him and ask him questions so coolly? It brought Sano to his feet in an instant.

“You better fucking have some good explanations ready.” It was a little like the first time they’d lain in yellow-eyes’ barracks bed together — the darkness seemed to embolden Sano — and this time on a much larger scale. In fact, knowing what he now knew, he felt all of his inhibitions dissolving and all his fears erased, and nothing but the desire for answers present in his mind.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?” he burst out. “Who the hell gave you permission to fuck with my head like that? Do you know how fucking confused I’ve been about you and what was going on? Why would you let me think you were here to ‘steal slaves’ without just fucking telling me what you were really doing? Why would you make me think you were going to just take me away from my friends — and that was confusing as hell too because you acted like you hated all the fucking guards — and why would you act like you fucking cared about me and then just make it look like you’d left without even saying anything to me?” Here he ran out of breath; this and the nagging reflection that he wasn’t expressing himself very well forced him to pause.

A long silence followed, during which the end of the man’s cigarette glowed brightly for a moment as he took a drag, then faded back to its former, duller red. Finally, “I knew you must be confused,” came the voice of the darkness, “but I didn’t realize it would bother you that much.”

“You shot me,” Sano replied, striving for a level tone, determined that it should make sense this time. “You stopped me from escaping but didn’t turn me in. You wanted to fuck me but never did. You acted like you cared about me specially but wouldn’t ever answer any of my questions. Then you killed a guy right in front of me, claimed you were here to steal me, and then disappeared. If you’d just told me what you were doing here, I’d have gotten it. Instead I just about fucking lost my mind.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I couldn’t have told you without jeopardizing the mission.”

“‘Jeopardizing the mission…'” Sano repeated it at a whisper. “Jeopardizing the fucking mission…” Then, because he simply couldn’t help himself, he began to laugh.

Suddenly, as if something that had been tightening all morning had snapped inside him, he felt exhausted and strangely limp. He took two steps forward, and yellow-eyes steadied him as Sano pressed against his body and continued laughing into his chest. He seemed to be shaking a little more than the laughter could account for, and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound.

“I’m sorry,” the man said in his ear. “It’s all over now.” He even sounded fairly sincere.

“You…” Sano murmured when he could speak again. “You are a fucking asshole…”

One of the man’s arms went around Sano for support as he answered, “Probably.”

Sano noted distantly, pointlessly, that the cloth against his face was not the stuff the guards wore — infinitely familiar as he was with that — but something a touch rougher and not so stiff. Yellow-eyes had probably changed into the same camouflage the rest of his group had on. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you nonstop for so fucking long. That was all I really needed to figure out: that you’re a fucking asshole.”

Yellow-eyes chuckled again. “Then you understand everything now.”

“Not quite.” Sano remained where he was, with his head bent and his words muffled by the man’s garment; he wasn’t ready to move quite yet. “You wanted me all along, but you didn’t fuck me because you wanted to be better than the other guards because you’re not really one of them and all that. That makes sense now, I guess. But then why the hell did you jack me off that one time?”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” was the answer — so immediate that Sano thought yellow-eyes must already have had this on his mind.

“It didn’t help with me being confused as hell, you know.”

“Do you want me to apologize again?” These words were somewhat dry, but Sano got the feeling the man would apologize again if Sano demanded it.

He considered for a moment. “Nah,” he finally said. “You just did it ’cause you felt like it?”

He could feel the man nod.

Sano nodded also, withdrawing slightly. He felt a little less shaky now, but still very tired. He doubted it was an hour since he’d arisen, but he could probably sleep a whole night’s worth if he lay down now.

Yellow-eyes made no effort to keep him close; in fact, in a businesslike tone he remarked, “I’ve been down here too long. Come with me.” The glowing ember of the cigarette fell to the concrete floor and disappeared under an invisible foot.

Sano reached out and caught at the man, finding an arm to hold onto, afflicted by a sudden, childish fear of losing him in this darkness. But if yellow-eyes picked up on this, he said nothing, only led Sano unfalteringly to the door. Notwithstanding his lack of tension up until this moment, he opened it quietly and cautiously. Once Sano’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light pouring through the slowly-widening aperture, he could see that yellow-eyes had his hand on his holstered gun and was, in fact, wearing the camouflage Sano had observed on the other invaders.

The hallway was empty, and no sound came from up the stairs. As they stepped out of the storage room and yellow-eyes closed the door behind them, Sano paused to look at him. It was the same face — the same high cheekbones and narrow eyes, expressive lips and thin brows — but something was different about him now, something more than a mere change of raiment could explain. Perhaps it was that, after that conversation in utter darkness, Sano felt he knew the real man a little better, that some of the mystery was repealed. Perhaps it was only the absence of the previous turmoil through which Sano had been viewing the other all along.

Whatever it was, he found himself moving almost without conscious effort, taking the handsome face in his hands, and leaning up to kiss him.

His anger was mostly gone, and though he didn’t know what would happen next or exactly how he felt about this man, there was undeniably something between them. Yellow-eyes responded by pulling him close, and they stood thus for quite some time.

When Sano finally broke away, the man quirked a half-smile at him and said, “Trying to pay me back for confusing you so much?”

“You’d deserve it if I did.” Sano wasn’t quite sure what he meant, though.

Evidently in response to Sano’s uncertain tone, “I’m a fucking asshole,” the man explained, “but you kiss me?”

Sano grinned. “Yeah, why don’t you just headache about it for a while before I tell you?”

Yellow-eyes’ smirk widened as he shook his head slightly, released Sano, and turned again. His cautious demeanor and the hand again on his gun told Sano they were moving on.

“So you’re in charge of all of this?” Sano asked quietly as they climbed the stairs.

The man looked for a moment as if he wasn’t going to answer, was perhaps going to advise wordless progress, but then — perhaps realizing that Sano might explode if he tried that shit again — answered just as softly, “Our organization has three teams; I’m in charge of one of them.”

“And what the hell are you guys trying to do?”

They’d reached the second floor, and here, upon seeing another camouflage-clad person crouched beside a potted plant in the corridor to which the stairs led, yellow-eyes relaxed somewhat. Acknowledging the watcher with a nod, he answered Sano’s question as they continued down the hall. “Our goal is to annihilate Ketterect Labor and free all the slaves.”

Although this was what Sano had guessed, he couldn’t help shivering slightly at hearing it. If he hadn’t seen all the people with guns… if he didn’t know this man was in charge of at least part of the operation… he would have thought it an impossibly grandiose scheme likely to get more of them killed than freed.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked next.

“We’ve arranged for temporary homes for all the slaves; it was the longest and most difficult part of the preparation for this mission. You’ll all be acclimatized to free society, and hopefully during that time the laws will change.”

“No, I mean, what are you going to do with me.”

Yellow-eyes paused outside the door they were evidently about to enter and looked back at him. “Whatever you want me to,” he said.

In response to Sano’s somewhat baffled expression, the man smirked faintly and explained. “It’s really up to you whether you want to put up with me after this.” He held Sano’s gaze for a moment, and Sano really didn’t know what to say. “For the moment,” he finally continued, turning back to the door, “I’m going to work on keeping you alive long enough to decide.”

Sano followed him unhesitatingly into the room. This might prove to be a rather long day, but he wasn’t sure he minded.

Katsu also felt he was in for a long day. The lights had gone out, leaving them in near-complete darkness in the windowless slave quarters, and, while he and Kaoru maintained their dubious cover of the door, the other slaves bombarded Soujirou with questions.

Just listening — on the outside now, as it were — Katsu could clearly see how easily and glibly Soujirou answered only exactly what he wanted to and evaded the rest. Some of what the other slaves wanted to know, Katsu guessed, might indeed be dangerous or demoralizing; but not all of it was, and there seemed no good reason for evasion. He wondered whether this repressiveness was simply Soujirou’s nature. In any case, it didn’t seem to be hurting the other slaves’ opinion of him; there was already a touch of hero-worship to their interaction with him. Katsu tried very hard not to let this make him jealous.

Every moment that passed seemed like an hour as he held the gun, watched the faint glint of tears on Kaoru’s face, and felt the tension grow; eventually he lost all concept of the passage of time. There was no way to see outside without opening the door, there were no clocks, and the questions being posed by his fellows to Soujirou were getting disconcertingly repetitive. Katsu felt he was beginning to go a little crazy. Was it morning or afternoon? Or another day or year? Or had time stopped completely?

The gunfire, at least, had stopped completely, after a gradual diminution, and it had been some time since Katsu had heard anything beyond the increasingly loud noise here inside the building. Their little set of rooms might have spun out from the rest of the world for all he knew, and he might stand here pointing this gun at that unmoving rectangle of dim light at the other end of the chamber for the rest of eternity.

Even these thoughts seemed removed by an incomprehensible gulf of time from the eventual sounds at the door.

The room fell gradually quiet as the realization that someone was outside filtered through its inhabitants. Most of them, Katsu thought, were turned toward Soujirou in apprehensive appeal by the time the knock came.

It was a peculiarly rhythmic knock, obviously a signal of some sort, and in response Soujirou’s smile widened. “Looks like it’s over,” he said cheerfully, and moved toward the door. Gratefully, Katsu lowered his gun.

The sunlight that streamed into the room seemed almost alien after the shadows, but the hour of day, at least, could now be guessed at. Katsu couldn’t be surprised at seeing what looked like the light of mid-afternoon, given that he’d had no idea what time it was.

“Hey, Sou,” said the figure that entered, partially blocking the light.

“All clear,” Soujirou replied.

“We’re on to Phase 4,” the man’s voice said. Katsu couldn’t make out any details beyond his silhouetted figure in the open doorway, but felt predisposed to like the person. The combination of his seeming informality and the words ‘Phase 4’ seemed strange, but it really made little difference. “We’ll take over for you here, if you wanna report to the captain at the office building.”

Soujirou tilted his head curiously. “Why?”

“Captain’s informant wants to hear his friends are safe or something. Said you’d know who to take up there.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Katsu always heard everything, he might not have caught the second sentence. Overwhelmed with relief at the implications of the first, he let out a breath like a sigh and felt suddenly rather weak. Beside him, he could sense much the same reactions from Kaoru and Yahiko.

“Sounds good.” This time Katsu didn’t just hear the smile in Soujirou’s voice, but saw it on his face along with a glint of blue eyes as Soujirou turned toward him and gestured. “Katsu, why don’t you come with me?”

Quickly Katsu joined Soujirou at the door, through which the latest arrival had moved into the room. “Hey, folks,” the man was saying to the other slaves. “How you doing?”

Outside, shielding his eyes against the sun, Katsu found himself facing a number of people clad in camouflage the colors of the forest and carrying various firearms. He couldn’t help stopping to stare for a moment, though Soujirou just waved and started up the hill. They stared back, some of them smiling, some grim, some curious.

Katsu shook himself and jogged to catch up with Soujirou.

The latter remarked as Katsu reached him, “It’s good to hear that Sano’s all right, isn’t it?”

Yes,” replied Katsu emphatically. He glanced back at the slave quarter buildings as they moved farther up the hill, taking note of the number of camouflage figures he could see and their movements. After a few more paces he felt compelled to comment, “Your organization seems really… informal.”

“I guess,” Soujirou shrugged. “It works, though.” He added with a slight laugh, “People don’t disobey the captains.”

“That guard of Sano’s…” Katsu had to pause to grimace briefly at his own choice of words. “He’s one of the captains?”

Soujirou nodded. Katsu thought he understood why people didn’t disobey, in that case.

Although there were two staff buildings that contained offices, apparently Soujirou knew what to understand by ‘the office building,’ as he was headed unerringly to the one nearer the complex entrance. Everywhere Katsu looked there were more camouflaged people, standing around, moving purposefully somewhere or other, watching him and Soujirou… It made him a little nervous — not that he was exactly free of that emotion to begin with — and when they reached the doors to the building he was actually relieved to find not a single one in sight (from that angle at least). There were sure to be more inside, though.

A desire had been growing in the back of his head all the way up here, and now as Soujirou reached for the door handle Katsu took a deep breath and said his name. When Soujirou turned a questioning smile on him Katsu said, “Hey, listen.” But that wasn’t really what he meant. Frowning, reaching for Soujirou’s hand to pull him close, Katsu bent and kissed him briefly and almost reluctantly.

Soujirou looked a little surprised. “Does that mean you’re not mad at me?”

“Not necessarily,” replied Katsu. He sighed, letting his head fall back to look up at the underside of the roof that overhung the doors so he wouldn’t be tempted to kiss Soujirou again. “I’m not really sure what it means. Just… thanks.”

Squeezing Katsu’s hand briefly and probably smiling, Soujirou released him and said, “Let’s go find Sano.” Katsu looked down to see him turning back toward the door and again reaching for the handle. He took a deep breath and followed.



Time didn’t seem to be passing any more quickly for Sano and Katsu once they were together, but they didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, they might have said fairly positively that they were content now to weather out the long day watching the comings and goings of the operatives around the complex.

Yellow-eyes — whose rank of “captain” apparently allowed him to stay in one place and give orders rather than run around like everyone else — was the only consistent sight throughout the afternoon; even Soujirou had to go do something at some point, throwing a bright smile at Katsu before he left.

Realizing that here was another question he could probably get answered now, Sano strolled over to yellow-eyes’ side once Soujirou was out of the room. “So were his orders to seduce Katsu, or what?” Hearing his friend behind him make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, Sano guessed Katsu and Soujirou had already been over this.

Turning fully to face them both with a frown that seemed to indicate existing suspicions now confirmed, yellow-eyes answered, “No.”

Katsu sighed again. “Is that going to get him in trouble?”

“We’ll see,” replied yellow-eyes darkly.

But with taking cryptic, uninformative statements from this man Sano was finished. “We’ll see what?” he demanded. Yellow-eyes was unable to answer, however, since at that moment someone entered the room to make a report (or something) and he became busied in a professional conversation.

“It’s probably a little difficult for him to decide,” Katsu speculated, “when he’s pretty much guilty of the same thing.” Sano could clearly hear the disapproval in his barely-lowered voice, and felt his own expression tauten into what might have been called a rueful grin.

“I don’t wanna say I think he did something horrible to me,” he murmured reluctantly. His words grew even quieter as he continued, glancing over at yellow-eyes to see if he was still occupied with the other person. “I was really pissed at him earlier, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about him or what I want to do… but… well, I dunno.”

Katsu snorted. “That’s about how I feel about Soujirou.” Then he sighed again, and returned Sano’s rueful grin as he shook his head. Whatever he might have said next was prevented, though, by the return of yellow-eyes to their end of the room and his full attention to them.

“I also,” the latter remarked as if he’d been part of their discussion all along, “have to take into consideration exactly what he did and to what extent it could have been consensual.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sano, a little suspicious.

Katsu gave the false guard an appraising look. “He means,” he explained slowly, “that the more mindless he finds me, the less forgivable whatever Soujirou’s done will be.”

Yellow-eyes nodded briefly and turned back to his perusal of some of the paperwork he’d rounded up from the various offices. Sano had no idea what he was looking for — but, then, he really had no idea what kind of paperwork the staff kept in their offices. To be honest, he almost had no idea how to read.

He also had no idea how he felt about what Katsu had just said.

They sat in silence for a while, Katsu at the chair from one of the room’s large desks and Sano atop the latter, Sano watching yellow-eyes work and Katsu staring out the window. From this room there was a good view of about two thirds of the complex, which Sano thought was probably the reason yellow-eyes had chosen to remain there.

Everyone that entered drew Sano’s attention — as much because he wanted to watch their interaction with yellow-eyes as that he wanted a better idea of what kind of people these were. For the latter… well, that he had no real idea what ‘normal people’ were like or what to expect from them did occur to him, but he thought most of the members of this group could pass for a fairly good approximation. For the former… it didn’t surprise him to find that yellow-eyes was something of a jerk to his subordinates, nor that they obeyed his orders without argument or hesitation.

All except Aoshi.

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at the other false guard when he entered. Aoshi didn’t look at him, and kept his conversation with yellow-eyes low — neither of which surprised Sano either. Aoshi seemed to have a sort of passive-aggressive one-man rebellion going on against yellow-eyes’ authority, which yellow-eyes tolerated with crumbling patience. This also didn’t surprise Sano, given what he’d learned earlier.

Aoshi did cast a cold-eyed and unreadable look at Sano before he left the room, and Sano didn’t even bother trying not to laugh. Understandably, he found Katsu bemused and curious when he returned his eyes to his friend.

“That’s sit-in-a-chair-all-night guy,” he explained. “Aoshi.”

“Oh!” Katsu glanced at the door through which Aoshi had disappeared, then back to Sano. “Did you figure out what his deal was?”

“I’d completely forgot about him earlier, with all this other shit going on, or else I would have asked yellow-eyes there,” Sano began in a low voice, once again glancing at the third man in the room to see if he was listening. He didn’t appear to be, but that didn’t really mean anything. “But then Aoshi came in here, a little before you showed up, and I remembered. He acted all worried about whatever yellow-eyes was ‘doing with me,’ like I wasn’t even here or couldn’t hear what he was saying. He asked if yellow-eyes was really in love with me after less than a month and’d decided to keep me.”

Katsu blinked widened eyes, apparently uncertain whether to be more annoyed or surprised at the words.

“Yeah,” Sano agreed. “And yellow-eyes said he didn’t have to explain anything, and Aoshi says something like, ‘Of course you don’t have to. But I think you’re lonely and you’re trying to fill the gap with someone you just met, and it’s not going to work.’ Then — this is the best part — yellow-eyes says, ‘Lonely? You have a very high opinion of yourself.'”

Katsu’s eyes widened even further as the implications of this exchange struck him immediately. “So that’s why…” A grin similar to Sano’s was beginning to pull at his mouth.

Sano nodded. “I laughed. Right out loud. You shoulda seen the look Aoshi gave me.”

“It’s good to know people other than slaves can have relationship issues.” It was only a partly facetious comment, and Katsu’s grinning, head-shaking expression was half-pained.

Sano just grinned back.

Sobering completely, Katsu noted, “You were glad he was jealous.”

“Maybe I was,” Sano agreed, and couldn’t even regret admitting it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed yellow-eyes smirking faintly.

Eventually out the window they could see the other slaves exiting the quarters in fairly placid, organized lines, and at this point yellow-eyes announced it was time to go down. Looking forward to seeing how Kaoru and Yahiko were doing, they followed him from the building. Perhaps because of their greater understanding of the situation, the time they’d spent away from their other friends seemed like an age or more.

By the time Sano, Katsu, and yellow-eyes reached them, the slaves were milling about at the entrance to the complex. They were still roughly organized by quarters division, probably simply for convenience, and a kind of count or roll call was being conducted by some of the camouflaged operatives.

Whether deliberately or otherwise — Sano wasn’t going to ask — yellow-eyes led them to a spot very near where their friends stood, then turned pointedly away to converse with one of his own people. Sano didn’t have time or inclination to attempt to listen in, since at that moment Kaoru and Yahiko staged a sort of hugging-and-talking-at-once attack on him.

“Ah! shit! shoulder!” Sano grunted in reminder.

With an apology Kaoru drew back far enough to stop hurting him and to look up into his face, and actually startled him with hers. She’d obviously been crying, and that didn’t do much for anyone’s complexion — but somehow, despite the red blotches that were her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes, she looked better than he’d seen her in months. She looked, in fact, more like the strong and determined Kaoru he’d met a year ago than he’d ever thought to see her again.

With a shock, staring at her uplifted expression, he realized suddenly that he’d never expected her to survive this far. Perhaps her lack of faith in her friends’ ability to escape and come back to rescue her had been in response to their lack of faith in her. Perhaps slaves couldn’t ever really have faith in each other. He didn’t know. But now… now everything had changed, and in an instant a totally unanticipated and overwhelming joy filled him. He pulled her back into the hug she’d abandoned, ignoring the pain.

Things became very noisy for a while as all the slaves seemed to be discussing this turn of events at once, shouting to friends from other quarters or sometimes, it seemed, just for the pleasure of shouting without repercussion. Kaoru and Yahiko were not the only ones to be checked on, and for a while Sano and Katsu were pleasantly busy. Marveling, plan-making, weeping, speculation, congratulation: it assaulted them from every side. Not everyone was happy, and most were nervous if not downright terrified… but the general air was of relief, wonder, and joy. This, Sano thought, was what a holiday must feel like.

As the sky began to blacken, even the redness of sunset fading from the close forested horizon, a number of buses pulled up in a neat row just outside the entrance of the complex and reilluminated the scene with their bright headlights. Sano barely remembered buses, and these looked bigger and a lot nicer than the ones he recalled hazily from the LeMere streets so long ago, but at the moment very little he saw could fail to give him pleasure — especially anything that would help remove the slaves from this place, hopefully never to return. So he grinned at the buses and at the operatives once again calling the crowd to order.

Turning, he found yellow-eyes watching him from nearby. Sano had rather lost track of the man in the last couple of hours, though in the back of his thoughts never really misplacing him or the indecision connected with him. Now Sano moved toward him a few steps, for no real reason other than a certain feeling of being drawn by the sight of him.

He wanted to say something, but this wasn’t really the moment for all of his serious reflections that tended toward working out the aforementioned confusion. Eventually what came out, pointless but at least something, was, “So… buses…”

Yellow-eyes nodded.

“Where are you taking us?”

“A number of different sites. It isn’t safe or practical for everyone to relocate to the same place.” Now it was Sano’s turn to nod. Most likely, naming the destinations here in front of everyone also wasn’t safe or practical, and the names probably wouldn’t mean anything to Sano anyway… but he couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed. It must have shown on his face, too, for yellow-eyes smirked slightly and said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Tell him what?” Katsu wondered as he appeared at Sano’s side — probably in response to Soujirou, who’d just appeared beside yellow-eyes.

“Exactly where we’re going,” Sano answered. “And where everyone is going,” he added as an afterthought. “And all the details of this project of theirs that he hasn’t told me yet. Like where they got buses from and shit.”

Yellow-eyes snorted. “You certainly don’t ask much.” The sarcasm wasn’t meant to cut, though.

“You specifically told me I ask too many questions, actually.” Sano stared up into the man’s face, more flippant than defiant but not willing to be denied his answers. The yellow eyes rolled.

“So…” began Katsu. He glanced from Soujirou, at whom he’d been looking fairly steadfastly, to a nearby operative that was shouting orders to the slaves in the immediate vicinity. “Do we get on the bus with them?”

Yellow-eyes’ mouth tightened, and Soujirou’s smile turned a little self-conscious. “That depends,” the false guard said at last.

Sano and Katsu just waited.

“You two are a… special case.” Yellow-eyes shook his head, and the expression on his face seemed to reflect an almost helpless sort of frustrated amusement that held a touch of self-deprecation. Neither he nor Soujirou, after all, had probably expected to find what they had at Ketterect Labor Complex; Sano was sure neither of them was entirely satisfied with his own behavior. “We’ll probably bring you with us in one of the trucks… back to our headquarters instead of to a relocation site, and then… you two are free now; it depends on what you want.”

“Free…” Had Sano ever really understood that word before? It tasted strange on his lips, sounded unfamiliar in his ears. He glanced from the interesting look on yellow-eyes’ face to Soujirou’s tentative smile to Katsu, and saw the same uncertainty in his friend’s expression that was probably in his own. They had Kaoru, Yahiko, and others to consider, not to mention the ambiguity of their own attitudes toward their deliverers. “I… don’t know,” Sano answered at last. Katsu shook his head to indicate similar feelings.

“Well, you have three hundred miles to think about it,” Soujirou smiled.

Yellow-eyes nodded.

Glancing at Katsu again, Sano couldn’t help smiling too. The one thing he could be sure of was that, whatever strange complications had arisen thus far, neither of them would regret these events or even meeting these men, whatever they decided. They had three hundred miles — and more — to think about it; Sano believed, at this point, that neither Soujirou nor his superior officer would pressure either of the two former slaves.

They had all the time in the world. This was what Souzou had wanted; this was what Souzou would always have wanted for them. They were free — free — to come to their own decisions, to determine their own future.


When I first got an account at fanfiction.net in 2002 and started posting things there, the popularity and the headiness of multiple reviews per chapter provided a rush of motivation, and I produced eleven rickety chapters of a story called You Won’t Regret It in record time. And perhaps it was the haste with which I wrote it, or possibly a special kind of naivete that fanfiction.net didn’t help, but it really sucked. It was so full of implausible circumstances and so incredibly shallow and fangirly that a few years later I took it down.

But having a finished story eleven chapters long sitting around not posted really bothered me, and eventually I decided to rewrite the thing and see if I could manage to hate it less. And here is the result: a rewrite barely less spurious than it was before, even more hedonistic in places, consisting for many chapters mostly of recycled text from the original with other shit added and some slight pretext of dealing with some of these serious issues just a touch less shallowly. If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed… and actually kinda feel I should apologize. Still, it has its moments; one of these days even their sad glitter may fade, and then it’ll come down.

I’ve rated this story (though the last few chapters, the best parts of the fic, merit more like a ). What do you think of it?


Bad

It is a joke. And not a very good-looking one, but whatever. Actually I don’t mind the way Sano looks, but Saitou is all messed up.

Angles – The Color of 120° 11-14



Chapter 1 - Something
Chapter 2 - No Security
Chapter 3 - Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)
Chapter 4 - The Beginnings(?) of Distraction
Chapter 5 - Other Beginnings
Chapter 6 - Fallout
Chapter 7 - Confrontation, Confession
Chapter 8 - Stronger Distraction
Chapter 9 - Still Not Obsessive
Chapter 10 - In A New Light
Chapter 11 - Angles
Chapter 12 - A First Time For Everything
Chapter 13 - Wait
Chapter 14 - Difficult As Hell
Chapter 15 - The Point of Strength and Fire
Chapter 16 - The Color of 120°


Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.


Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

At some point in here, I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.